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.

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