Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Peruvian President Ollanta Humala. Photo via Flickr user Presidencia Perú
On Wednesday, a survey released by the Levada Center, Russia's premier independent polling outfit, revealed that a record-high 87 percent of Russians approve of Vladimir Putin’s performance as their president. This will no doubt galvanize the Western press, since whenever a study is released indicating a spike in his approval rating (as was the case with a recent Gallup poll), journalists tend to leap at the opportunity to use the data to present Russia as a sort of Mordor and Russians themselves as half-breeds gleefully worshipping their power-hungry, evil overlord. The same overused adjectives to describe Putin are always bandied around, words like “stony-faced” and “bare-chested,” as though Russians love Putin because he can flex his pecs while insouciantly fishing out in the wild. In reality, many Russians laugh at his nudist hunting fetish just as hard as their Western counterparts.
But it’s easy for these crass caricatures and misunderstandings to develop when the data is presented, as it always is, without any cultural context. From a Western perspective, and especially from a right-wing/left-wing binary, it’s only natural to assume that Russians must approve of Putin because they are all radically homophobic, misogynistic, muscle-idolizing megalomaniacs. But Russia is not the West, and in the course of interviewing dozens of people in Russia about their views on Putin in the last month, I found that the perception of the man is rather different when looked at through the prism of Russia’s own culture.
There are, for one thing, plenty of Russians who are rabidly anti-Putin. Generally, they tend to be well-educated, cultured libertarian types who dissociate themselves with Russia (which they find barbaric) and refer to themselves, somewhat vaguely, as European. There are also, of course, many Russians who are rabidly pro-Putin. These tend to be your average machos who can never give any rational reasons (much less political ones) for liking him, suggesting that, like many extremists, their opinions stem from ideas pounded into them by parents at dinner tables—or else the type of family tragedy that led the main characters of American History X to become neo-Nazis. But these extremes are just that—polar opposites—and the vast majority of Russians is composed of people who half-support Putin. They largely fall into two categories: what I call the “Nobody cares” camp on one hand, and the “At least he’s better than what came before!” crowd on the other.
I use the term “half-support” quite consciously. In the West, we have a tendency to see issues through strict binaries: something is either right or wrong, good or evil, fresh or rotten. But Russians live in more of a gray area, and when you ask a Russian a question the answer is almost always some form of: “Well, on one hand [x] is true, but then, from another perspective, so is [y].” The same multi-faceted mentality can be seen in their take on virtually everything, including their president. While in the United States, most people tend to be either vociferously pro-Obama or anti-Obama, just as they are often staunchly Democratic or Republican, the sentiment among Russians who claim to support Putin is not nearly as strong, and is usually accompanied by a shoulder shrug and a half-hearted, “I guess he’s OK.”
This reticence to sing Putin’s praises derives from the fact that most of his citizens are perfectly well aware of the man’s multi-layered corruption, not least of all because corruption has been an integral part of the Russian government since its very inception.
Russians rallying against Putin after he reclaimed the presidency in 2012. Photo via Flickr Vladimir Varfolomeev
“Putin is the main crook, and everyone knows that,” Vadim, a director at an English language school, told me, reclining comfortably into his swivel chair. “Everyone knows that he controls the entire legal system and the press and so on, in part because he’s very transparent about it. But he’s a strong leader, so people like him. Russians like leaders with a big pair of balls, and his are huge. Putin is a bad guy, but I think one of the reasons Americans hate him so much is also because he makes Russia a strong country, and that scares Americans because they’re still afraid of Russia. But, anyway, what can you do?”
This amiable expression of indifference is common here, particularly in the vast “Nobody cares” camp. There’s a remarkable word in Russian: “pofigism.” It comes from the slang term, “pofig,” which means “not giving a shit.” It’s a darkly funny term, the addition of the suffix “-ism” speaking to the fact that, in Russia, not giving a shit has transcended from a state of emotional apathy into a full-fledged ideology. This is important to consider because one of the greatest differences between America and Russia is that while America is a highly politicized society, Russia is not.
