Vladimir Putin is one of the most enduring political leaders in the democratic world, whose longevity in office and at the pinnacle of Russian politics fascinates observers as much as it baffles them. His political activity, even prior to the year 2000 when he first occupied the presidency of the Russian Federation, has been accompanied by unusually high approval ratings coming from the country’s electorate, that have never registered blow 60% since polling agencies began surveying on the topic. Over the past 15 years, Putin’s popularity has most often featured as a momentary topic of discussion in the media, during election periods or in the midst of tensed diplomatic episodes involving Russia’s leadership. However, the phenomenon deserves much more attention, particularly in academia, where only a modest number of studies have sought to explain it.
The present paper aims to discuss the popularity of the Russian president with focus on the factors that determine his high popular endorsement. Drawing on the available information in academic studies and the media, the first section of the paper will conduct a literature review that details upon the suggested determinants of Putin’s popularity. The factors will be presented under three major categories, as being related to either policy, economic performance and crime rates, to Russian culture or to the public image of Vladimir Putin himself, and will be briefly evaluated in the light of supporting data obtained via public opinion polls that have been carried out by the Yury Levada Analytical Centre or sources external to the Russian Federation.
The discussion will reveal that the existing justifications of the consistently high popular endorsement for Vladimir Putin offer a fragmented and often contradictory account of the president’s popularity, which consequently calls for a novel approach to the issue. In order to realize this, in the following chapter, the paper will introduce a theoretical framework to enable a comprehensive analysis of Putin’s popularity, as a social phenomenon that may be understood in terms of structure and agency. Essentially, the popularity determinants will be evaluated primarily with reference to social structure, and particularly to its cultural component, encompassing values and mentalities. The analysis will aim to confirm the hypothesis that Putin’s popular endorsement depends on the extent to which the president or what are deemed to be the results of his decisions embody, perpetuate or appeal to the currently functioning Russian mentality. Consequently, one section of the paper will be entirely dedicated to pinning down the defining cultural values that make up the Russian mentality and against which Russians interpret the realities around them, primarily the conduit of their leader.
Finally, in the analysis section, the hypothesis will be tested out by looking at key episodes in Putin’s leadership, some of which break the assumptions explored in the literature review, like that of tying Putin’s popularity to the country’s economic growth. Events such as the annexation of Crimea serve to suggest that Putin’s success with his electorate owes to factors less quantitatively measurable. Accordingly then, these episodes will be used to demonstrate that Putin’s popular endorsement levels are better correlated across time with Russians’ value taxonomy rather than with any of the other speculated factors. Nationalism, aversion to change, paternalism and justice will feature as the central values determining Russian’s evaluations of Putin’s leadership, in virtue of the centuries of historical turbulence that have shaped the Russian mentality.
Once this correlation has been established, it will then be possible to draw a series of informed conclusions on how Putin’s popularity may be preserved at high levels in relation to Russia’s post-Soviet generation that is now coming of age and is undergoing increased exposure to the international trends of globalization which have the potential to alter their scale of values. That is to say, the president’s political strategy may soon have to accommodate the demands of a new generation of Russians whose mentality is more affiliated to liberal rather than conservative values.
- LITERATURE REVIEW: An overview of the drivers behind Vladimir Putin’s popularity
- Economic performance, social order and policy
Taken at face value, the correlation between Vladimir Putin’s enduring popular endorsement and the steady growth of the Russian economy seems to tell the full story of why Putin has been such a glorified leader. Between the years 2000 and 2008, Russia’s GDP grew by an average of 7% per year and, despite the 2008 global financial crisis causing a drop of almost 25% in nominal GDP (EY, 2010; Yaffa, 2012) the economy recovered quite quickly, registering significant growth as early as 2010. Up until 2008, academics might have been right to identify the perceived state of the economy as the dominant factor influencing citizens’ satisfaction with having Putin in office (Treisman, 2014, p.370; White and McAllister, 2008, pp. 622, 624). The link is all the more reliable given that, in a 2008 opinion poll carried out by the Levada Centre, half of the sample population associated Putin with ‘the market economy’ (White and McAllister, 2008, p.615), which was performing at its best at the time. Economic growth became the trademark of Putin’s first presidency. Research published by the Public Opinion Foundation further confirms this hypothesis, as Russians who gave a positive verdict over Putin’s presidency related their answers to an increase in salaries, pensions (and their timely payment) and self-assessed living standards (White and McAllister, 2008, pp. 617, 620). It is worth noting here that public perceptions on material wellbeing and the economy do, in fact, ‘correlate with objective indicators of performance such as the real wage’ (Treisman, 2014).
Between 2008 and 2010, the correlation between economic performance and Putin’s popularity is blurred out by the turmoil of the global financial crisis and is thus inconclusive. However, beyond 2010, the correlation gradually weakens, to the point where it seems that Russia’s economic performance bears absolutely no significance in justifying the president’s massive approval ratings. In fact, the link has been distorted so much that, in 2014, a year in which inflation has been on the rise (Global Rates, 2014) and the annual GDP growth rate has stalled at an alarming average of 0.8% (Trading Economics, 2014), Vladimir Putin’s levels of approval skyrocketed from 65% in the beginning of the year to an all-time high of 88% in October (Levada, 2014). It may be that Putin’s popularity has been determined by Russians’ perceptions of their economy and welfare but this correlation does not seem to be valid anymore today. While it is intuitive to start decoupling the two factors, some believe that this is a rushed conclusion (Treisman, 2014, p.374).
Those who do not tie Putin’s popularity to economic performance indicators, see instead a connection to policy. To support this, scholars point out the inflexion that occurred in the early months of 2005, when a series welfare reforms brought protesters to the streets as a reaction to the monetization of welfare benefits, which lowered the standards of living for those who relied on them and consequently pushed Putin’s approval ratings significantly below the trend, down to 65% (White and McAllister, 2008, p.613; McCallister, 2014, p.111; Levada, 2014). However, by the end of the same year, surveys indicated a recovery in public approval levels to 71%, which left Putin’s popularity unaffected in the long term (Willerton, 2014, p.23). In this case, the link of causality between approval ratings and policy decisions has only been momentary. In fact, Richard Rose (2007) finds that the connection between issue positions – and hence policy – and support for Putin is weak, an observation that can be further acknowledged in light of the fact that Putin’s high, stable approval ratings translate as levels of trust in the decisions of his administration, regardless of whether these decisions occur at the expense of voters’ interests. This unconventional type of trust is thought to be rooted in the leader’s personalist linkage with the electorate and allows for unpopular decisions, as long as the leader can effectively justify them (Smyth, 2014, p.572; Tsygankov, 2014).
Like Russia’s economic performance, public approval for government policies has fluctuated over the years, making it difficult to correlate either factor to Putin’s enduring popularity levels in time. On the other hand, reflecting an important effect of both economic prosperity and domestic policy efficiency, the evolution of Russia’s crime rates over the past two decades seems to account for people’s liking of Putin far better than any other indicator, because they are taken to measure the status of achievement of social order, which is historically known to be the most prized social asset for the Russian population. When interviewed in a 2007 poll asking what security means for them, Russians replied that the concept represented the attainment of their day-to-day needs and particularly that of benefitting from protection against crime (Mendras, 2012, p.187). Contrasting crime rates before and after Putin’s rise to power, it becomes clear that Russia has experienced significantly less violent criminal activity under Putin’s leadership. In 1995, an alarming rate of 30.2 homicides per 100,000 persons weighed heavily on citizens’ perceived levels of safety, according to statistics published by the Russian Ministry of Health (Pridemore, 2002, p.111). These figures mirror the instability and social dismay that characterized the Yeltsn presidency years, when the crisis of the Russian state was still at its peak after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
By contrast, a recent report published by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reveals a sharp decline in Russia’s homicide rates since then, with the same figure ranking at a reassuring 9.2 in 2012 (2013, p.24). Furthermore, with the decline in homicides comes a decrease in Russians’ fear of terrorist attacks. Levada polls (2014) have shown that, in 2014, 12% of respondents were expecting such an occurrence to affect the people close to them, compared to 42% of respondents sharing the same fear back in 1999. Generally, over the past 8 years, the level of concern for a rise in the number of criminal offenses has declined by 19%, whereas trust in the country’s special services has gone up by a significant 22 points, since 2003. These figures ultimately reflect Russia’s remarkable progress over the past decade in terms of securing social order for its citizens, figures which are also representative of the time Putin served in power. This period of social normalization therefore convincingly serves as another point of reference for Putin’s capacity to govern and marks his successful commitment to restoring social order in Russia, which had been a recurring element in his electoral campaigns (Tsygankov, 2014, p.105). Finally, Putin’s ability to deliver on his promise has done well to retain a consistent amount of citizen trust.
