Sergei Kovalev: What’s Behind Putin’s Popularity?

A new article by Sergei Kovalev in the New York Review of Books explores the reasons behind Putin’s popularity.


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 affected?

Americans in particular resort to this line of reasoning; it accords with their view of free, contested elections as the main criterion in determining whether a given country is a democracy. I do not think that Putin “really” lost the elections of 2000 and 2004. Rather, the Russian election laws have been so shamelessly distorted that they create an imitation of free elections without the slightest hint of transparent competition among political opponents. Putin would have won the campaigns of 2000 and 2004— though perhaps without such large, unseemly margins—even if they had been free of vote tampering and the illegal use of the government’s so-called “administrative resources,” and if the candidates had actually had equal access to the voters through television and the press. But what did the majority of Russian citizens actually vote for in those two elections? Was it truly for Putin and his policies or for something else? … Is the 71 percent of the vote he received in 2004 convincing evidence of his popularity? I have never met anyone who likes Putin as a person. One answer to the riddle of his electoral success is quite simple and quite sad. For virtually the first time in history, Russian citizens were given the primary instrument of political democracy: direct and competitive elections. But they do not know why they need this instrument or how to make use of it. Eleven hundred years of history have taught us only two possible relationships to authority, submission and revolt. The idea of peacefully replacing our ruler through a legal process is still a wild, alien thought for us. The powers-that-be are above the law and they’re unchangeable by law. Overthrowing them is something we understand. But at the moment, we don’t want to. We’ve had quite enough revolution. Let us recall the last Yeltsin elections—in 1996. At the beginning of the campaign, Yeltsin’s approval ratings in the polls were between 5 and 10 percent. That was an accurate reflection of how the public felt about him. But as the elections neared, when it became clear that the question was whether or not Yeltsin would remain as the Little Father Tsar or whether it was time to get rid of him, the situation changed. People didn’t really want to revolt: they had just successfully revolted against the Communists, and hadn’t enough energy for a new upheaval. So they voted for Yeltsin again: unpopular, even detested as he was, he was still the president in power. The intensive propaganda campaign orchestrated in the press and television helped, of course. Energy for revolt had not built up by March 2000 either, despite the setbacks Russia had experienced over the previous four years: Yeltsin’s constant reshuffling of the cabinet, the crash of the ruble in 1998, the attempt to impeach Yeltsin in May 1999, and other misadventures. On the eve of the presidential election, Putin was not just a prime minister but a prince-regent, an acting head of state. Putin’s Chekist past came in handy: since time immemorial the secret police have personified authority in Russia—and the pretender was propped up by the might of that mysterious, almost mystical power. He simultaneously represented the power of the official state—as acting president—and, as a Chekist, its innermost essence. People weren’t just voting for Putin. They were voting for the scepter and the orb, the symbols of the tsar’s power, and also for the sword and shield, the emblems of the Cheka-KGB.

Complete article.