“You have to understand that Russia is a country that went from having a string of tsars to a string of dictators,” an elderly hospital director named Seryezha told me. “So people don’t care about politics because we don’t have a frame of reference to a time when anyone had any influence on it. People in America seem to think that, in Russia, if people don’t protest against something, that means they implicitly support it (like the gay propaganda laws, for example), but that’s not true. It’s just that we don’t have a culture of activism here. In fact, protesting is considered vulgar, insecure and simply a form of personal attention-seeking. Just be who you are and let others be.”
Sergey’s view that protesting is more often than not just a self-involved PR stunt is echoed by many other Russians and backed up by research. A 2011 Gallup poll found that, out of 130 countries, America has the highest civic engagement score while Russia has one of the very lowest on Earth. What that means in practice is that people’s convictions are considered an intensely private, as opposed to public, matter, and thoughts do not manifest as frequently into actions, because the idea that one has the right to act on one’s beliefs comes from a “freedom of speech” culture that Russia just does not have, and never has had.
It’s easy to shake one’s head and think, “Oh, those poor, backward Russians,” but it’s worth acknowledging an uncomfortable truth instead: lofty ideas are a luxury of the well-fed. The reason that we can afford to keep up with all the news on Twitter and then have heated debates about current affairs over glasses of wine at French restaurants is because, on a global level, America is a relatively rich (and therefore spoiled) country. People in other parts of the world simply can’t indulge in conceptual ideals.
Putting on his serious face at a 2009 meeting in Davos. Photo via Flickr user World Economic Forum
The vast majority of Russia consists of lonely little villages frozen in time, places that often have no internet, no cellphone reception, no indoor plumbing, and certainly no Twitter. Russia is populated largely by people like my aunt, who lives in a desolate, isolated rural area near Samara in the southeast. She wakes up at the crack of dawn to feed the livestock, then spends her afternoons trying to sell produce at the market, her evenings taking the cows out to pasture and back, and her nights running around the village asking everyone whether or not they’ve seen her alcoholic husband—and then dragging him home once he’s been found. Any spare minute is spent looking over her son, who has permanent brain damage as a result of a bad polio vaccine administered to him as a child. Her entire emotional state is determined by a very simple philosophy:
“When there are potatoes, it’s a good day,” she says. “When there are no potatoes, it’s a bad day.”
When I ask her how she feels about Putin, I immediately feel embarrassed and suddenly very aware of just how entitled my “life of the mind” in New York is. Her response is characteristic of the responses I received from many people I interviewed in the provinces, and her so-called support is automatic and a product of what to Americans would seem like woefully low presidential standards.
“Oh, dearie, I don’t know about such things. We’re not being invaded by Nazis and there’s food in the stores, so as far as I’m concerned he’s doing a good job.”
That there’s food on the shelves of stores is a basic statement I heard echoed over and over again—which is now somewhat ironic given the ban on some food imports from Europe, Australia, Canada and the United States enacted by Moscow this week. While Americans tend to admire Mikhail Gorbachev because he “brought freedom to Russia,” Russians remember the last leader of the Soviet Union with a shudder because so many people starved to death or were forced into a life of crime thanks to capitalism’s shaky footing. With all due respect to the noble cause that is democracy, freedom is a pretty small consolation prize on an empty stomach. Or, as my friend Seva puts it, “Americans love ideas, but you can’t eat ideas.”
My friend Anya, an aspiring music therapist, protested against Putin in 2012, but has since started leaning toward the kind of tepid support of the president espoused by most of the people I interviewed.
“He’s a terrible human being, but at least he can hold himself with a degree of composure," she said. "He can formulate a sentence eloquently, he’s well educated, he’s always in control of the situation. It gives ordinary citizens a measure of peace to know that they’re being led by a fully-functioning adult. He’s not a drunk, like [former President Boris] Yeltsin, who was just embarrassing. He doesn’t lose his temper and lunge at politicians, like that lunatic Zhirinovsky [the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party]. And he isn’t a paranoid schizophrenic, like some of our former dictators.”
To Americans, Putin seems horrible, because they compare him to outwardly decent men like Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. But to Russians, he is at the very least an improvement because they compare him to former leaders who set the bar awfully low.
And what Anya, an urbane intellectual, is saying is in some ways connected to what my aunt, a provincial farmer, meant as well. In the absence of transcendent ideals, people are instead concerned with tangible outcomes. And here’s where one needs to acknowledge another uncomfortable truth: While Putin is unequivocally terrible in regard to human rights and general human decency, he has tightened up what used to be a mess of a country in quotidian ways.
