Russian President Vladimir Putin often seems like a tyrannical Svengali. “Putin’s power as Russia’s leader is based in fear, mystery, and propaganda,” wrote the organizers of PutinCon, a conference for opponents of the president held in New York in 2018, adding, “Putin has wielded violence as the key tool in shaping a system that gives him unrivaled power and wealth, both within Russia and worldwide.” He draws on a centuries-old secret-police culture to “keep citizens in check and destabilize foreign adversaries,” warns ex-CIA operative John Sipher. He’s a “modern day Pablo Escobar,” claims the investor Bill Browder, comparing Putin to the murderous Colombian drug lord.
The notion that Putin’s power is largely, even exclusively attributable to oppression and violence — and heavy-handed propaganda that renders people unable to think for themselves — is understandable. He sits atop a huge state machine with a bloated and self-important repressive apparatus. Critics of the regime are harassed, jailed or murdered, depending on their stature. Former deputy prime minister and leading regime critic Boris Nemtsov was gunned down within sight of the Kremlin in 2015, while opposition leaders such as Alexei Navalny shuttle in and out of Russia’s jails. (In July, Navalny contracted a fishy “allergic reaction” while in detention, leaving him hospitalized.) Putin and his cronies use their nearly complete control over television stations, political parties, the largest banks and the largest companies to ensure that criticism is relatively rare.
What Putin can’t seem to do, however, is keep people off the streets. A string of weekly rallies calling for fair local elections — beginning in Moscow in mid-July and spreading to St. Petersburg — have seen tens of thousands of peaceful protesters face down police batons. More than 2,500 have been detained, some charged with incitement to mass disorder. But the YouTube images of broken bones and gut punches have only galvanized the solidarity of those growing increasingly weary of Putin’s rule. As a result, the Kremlin looks to be turning down the heat: Few, if any, people appear to have been arrested during the latest rally, on Aug. 17.
Reality is more complicated than the vision of Putin as an iron-fisted supervillain. For all his apparent strength, his hold on power is surprisingly contingent on maintaining public support. To say that Putin’s popularity matters to his ability to rule is not to say that Russia is democratic, but the fact that his power relies in large part on the participation of ordinary Russians might offer some hope to reformers: Popularity can fade, meaning Putin’s grip is more tenuous than it seems. Should he falter in his constant campaign to maintain support, then Putin’s control over the elites and the whole structure of power could come apart.
In general, public opinion plays an underappreciated role in Russian politics. The regime does sometimes rig elections: Indeed, the Kremlin’s effort to exclude its critics from the city council ballot in Moscow is what’s driven people into the streets this summer. But most of the time, Putin’s Kremlin goes to extraordinary lengths to win, through persuasion, the votes of ordinary Russians. When Putin himself is on the ballot, if his share of votes falls below 70 percent in a given region — ideally with 70 percent turnout — officials lose their jobs. The targets are lower for the candidates he supports, but the concept is the same.
This reliance on popularity makes Putin vulnerable. Being too harsh on protesters could easily lead to a backlash in public opinion. But being too soft might encourage even more demonstrations against the evident corruption and mismanagement across Russia. As a result, the Kremlin often acts tough, then backs off.
After overflowing landfills in the suburbs of Moscow and St. Petersburg inspired months of angry protest, officials tried to quell anger by shipping waste from the country’s largest cities farther afield. Rather than settle down, however, the movement went nationwide, as news spread of plans to build a huge waste dump in the Arctic. Activists there — backed by sympathizers from around the country — managed to block the effort; the Kremlin dispatched riot police but eventually backed down. Elsewhere, Putin caved to residents of Ekaterinburg, the country’s fourth-largest city, who turned out by the thousands to protect a popular city park from encroachment by the Orthodox Church: After first criticizing the protesters, Putin proposed a halt to the project while a poll was taken. If the supposed puppet-master of Russian politics — and increasingly, Western politics, too — can be so easily backed into a corner, perhaps we need to revisit our metaphors.
