Life for many Russians has become harder since 2014, and yet Vladimir Putin, who has effectively been in charge of the country for 17 years, has approval ratings that have not dipped below 80% since the annexation of Crimea three years ago.
This is the paradox I constantly come across on travels around Russia: people say their lives are hard and authorities do little to help them, and yet their support for the president remains high. I travelled to Irkutsk, a six-hour flight from Moscow in the heart of Siberia, to look into some of the reasons for the disconnect.
Life in the city is pretty tough. It has raging HIV and heroin epidemics and a dilapidated housing stock. In December, dozens of people died from drinking a poisoned contingent of Boyaryshnik, meant as a bath lotion but drunk because it contains ethanol.
Although Irkutsk did enjoy economic improvement during the oil boom years, like everywhere in Russia things have deteriorated since 2014. A recent survey shows that 41% of Russians have trouble affording food and clothing. Many people are nostalgic for the Soviet period. In short, a lot of the complaints sound like more intense versions of the grievances in many post-industrial parts of the west over the past couple of years. In western countries, socio-economic gloom and political disenfranchisement have led to a revolt against politicians and elites, to Brexit, Donald Trump and the rise of the far right.
But almost everyone I spoke to in Irkutsk told me that whatever problems they might face in their daily lives, they didn’t blame the government. Elena, who heads a dacha collective, complained that a corrupt scheme with the local electricity company meant “there was not enough electricity to boil the kettle” in her neighbourhood.
Authorities had done nothing, and people were at their wits’ ends. But asked about Putin, she said “as a Russian, I support him fully”. In School Number 45, some children said their parents had cut back on their favourite foods as household budgets tightened, but even the 12-year-olds all professed themselves to be big fans of Putin.
The most recent polling by the independent Levada Centre found that 84% of Russians approve of Putin, even though only 53% think “the country is heading in the right direction”, a mind-bending disconnect.
The first reason is the tried-and-trusted message of the regime, which is to contrast the “stability” of today with the chaos of the 1990s, when things really were terrible for almost all Russians. A few people took all the spoils of privatisation and the majority of the population was left in poverty.
The message that, even if you don’t like Putin, there is no alternative, has become a self-fulfilling prophecy
“People in the west didn’t live here in the 1990s,” said Alina Popova, a 22-year-old student and youth politician in Irkutsk. “I didn’t live in the 1990s either, of course, but people talk about stability. Putin came, and brought stability.”
It is understandable that this message worked in the early years of Putin’s rule, which coincided with a rise in oil prices, meaning life for many people really did get better. The war in Chechnya ended, bandits disappeared from the streets and both the existential and economic despair of the Soviet collapse began to ease. It is surprising, though, that it still works in 2017, repeated as a mantra even by those such as Popova who are not old enough to remember the 1990s.
This is at least partly because of the constant televisual messaging. Putin is portrayed as the “good tsar” trying to bring his unruly and corrupt nobles to order. The message that even if you don’t like Putin, there is no alternative, has become a self-fulfilling prophecy due to the state machine that ensures no opposition forces can ever get too much oxygen. Much of the support for Putin appears almost by default – a vote “against chaos” rather than “for Putin”.
Alexei Navalny, an anti-corruption activist who has said he will stand against Putin in elections next year but is unlikely to be let on to the ballot, has been harassed and put on trial and seen his brother jailed in the past few years. He has accused Putin of creating a system where it is impossible to bring about change at the ballot box, paving the way for potential unrest further down the line.
Putin’s Russia is a strange kind of authoritarianism, a soft and selective dictatorship that controls more by fear of what might happen to you than by outright bans. An outrageous, dystopian satire on contemporary Russia can be put on stage at a central, state-funded theatre in Moscow. At the same time, people are put on trial for “liking” controversial Facebook posts, or sent to jail for extremely minor incidents at protests. The result: people wonder whether it is really worth protesting, given they still have far more to lose than to gain. Probably nothing bad will happen, but “probably” is no guarantee.
For example, students who wanted to attend a protest this weekend over an investigation about the corruption of prime minister Dmitry Medvedev were summoned by teachers and given an extraordinary dressing down, captured on tape, about how unwise and unpatriotic it is to protest.
In Irkutsk, local university professor Alexey Petrov, a historian known for his opposition politics, told me he had been fired recently. The official reason was that he had missed too many classes, but he insisted the real reason was because he was considered “politically unreliable”. Olga Zhakova, a candidate for Open Russia, an opposition party funded by exiled oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, reported office searches and harassment. In these circumstances, most people prefer to keep their heads down.
Putin’s ratings dipped into the 60s in 2012 – respectable for any western politician but dangerously low by the Russian president’s standards. Protests gripped the major cities, as people demanded more than “stability”.
Putin’s response, when he returned to the presidency in 2012 after a four-year break as prime minister, was to take a more conservative line, pitting the majority of Russians against the uppity minority. This more aggressive trajectory, with Russia seen as under attack from the west and from liberals within, reached its culmination in 2014. The decisive move over Ukraine, and subsequent Western sanctions, led Russians to rally behind the leadershipThe analyst and former Kremlin consultant Gleb Pavlovsky described 2014 as a “geopolitical orgasm” for Russia which renewed the support for Putin. “It was a quick but a memorable one, and Russia has not had many of them in the past century. And now the Crimea orgasm has turned into a Crimea-Syria-Trump orgasm. How long the effect will go on for is hard to say, because it’s not a logical thing.”