I was reading through the following article on Arstechnica ( link ) and it is amazing when I hear people talk about ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’ whilst completely ignoring the historical context of why Putin keeps being elected and why he has such widespread support – contrary to the mythology he actually does have genuine support because what most Russians crave is stability and predictability – quoting a few middle to upper class elites with a thorn in their ass doesn’t reflect the average person on the street any more than using Bill Maher as the litmus test of where the United States voting population stands on the political spectrum. One has to remember back to the collapse of the Soviet Union where the decay occurred when Mikhail Gorbachev undertook a two pronged approach to reforming the ‘Soviet System’, the first was called Perestroika which involved the restructuring of the political and economic system where as glasnost was about openness and the citizens being given the full information on what the situation actually is rather than the propaganda that everything is going swimmingly well. The problem was with glasnost is that it was a pandoras box of bullshit that was released upon society – all the bullshit the average Russian was fed over the last 50 years all turned out to be a load of crap; Stalin was an asshole, the famines were caused by chronic mismanagement rather than just an act of god, the Soviet leadership was living in plush housing and access to hard currency all the whilst proclaiming that ‘we’re all equal’ and patting each other on the back calling each other ‘comrade’. Then followed was Yeltsin and the fire-sale of state owned assets to cronies of those in power – in many cases the privatisation process was dodgy then add on top of that mess the economic and social collapse that also came about along with ‘western advisers’ given their five cents on how to magically turn Russia into a beacon of free-market economics. Fast forward 10 years of chaos and Putin arrives on the scene provides what appears to the general public as stability – give up some freedoms (that most people don’t care about) and you’ll get stability, security and predictability. Fast forward and Putin has delivered exactly that for the average person; a growing economy, low unemployment, improving wages, living conditions, investments into infrastructure, an emerging middle class and what appears to be a sense of confidence of Russian presence on the world stage. For the average person Putin more or less saved Russia from going into a tail spin.
The other side of the coin are the oligarchs and their relationship with Putin. The cold hard reality is that Putin knows that many of these oligarchs obtained their wealth through ill-gotten gains and the oligarchs know that too but Putin offered them an unwritten deal; you mind your own business, run your empires and keep your nose out of politics and I’ll (Putin) will treat your past indiscretions as ‘water under the bridge’. That compact worked great until someone like Mikhail Khodorkovsky raised his head and wanted to become Mr Democracy – Mikhail Khodorkovsky knew very well what he was in for when he opened his mouth and started to rebel against the very system that agreed to look the other way at past indiscretions asm so long as he kept out of politics – he broke that compact and now he is paying the price. So lets not try to delude ourselves that Mikhail Khodorkovsky or others like him are talking about ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ out of the goodness of their own heart – they want power and Putin stands in their way. The problem is the compact is failing, it is failing because the political is starting to impact upon the businesses of the oligarchs – sanctions, travel restrictions and so forth so it’ll be interesting to see what happens and whether Putin can keep the oligarchs inline with the game plan that has worked for over a decade.
Going back to the ‘average Russian’ as I alluded to in the first paragraph, part of being ‘strong leader’ isn’t just about making sure your opponents know who is in charge but to also throw the population some populist policy or spending once and a while – make the situation good enough as to remove the incentive to over throwing or voting out oneself. Russia has always been a social backwards country with a soft spot for ‘strong men’; sure, there were Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, the early Russia revolutionaries who decriminalised homosexuality and prostitution but they were the exception rather than the norm. The reality is that the norm in Russia has been a history of strong men, social regression and a willingness to sacrifice the individual for the sake of the collective – just hear the stories about the ‘great Stalin’ and the ‘achievements’ whilst almost simultaneously brushing aside the millions who died in the process of making it all available thus in the process implying that the modern day human sacrifice for the sake of ‘progress’ was worth it. Then add on top of that the re-writing of history to making Stalin appear to be “a man who cared for his people but had to make tough decisions for the sake of the nation” (all whilst whining about Ukraine and extreme right wing factions worshipping Stepan Bandera) which feeds into the nostalgia that many have for better days of the past – when Russia was a strong power on the world stage. What Putin does is feed into that nostalgia and that is how he holds onto power and why he is popular; he gives what the masses want even if it is a giant illusion it is an illusion that makes people feel better about the situation than what reality actually does.