Coming back to the alleged connection between Putin’s popularity, policy and wellbeing levels, a more comprehensive understanding of how policy and economic performance influence this phenomenon can be found in studies that investigate these links from 2011 onwards, when economic performance was no longer the apparent driver behind Putin’s approval ratings. What makes these studies more rigorous and less speculative is the fact that they address a period of time when support for the president was gradually diminishing, making it possible to test the strength of established correlations against changing circumstances. Beginning in April 2010, when Putin’s approval ratings were registered at 80%, and up until March 2014, when the figures recovered to the same level (Levada, 2014), popular support for the president underwent a sharp decrease, scoring as low as 61% in November 2013. Investigating the phenomenon, Treisman discovers that, despite negligible changes in economic perceptions, the fall in Putin’s popularity owes to the fact that more Russians have started holding the leadership accountable for the country’s stagnating economic performance, an association which Russians were not previously making. Treisman observes that, before 2011, the Russian population tended to ‘compartmentalize their judgments of the state of the country and of their leaders’ performance’ (2014, p.374, 385; Cassiday and Johnson, 2010, p.685).
In a recent seminar held at the University of Birmingham, Dr. Jana Howlett (2014) confirmed that it is a ‘Russian tradition’ to save the blame for members of the local and regional administrations, instead of criticizing higher government officials. In discussing Russians’ predisposition to tolerate suffering and violence inflicted against them by their government, de Vries (2001) interprets this tendency as originating from one of the fundamental characteristics of the Russian mentality, that of identifying with the central figure of authority – whether it be the Czar, the communist leader or the president. This personalist relationship, in turn, determines Russians to rationalize the assaults of their authoritative figure on the self by absolving the aggressor from responsibility. In Freudian literature, this predisposition is known as ‘identification with the aggressor’ and it endows Russians with ‘a readiness to be abused and a willingness to assume the sadistic position of authority with others’ (p.593). Hence, the Russian people refrain from scrutinizing their leadership not out of fear per se, but due to a psychologically rooted and far more complex inclination.
However, Treisman (2014, p.377) argues that the 2011-2012 Moscow riots signalled that Russians are growing out of that mentality, especially those from among certain segments of the population, namely women, the well-off and members of the creative class – a stratum of financially emancipated, highly educated, independent thinking urbanites, with globalized consumption habits and a post-modern sensibility (Treisman, 2014, p. 373; Florida, 2002; Gaddy, 2013). Alternatively, Mendras explains this segmented perception by pointing out that Russians issue ambivalent opinions, critical of society but favourable of Putin and his administration, only as long as polling questions remain broad – inquiries that ask for more specific evaluations have led to subjects being more aware and sceptical of the government’s consideration for the needs of the country (2008, p. 198).
Nevertheless, the civil uprising in 2011 suggests that Russians have begun holding the country’s political leadership accountable to a greater extent and analysts warn that Putin and his administration need to start delivering on this reality if they want to avoid experiencing similar episodes in the near-future (Willerton, 2014, p.41). From 2011 onward, approval ratings have indeed reflected a persistent attitude of disbelief in Putin’s leadership. Past November 2013, however, the charts indicate a sharp revival of positive feedback – 82% in March 2014 (Levada, 2014) –, which many attribute to the outcome of Putin’s assertive foreign policy leading to the annexation of Crimea. Commentators argue that ‘foreign policy is the only thing that works’ in boosting the president’s popularity and legitimacy (Aron, 2014). The impact of domestic policy developments, on the other hand, is more modest. Even though there have been tangible reforms in education, health and employment since Vladimir Putin took over the presidency again in 2012 (Willerton, 2014, p.40), they would not have been enough to compensate for the country’s economic stagnation if public attention hadn’t been shifted to Putin’s show of strength in foreign affairs.
Some predict that the Crimea episode will only make for a short-lived popularity revival. Once more, the correlation between policy and popular endorsement is thought to be momentary. Putin’s approval ratings have ranked above 80% for almost a year now, but the expansionist move is far from being able to ensure such figures over the following 3 years. The annexation of Crimea cannot be taken to have solved any of the pervasive issues in Russian society for which citizens have previously demanded resolution. On the contrary, it actually served to worsen the state of the national economy, because regional instability caused a significant depreciation of the rouble. At the same time, however, Putin’s leadership benefitted from unprecedented levels of trust, as if the sudden rise in inflation went by unnoticed to the public. Investigating this phenomenon, analysts found that the only reason for Russians’ consistent public support for the annexation of Crimea at the risk of compromising their prized stability was that the measure struck a chord with masses’ nostalgia for ‘Russian greatness’ (Stoner, 2014; Smyth, 2014, p. 570). Indeed, statistics show that voters held a high opinion of Russia’s deserved position in the international arena. A recent national poll revealed that 68% of interviewed candidates already considered Russia to be a superpower, whereas a majority of citizens held adamant views that criticism of Russia’s policies on Ukraine reflected the aspirations of the USA and the West to suppress Russia’s influence in the world (Levada, 2014).
Consequently, the Crimea episode satisfied voters’ desire for a move that would instil authority on the country’s image and demand greater respect from the West (McAllister, 2014, p.111), while Putin, the patron of the occasion, reactivated his personalist link with the Russian electorate by tapping into nationalism and ‘the core Russian values of empathy, subordination to the greater good, and unity in the face of adversity’ (Wood, 2011, p.198). This explains why Russians have turned a blind eye and did not hold Putin accountable for the Western economic sanctions that came as a result of the annexation. Moreover, as of August 2014, 30% of voters consider that strengthening Russia’s position in the international arena is Putin’s greatest accomplishment during his years in power (Levada, 2014).
The popularity boost incurred off of an assertive foreign policy move is not a new tactic for Putin and there is evidence that the president’s approval ratings have always been sensitive to his handling of international affairs (McAllister, 2014, p.111). Previously, in 1999, Russia’s successful intervention in Chechnya under Putin’s orchestration benefitted from massive public support and generated an 80% standard of approval for Putin right before Boris Yeltsn’s resignation in December 1999. The positive public reaction to the victory was all the more pronounced, after a previous war with the Chechens rendered an embarrassing outcome for Russia’s political leadership when national forces withdrew from the conflict under the much resented Khasavyurt Accord, in 1996. By contrast, the triumphant outcome of the second Chechen war came as a moment of relief in Russia’s recent diplomatic history and it consequently heightened Putin’s public profile to a point from which he then confidently pursued the presidency of Russia in the following year.
Similarly, in 2008, when Russia carried out the military occupation of Georgia as part of a mission to disarm the regional conflict ignited around the claim for independence of Ossetia and Abkhazia, public opinion followed a trend of enthusiasm that pushed Putin’s levels of approval up to 88%, even though the presidency at the time belonged to Dimitri Medvedev. Interestingly enough, Medvedev’s approval ratings recorded in parallel were lagging behind those of Prime Minister Putin by 5% (Levada, 2014), but the difference is explained by Russians’ tenacious perception throughout Medvedev’s presidential mandate that power was either more likely to be found in the hands of Putin or was equally shared between the two leaders (Levada, 2008).
On a general observation, the charts show that most peaks in Putin’s popularity over the past 15 years occurred during periods when Russia had engaged in belligerent pursuits against former Soviet satellite states or separatist movements inside its republics. The major military interventions carried out on each occasion attracted extensive criticisms from Russia’s international peers and, although the operations themselves did not drain much of Russia’s financial resources, the conflicts generated diplomatic repercussions that triggered significant capital outflows, leading to the collapse of Russian stock exchanges and currency markets. For example, on the first day of the Georgian war alone, 6 billion dollars were reported to have left the country. Consequently, in the aftermath of these tensions, the Russian Central Bank had to intervene to support the rouble and contain inflation (Schroder, 2008, p.7), which indicates that the episodes of military intervention ultimately served to destabilize the national economy. It is implicit that the material wellbeing of Russian citizens had suffered as well, but if Putin’s popularity indeed had such a strong correlation with the state of the economy and the perceived levels of material wealth, then the Georgian and Crimean wars should have caused a substantial deterioration of popular endorsement for Putin (Adomanis, 2015).