Putin’s power comes not from an ability to impose his will on an oppressed public; rather, our research suggests, it is built jointly — co-constructed — with tens of millions of ordinary Russian citizens. The most reliable independent polls show that Putin’s support has never been below 60 percent since he took office in 1999 and has peaked at times as high as 89 percent. Even as his poll numbers were beginning to slip, he won the 2018 presidential election with 77 percent of the vote. Some of those showings — both in the polls and at the ballot box — are certainly a result of fear and pressure. But research (by Columbia’s Timothy Frye and co-authors) suggests that wariness about expressing one’s true opinion accounts for maybe six or nine percentage points in public opinion polls; and some of that has to do with pressure created by social consensus.
Putin works hard to achieve this striking level of support. In the 2000s, he was an economic liberal and, by Russian standards, relatively pro-Western. He was the first world leader to phone President George W. Bush on 9/11 and spent his first term building a partnership with the European Union. But when he faced mass protests, in 2011-12, Putin reinvented himself as a defender of conservative values, protecting Russia against a globalized world of Western decadence. After the revolution in Ukraine in 2014, he portrayed the development as a fascist seizure of power that threatened Ukraine’s ethnic Russian minority, and he wrapped his own political campaign in the colors of anti-fascist Soviet troops from World War II. These ideological crusades — fought aggressively on television, but also enthusiastically promoted by millions of willing supporters in Russia’s workplaces, schools and churches — frame Putin as the inevitable and indispensable leader. Such strategies of persuasion and peer pressure are more effective than attempting to control what 140 million subjects think and do through force and threats alone.
Quite a few Russians buy into Putin’s campaign not because they are duped but because the values he claims to hold are, in fact, their values. In our polling, some 70 percent of educated urbanites said that being part of the Russian state was important to their personal identity, and large majorities supported anti-LGBT legislation and opposed immigration. Many Russians were conservative nationalists well before Putin seized on that identity. Others, however, back Putin and his policies because they want to avoid falling out with their friends, co-workers and neighbors. Indeed, we find — using personality profiles — that the biggest supporters of Putin’s agenda are not conservative Russians but instead people who are highly “agreeable”: basically nice people who care a lot about getting on with others and not causing offense.
Putin’s popularity is extraordinary valuable to Russia’s elites — its billionaires, generals and media superstars. They support him, and burnish his image, not (only) because they’re afraid of him or share his ideology, but because so long as he remains popular, they can maintain their position of privilege and keep the people at bay, despite staggering inequality; in 2015, the top 1 percent of Russian’s owned 43 percent of the nation’s wealth. As long as he is liked by ordinary Russians, Putin is the best defense of that wealth and privilege.
But a regime that is built on one man’s popularity is also a regime with a built-in weakness. Controlling the media is one thing; convincing people that things are going better than their daily experience suggests is hard to do for very long. The boost in public support and in popular affection that Putin gained from Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 is wearing off, as the realities of a decade of economic stagnation — and five years of declining real incomes — start to erode support. Putin’s approval numbers now hover in the mid-60s, according to the independent Levada Center polling agency.
It’s at times like these when we learn that Putin is only human, after all. His advisers would like the world to think that they can create reality out of thin air, whether in Russia or Ukraine or even the United States. Instead, the Kremlin is often more bumbling than brilliant in its efforts to control the narrative. Looking for wedge issues to use against the opposition in 2012, for instance, the Kremlin banned American adoptions of Russian orphans, a move that backfired among ordinary Russians, who found the restrictions inhumane. Leaked emails among Kremlin political operatives make it clear that the regime stumbled onto the more successful “family values” and anti-LGBT agenda almost by accident.
When it became possible for Eastern European and then Soviet citizens to imagine a non-communist future, the collapse came with startling speed, and no amount of propaganda could stop it. Putin’s carefully cultivated public image could be similarly tenuous. Even in Russia, reality resists manipulation.
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