Letters from Abroad

Destined for Despotism

My host mother recently lectured me on the “schizophrenic genius” (as she called it) of all great leaders. Stalin, Napoleon and even Hitler in her mind were all slightly mentally unstable, but that little touch of madness is what added to their greatness. I was interested to see what she thought of Putin and whether she thought that he belonged to this class of great leaders. She said that it was still too early to determine his real mettle (although he has already been president for a decade), but that he certainly could become one. My host mother said that she was generally disapproving of Putin before the Ukrainian crisis, but after the crisis her opinion of Putin has improved. As she put it, Putin has made all the right moves in this crisis and that has really raised her respect of the Russian president.

My host mother is not alone in her improved attitude towards Vladimir Putin and his government within recent months. While Putin has always been relatively popular in Russia, this past year has seen a skyrocket in Russian popularity polls. Depending on the poll, Putin’s popularity is currently hovering at around 85% approval from the Russian populace, one of the highest points in his political career (compare this to Obama’s current rating as of Gallup at around 40%). Now, many of you may be thinking that polling may have a little bit more bias in Russia and that is a possibility, but I am not so quick to discount that Putin has become more of a popular leader.

Every great Russian leader has always had a battle to fight and an enemy to defeat. Tsar Peter the Great had the Swedes, Stalin had the Nazis, and Putin may have found his enemy in the West. Since the crisis in Syria, Russia has begun to reinsert itself into the international sphere and wants to have its voice heard. This can be an appealing thing to many Russians. As one Russian told me, Russia is finally standing up to the Western imperialism and dominance and restoring balance to the world.

Actions like the sanctions against Russia, which are supposed to weaken the populace’s support for the government, are causing the opposite effect. The Russians have been doing what is called “rallying around the flag,” when a crisis causes a surge of patriotism. Even though the sanctions are having a noticeable effect on the Russian economy (in my short time here I have watched the ruble plummet by large amounts), many Russians are still not disheartened. My host mother views this like the Siege of Leningrad (a particularly brutal siege during WWII), something to be outlasted and something where Russia can emerge victorious. Russians also point to the opportunities that local goods now have to fill the gaps left by missing foreign goods as a positive of the sanctions.

Whether or not Russia is destined to despotism is debatable, but it certainly is favoring a president who is strong and has autocratic tendencies. There are vocal and active opponents of Putin in Russia and many of the people from urban areas like Moscow and St. Petersburg are part of that group. But it would be inaccurate to hold the view that Putin is barely holding onto power in Russia. At the moment, he is thriving. The West should tread carefully when isolating Russia and creating a “new Cold War” as Gorbachev recently insinuated. It may have precisely the opposite effect than intended and only raise support for a rogue Russia that will stand up against the rest of the world.