Considering that the exact opposite happened and that the population proved to be highly supportive of the Kremlin’s leadership on all major decisions to enact assertive foreign policy measures, there is reason to believe that the drivers behind Putin’s approval ratings stretch beyond the sole concern for material wellbeing. Entering the debate on Putin’s popularity is a new, emotional element, the effects of which lack the objectiveness of economic performance indicators and the quantifiability of policy outcomes.
- Political culture
A substantial amount of literature identifies the roots of Putin’s popularity beyond correlations with economic data and policy choices. These views focus on Russian attitudes towards leadership and culturally embedded political preferences. Thus, another stance in the debate comprises those who justify the president’s high levels of approval by identifying a preference for autocracy among the majority of the Russian population. According to this view, the answer to Putin’s high, enduring popular endorsement can be found by analysing the Russian political culture and its circumstances of development throughout history.
Academic studies that argue for this justification to Putin’s popularity often cite the results of the Russian Election Studies (RES) series of opinion polls that have surveyed the Russian population during every federal election cycle between 1995 and 2012. The polls reveal that almost half of the Russian population, faced with the decision of choosing between democracy and a ‘strong leader’ who can address the nation’s problems, would select the latter option (Brown, 2014, p.3; Hale, 2011, p.1368). These results are often analysed in conjunction with previous data on Russians’ views of Stalin which revealed, in 2003-2004, that less than half of Russia’s youth would categorically refrain from voting with Stalin if he ran for office at the time (Mendelson & Gerber, 2006). It is clear then how the available data can be interpreted to find an explicit preference for autocracy on behalf of the Russian population (Hale, 2011, p.1362), a conclusion which can be easily extended to account for Putin’s high approval ratings at times when he sanctioned anti-democratic measures. The hypothesis seems all the more credible given that, in political literature generally, Russia is regarded as a historical example of people allowing their leaders uninhibited power for the sake of preserving social stability (Brown, 2014, p.43). This trade-off is thought to have been seen by Russians in an even better light, provided the outstanding performance registered by the Russian economy up until 2008.
But if Russians are comfortable with allowing Putin and his administration extensive power prerogatives, this begs the question on why Putin did not amend article 81 of the constitution to allow himself a third consecutive term in office. By the end of his second presidential mandate, in May 2008, Putin had secured a record high approval rating of 85% (Levada, 2014; Willerton, 2014, p.23) and had the right, in virtue of his presidential prerogatives, to call for a referendum initiating the constitutional amendment that would grand him a third term (Willerton, 2014, p.25). Based on the statistically reinforced hypothesis that Russians favour autocracy and assuming that the high approval ratings would have informally legitimized Putin’s decision to stay in office, the referendum would have been a success.
However, the fact that he opted to step down, as was dictated by the law, may indicate otherwise. Some argue that Putin had rejected this political move far in advance, out of fear of losing the respect of ‘the world leaders’ club whose membership he so cherishes’ (Shevtsova, 2006). Alternative interpretations maintain that he did not want to be associated with the political leaders in Central Asia and Belarus, who are known to extend their terms and hold on to power at their own will (Mendras, 2008, p.205), especially considering that Putin’s adamant commitment to the letter of the constitution makes up for an essential element of trust in his political persona (Hill and Gaddy, 2013, p.53). Accordingly then, arranging for a third presidential term in disregard of the primacy of the country’s fundamental law would have threatened Putin’s legitimacy, a concern which turns out to have been justified after a closer investigation of public opinion at the time. In a journal article examining Russians’ support for autocracy, Henry E. Hale shows that, in fact, while 77% of Russians did not want to see Putin leave politics altogether, 49% held that attempting to extend his presidency would have been a bad idea even though they favoured him (2011, p.1370). This suggests that, in spite of having a preference for authoritarianism attributed to them, Russians expect some degree of control over their leadership. Alternatively, and once more, given the high approval ratings he registered at the end of his first presidency in 2008, it can be said that Vladimir Putin derives his massive popular endorsement at least partly by meeting these expectations.
In light of this additional data, basing Putin’s high approval ratings on Russians’ autocratic political preferences makes for a shaky argument, simply because the preference might not exist at all. Evidence supporting this view points to a fundamental flaw in the way in which the RES poll questions are designed. As Hale argues, the questions scanning for regime preferences among Russians are poorly formulated, in that they present Russians with answer options that are not mutually exclusive (Rose et al., 2006, pp. 128, 129; Hale, 2011, p. 1363). When asked to choose between democracy and a ‘strong hand’, Russians will choose the latter, but when prompted to identify their ideal form of government on a scale ranging from complete democracy to complete dictatorship, Russians in the mid-2000s settled for a reassuring 7.2 (Rose et. al, 2006, pp. 218, 219). This proves that the autocratic political affinity among Russians is, by far, less pronounced than is generally assumed. Further research on the matter actually reveals that Russians see the strong hand compatibly coexisting with democracy in the hybrid regime that they experience today (Hale, 2011, p. 1371).
The perception could explain why Russian citizens are content with Putin’s oscillating political conduit and why his decisions, which reflect a mixture of liberalism and authoritarianism, benefit from constant approval ratings. However, Russians’ preference for a hybrid regime analysed against Putin’s political behaviour does not explicitly justify the president’s unusually high levels of popular endorsement – it only explains the lack of major, frequent fluctuations in public opinion.
Drawing on aspects of the Russian political culture, some academics explain the longevous popularity of Vladimir Putin with reference to Russians’ predisposition for fostering personality cults. Cassiday and Johnson (2010) analyse this possibility in depth and identify an existent personality cult for the president – ‘Putiniana’ – which traces back to the immediate period following the collapse of the Soviet Union, in the 1990s. Much like Soviet-style leader cults that emerged ‘under conditions of economic crisis, social discord, weak support for official ideology and widespread cynicism about the state’s ability to fulfil its promises’, the Putin cult evolved to compensate for a need of psychological and emotional comfort present in the public consciousness (2010, p. 685).
However, compared to its nearest antecedent, the cult of Stalin that was monolithic and functioned on a monotonous tone of discourse, the cult formed around Putin takes polysemic expressions and is, in fact, organically reinforced via unrestrained commercial and communication mediums (2010, p. 694). Here, the authors emphasize people’s voluntary contribution in propagating the image of Vladimir Putin through art, literature and commercial practices, such as selling pictures of him in bookstores or organizing tours that follow Putin’s trajectories when visiting regions of the federal republic. Furthermore, the phenomenon is said to have spread without interference from the Kremlin, which is thought to have no control over its manifestations (2010, p.967). Instead, the current roots of the cult are matched to Russians’ nostalgia for the Soviet era, a period which they mainly associate with social order and stability. Oushakine (2000. p.994) further observes that people idealize Putin similarly to figures of the past due to the abrupt nature of Russia’s transition onto a new social paradigm in the 21st century. According to the author, this sudden change has left the people in a state of aphasia, unable to articulate notions of expressing the novel reality and, therefore, they continue to utilize the Soviet discourse, in a fetishized form, to portray their appreciation of political leaders.
- A third relevant stance in the debate on Putin’s popularity starts off from the premise that the Russian electorate owns a minimal ability to influence the country’s political processes. As a result, excessive credit is awarded to the strategy that Putin and his administration carry out to secure his approval ratings. This formula, which is highly typical of Western commentators, identifies a mixture of political apathy, unfair elections, stifled political competition, media bias and the works of the Kremlin’s performant PR apparatus.
Following a 2004 study investigating Russians’ trust in their leadership, Yuri Levada brings an interesting observation to the debate, according to which weak institutionalization in Russia has led respondents to substitute Vladimir Putin for the presidential institution altogether (Smyth, 2014, p.572). The phenomenon further serves to eliminate electoral bias and so, in the absence of major public dissatisfaction and feasible political alternatives, citizens show no objection to having the same strong, enduring leader handle Russian state affairs. According to Smyth, this form of personalism is ‘a powerful political resource in electoral authoritarian regimes because it provides a positive logic for sceptical voters to support the leader’ (2014, p.567).
Since 2004, however, Russians seem to have distanced themselves from accepting an equivalence between Putin and the presidential role. In fact, by the end of 2013, statistics showed that almost half of the population believed that Vladimir Putin could be replaced (Levada, 2014). Put in perspective, those answers only reflected a short-lived longing for political change, because, during 2014, the balance of opinion has shifted once more in Putin’s favour, with more than half of the population agreeing that he is irreplaceable, at least for the moment (Levada, 2014). The outcome relates to that of another opinion poll that tested for justifications to the levels of trust in the president. Asked what they thought was the reason for people’s trust in Putin at the end of 2013, almost half of the respondents pointed to the fact that ‘people do not see anyone else upon whom they could rely’. To the same question, only 14% of the answers claimed a conviction that ‘Putin resolves the country’s problems successfully and with dignity’ (Levada, 2014).
