Why is Vladimir Putin so popular in Russia? After all, with the country just barely emerging from a two-year recession brought on by a combination of sanctions and low oil prices, you would think that the president's popularity would be taking a hit. But no. His approval ratings are still remarkably high — depending on the pollster and the date, they're often over 80 percent.
How can that be? Some doubt the polls, a generalized wariness of pollsters that itself has become popular in the wake of recent electoral surprises. But a number of different polls, especially those conducted by the politically independent Levada Center in Moscow, support the conclusion that the Russian people genuinely hold their leader in high regard.
To most Americans, Putin's popularity is a mystery because so many still hold on to an image of Russia fashioned during the Cold War. This negative view has been nourished by pop culture stereotypes, from the evil blonde agent in "From Russia With Love" to countless other Russian villains.
And Russia's leader? The former KGB agent must be a tyrant because, even after the end of the Cold War, don't we see growing signs of a reversion toward totalitarianism? We hear of limitations on the freedom of the press, even slain reporters, while seeing more and more displays of macho homophobia.
Now with all the talk of "Russian meddling," not only in the American election but also across Europe as well, there is a presumption of hostility that is sharply at odds with U.S. President Donald Trump's query during his campaign: "Wouldn't it be nice if we could be friends with Russia?"
Correcting the Record
To correct some of the misimpressions about Russia that litter the mainstream media, I'd like to consider the current moment in a broader context, one that goes back a century and helps to explain why so many Russians — though not all — hold Putin in such high esteem.
Exactly a century ago, Russia endured a revolution that ushered in seven decades of communism. First, Lenin's Bolshevik Revolution, then Stalin's brutal purges cast the mold for the totalitarian state. Yes, Russia played an important role and suffered massive losses in joining the Allies to defeat Germany in World War II. But in no time at all, the United States adopted a policy of containment toward Russia, the Berlin Wall went up, and the country and its people disappeared behind the Iron Curtain.
A little more history from the 1950s: When Nikita Khrushchev came to power in 1954, he gifted Crimea — one part of the extended Soviet Union — to Ukraine, which at that time was another part of the same Soviet Union. As I put it a few years ago, "Shifting Crimea's attachment from Russia to Ukraine was like moving money from his right pocket to his left."
Crimea has always been dear to the Russians. There's a rich history of 19th-century battles between the armies of the tsars and their British, French and Turkish enemies. In 1941-42, valiant Russians held out against the Nazis for 250 days during the Siege of Sevastopol. Granted, the manner in which "little green men" entered Crimea, supposedly to defend ethnic Russians against Ukrainian militants, was a stark violation of international law. Still, an appreciation for a little history should show that the "annexation" was, from this historical perspective, an intranational event. Crimea was, is and probably always will be part of Russia.
Roll the clock forward to 1957: The launch of Sputnik incited fears of a "missile gap," gave rise to America's Apollo program during the 1960s and fed an arms race that has never ended. With enough warheads aimed at each other to end civilization and "make the rubble bounce," Russians and Americans came to fear each other as hostile enemies — two "superpowers" poised to destroy themselves and the rest of the world.
Bungling the Transition to a Free Market
Jump ahead to the 1980s, marked by Mikhail Gorbachev's rise, the breakup of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Jeffrey Sachs and his team from Harvard managed the kind of "cold turkey" transition from a centrally planned economy to a market economy that seemed to have worked pretty well in Poland. But Russia is not Poland, and the Sachs-led transition led to the siphoning off of much of the nation's wealth by a few oligarchs.
While many in the free world breathed a great sigh of relief at the end of the Cold War and stood ready to welcome the long-suffering Russians out from under the yoke of communism and totalitarianism, the 1990s did not witness a joyous springtime of democracy in the country. Instead, the 1990s were chaotic for Russia. Boris Yeltsin came to power in 1991, and by 1993 tanks were storming parliament. In part because of the badly managed transition, the economy was in shambles. People lost their pensions. Life was not better after the fall of communism. For many, it was much worse than it had been under totalitarian rule. In 1998, the ruble collapsed and most Russian banks went bust.
