I should begin by saying that I find the current president of Russia and his policies extremely offensive. I believe that Vladimir Putin is the most sinister figure in contemporary Russian history. From the very beginning of his rule he has directed—and almost completed—a broad antidemocratic counterrevolution in Russia. He has annihilated many civil rights in the country, among them such crucial freedoms as freedom of information. He has significantly restricted freedom of association and assembly, as well as the right to stage peaceful marches, protests, and demonstrations.
Putin’s administration has consistently carried out a policy of smothering political opposition and has tried vigorously to illegally place independent, nonpolitical civil society activities under its control. I believe he has decimated the very concept of an independent judiciary. With his knowledge and agreement, and more likely by his direct instruction, dozens of my fellow citizens have had harsh, unjust, politically motivated prison sentences meted out to them. He therefore bears direct responsibility for the appearance of a new generation of political prisoners in Russia.
The Russian president is said to be the “guarantor of the constitution.” But the man pledged to guarantee civil rights and human freedoms in our country has committed many grave acts of malfeasance, grossly violating the spirit and the letter of the constitution to which he has sworn his loyalty three times. To give only one example, he replaced the federal structure of the country with a strict unitary model of governance, with power concentrated in the Kremlin and with regional governments effectively subordinated to it. Regardless of which model one believes is better for Russia, this is a clear case of the President trampling on constitutional principles. He is responsible for the mass murder of peaceful civilians in Chechnya; and in foreign policy he has revived the pernicious Soviet concepts of being “surrounded by enemies” and a “world plot against Russia.”
The attentive American reader is no doubt informed, if not in great depth or detail, about these and other current Russian political realities, which have often been described in the Western press, and I will not pursue them here. I will try instead to explain—as much to myself as to the reader—the secret of Vladimir Putin’s popularity. How are we to understand Putin’s electoral success in 2000, and again in 2004? This is not merely an academic question. In the West, but also in Russia—even from like-minded people—I often hear the following:
Well, yes, the Russian president is an unpleasant person. We can see the authoritarian, nearly totalitarian direction of his policies. But what can you do? He has won two elections with impressive results: 53 percent in 2000 and 71 percent in 2004. That must mean that his policies correspond to the hopes and aspirations of the people, and that he himself, like it or not, legitimately represents Russia. Or do you really think that both elections were so grossly falsified that the outcome was …