Summing up these results, it can then be said that a majority of voters do not conceive of alternative realities beyond the political formula that they are currently experiencing, with Vladimir Putin sat in the front row. Howlett (2014) explains that it is expected of Russians to refrain from challenging the status quo, as an overdue expression of the docile political attitudes cultivated during the Soviet era. Nevertheless, an evaluation of these views should also leave room for acknowledging the active involvement of Putin himself in singling out his political persona.
A variety of methods can be identified as being part of Putin’s strategy of securing the approval of his electorate, the most contested of which has been the gradual submission of major national media outlets. Under Putin’s leadership, the Kremlin has systematically acquired control over the country’s mass media with the intention of gaining monopoly over the president’s public image. Currently, the three Russian television channels with the highest audience reach – Channel One, Rossya and NTV – are either directly subordinated to the Kremlin or to the state-owned corporation, Gazprom, that controversially took over the Media-Most holding from oligarch Vladimir Gusinsky in 2002 for its most valuable asset – the NTV channel (Khvostunova, 2013). The vast state influence over Russian media is put to use in conducting what Hill and Gaddy call ‘a permanent campaign’ for Vladimir Putin (2013, p.6), the intensity of which has been most notable in the runner-up periods before presidential elections. Reporting on the recent 2012 presidential campaign, external observers have been keen to signal that the Kremlin’s control over the media has offered it monopoly over election coverage on television and that, as a result, voters’ bias has been shaped to disqualify other contenders in favour of Putin, as the only plausible candidate to Russia’s presidency (Economist, 2012). This aspect of information control offers a solid justification for Russians’ often prominent failure to perceive alternatives for the country’s political leadership.
However, some authors rightly argue that there is more to Putin’s popularity that just the result of orchestrated efforts in the media to undermine potential rivals. For most of the years since he first acquired the presidency, including the quieter periods between elections, Russians have been constantly witnessing a carefully tailored image of their national leader, as a capable, adamant protector of the country (Cassiday & Johnson, 2010, p.684).
The public figure Vladimir Putin is widely recognized in the international media for the PR stunts that depict him in extravagant poses. Images illustrating Putin petting a tiger cub, riding a horse topless or surfacing from the bottom of a lake with an alleged artefact in his hands are tokens of only a few of the scenarios staged by the Kremlin and released onto the media to capture public attention. Although being far from authentic and prone to generating reactions of amusement rather than admiration, these public displays are part of an ongoing strategy to target specific segments of the population, for which Putin aims to embody particular values that would bring him the sympathy of members in each targeted group. The initiative began when a Kremlin poll revealed that Russians want to experience a more direct connection with their political leaders (Hill and Gaddy, 2013, p.4) and, consequently, the administration took to projecting Putin according to these expectations in a highly curated manner.
Over the years, Putin engaged in a repertoire of staged appearances that associated him with physical strength, courage and vigilance, qualities that were meant to transcend the occasion and translate onto his political persona. Alternatively, these displays were balanced out with less extravagant ones that added a more personal dimension to Putin’s image, in the attempt to identify him with the average Russian citizen. All instances ultimately lay ‘claim to sexual, political and physical prowess but repudiate vices traditionally associated with masculinity in Russian culture, including drunkenness, smoking and inconsiderateness’ (Cassiday and Johnson, 2010, p.690). On the whole, considerable efforts are invested in ensuring that Putin is perceived by his electorate in a glowing aura of potency and there is no doubt that his PR strategy combined with the Kremlin’s capacity to control the public bias in the media have constituted a major driver for the president’s approval ratings. Nevertheless, Putin himself possesses a natural ability to play along the outlines of his consecrated public image. The behaviour he exhibits in genuine appearances is loyal to postures that demand respect, showing minimal emotion and almost never giving away what people would call ‘signs of weakness’. Far from giving into Putin’s charm, critics remain highly sceptical of the president’s public persona reflecting his true personality. These voices denounce Putin as a tabula rasa, a mirror, as Yuri Levada puts it, ‘in which everyone, communist or democrat, sees what he wants to see’ (Chernega, 2000; Hill and Gaddy, 2013, p.5). Masha Gessen (2013) dedicated an entire book to exposing Putin as ‘a man without a face’, who has risen to the very top of Russian politics in virtue of his chameleonic ways. Whichever the truth, the high level of popular endorsement that greets Putin to this day partly owes to his carefully crafted reputation that blends in harmoniously with all other potential factors to conjure up approval ratings ranking constantly above 60%.
The methodology used in the present analysis will be a mix between quantitative and qualitative. For the purposes of investigating the social phenomena of Vladimir Putin’s popularity, poll data is an essential resource of empirical evidence and, although no actual quantitative research has been carried out on the subject by myself, third-party poll figures will be used to support the facts and assumptions made throughout the paper. Previously, in addition to this, academic interpretations of poll results have been examined in order to establish the current stances in the debate on the origins of Putin’s high popular endorsement. I will also include my own interpretations of the quantitative data published by the Yury Levada Analytical Centre, given that most studies on the topic refer back to this source and based on the premise that this independent research institute constitutes the most reliable provider of accurate and transparent information on the views of the Russian society (Barry, 2013; Balmforth, 2013). Adding to the qualitative resources are data on Russia’s homicide rates, inflation levels and economic performance – primarily fluctuations in GDP growth – and a body of both qualitative and quantitative academic work focused on pinning down the characteristics of the Russian political culture and mass mentalities. Finally, the present evaluation will appeal to the structure-agency model found in social sciences theory to frame the analysis and critical observations on the drivers responsible for the high approval ratings of Russia’s acting president over the past 15 years.
Whichever factors are thought to influence the Russian popular opinion on the country’s leadership, these cannot and should not be analysed ceteris paribus. Analysing factors independently from one another will likely exacerbate findings on the impact of each one and produce an unrealistic account for Putin’s enduring high approval ratings. Socioeconomic, political and cultural circumstances in modern-day Russia are strongly interrelated and so, determinants of social phenomena such as the popularity levels of the president will likely include, simultaneously, elements of political culture and behavioural psychology, both micro- and macroeconomic facts, political context and, finally, the personal characteristics and actions of Putin himself. Consequently, an assessment of Putin’s popularity will have to consider multiple causes and the conceptual framework introduced in this section will be help to provide a consistent interpretation of their aggregate effect.
Given that the analysis aims to identify causality relationships within a social paradigm, a structure-agency model has been chosen as the most suitable theoretical instrument for framing the dynamic between factors. In social sciences, the concepts of structure and agency enable the empirical assessment of abstract phenomena and allow for a systematic understanding of the various factors that generate them. The popularity of Vladimir Putin is a viable candidate for an analysis of this sort because, while the existing literature identifies a wide range of plausible empirical causes, these are often treated separately, rendering a fragmented understanding of Putin’s popular endorsement that is also susceptible to authors’ bias. As a result, the structure-agency approach employed in this analysis will aim to compensate for that gap in the literature by offering equal and objective consideration to all of the factors that are thought to determine the high approval ratings of Russia’s president. Accordingly then, the core concepts entailed by the structure-agency model will be defined in detail in the following paragraphs.
The term agency denominates the human condition of acting freely, individually or collectively, in virtue of three fundamental characteristics that are consciousness, reflexivity and the ability to make choices (Fuchs, 2001, p.26). Some scholars prefer to describe agency exclusively with reference to choice, because it highlights the availability of alternative courses of action and the possibility for the agent to have acted otherwise (Hays, 1994 p.64). In other words, it reduces agency to free will, as its fundamental component. Scenarios interpreted through the lens of the structure-agency model take humans to be agents and use the notion of structure to represent the system in which they act. If the system is dynamic, as is the case with social environments, then agents necessarily act under the circumstances imposed by structure, which presents both constraining and empowering aspects (Fuchs, 2001, p.24; Hays, 1994, p.59). In fact, the two dimensions – structure and agency – coexist in an interactive and recursive relationship, which entails that structures and actors mutually constrain and enable one another. (Hays, 1994, p.59; Imbroscio, 1999, p.46; Hollis and Smith, 1994, p.224).
