This is the cynical way Putin is maintaining his grip on power

Ed Sykes

So far in 2016, coverage of Russia in the world’s media has focused mainly on the country’s participation in Syria’s civil war. But President Vladimir Putin is simultaneously trying to hold on to power at home. In a country with economic problems, immense inequality, and increasing nostalgia for the Soviet era, Putin is doing his very best to convince the population that he is the right man to lead Russia forward. And in the process, he’s playing on a popular sense of yearning for what was lost with the fall of the USSR.

Inequality and economic problems in today’s Russia

Over 50% of the Russian government’s revenue comes from the oil and gas industries. For that reason, the country has been hit hard by the falling price of oil in the last two years. Add to this the western sanctions related to Russia’s involvement in the Ukrainian crisis, and we see a dark economic picture. With over a million Russians registered as unemployed as of February 2016, Putin is now seeking to privatise state-owned companies.

And the situation was not exactly good in the years leading up to the current crisis. Inequality, for example, is a massive problem:

  • In 2013, Forbes revealed that the number of Russian billionaires had gone up from eight in 2000 to 110 in 2013. These 110 billionaires, said Credit Suisse, owned $420 billion – a whopping 35% of Russia’s national wealth. These figures gave the country the highest level of inequality in the world (apart from a few Caribbean islands).
  • According to Credit Suisse, the top 10% in Russian society increased their share of the nation’s wealth from 77.1% to 84.8% between 2000 and 2014 – even higher than the top 10%’s share of wealth in the USA.

After the fall of the USSR, Russia’s most prized assets were sold off to a small group of oligarchs. The Huffington Post describes how, when Putin came to power, he “allowed them to keep their wealth in exchange for their political loyalty”. And the Borgen Project’s Phoebe Pradhan insists that while the president has boasted about the economic prosperity of the wealthiest Russians:

little effective action has been taken to curb the growing rates of poverty in Russia.

The Global Brief’s Vladimir Popov quotes one Russian journalist as comparing the Soviet Union and today’s Russia as follows:

Of what could Russia have been proud in the 20th century? …free education and health care, avant-garde arts, the elimination of illiteracy, the defeat of fascism, space travel, Nobel prize winners, ballet. Of what should Russia have been ashamed in the 20th century? Stalin’s purges and labour camps, the mass famine of 1932-1933, totalitarianism, the crushing of dissidents.

Of what should Russia be ashamed in the 21st century? Corruption and bribery of state officials, oligarchic capitalism, the deindustrialization of the economy, declining R&D, income inequality, deterioration of health and education, high mortality rates, the clericalization and cultural degradation of society. Of what could Russia be proud in the 21st century? So far, nothing.

And this journalist was not the only person to think this way.

Nostalgia for the Soviet Union

As a result of the unfavourable comparisons between the USSR and modern Russia, poll data consistently shows how many Russians look back fondly on the Soviet experience:

  • A Pew Research Center survey in 2014 showed that 55% of Russians believed it was “a great misfortune that the Soviet Union no longer exists” (55% also told Gallop in 2013 that their lifestyles had suffered as a result of its collapse). 71% of over 50s felt this way, and around 46% of people aged 30 to 49 agreed. In January 2016, a new poll showed that 63% of Russians viewed the collapse of the USSR “negatively”, and that only 14% saw it positively.
  • In a 2012 poll from the All-Russian Public Opinion Research Centre (VCIOM), two-thirds of respondents said the USSR had “furthered the cultural and economic development” of people who lived there.
  • According to a Levada Centre survey in 2009, several key groups missed the Soviet Union. These included pensioners (85% of whom thought this way), people who couldn’t afford sufficient food and clothing (79%), 40- to 55-year-olds (67%), and women (63%). But Denis Volkov, a researcher at the centre, highlighted that “only 16 percent of respondents would like to see the Soviet Union restored just as it was” (an admission that not everything was better in the USSR).
  • In 2016, the Levada Centre revealed that 37% of Russians believed the Soviet system would be the best for the country today – 8% more than in 2012. Only 13% believed western-style democracy was the best – down from 29% in 2012. Meanwhile, a poll from the centre in 2013 showed that 51% of citizens wanted an economic model based on state planning, while only 29% favoured the free market system.

Citizens in the former Soviet states of Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine, Tajikistan, Moldova, and Belarus also revealed in a 2013 Gallup poll that they considered more harm than good had come from the breakup of the Soviet Union. In fact, over 65s believed it had done seven times more harm than good.

Pavel Suzik from the Kaluga Leisure Centre in Russia explains this Soviet nostalgia:

We had world-class science. And the people had a worthy goal: to build a just and fair society.

The Institute of Sociology’s Mikhail Chernysh, meanwhile, insists:

The Soviet Union was a more effective welfare state… where there was far less economic uncertainty and inequality than people experience today.

Putin hopes to take advantage of pro-Soviet sentiment

In 2009, CSM’s Fred Weir spoke about how Vladimir Putin had sought to exploit the fact that so many Russians saw the Soviet era as “a time of stability and social security”. By restoring some key Soviet symbols like the old national anthem and military parades, Putin was able to cement his power by outflanking his Communist opponents.

Boris Kagarlitsky from the Institute for Globalization Studies in Moscow says:

Today’s Kremlin is extremely professional in the propaganda department… They understand how to utilize symbols that the population has genuine affection for, and to manipulate the past in order to generate positive emotions toward the current leaders.

And like Weir insists:

as the economic prosperity of the earlier Putin-era fades, a renewed emphasis on higher ideals [like those of the USSR] might help to distract people

Perhaps for this reason, Putin said in 2005, the collapse of the USSR was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century, and he even admitted in January 2016:

I liked Communist and socialist ideas very much and I like them still.

There are no plans to resurrect the USSR

Putin’s effective propaganda machine is almost certainly why, in 2014, 83% of Russians stated their confidence in Putin to “do the right thing in world affairs”. His personal approval rating, meanwhile, has rarely fallen below 70%.

But we shouldn’t let this fool us. Putin himself has stressed that he doesn’t want to restore the Soviet Union. He also criticised Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin for being too ideological. By seeking to spread the communist revolution further afield, Putin argues, Lenin “planted an atomic bomb” under Russia which would later cause the downfall of the USSR.

What really interests Putin seems to be holding on to power, not resurrecting the Soviet system. For example, he calls Tsar Nicholas II and Mikhail Gorbachev “criminals” and “weaklings” for throwing away their positions of power. And according to Vedomosti editor Maxim Trudolyubov, the current Russian president seeks to protect his party’s dominant position through political flexibility:

The Kremlin’s lack of a full-fledged constructive plan for the future or an ideology behind it is itself an attempt to improve upon past errors.

In short, Putin’s allusions to Russia’s Soviet past have less to do with ideological commitment and more to do with maintaining popularity in turbulent economic times. Far from making Russian society fairer and more equal, it appears the president’s focus is primarily a personal venture.

 

Get involved:

To ensure children aren’t the ones to suffer the brunt of inequality in Russia, readers could support Taganka Children’s Fund.

Featured image via Zscout370, СССР, and Russian Presidential Press and Information Office

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