The Russian Federation’s President, Vladimir Putin, has made a nasty habit of irritating the Western world. When he is not riding through the Siberian wilderness, shirtless and on horseback, Putin has found the time to annex land from a sovereign state, harbor an American whistle-blower and effectively silence most of his opposition.
Surprisingly, the invasion of Ukraine has been largely popular among Russians; recent polling suggests that 71 percent of Russians believe in aiding fellow Russians living in the Crimea. In fact, Putin has seen his approval rating grow to 86 percent—only two percent lower than at its peak in 2008.
Why do the Russian people favor a president with so little regard for human rights? The answer lies within the history of Russia’s economy, and that in the choice between poverty and tyranny, the latter is the lesser of two evils.
With the fall of the Soviet Union, the Russian economy was all but devastated. In an attempt to adjust to capitalism, the government enacted a series of mass privatizations via vouchers divided among the population. However, in a country where at the time a pair of stockings from Finland could afford a weekend of luxury in Moscow, a voucher meant much less to the average citizen than the small price it could fetch in criminal or ex-Soviet elite circles. It was during this period that many of Russia’s current oligarchs gained their vast wealth in buying up vouchers well below their value.
In this time of great despair, President Boris Yeltsin allowed the economy to run wild as he amassed his own fortune. So when then-unknown Putin took power on New Years Eve in 1999 without warning, the impoverished Russian people had little to lose.
Since taking office, Putin has brought some amount of economic stability to the country, confronted oligarchs, and reignited patriotism with the Sochi Olympics and Security Council vetoes of resolutions on Syria. Members of the older generation are quick to remind the youth that even in lieu of democracy, at least there is bread on the table. The $50 billion price tag for the Olympics and the annexation of Crimea inspire new waves of pride among Russians who hope to see Russia reclaim its status as a serious rival to the West.
Regardless of whether Putin’s reputation as a bold enough leader to challenge to West will sustain his popularity, his iron rule has far from solved Russia’s economic woes. With ever-increasing inflation and investors taking their business elsewhere, perhaps it is time for Russians to expect more from their government.
– Erica Lignell