For the purpose of the present analysis, the notion of structure will be narrowed down to denote, in a first instance, the structure of society or social structure, which exists and is maintained exclusively through the interaction of its members (Hays, 1994, p.62), in the form of durable social life patterns that transcend the individuals who cultivate or attempt to change them. To the definition of this particular brand of structure, Giddens adds that ‘the structural properties of social systems exist only in so far as forms of social conduct are reproduced chronically across time and space’ (1984, p. xxi). This means that people, as agents, contribute actively to social structures as much as social structures serve to influence their behaviour in turn. However, people do not mechanically submit their will to the prevailing patterns of life imposed by social structure. If this were the case, then their agency would be reduced to null. Instead, individuals are said to exert structurally reproductive agency, when their actions imitate social patterns and, alternatively, if those actions affect the patterns of social structures in empirically observable ways, then the corresponding type of agency is structurally transformative (Hays, 1994, p.63). This nuanced approach does well to eliminate the supposition that structure and agency may exist independently of one another, enacting a zero-sum game. It would be unrealistic to interpret abstract social phenomena like popularity in a completely structuralist or completely voluntarist manner.
Accordingly then, agency occurs on a continuum between the structurally reproductive and structurally transformative extremities, depending on the agents’ power of choice and the depth and durability of the social structure in which the choices are made (Giddens 1984; Lukes 1977; Hays, 1994). Here, it is important to note that culture is an intrinsic component of social structure, as a conglomerate of normative and cognitive patterns, embedded in behaviour, disseminated thorough interactions, internalized in personalities and externalized in the form of institutions (Hays, 1994). By definition, culture ‘embodies the ideals, values and assumptions about life that are widely shared among a population and that guide specific behaviour patterns’ (de Vries, 2001, p.589). Furthermore, culture is the central source of meaning within the social structure (Hays, 1944, p.65) and acts to ensure the continuity of the patterns that constitute it. Mannheim explains the latter function of culture by arguing that it exerts a direct influence over mentalities and that mentalities, which operate with meaning and influence action, do not evolve arbitrarily. Instead, they are derived from past mentalities, from which individuals cannot dissociate themselves spontaneously (1985, p.3). Structurally transformational agency then, which can be understood as cultivating a new mentality, will always originate in the existing mentality and be consequently assessed against it. In fact, the prevailing mentality at any period in time will be the standard against which all types of agency will be evaluated, including the structurally reinforcing type. This final point is highly relevant for the present analysis because it entails that agency can either challenge or reinforce mentalities and, with regard to attitudes toward agency in this way, an important element to be considered is the population’s predisposition to reject or accept these attempts. Popularity then will be the result of alignment between either type of agency and people’s reaction to it.
The existing sources detailed in the literature review already identify the majority of factors responsible for Putin’s popularity as being structural. Domestic and foreign policy, economic prosperity and the level of civil order inside the country originate with institutions and ultimately fall under the responsibility of the state, which represents the all-encompassing element of Russia’s political structure. However, as previously shown, an analysis of how these multiple factors generate public approval for the president leads to contradiction in many respects and no general pattern can be drawn from observing the evolution of each determinant in parallel. Yet while these elements of political structure appear inconsistent with fluctuations in Putin’s approval ratings over time, their influence makes much more sense when analysed in conjunction with elements of social structure, particularly culture and its central components, the values of Russian society. With this approach, the dynamics behind Putin’s popularity fall into place, because culture and the mentalities it encompasses will stand as the least varying reference points with which all other structural changes resonate and against which their impact may be evaluated. In practical terms, the approach works on the sensible hypothesis that the Russian population will endorse their president to the extent to which he or what are deemed to be the results of his decisions embody, perpetuate or appeal to the currently functioning Russian mentality, understood as the durable patterns of behaviour which Russians adopt when dealing with the realities around them (de Vries, 2001, p. 589).
Given that mentalities reflect and are built around cultural values, examining the latter will offer a more consistent insight on Russians’ perceptions, as a reaction to their environment and to the actors who impact it. Consequently, an analysis of this sort will not only make sense of the logic behind Putin’s popular endorsement, but it will also provide potential for issuing competent predictions about the evolution of the popularity phenomenon based on those patterns of behaviour. Accordingly then, the following section will draw together an overview of the central values in Russian culture, serving as standards of evaluation in the formation of Russians’ opinion on the leadership of Vladimir Putin.
Over the course of history, Russia has manifested a permanent preoccupation with ‘defending its unstable borders and political independence while striving to attain and preserve the international reputation of a great power’ (Tsygankov, 2014, p.42). The narrative of pressures coming from both within and outside the state, and often occurring simultaneously, have moulded the Russian nation according to a series of values that addressed its basic urge for survival through this tumultuous historical experience. With intense periods of crisis, marked by famine, territorial conflict and internal revolutions, the people of what came to be the world’s largest country have learned to value a strong state, social order and stability above everything else. The Smuta – Time of Troubles – that designates a period of three decades between 1584 and 1613, set a traumatic example for the extent to which Russian existence can degenerate in the absence of governance and unity while faced with external threats. Up until the establishment of the Romanov dynasty in 1613, the Russians suffered through famine, plague, civil uprisings and multiple wars with Poland, Lithuania, Sweden and the Livonian knights (Hosking, 1994). Following this dark episode in their past, Russians have come to acknowledge not only the importance of order in their society, but also the need for leadership that can ensure it.
Outside periods of crisis and instability, Russians have experienced their times of peace predominantly whilst under the leadership of an autocrat. Tsygankov (2014) argues that, given Russians’ ‘historic predicaments of economic weakness and insecurity, their reliance on autocracy was entirely rational’, on the basis that the autocrat acted as guarantor of their wellbeing. People were comfortable with the vertical of power originating from a single leader because it was the only formula that kept their country intact – the centralization of power was crucial for the maintenance of a strong state. Therefore, as long as the leader’s actions were perceived as being justified for that purpose, Russians were willing to refrain from scrutinizing his decisions. That is how corruption came to be an endemic problem of the Russian political class, since leaders were given a free hand to grant privileges and manage the country’s resources.
However, at the same time, Russians’ reliance on their leaders coupled with trust in their ability to manage the country and a sense of duty to abide by their word instantiate over another essential characteristic of the Russian character, namely unity, arising from an archetypal ‘we’ consciousness dominating the social system and nurturing a predisposition to sacrifice individual interest for the common good (Longworth, 2006, p.16; de Vries, 2001, p.598). Throughout history, Russians often had to accept austerity and compromise their material wellbeing when mobilizing against foreign threats. Their willingness for sacrifice was, in fact, applicable to any common ideal that appealed to their value taxonomy: survival was their first priority along with order and stability, yet having to live under constant external threat, they also developed an insecurity complex rooted right at the heart of their nation, in Moscow princes’ perception of the world.
This paradigm of perception also remained intact throughout the Soviet era, as communist leaders inherited a mind-set of paranoid vigilance, which materialized in intense mobilizations of the population against external enemies, particularly during the Stalin regime. That is how Russia’s largest expansion is best understood – as a reaction to a hostile international environment, in which Russia must assert its power or otherwise fall prey to the exploitative ambitions of other states. This logic also accounts for the aversion and suspicious attitude with which Russians approach foreign relations and the resilient patriotic and nationalistic tendencies that Russians still exhibit today.
In recent history, the collapse of communism at the end of the 20th century revived the pervasive sense of insecurity among Russians, who had been faced with an abrupt socio-political paradigm shift and were now witnessing a breakdown of the strong state and the social order that had been laboriously established during the previous regime. The transition to democratic rule that followed in the 1990s was marked by highly dysfunctional institutions, an intense, mismanaged economic crisis, a predatory political class that functioned on the sale of state assets and a wave a criminal activity among the general population that emerged as a reaction of despair vis-à-vis the critical contemporary circumstances (Kääriäinen, 1997, p.41). The absence of stability had been so intensely experienced that Russians, young and old, saw the maintenance of order in the nation as the most important element on the country’s political agenda, according to a series of surveys carried out between 1991 and 1996 (Kääriäinen, 1997, p.22). The demand for social order was similarly reflected in alternative studies, which revealed that high uncertainty avoidance was the primary characteristic of popular Russian mentality during the mid-1990s (Naumov and Puffer, 2000, p.715). Thus, the new millennium found Russians in a slow process of recovery from the experience of the previous decade, the damages of which caused them ‘to value […] internal social order above all else.’ (Imbert et al., 2003, p.5, 19).
