Why Russians like Putin’s Russia

On May 5th, Levada carried out an opinion poll asking Russians what percentage of their family’s income is spent on food. No “Putin licking”, useful idiocy, or ifs and buts about it. It is a very straightforward question, put to the Russian people, the long-suffering Russian people for whom Russia’s liberals and the Western commentariat presume to speak for. What do they say? In 1991, 30% of Russians spent “almost all” their family income to obtain the bare essentials for life. Throughout the 1990’s, the period of anarchic stasis, this figure fluctuated in the 45-65% range. But after 1999, it began to plummet. It fell to 14% by 2007-09, remained unaffected by the economic crisis, and reached just 10% this year. This figure, I would venture to guess, is not very different from most developed countries (and certainly a real world removed from some Russophobe fantasies about food availability dropping to World War Two levels under Putin). The graph below is worth a thousand words.

[Levada poll May 2010. Say what you will about Putin Russia’s – and there are plenty of valid criticisms one can make about it – neglecting the social welfare of the poor is not one of them].

This is not all, of course. The decline of (extreme) poverty in Russia, and the gradual emergence of a consumer middle-class, can also be proxied in other statistics such as Internet penetration, which is now at 38% and expanding rapidly. This also puts paid to another frequent Russophobe trope, that Russians are starved of outside information and are therefore brainwashed into worshiping Great Leader Putin and his neo-Soviet goons. Not very convincing when the most stalwart fans of the present regime are Muscovites with higher educations, i.e. the Russians that are most exposed to the West, now is it?

And this uptick in social morale isn’t solely related to rising economic affluence, either. For the first time since the late 1980’s, Russians see a government that – though it might be incompetent, corrupt, and infested with oligarchic bureaucrats – is at least standing up for their interests abroad, paying respect to traditional Russian culture, and doing more for the social welfare of ordinary citizens than any previous Russian or Soviet regime.

Note that in making this argument, I am not in the least drawing upon what the Russian government says. This brief post only reflects and publicizes the sentiments of the Russian silent majority, who by and large feel much more free today than they did either during the senescent authoritarianism of the late Soviet Union or the anarchic stasis of the Yeltsin years. A silent majority that by and large does like their own country, despite the marginal, but very loud, protestations of the liberasts.

I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve read about how in Russia only the rich are getting richer while the poor get poorer, or how Moscow is sucking all the resources and lifeblood out of the provinces. Now I’m not one to deny that there remains a lot of poverty in Russia, and being a social liberal I do think that its wealth gap is unacceptably large (and has been since 1994). But that would not excuse me from making claims that are blatantly false. At least the same standards ought to apply to Russia watchers who actually get paid to set Western opinion.

Likewise, the idea that Russians are somehow “shielded” from the purifying light of Western information (/propaganda) also falls on its face – most younger Russians now have some degree of Internet access, and their most common reaction to the Western gospel is not adulation or conversion, but dismissal for being laughably out of touch with Russian reality, if not outright mockery. You see, back when there was real information control, as in the 1970’s, the West was venerated as a divine entity. Not only by Soviet dissident, but ironically, at least as much by the regime’s intellectual defenders, who couched their propaganda in quasi-religious language such as  “idolization of the West” (идолопоклонство перед Западом). This did not have the desired effect, since the austere conditions and subjugation before authority of everyday Soviet life actually made the West kind of desirable and glamorous for the very things that it was being condemned for. But the lifting of the Iron Curtain and Russia’s growing experience with Western ways of doing things, not to mention the hypocrisy and double standards of the West’s actions towards Russia during its time of weakness, produced a complete reversal. Revealed as a false God, a general disillusionment set in.

The instinctive reaction of the Western chauvinists and their Russian liberal lackeys to this is that the Russians are stupid, “sheeple” or simply incurable goose-steeping authoritarians. After all, to them, the “Idea of the West” is divine, hence any deviation from the true path is pure heresy that ought to be ruthlessly eradicated – just listen to the speeches of the neocons, the “liberal interventionists”, and the Russian liberals. But look at this from Russians’ perspective. Throughout its history, Russia has worshiped one false god after another. The Western god is just one of the latest in a rich pantheon, reaching its zenith in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s before experiencing a long decline into irrelevance. If there is one defining feature of today’s Russia, it is that it is essentially post-ideological (despite the neo-Tsarist kitsch) and primarily interested in doing what works. And is not this very attitude, skeptical and realist, archetypally Western?

If it wants to contribute meaningful insights, the Western commentariat must move on beyond the ideologies and end-of-history meta narratives, beyond the false authoritarian/liberal binary, beyond the fixation on Putin. It must adapt to a new world. A world in which Russians and other non-Western peoples are beginning to challenge the Western media hegemony that views everything through the prism of a narrow definition of liberalism as being synonymous with the ruling elite’s support for the interests of American foreign policy and international capital. A world in which a growing diversity of voices are enabling peoples to chart their own sovereign destinies.


  1. But Russians hate Putin, The Wall Street Journal told me so!

    • Scowspi says:

      Mark Adomanis – I am glad to see you here; please consider this comment a “fan letter” as I was unable to find your e-mail!

