In the wake of Russia’s election last month, I’ve seen a number of people asking why Vladimir Putin is so popular. Part of the answer, of course, is that he isn’t: the results of the election were rigged in several different ways. That said, he is pretty popular. He almost certainly would have won easily even in a fair election. Here’s why:
The Soviet economy was declining even before its final fall, and it started to improve before Putin took over. Nonetheless, the timing is close enough that it looks to the average Russian as if (a) the fall of the Soviet Union was a disaster, (b) the US-led “shock therapy” of the 90s made it even more of a disaster, and (c) Putin finally took charge and put Russia back on track.
Sure, the oligarchs got rich and critics of the regime were steadily shut down. But Putin is no Stalin and Russians these days don’t live in fear of being sent to the gulag. For the vast majority, it was all good news: they saw their incomes double at the same time that Putin was reasserting Russian influence on the world stage and unapologetically reclaiming its historic control over Crimea. If a few human rights were trampled along the way and a few critics sent to the morgue—well, Russia has never been a bastion of civil liberties, has it? And anyway, the self-righteous Westerners who gripe about this are the same ones who destroyed our country, tovarisch.
Of course, you might also notice that incomes have declined since 2013, even as the rest of the world has been recovering from the Great Recession. For a guy who cemented his control by pumping up the Russian economy, that’s probably a little worrisome.