When Vladimir Putin arrived at the forefront of Russian politics in the latter half of the 1990s, he stepped over from a life-long career in the country’s security service that culminated with a mandate as the head of the FSB. Therefore, having had extensive experience with handling the country’s security issues, his persona as the guarantor of peace and stability had begun to shape far in advance of him practically taking up an office in the executive. Putin’s trademark achievement came when, as prime-minister of Russia in 1999, he lead the country to victory in the second Chechen War, registering the type of accomplishment which the acting president then, Boris Yeltsin, had failed to deliver in 1996. Having displayed a solid token of his ability to restore social order in Russia, Putin gained enough support from both the public and his peers to be named into presidency by his predecessor a few months later.
By the time the presidential elections occurred in 2000, Putin had gathered a level of support of 84% among Russians, thus enabling him to secure the presidency for a first official mandate.
At the time, Russian economy had begun adopting the progress rhythm of a 7% annual GDP growth rate, which continued constantly for almost a decade up until the global financial crisis in 2008 and so, Putin’s first 10 years in power were marked by a period economic prosperity that sharply contrasted the era of the 1990s. It is not surprising then that his popularity was associated with the country’s economic wellbeing. However, while, as previously argued, this correlation would weaken over time, economic prosperity, together with adequate government policies and a constant diminution of crime in Russian society amounted to an essential, less measurable determinant of Putin’s popular endorsement, namely his ability to satisfy Russians’ desire for social order and stability. The fact that Putin, during this time, also pursued the consolidation of the state in an autocratic manner by strengthening the vertical of power and enhancing his presidential prerogatives was perceived as serving the same cause, noting that Russians consider a strong hand to be necessary for preserving social stability. A recent Levada poll carried out in April 2015 reinforces this claim, as 70% of Russians saw a benefit in the fact that power is concentrated almost entirely in the hands of Vladimir Putin. As previously mentioned, so long as Putin’s decisions are perceived to be just – in this case, serving to offer the Russian people that which they valued most – no objections are raised and popular approval is thriving.
Furthermore, due to their value priorities, Russians have long displayed a willingness to tolerate government control of the media as well as various breaches of human rights, such as the sanctioning of gay rights activists. For instance, given their conservative, Christian orthodox national culture and their disproval of disruptive methods of protest, Russian people were generally content with the jailing of the Pussy Riot band members who chose to perform an anti-Putin song in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, in February 2012. As for the Kremlin controlled media channels, Russians are aware and, once more, tolerant of the propagandistic nuance in the information they receive. While they are not ignorant of this reality, the ideal of freedom of speech ranks low on their scale of appreciation and, provided their passivity and the fact that endorsing this cause would entail rebellion against the government which they would rather accommodate anyway, Russians are yet again willing to let a democratic freedom submerge in favour of other, more appealing concerns.
Nevertheless, the momentum of trust that Putin had gained among his electorate during the period of prosperity would later serve as leverage for mobilizing the masses in favour of the Georgian war and the invasion of Crimea. The longevous popular endorsement that had built up prior to these events translated as votes of trust in Putin’s judgement, particularly when the consequence of international sanctions damaged the Russian economy in the aftermath. Putin wisely introduced these episodes of assertive foreign policy as potential successes serving the only cause for which Russians would have been willing to sacrifice their material wellbeing, namely the affirmation of Russia’s authority as a global superpower that is still justly entitled to contain regional conflicts and protect its people beyond national borders. By framing them so, these events activated Russians’ sense of unity and sacrifice for a common higher goal, consequently invigorating Putin’s supporters as well as segments of the population who wouldn’t normally endorse his policies. Furthermore, the criticisms of Western nations directed at Russia’s military engagement in regional affairs created a context of external hostility to which people naturally reacted by gathering behind Putin with a newly found motivation.
This link between Russians’ nationalistic spirit and their occasional disposition to support the causes that address it is also the key factor responsible for Putin’s all time highest level of approval of 88% in 2014. At the moment, as Henry E. Hale (2014) points out, there are two currents of nationalism being substantially supported among Russians today – one functioning on the ideal of a territorially restored Soviet Union and another militating for Russian ethnic purity. While Vladimir Putin leans toward the former type of nationalism in his discourse and acknowledges the importance of securing support from non-Russian ethnicities in the federation (Tsygankov, 2014), his approach to foreign policy nevertheless seeks to accommodate both types of nationalistic sentiments.
The annexation of Crimea was particularly advantageous in this respect, because it showcased the initiative of territorial expansion while including under the country’s administration an area inhabited by a Russian majority. Furthermore, the criticism with which the West acknowledged the new geo-political reality and the fact that, in spite of international opposition, Putin stood his ground in going forward with his plan for annexation struck people as a successful affirmation of Russia’s authority towards those countries who were fond of undermining it in the past – particularly the United States. The move thus also tended to a lingering complex that saturated Russian popular consciousness since the end of the Cold War. Overall, the successful annexation of Crimea was perceived along the lines of fulfilling Russians’ nationalistic aspirations and, despite the fact that it brought about economic sanctions and generated a wave of inflation, it counted on the Russian people’s characteristic willingness of temporarily suspending their wellbeing for the sake of a common, higher purpose. Naturally then, the episode struck a chord with the core values in the Russian mentality, which consequently brought Putin an unprecedented level of support at home.
In anticipation of Russia’s new generation
Social order, a strong, prosperous state, international recognition and respect for Russia as a global superpower – these are the main achievements with which the Russian public opinion credits the leadership of Vladimir Putin (Levada, 2015). Nevertheless, as previously argued, this endorsement owes to the president’s agency as much as it does to people’s judgement criteria or more specifically to the fact that the current mentality among Russians determines positive evaluations of Putin’s decision-making, based on the values of nationalism, risk aversion, paternalism and justice on which it operates. For those who lived under communism and experienced the subsequent crisis of the strong state, together with the foreign hostility driving the Cold War, Putin represents the author of Russia’s restoration in the new millennium. However, having spent more than a decade in power, Putin and his administration are now witnessing the coming of age of a new generation of Russians, whose maturing has occurred in a social environment that is radically different from that experienced by their parents. Regarding these children of ‘the Putin era’, there is a growing concern that their value taxonomy is shifting in accordance with the liberal mentality that dominates the world around them, a world to which they are more connected now than any other generation before them.
The argument contours along the lines that Russian millennials have inherited their values from the older generation without having had them enforced by the experiences that generated this mentality in the first place. Those born after 1989 were raised in the leftover spirit of inertia that dragged on after the fall of the Soviet Union, although they barely even remember the crisis of the Yeltsn presidency period, the effects of which have worn off into the more vivid years of Putin’s leadership. Consequently, this segment of Russia’s population has no memory of acute state crisis, material insufficiencies or the general absence of social order, nor do they have any knowledge of socialism, the cult of masses and deference to a central state authority beyond what they read in textbooks. Unlike any recent generation before them, today’s Russian youth are coming of age in a climate of peace, stability and freedom, bearing an outdated system of beliefs which they cannot support by drawing on their own experiences.
Accordingly then, the members of this new generation would likely be more susceptible to influences addressing a change in their values, particularly that of the Internet, which is providing them with unprecedented access to uncensored information and due to which ‘an entire segment of Russians can steer clear of government propaganda’ (Bidder, 2012). The hope is that the Internet will break young Russians’ inherited conservative mentality by granting them exposure to liberal ideas and by providing them with a platform for free interaction where they may organize themselves to mobilize on initiatives for change.
One such initiative would target the modus operandi of the current political class, coming from those who conceive of a better alternative to the establishment. Already, clusters of opposition have emerged in the online, using blogs and social networks such as Facebook and Twitter to coordinate protests against Putin and his government. A role model in this sense is Alexei Navalny, one of Putin’s most outspoken critics, who has succeeded in gathering wide support for his views by championing the powerful means of communication available on the Internet. The virtual environment thus presents Russians not only with the options for a new value system but also with the means to exert their freedom of association outside the Kremlin’s sphere of influence. This prospect is essential to consider when issuing future projections on the president’s popular endorsement, as the strong online presence of Russia’s young generation has the potential to propagate a shift of values, perspectives and mentalities throughout the general population in time. In theoretical terms, they have the ability to engage in structurally transformational agency.
Consequently, in a best case scenario, Putin’s political and public relations strategies will have to adapt to this wave of change instead of attempting to suppress it. Otherwise, his political career will follow the path of that of Yeltsin, whose public approval diminished gradually to the point where he had to withdraw from politics despite having forced a positive outcome in elections. Given that Putin’s popular support often empowers him to take what would otherwise be unpopular decisions, should the new generation withdraw their endorsement of him, Putin would be left with no leverage of trust on his people.