You can’t smoke in most public places anymore, which is a godsend because it means you can have a drink at a bar without choking to death in a steam-room of smoke. You can’t buy liquor in stores after ten at night, which seems to have significantly reduced the number of zombie-eyed men zigzagging through the streets on sunny afternoons. There’s a card now that you can use to ride in the metro, trolleybus, and marshrutka (a little minivan), which eliminates the hassle of constantly scrambling for change when late. In big cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg, the streets are shockingly cleaner and safer, and the highways are packed with BMWs instead of the boxy Ladas that used to ubiquitously sputter black smoke into the air as recently as three years ago. There’s a Starbucks on Nevsky Prospekt, the main street in St. Petersburg. The appearance of this global coffee corporation may seem completely frivolous, but it isn’t to Russians, for whom, like McDonalds 24 years earlier, the Starbucks is a tangible if illusory indicator that they finally—finally!—get to have some of the same consumer goods as those in the West.
An ad for Putin and then-presidential candidate Dmitri Medvedev near Moscow's Red Square in 2008. Photo via Flickr user maailma.net
It’s easy to dismiss all of this as materialistic, even Faustian, but to a country that had so little for so long—many rural inhabitants still have next to nothing—smart phones and cars that don’t drive backwards of their own accord are a good enough reason to put up with a seemingly soulless leader. In the absence of abstract ideals, it is the minutiae of daily life that most matters, and it is these very minutiae that, up until now at least, Putin has cleverly provided.
That’s what makes the materialistic nature of his recent round of bans and prohibitions such an interesting potential turning point. There seemed to be little outrage in Russia over the laws that have made headlines all over the West in the last few years, like the gay propaganda laws, the swear-word censorship, and the blogger registration rule. But there was a visibly negative reaction to this month’s ban on the production and distribution of certain types of synthetic underwear, and the internet is as of now going apeshit over Wednesday’s decree restricting or banning for a period of one year food imports from European countries that have sanctions against Russia. You can take our so-called liberty, but you can’t take our lacy panties and our fancy French cheese. Russians lived too long without it in the black-market days and they will not give it up lightly. So perhaps we’ll get that revolution after all.
But perhaps not. For every person on the internet complaining about these recent laws there’s another one saying, “Putin is doing the right thing. Yea, I like McDonalds, but fast food is bad for you so I’m glad these chains are closing down. Yea, I like lacy underwear, but synthetic material is bad for the skin so I’m glad he’s making them illegal to obtain.” Choice, as psychologist Sheena Lyengar pointed out in her book The Art of Choosing, is considered inherently good in America, but that’s not always the case in other countries, where choice is viewed as a dangerous tool in the hands of human beings. We are, by nature, too weak to do what’s best for us—too lazy to go to the gym even when our doctor warns us it’s pivotal to do so and too self-indulgent to quit alcohol even when it’s destroying our lives. So for these societies it’s beneficial, if irritating, for a leader to eliminate the problematic paradox of choice.
Government systems are like parenting styles. America is an authoritative type, encouraging its children to exercise their free will responsibly; Russia is, it goes without saying, an authoritarian parent, setting strict rules and punitive measures. The highest achievement for Americans is to be “happy,” the highest achievement for Russians is to be “good.” It’s very subjective to suggest which style is better than the other, but the fact remains that for many Russians the authoritarian style is preferable because, on a cultural level, the perception remains that humans are dark and lazy by nature, so it is in fact beneficial to have someone forcing you to be your best and most productive self. And, for many Russians, Putin is precisely that stern father figure whose rules, while undeniably onerous and often cruel, are ultimately for their own good. So while the majority may admit that he is a competent but corrupt politician whose blood runs cold, to them Putin represents the human incarnation of a necessary evil.
Diana Bruk is a Russian-American freelance writer who was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and raised in New York City. Her essays and short stories have appeared in Salon, the Paris Review, the New York Times supplement, Guernica, BuzzFeed, Nerve, and many other magazines. She also serves as a social media editor and NY reporter for Russia Beyond the Headlines, a government-sponsored outlet. Follow her on Twitter.