The Popularity of Putin and What It Means for America

In the 25 years since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia has changed dramatically—and it’s more important than ever to understand those changes

President Boris Yeltsin hands over a copy of the Russian constitution to Vladimir Putin, December 21, 1999. (Wikimedia Commons)
smithsonian.com

When Mikhail Gorbachev, as president of the U.S.S.R., stepped down on December 25, 1991, it marked the end of the seven-decade experiment known as the Soviet Union. But for Russia, the end of the U.S.S.R. was also the beginning of a long slog to stability. Between 1991 and 1995, the national GDP fell 34 percent, a worse plummet than what the United States suffered during the Great Depression. Unemployment surged, and the Russian people struggled to get basic necessities. Even though the dissolution of the Soviet regime and the election of Boris Yeltsin as president ostensibly brought Western ideals of “freedom” to the Russian people, the reality was still a life of corruption and a struggle for survival.

To understand this dramatic transition period, journalist Anne Garrels, who worked as the Moscow bureau chief for ABC and a foreign correspondent for NPR, spent more than 20 years visiting Chelyabinsk, a central Russian city that served as an industrial hub for the Soviet Union. She picked Chelyabinsk at random, wanting to see beyond the perspective offered by Moscow’s elite and the ruling class.

Following Gorbachev’s resignation, Russia grappled with how to redraw its national boundaries, rebuild its economy, and reconstruct its political system. While independent countries emerged from the former Soviet Union and the economy slowly rebounded, hopes for democracy that began with Yeltsin gradually gave way to more totalitarian methods. Yeltsin handpicked Vladimir Putin, former head of the FSB (successor to the KGB) as his successor, leading Putin to win the 2000 presidential election. In 2008 Putin ceded the presidency to Dmitry Medvedev, ostensibly honoring the rules of Russian’s two consecutive term limit for presidency. Putin stepped into position as prime minister, using Medvedev as a placeholder until he could return as president once more in 2012.   

Early in Putin’s regime, his presidency benefited from Russia’s economic reliance on the oil industry, but as of late this same reliance has resulted in financial turmoil. In foreign matters, Putin’s aggressive stance has endeared him to Russians; his successful annexation of Crimea in March 2014 shot him up to an 84 percent approval rating. Crackdowns on press freedom and other civil liberties have only served to strengthen his position.

The stories Garrels gleaned from her decades spent reporting look for an explanation about how Russians came to embrace their autocratic leader. Putin Country: A Journey Into the Real Russia digs into the citizens who support the powerful head of state. Garrels spoke with Smithsonian.com about how the country has changed in the 25 years since the fall of the Soviet Union.

After the Soviet Union fell apart, what was the general sentiment in Russia outside of Moscow? Did people hope for it or dread it?

A mixture, I would say. People obviously hoped that things would get better but initially everything they knew fell apart, whether it was the medical services that were absent, or salaries that weren’t being paid. People didn’t know how they were going to feed their family, inflation was in triple digits. It was a terrifying time and it got better faster in Moscow because Moscow is sort of L.A., Washington, New York, Chicago, all wrapped together and there’s a lot of money there.

But out in the provinces, life continued to be difficult. Old factories were falling apart or being gutted by the managers who were selling off whatever they could. The workers got nothing and were looking at Moscow going, “We want to be like the West, we want to live like people in the West,” having a somewhat romantic idea of what that meant. People hadn’t traveled, they hadn’t had much access to information… and then they began to see what they perceived to be Westerners coming in and creating the oligarchs, enhancing corruption and not fighting it. The bloom gradually came off the rose.

One of the figures in Russian society you write about is Irina Korsunova, a magazine editor. How has press freedom changed since the period of glasnost (freedom of speech initiated by Gorbachev)? 

It behooves them to play nice. When I would speak to editors of online media sites that carry advertising, they know perfectly well that if they start being too critical of the government, their advertisers will not advertise on their site because they will start having trouble with the tax police or the authorities in some form or another.

But it’s a mixed picture. The internet is still relatively free. The mainstream media, the easy access sites, TV, they’ve been completely hijacked by the Kremlin. So unless you really want to look further afield you’re going to get the Kremlin’s view in a very crude, in-your-face way.

It’s very persuasive and it plays into a lot of people’s basic fears that the West was out to shame Russia and take advantage of it. When Putin came in as president in 2000, he had the benefit of high oil prices and the global economy being on Russia’s side. Most people began to live a lot better, and they attributed that to not so much global impact, but to Putin, even though Putin has failed to really modernize the economy

Putin also played very much to the feelings—he understood how wounded Russians felt… One friend of mine who’s very smart, speaks fluent English and reads everything on the web, she bristled when I suggested she’d been zombified because of the Kremlin-manipulated media. She said, ‘I believe Putin is right in terms of making us more self-sufficient, less vulnerable to the whims of the West.’