The above considerations nevertheless make for an idealistic view of how Russia’s youth will respond to empowerment in the modern age. As previously pointed out, even with adequate exposure, mentalities do not change overnight and so, the above process has the chance of being a slow one at best. Having inherited the value system of previous generations, young Russians are not likely to take the stability of the Putin years for granted. The aversion to change manifests in them as much as it does in their parents, on account of the fact that they have come of age in an environment exposed to the volatilities of capitalism. Not only that, but the foreign threat is as present as ever, with nations manifesting a growing hostility to Russia’s foreign policies and using precisely the mechanisms of the free market to sanction the country whenever its interests fail to align to those of the Western world (Washington Post, 2014). Thus, the exposure to liberal values is not as powerful a catalyst as most commentators would expect.
Looking into the mentalities of Russian millennials, Mendleson (2015) and her colleagues recently carried out a study to test whether ‘the trappings of Putin-era prosperity—cell phones, easy access to the Internet, foreign travel—had inspired these people to adopt more liberal values and a more international outlook than the one held by their parents. Their research revealed that Russia’s youth are quite literally pokolenie Putina – the Putin generation: they long for seeing their country reclaim the status of a global superpower and resent the Euro-Atlantic community for pressuring Russia to abide by international norms. They are also sceptical of foreign organizations activating on Russian territory, believing that these ‘foreign agents’ – as the government recently labelled them – instigate protests and cause disturbances to social order. As the author concludes, Russian millennials ‘enthusiastically consume the Kremlin’s steady diet of Soviet nostalgia, xenophobia, homophobia, and anti-Americanism’ (Mendleson, 2015), even in spite of having high levels of education. This finding is further relevant in the light of the fact that studies from the 1990s expected education to inhibit the sort of non-liberal attitudes that young Russians are exhibiting today (Hahn, 1991, p.419).
The results of Medleson’s research could very well be rejected by arguing that the 2011 protests hint at a different reality. According to commentators back then, the mass mobilization that occurred in reaction to suspicions of parliamentary elections being rigged was a clear indicator that Russians are developing a thinking that is independent of the Kremlin’s invisible hand and a willingness to call out the government on its abuses.
Nevertheless, a study conducted by Ellen Mickiewicz (2014) shows that the suspected enlightened attitudes are far from being holistically descriptive of the Russian youth. Having conducted a series of focus groups with students at elite Russian universities in the spring of 2011, the author reveals that the riots lacked any momentum among this group and, in fact, were greeted with dismay at the breakdown of order and the scale of the violence they generated in Russian society. Her subjects proved highly sceptical of politics and extremely passive, declaring themselves unmoved by the higher causes of freedom and dignity that drove the protests. Mainly, the students were interested in completing their studies and landing good jobs, showing no preoccupation for political activism. They insisted that they would rather accommodate the current government instead of forcefully driving change within their country because, according to them, if change should come, it will come from within. On this note, in Medleson’s words, ‘the rise of these aspiring new leaders looks likely to set back any prospect of a Russian democratic awakening by at least a generation’ (2015).
Therefore, Russian millennials are unjustifiably perceived as posing a threat to the establishment. Given that they share the same values as the previous generation and are ultimately subject to the powerful structural constraints of Russian culture, they manifest acceptance – or at least tolerance – of the practices of their government. Theoretically, they naturally exert their agency in a structurally reinforcing manner.
Putin’s leadership, then, is not transitioning onto a shaky base for popular endorsement. In fact, the acting president is looking ahead onto a generation that approves of him to an even greater extent than their parents did, seeing that 86% of those aged between 18 and 24 are currently showing support for Putin, according to a Levada poll carried out in 2014 (Hauslohner, 2014).
ENDING REMARKS AND CONCLUSION
To conclude, the popularity of Vladimir Putin, although attributed to multiple factors, can be understood as the result of the structural constraints that mould Russians’ perception of their leader. The existing literature on this topic has focused on how separate determinants, – economic, social or political – correlate with fluctuations in Putin’s public approval ratings, yet these fragmented correlations only offer a narrow justification for the president’s popularity and fail to account for his enduring levels of endorsement over time. Consequently, the present paper has proposed a distinct approach to the subject and has forwarded a framework of analysis that takes the Russian mentality – and the values it encompasses – as the main reference point against which Putin’s leadership may be evaluated, in order to explain the high popular support from which he has benefited since the late 20th century.
The analysis has revealed that, the phenomenon of Putin’s popularity is best explained by understanding his decision-making as being structurally reinforcing, meaning that the logic behind his actions consider the value taxonomy of the Russian people and acts to reinforce it. By appealing to values such as social order and stability, nationalism, unity and a willingness for sacrifice in the name a common goal, Vladimir Putin has sought to embody the Russian mentality rather than alter it and, in doing so, he has succeeded in securing levels of popular support that have never ranked below 65%.
In terms of projections for the future, the prospect of a new generation of Russians coming of age and shifting the scale of values of the general population can have a destabilizing effect on perceptions of Putin and, consequently, on people’s support of him. However, this type of concerns has existed since the 1990s and a closer examination of the matter has revealed that Russian millennials exert the inherited mentality of their parents, while resisting the liberal influences arising from their increased connectedness to the outside world. As such, it becomes probably that the new generation will continue to endorse Putin to a similarly high extent, based on the same logic that has driven his popularity among Russians for over a decade. Ultimately, as long as Vladimir Putin acts on the values of his people, he is likely to continue being Russia’s most cherished political figure.
Word count: 11,411
Adomanis, M., 2015. ‘Russian Inflation is Getting Worse’. Forbes. [online] Available at: http://www.forbes.com/sites/markadomanis/2015/02/14/russian-inflation-is-getting-worse/ [accessed 01/03/2015];
Aron, L., 2014. ‘Vladimir Putin’s long—and very dangerous—game’. American Enterprise Institute. [online] Available at: http://www.aei.org/publication/vladimir-putins-long-and-very-dangerous-game/ [accessed 30/11/2014];
Balmforth, T., 2013. ‘Levada Center, Russia’s Most Respected Pollster, Fears Closure’. Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty. [online] Available at: http://www.rferl.org/content/russia-levada-center-foreign-agent/24992729.html [accessed 14/10/2014];
Barry, E., 2013. ‘Polling Group in Russia Says It May Close’. The New York Times. [online] Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/21/world/europe/russian-polling-group-says-it-may-close.html?_r=0 [accessed 14/10/2014];
Bidder, B., 2012. ‘Putin’s Unruly Children: A New Generation Aims to Revitalize Russia’. Der Spiegel. [online] Available at: http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/putin-s-unruly-children-a-new-generation-aims-to-revitalize-russia-a-814084.html [accessed 15/03/2015];
Brown, A., 2014. The Myth of the Strong Leader: Political Leadership in the Modern Age. London: The Bodley Head;
Cassiday, J. A., Johnson, E. D., 2010. ‘Putin, Putiniana and the Question of a Post-Soviet Cult of Personality’. The Slavonic and East European Review, 88(4 ), pp. 681-707;
Chernega, Y., 2000. Kommersant. [online] Available at: http://www.kommersant.ru/doc/142722 [accessed 18/12/2014];
