IN PUTIN WE TRUST – People nowadays are cautioned against stereotyping, particularly of entire nations, and particularly in a negative way (it’s OK though to stereotype the politically incorrect groups like Americans, men, or Christians, but that’s another story entirely). If nations are imagined communities then national temperament is an imagined generalisation about an imagined collective. In real life there are too many gradations and shades of grey, too many exceptions.
Yet, sometimes the indicators are so clear and so overwhelming that it’s difficult not to draw certain conclusions. Like a 20-year old Russian journalism student who says “What the Russian soul demands is that there be one strong politician in the country who resembles a czar.”
On March 18, Russians will go to the polls to confirm a fourth presidential term for the 65-year-old former KGB officer who turned this country’s young, chaotic democracy into an authoritarian system beholden to his rule. He has batted back the opposition thanks to his control over Russia’s main television channels, the security services and the judiciary – but also because, as even many of his opponents acknowledge, most of the country supports him.
According to a December survey by independent polling firm Levada Center, 81 percent of adults approve of Putin as president – including 86 percent of Russians 18 to 24 years old. Among the age group, 67 percent told Levada they believed the country was going in the right direction, compared to 56 percent of the general public.
The most internationally connected generation in Russian history, with access to more information than any of their predecessors, is now helping Putin solidify his authoritarianism.
It’s a depressing read.
The Russians always fear themselves threatened by chaos and anarchy and so always opt for the strong hand of authority, even if that hand ends up throttling the life out of many of their compatriots. For people from Kaliningrad through Volgograd to Irkutsk, the choice between freedom and security is a no-brainer; it’s also a no-brainer that this is indeed a choice – somehow you can never have both. And so, after centuries of tsars and decades of communist pharaohs, and after yet another “time of troubles” under Gorbachev and Yeltsin, there comes Putin. Again, again, and again. Twice the president, once a prime minister to get around the constitutional term limit, and soon to be twice the president again. Russian elections can hardly be considered free, with the heavy thumb of Kremlin pressing on the scales, and the opinion polls perhaps are not as reliable as in the West, but there is little doubt that Putin’s reelection will reflect the overwhelming will of the people.
In this context it is correct to speak not just of Russia in abstract or as an euphemism for its government and elites but also the Russians themselves. The whole nation has not managed to recover from the break up of the Soviet Union. There is a yearning for greatness that continues to be a threat to world peace because it can only come at an expense of Russia’s neighbours. There is a related failure to come to terms with past, which poisons both the Russian society and its international relations. There is paranoia and resentment and chips on the shoulders the size of prefabricated concrete slabs. The Russians get what they want and what they deserve; the trick for the rest of the world not to get it too.