So Vladimir Putin won the Russian presidential election again, which probably didn’t surprise many. The BBC reports the reaction from world leaders is muted, presumably in comparison to the felching that Macron received. This line amused me:
But European observers said that while the poll was conducted efficiently there was a lack of genuine choice.
There are quite a few in the US and UK who know exactly how they feel. Anyway, Putin’s campaign gave an opportunity to those who don’t know much about contemporary Russia to give us their thoughts. Now this tweet is pretty daft:
I was just in Moscow a couple of weeks ago. I couldn’t find a single person who disapproved of Vladimir Putin. Not surprised by his overwhelming victory today pic.twitter.com/dVnjrXR4MR
— Jacob Wohl (@JacobAWohl) March 18, 2018
But the responses aren’t a whole lot better either:
When I was in Moscow in 1983, I couldn’t find a single person who disapproved of Yuri Andropov, either https://t.co/2BzPWCWOI7
— Tom Nichols (@RadioFreeTom) March 18, 2018
So weird that people living in a police state run by a dictator who jails and assassinates his opponents would not voice their disapproval of said dictator to total strangers in public https://t.co/dJi3v2GdKA
— (((Yair Rosenberg))) (@Yair_Rosenberg) March 18, 2018
Whatever one thinks of Putin, he is not a ruthless dictator presiding over a regime which tolerates no dissent whatsoever. For example, here’s an article in The Moscow Times, and English language paper, which says:
Women were dealt a heavy blow at the start of 2017 when President Vladimir Putin decriminalized domestic violence, downgrading it to an administrative offense. “We lost that fight,” says Kira Solovyova, one of the founders of the ONA (She) feminist association.
Some within the feminist community have called for a boycott of the elections while others argue that a female candidate is their best hope for improving conditions for women in Russia.
“We have to choose the least of all evils,” Timofeyeva says. Alena Popova, a gender equality advocate, stresses the need for unity. “We have to strategize, to use all the doors we have to promote equality,” she told The Moscow Times.
This is not exactly scathing criticism but it’s hardly praise either, and would not have been tolerated by Stalin, Saddam Hussein, or the Kims. There are also Russian language papers (I forget which ones) which are critical of Putin, and it’s worth mentioning that I wrote this blog from 2006 to 2010 while in Russia, and didn’t hold back from criticising Putin’s energy nationalism. I expect things have changed since then and the place has become more nationalistic and less tolerant of outside critics, but it’s still allowed. I follow at least one prominent freelance American journalist based in Moscow who often makes critical remarks about the government.
That’s not to say that Putin is a tolerant man – he isn’t – but he is not totalitarian as the commenters above suggest. If you are a threat to Putin or his circle, such as Mikhail Khodorkovsky was, you will be crushed like a bug. If you’re a journalist exposing corruption and other malfeasance on the part of Russian government figures, you’re taking your life in your hands. If you are a politician who might lay a glove on Putin in a fair election – such as Boris Nemtsov or Alexei Navalny – you will wind up dead or in jail. But if you’re an ordinary Iosif and you express disapproval about Putin to another ordinary person – or even one who’s not – you’re not going to be arrested, tortured, jailed, and killed. Russia is a police state on some levels, but not in the context of suppressing political dissent among individual citizens.
Now obviously one has to be careful. You’d not want to be mouthing off about Putin if you held a government job, or were interacting with government officials or a bunch of young patriotic males. I am sure a certain candour is required if you want to succeed in a state-owned bank, for example. But this is hardly unique to Russia. How well do Republicans get on in American academia? How much tolerance would a British teacher be afforded if he confessed to voting Tory? Would anyone working for the US government agency on climate change have been able to openly criticise Obama?
So yes, going around Russia bad-mouthing Putin will likely land you in a spot of trouble, but it won’t be the police or FSB who take an interest. And with a bit of common sense and politeness, you’d find that criticising Putin is permitted in Russia. Unbeknown to western commentators, Russians are not a bunch of knuckle-dragging thugs who have swallowed Putin’s nationalistic tub-thumping wholesale (although they did like the snaffling of Crimea). They know what Putin is like, and probably wouldn’t mind a change, but the question is “who and what”? Streetwise Professor gets to the nub of the issue here:
The fundamental problem isn’t Putin’s specific personality. It is that his personality and behavior are well-adapted to Russian political culture and its society. The issue isn’t Putin per se. It is Russia, and it is a problem that long preceded Putin and which will long outlast him.
There are some people out there who think if it weren’t for Putin, Russia would be like Brooklyn. Russians, who have skin in the game, are a little less certain. Most Russians I know acknowledge that things could be better, but they also know things could be much worse. For the most part, educated Russians between 20 and 50 have opportunities their parents could only have dreamed of, as well as double glazing, reliable electricity, a car that functions, and foreign holidays. These same people remember the carnage of the post-Soviet era as well as the currency crisis in 1998. For the large part, Russians trust that Putin will not bring about a catastrophe of those proportions, and are justifiably concerned that whatever follows him might. They simply don’t think rolling the dice to improve things a bit is worth the risk of things getting an awful lot worse. I spoke to two highly-educated, westernised Russians on this very point recently, and both agreed that they’ve seen enough chaos in their lifetimes, thanks very much. It’s easy to preach revolution when you’ve never had to live through one yourself.
Like many long-serving authoritarians, Putin has done an excellent job of convincing Russians that he is a safe pair of hands and without him the country will fall into ruin. He has got away with it because, in part, it is true – and would be for any Russian leader. Russians don’t deal with change very well, particularly at the top of their government. That’s not to say I agree with what Putin is doing, and I have said several times that he should have departed in 2008 when his second term was up. But it is important to understand why he is still president after 18 years, and that any replacement might be worse or dead within a week. It’s not Putin that needs to change, it’s Russia. Hyperbolic comments from western journalists and policymakers isn’t going to make that any easier.