De Vries, M. F. R., 2001. ‘The anarchist within: Clinical reflections on Russian character and leadership style’. Human Relations, 54(5), pp. 585-627;
Economist, 2012. Russia’s Presidential election: It Brings a Tear to the Eye. [online] Available at: http://www.economist.com/blogs/easternapproaches/2012/03/russias-presidential-election [accessed 11/10/2014];
EY, 2010. Russian Economy and Automotive Industry. [online] Available at: http://www.ey.com/GL/en/Industries/Automotive/Getting-up-to-speed—Russian-economy-and-automotive-industry [accessed 10/10/2014];
Florida, R. (2002). The Rise of the Creative Class and how it’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life. New York: Perseus Book Group;
Fuchs, S., 2001. ‘Beyond Agency’. Sociological Theory, 19(1), pp. 24-40;
Gessen, M., 2013. The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin. New york: Granta Publications;
Giddens, A., 1984. The Constitution of Society: Outline of the Theory of Structuration. California: University of California Press;
Global Rates, 2014. Inflation Russia – consumer price index (CPI). [online] Available at: http://www.global-rates.com/economic-indicators/inflation/consumer-prices/cpi/russia.aspx [accessed 10/10/2014];
Hahn, J. W., 1991. ‘Continuity and Change in Russian Political Culture’. British Journal of Political Science, 21(4), pp. 393 – 421;
Hale, H. E., 2011. ‘The Myth of Mass Russian Support for Autocracy: The Public Opinion Foundations of a Hybrid Regime’. Europe-Asia Studies, 63(8), pp. 1357 – 1375;
Hale, H. E., 2014. ‘Russian nationalism and the logic of the Kremlin’s actions on Ukraine’. The Guardian [online] Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/aug/29/russian-nationalism-kremlin-actions-ukraine [accessed 07/03/2015];
Hauslohner, A., 2014. ‘Young Russians never knew the Soviet Union, but they hope to recapture days of its empire’. The Washington Post. [online] Available at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/young-russians-never-knew-the-soviet-union-but-they-hope-to-recapture-days-of-its-empire/2014/06/09/66a3e1a4-684a-4ab8-9261-04b7d1b59dad_story.html [accessed 02/04/2015];
Hays, S., 1994. ‘Structure and Agency and the Sticky Problem of Culture’. Sociological Theory, 12(1), pp. 57-72;
Hill, F., Gaddy, C. G., 2013. Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Instittution Press;
Hollis, M., Smith, S., 1994. ‘Two Stories about Structure and Agency’. Review of International Studies, 20(3), pp. 241 – 251;
Hosking, G., 1994. Russia: People and Empire: 1552 – 1917. Massachusets: Harvard University Press;
Howlett, J., 2014. ‘Russian Leaders, Naked and Dressed’. Russian Studies and CREES Seminars. University of Birmingham, unpublished;
Imbert, G., Jiddou, K., Kumar, S., Murillo, A., Zhao, P., 2003. Analysis of Russian Values. [pdf] Available at: http://gerardimbert.com/files/mkt7995_research.pdf [accessed 07/03/2015];
Imbroscio, D. L., 1999. ‘Structure, Agency, and Democratic Theory’. Polity, 32(1)1, pp. 45 – 66;
Kääriäinen, K., 1997. Moral crisis or immoral society? Russian values after the collapse of communism. [pdf] Available at: http://www.ssoar.info/ssoar/bitstream/handle/document/4303/ssoar-1997-kaariainen-moral_crisis_or_immoral_society.pdf?sequence=1 [accessed 07/03/2015];
Khvostunova, O., 2013. ‘A Brief History of the Russian Media’. The Interpreter. [online] Available at: http://www.interpretermag.com/a-brief-history-of-the-russian-media/ [accessed 15/12/2014];
Levada, 2015. Vladimir Putin. [online] Available at: http://www.levada.ru/eng/vladimir-putin [accessed 10/04/2015];
Levada, 2014. Indexes. [online] Available at: http://www.levada.ru/eng/indexes-0 [accessed 10/10/2014];
Levada, 2014. Approval and Trust. [online] Available at: http://www.levada.ru/eng/approval-and-trust [accessed 10/10/2014];
Levada, 2014. Vladimir Putin: Successed and Failures, His Strengths. [online] http://www.levada.ru/eng/vladimir-putin-successes-and-failures-his-strengths [accessed 10/02/2015];
Levada, 2014. 68% of Russian citizens consider Russia a superpower. [online] Available at: http://www.levada.ru/eng/68-russian-citizens-consider-russia-superpower [accessed 15/02/2015];
Levada, 2014. Vladimir Putin: Trust and Evaluation. [online] Available at: http://www.levada.ru/eng/vladimir-putin-trust-and-evaluation [accessed 15/02/2015];
Levada, 2014. Alternatives to Vladimir Putin. [online] Available at: http://www.levada.ru/eng/alternatives-vladimir-putin [accessed 22/02/2015];
Levada, 2014. Terrorist Acts. [online] Available at: http://www.levada.ru/eng/terrorist-acts [accessed 22/02/2015];
Leavda, 2014. Russia role in the World. [online] Available at: http://www.levada.ru/eng/russia%E2%80%99s-role-world [accessed 10/04/2015];
Longworth, P., 2006. The Once and Future Empire from Pre-History to Putin. New York: St. Martin’s Press;
Lukes, S., 1977. Essays on Social Theory. New York: Columbia University Press;
Mannheim, K., 1985. Ideology and Utopia. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich;
McAllister, I., 2014. ‘Voting Behaviour’. In: S. White, R. Sakwa, H.E. Hale, eds. 2014. Developments in Russian Politics, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan. Ch.6;
Mendelson, S. E., Gerber, T. P., 2006. ‘Failing the Stalin Test: Russians and Their Dictator’. Foreign Affairs. [online] Available at: http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/61367/sarah-e-mendelson-and-theodore-p-gerber/failing-the-stalin-test [accessed 28/11/2014];
Mendleson, S. E., 2015. ‘Generation Putin: What to Expect of Russia’s Future Leaders’. Foreign Affairs. [online] Available at: http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/142488/sarah-e-mendelson/generation-putin [accessed 21/03/2015];
Mendras, M., 2012. Russsian Politics: The Paradox of a Weak State. London: C. Hurst & Co.;
Mickiewicz, E., 2014. No Illusions: The Voices of Russia’s Future Leaders. New York: Oxford University Press;
Naumov, I. A., Puffer, S. M., 2000. ‘Measuring Russian Culture Using Hofstede’s Dimensions’. Applied Psychology: An International Review, 49(4), pp. 709 – 718;
Oushakine, S., 2000. ‘In the State of Post-Soviet Aphasia: Symbolic Development in Contemporary Russia’, Europe-Asia Studies, 52(6), pp. 991 – 1016;
Pridemore, W. A., 2002. Social Structure and Homicide in Post-Soviet Russia. [pdf] Available at: https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/194062.pdf [accessed 8/03/2015];
Rose, R., Mishler, W., Munro, N., 2006. Russia Transformed: Developing Popular Support for a New Regime. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press;
Rose, R., 2007. ‘The Impact of President Putin on Popular Support for Russia’s Regime’. Post-Soviet Affairs, 23(2), pp. 97 – 117;
Russian Times, 2013. Russians name Brezhnev best 20th-century leader, Gorbachev worst. [online] Available at: http://rt.com/politics/brezhnev-stalin-gorbachev-soviet-638/ [accessed 03/03/2015];
Schröder, H. H., 2008. The Caucasus Crisis. [pdf] Available at: http://www.swp-berlin.org/fileadmin/contents/products/research_papers/2008_RP09_shh_ed_ks.pdf [accessed 21/11/2014];
Shetsova, L.. Imitation Russia. [online] Available at: http://www.the-american-interest.com/2006/11/01/imitation-russia/ [accessed 28/11/2014];
Smyth, R., 2014. ‘The Putin Factor: Personalism, Protest, and Regime Stability in Russia’. Politics & Policy, 42(4), pp. 567 – 592;
Stoner, K., 2014. ‘Putin’s Search for Greatness’. Foreign Affairs. [online] Available at: http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/140986/kathryn-stoner/putins-search-for-greatness [accessed 26/11/2014];
Trading Economics, 2014. Russia GDP Annual Growth Rate. [online] Available at: http://www.tradingeconomics.com/russia/gdp-growth-annual [accessed 10/10/2014];
Treisman, D., 2014. ‘Putin’s popularity since 2010: why did support for the Kremlin plunge, then stabilize?’. Post-Soviet Affairs, 30(5), pp.370 – 388;
Tsygakov, P. A., 2014. The Strong State in Russia. New York: Oxford University Press;
United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 2013. Global Study on Homicide. [pdf] Available at: http://www.unodc.org/documents/gsh/pdfs/2014_GLOBAL_HOMICIDE_BOOK_web.pdf [accessed 10/03/2015];
White, S., McAllister, I., 2008. ‘The Putin Phenomenon’. Journal of Communist Studies and Transition Politics, 24(4), pp.604–628;
Willerton, J. P., 2014. ‘The Hegemonic Executive’. In: S. White, R. Sakwa, H.E. Hale, eds. 2014. Developments in Russian Politics, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan. Ch.2;
Wood, E. A., 2011. ‘Performing Memory: Vladimir Putin and the Celebration of WWII in Russia’. The Soviet and Post-Soviet Review, 38(1), pp. 172 – 200;
Yaffa, J., 2012. ‘Reading Putin’. Foreign Affairs. [online] Available at: http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/137728/joshua-yaffa/reading-putin [accessed 12/11/2014];