      Here’s a thought I’ve had on media depictions of Russia (inspired perhaps by Stephen Cohen’s claim that Cold War-era reporting was a lot better despite all the restrictions). I’ve spent time in both the USSR and in today’s Russia, and it seems to me that:

      During the Soviet period, although Anglo-American media committed various distortions and exaggerations, they got the basics right. The USSR really was a one-party state; it really was based on an ideology; it really was difficult for ordinary people to get consumer products; the KGB really did spy on and harass lots of people; etc. That picture was basically correct.

      Today, however, the Western media picture is so far off the reality that it’s hard for me to come up with a convincing explanation of it. Thus, aspects of AK’s post that strike me as elementary common-sensical observations (such as the anti-ideological pragmatism of Putin’s Russia) are hardly ever mentioned in mainstream media.

      Whenever I’m abroad, I have to explain to people that No, I’m not terrified of being poisoned by the FSB or shot dead in the entrance to my apartment building.

    • Even La Russophobe may disagree with the WSJ. 😉

  2. FYI when I was in Moscow I noticed food prices went something like this. Admittedly some of this is because many Russian farmers cannot afford the pesticides commonly used in the U.S. and therefore most of the produce is ‘organic’ and does not need an expensive USDA label as such, but here goes:

    Tomatoes (in season) five times cheaper at Ashan than Whole Foods, half as much as U.S. price in peak winter

    Potatoes (in season) eight times cheaper than at Whole Foods, not so much variation in price except quality drops noticeably in winter. If you’re buying from the bin you may throw out 30-40% after cutting for frying and soups.

    Bananas, other fruits imported from Latin America – roughly same

    Meat – beef slightly higher, pork definitely higher than U.S. (where pork is usually slightly cheaper than beef, the reverse in Russia), fish higher, Chicken much cheaper again nearly half price. If Russian ladies are eating a lot more poultry for protein and less red meat that explains a lot of the weight differences often observed between American and Russian women (and weight gain among Ukrainian ladies arriving to the U.S.), not to mention less fast food. But even McDonalds royal cheeseburger (Quarter Pounder w/ cheese) tasted different and didn’t leave as much of a heavy sense.

    Grains and Dairy – where the real savings start besides tomati and karoshki

    Kasha (buckwheat aka grekishki) waaaaaaaay less, if you’re trying to find the same stuff at a Whole Foods organic bin or health food store (darn near impossible to find anywhere else) get ready to pay 7 times more. Milk at least half U.S. price if not lower. Yogurts half price with much higher fat content.

    Again this is all Moscow. I’ve been assured that prices are the same in rural Volgograd region, except perhaps there farmer’s market prices could be less (or bizarrely, more, with less competition as in Moscow stalls). River fish and catfish are also still swimming in the buckets in some Moscow markets whereas in the U.S. fish is already sliced when you see it under display. You might be able to find similarly fresh catfish in Mississippi.

    I use Whole Foods merely as a baseline to avoid ‘quality’ versus ‘quantity’ arguments. Ashan is a French chain.

  3. Basically, it was possible to eat quite well and still have the occasional restaurant meal (Chocolatnitsa’s lunch specials) on $500 a month for two adults in Moscow, versus $1000 in the U.S. Buying in bulk at Costco or Sam’s Club doesn’t solve the problem unless you want to eat Quaker Oats and Rice every single day – only the non-perishable and easily freezeable items are good there.

  4. So it’s finally happened, “our 20-year old child prodigy” has grown up a little and is now saying what evil Russophobes have been maintaining all along: the gullible Russian people love Putin simply because they somehow credit him with their improved material well-being.

    • You get it ass-backwards as usual, Peter. My issue with Russophobes (amongst many others) is that they reduce Putin’s popularity to improved material well-being and nothing else, which is patently not the case – as I point out in this very post.

  5. Борис Андрианович says:

    I bet the Russians wish they had our non-authoritarian democracy:

    28 days internment without trial, about to become 90.Demonstrations not allowed outside parliament.State broadcaster for publishing government propaganda.National DNA and fingerprint ID card database.

    Putin is a war criminal, whoses crimes in Chechnya are legion. But since Iraq he’s been given a pretty soft ride by western governments over the atrocities committed by Russian forces and the hundreds of thousands of civilians killed. I guess it can all be spun as the ‘war against terror’

    • What drivel. Those “hundreds of thousands” are a figure you pull out of your a** and not substantiated. The 1999 campaign was nothing like the 1994-96 war where there was fighting in Grozny while civilians were still in the city. Grozny’s population was given a week to leave in early 2000 before federal forces retook the city. Also the Russian majority in Grozny was ethnically cleansed and killed off during the 1994-96 war and afterward. So there were not that many people left there.

      You can’t give an example of single Chechen village bulldozed out of existence like dozens of Kurd villages in Turkey. Your holy USA has lead to the death of over 600,000 Iraqis in the wake of an *invasion* justified by the WMD lie. The warlords running Chechnya invaded Russian territory in the summer of 1999. Unlike “palpable humanitarian” Yeltsin’s campaign the civilian casualties were insignificant.

      • good points. Also, most of the fatalities in the bombing of Grozny in the first Chechnya war were in fact ethnic Russians. They got the worst of it in that war, proportionately speaking. And 20,000 ethnic Russians of Chechnya died in non-military killings between 1994 and 1999. That’s 8% of the prewar ethnic Russian population. Not to speak of the many 10s of 1000s put to flight.

  6. It saddens me that I had not found this blog until now. Awesome work.