This is the context in which Putin came to power in 2000: Russia was no longer one of the world's two great superpowers, and the economy was a mess. But then Putin took over. The economy stabilized, and over the next 14 years the real disposable income of Russians increased sevenfold.
Under Putin's rule, millions of Russians have joined the global middle class. Aided, of course, by high-priced oil, the Russian economy easily outperformed its G-7 counterparts from 2000 to 2014.
From Economic to Geopolitical Logic
But there's more to the story than economics, which helps to explain why Putin's popularity hasn't taken much of a hit despite the very real drop in Russian incomes over the past few years. Following the chaos and poverty of the 1990s, and Russia's fall from superpower status after the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russians were once again able to take pride in their country. This is why, when Putin annexed Crimea, most Russians were delighted.
In a December 2016 article in The New York Times, buried by its appearance on Christmas morning, Sergei Guriev captured this shift from an economic logic to a geopolitical one:
"Thanks largely to the government's extensive control over information, Mr. Putin has rewritten the social contract in Russia. Long based on economic performance, it is now about geopolitical status. If economic pain is the price Russians have to pay so that Russia can stand up to the West, so be it … Russia's intervention in Crimea in early 2014 changed everything. Within two months, Mr. Putin's popularity jumped back to more than 80 percent, where it has stayed until now, despite the recession."
What's sad about this rationale is that it sets up an us-against-them, zero-sum game in which what one side wins, the other must lose. As I have argued before, an economic logic, the logic of voluntary exchange, offers the virtual guarantee of a positive-sum result. But the current debate in the United States is moving away from the mentality of the marketplace, back toward the presumption of a political standoff between enemies who want to hurt rather than help each other.
A Conflict or Convergence of Interests?
There is much that a Russia in partnership with others could accomplish — on the environment, against terrorism, for the global economy. But the tragedy of it all is that we find ourselves in a scrum of mixed motives, bad press and missed opportunities. What if the United States had not taken its eye off the ball in 1991 to fight the first Gulf War? What if, at precisely the time when Russia was trying to move from central planning to a market economy, the West had extended to Russia the kind of aid and talent that West Germany extended to East Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall? One can only imagine the possibilities.
Is it too late to reclaim a more positive outcome? It depends on which narrative of Russia's leader you believe. If Putin is truly the villain Western media makes him out to be, a relationship between him and Trump would make little sense. On the other hand, if the Russian president deserves the enduring support of his people, perhaps Trump's fascination with and acceptance of him as a partner starts to make more sense.
One can only wonder what special prosecutor Robert Mueller will discover about the Trump team's connections in Russia. It is very possible that the investigation will come up empty-handed — or lead somewhere other than election meddling and hacking. I will hazard a guess as to where, based in part on claims by both of Trump's sons regarding the Russian financing of some of Trump's operations. According to a May 7 article in Business Insider, Eric Trump told golf writer James Dodson three years ago that he'd received $100 million in funding for Trump projects from Russian investors. The same article continues, "A Reuters investigation in March also found that more than 60 people with Russian ties had invested almost $100 million in seven Trump properties in southern Florida." Donald Jr. is also reported to have spoken of money "pouring in" from Russia.
So the real story may turn out to be less about "meddling" and more about money. It could be that the real reason the U.S. president has been so resistant to investigations into his Russian ties has less to do with fears about influence peddling and more to do, as one Deep Throat once put it, with following the money.
If it comes to light that Trump's business empire is indeed floating on a sea of Russian rubles, charges of a conflict of interest will fly like bats at dusk. And what will be Trump's reply? My guess: There's no conflict of interest; on the contrary, there's a convergence of interests, for Russia, for the West and for Trump. "Wouldn't it be nice if we could be friends with Russia?"