Along the same lines as the suppression of the press, you write about Alexander Vlasov, a forensic scientist who attempted to learn more about murdered Soviet citizens and was shut down by the KGB. How do people grapple with the past, and has history come to seem malleable since the end of the U.S.S.R.?

There is a suppression or reinterpretation of history. Initially the [Soviet] archives were open, I could speak to archivists in Chelyabinsk, and they were uncovering very uncomfortable aspects of the past for the first time, but that’s all been shut down in an attempt to find positive things. Unquestionably Vladimir Putin has praised Stalin for, as he would put it, winning the Second World War. Ignoring the labor camps, the reign of terror. And that is very disturbing to many historians in Chelyabinsk. There is no question that people are afraid of losing their jobs.

If you oppose Putin, you might not go to prison as you did in the old days, but the tax police will come, there will be an investigation, you might end up in jail for so-called economic crimes, since most people are dealing in an underground economy, so everybody is vulnerable. Certainly historians I know who have tried to challenge what Putin says—and continue to openly discuss what was good or bad in the past--are not getting government grants.

And those are now the only grants you can get since Western grants have been halted by Putin. There are all sorts of ways to repress people and their ability to work and think freely.

In your analysis of the years since the fall of the Soviet Union, you seem to argue that  Russians put economic opportunity above most other issues, like human rights and press freedoms. Is that right?

Putin got through the first decade by making people consumers. They could get loans, they could improve their living conditions, they could travel on cheap tours to Egypt or Turkey. It was a pretty heady time. People weren’t living grandly, it was still pretty modest, a good income was $1000 a month. Because of the lack of economic reforms, dependence on oil and gas, the economy is stagnating now and people aren’t living as well as they were, but Putin very cleverly blames the problems on the sanctions that the West imposed, and he in turn levied sanctions against European food imports to Russia. On one hand it made food in Russia a lot more expensive, but he’s persuaded Russians that the West is out to get them and Russia needs to be independent in terms of food.

It’s hard to know if people will become disillusioned if the economy continues to sputter… I kept looking for red lines. Where was it that Putin would be nervous, where would he fear a backlash? Would it be the environment? So far that has not been it, he has managed to control political dissidents. Would it be the Internet? Well he’s been clever about leaving it, the kids can download all the movies they want, all the games they want. And there’s still a certain amount of freedom on the Internet.

However if you become too active, too successful, draw too much attention to yourself and if they’re anti-Kremlin views, they’ll silence you. But still you can read pretty much whatever you want.

If given the choice, do you think people would return to the era of the Soviet Union?

No. Young people have no idea what it means to live in an economy with a nonconvertible currency where you can’t travel and you don’t have access to the Internet. Older people always look back on their youth with rose-colored glasses, but I don’t think most Russians are expansionist. I think they do want their views to be taken into consideration, I think they do believe the West and the U.S. in particular has been very heavy-handed in ignoring Russian concerns in the former Yugoslavia or Iraq, and Putin has very cleverly played on that and played on [U.S.] failings in Syria.

Do you see any parallels between the world Putin has created and the populism happening in the U.S.?

“Make Russia Great Again” was really Putin’s platform. So it sounds familiar. It’s going to be very difficult to navigate this relationship. I have no idea how president-elect Trump wishes to improve the relationship. That is unclear to me. I think it has to be done in a very nuanced, smart way, recognizing when Russia is doing bad things but also trying to understand why they might be doing those things. Is there some way that we can lessen the tensions without appeasement?

Are you optimistic about that evolving relationship between the U.S. and Russia?

No, I think it’s going to be very difficult. From our side, there’s so many different views even amongst Republicans about the issues at hand and what is acceptable and what is not. We will learn more during the hearings when the Secretary of State comes up for confirmation, but so far it’s very unclear to me as to how [nominee Rex Tillerson] intends to move forward. It’s not going to be easy. We helped create a mess in Ukraine. We should’ve understood how sensitive this was to Russia. And we helped overthrow a democratically elected, albeit corrupt, government, and we have in its place an even more corrupt and dysfunctional government in Ukraine.

I’m not justifying Putin’s response but it goes back to why I wrote the book in the first place. Trying to understand how Russians see themselves, the evolution of their thinking over the last two decades and a half. And listening just to the [Russian] liberal opposition, our friends if you will, got us nowhere. We failed to understand, just as many people failed to understand perhaps how unhappy Americans were in our most recent elections

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