Putin the Protector: how Russians think of the man and his state

Tsar Putin rides his faithful steed across the land

Ever since the escalation of the Ukraine crisis in 2014, I have been repeatedly asked at Swarthmore what, as a Russian-American, I think of Vladimir Putin. Usually Americans view him negatively, and rightfully so: he’s a ruthless and uncompromising head of state. But people I talk to are surprised when I say that he’s exactly what Russia wants, and even more so when I say that the order he aspires to resembles less a 20th-century dictatorship than Russia’s ancestral Tsardom. Those who have grown up with the blessings of functional democracy and social stability often struggle to understand why a country which experiments with representative government would abandon it for a strongman.

Putin doesn’t come out of nowhere. His dictatorship — which, as far as the record of Russian despotism goes, is pretty lenient — embodies more than a nasty man’s lust for power. It’s part of a monarchical tradition that reaches far back into the murk of the medieval, the solution to challenges whose costs monopolized most of the Russian chronicle. Putin has capitalized on renewed versions of these challenges to justify a resurgence of autocracy. To better understand why Putin’s case is persuasive to Russians, we should explore the genesis of autocracy and take a look at the events which provoked its redeployment.

Russia developed in harsh climes. For hundreds of years it suffered from chronic food shortages. Until the twentieth century, the overwhelming majority of Russians were illiterate peasants who worked the meager soil to survive. Russia has had, on average, a famine once per decade: the famine of 1601–1603 killed a third of the country’s population. To compound this problem, the hungry peasants were regularly harassed by hostile foreigners. We often think of Russia as a European empire, but it has been attacked or challenged by just about every power to the west, from Sweden to France to Nazi Germany. Russia was even invaded by the United States during the former’s civil war.

So these peoples of northeastern Europe were tasked with defending themselves against starvation and conquest. Their solution was the flawed but reliable system of autocracy. At expense of political liberty, autocratic rule promised stability. And the truth is that it worked: the Tsardom was the only early modern empire on earth not conquered by Europeans. For half a thousand years, even into the twentieth century, millions of Russians viewed the tsar as a “father,” a mystical guardian whose God-given hand protected Russia from chaos. Elites and poor alike viewed autocracy as society’s final bulwark against imminent destruction.

The Soviet project may have destroyed the tsar in family and name, but the idea of the protector-king was far from extinct. It was common for propaganda to portray general secretaries surrounded by adoring children, handing out treats or gently lecturing. The state cultivated an image of the leader as the nation’s father, as a protector of the weak and needy. During the war with Germany, posters featured a colossal Stalin standing behind millions of troops, with captions like “For the motherland — for Stalin!” and “The great Stalin defends us from the German invaders!”

And yet, as durable as it seemed, autocracy didn’t last forever. Western culture poured into the USSR after Stalin’s death. The Beatles, illegal jeans, and rumors of material plenty on the other side of the Iron Curtain tore through the increasingly half-hearted propaganda about a cartoonishly demonic West. By the 1980s nobody, including the elite, still believed that the Europeans were out to rape and murder Russia’s towns. The people didn’t need a protector anymore. In 1991, the tsarist legacy disintegrated, replaced by an attempt at liberal democracy.

“Democratic” though the 1990s were, the last decade of the twentieth century was a thoroughly horrible experience for Russia’s citizenry. A poor but stable Soviet life descended into an even poorer and extremely unstable post-Soviet one. My mother recalls living on a diet of canned seaweed for months on end in 1991 and 1992; there was nothing else available in Leningrad shops. Abrupt price liberalization destroyed people’s savings in a matter of days. Meanwhile, a small group of people bribed privatization officials to snatch up millions of dollars in assets, producing a wealth disparity unimaginable in the West. Violent crime exploded, the murder rate skyrocketed, and gangsters ruled entire provinces. Nearly every Russian in the 1990s thought democracy and Westernization were to blame. Boris Yeltsin’s approval rating in 1999 was at 2 percent.

Finally, Russians began the 1990s with high hopes for joining the European community. Instead they were ignored, while other Soviet republics integrated into the continental system. In 1993, a perturbed Yeltsin wrote to Bill Clinton that Poland’s inclusion in NATO would be “unacceptable” if Russia was to be excluded. By 1997, the government painfully came to terms with an enlarged NATO, on the condition that no more republics gain entry and that the alliance’s troops stay away from Russia’s border. At the 1997 NATO summit Yeltsin tried to insist that the documents describing these conditions be “legally binding,” but Western powers did not comply. In short, Russia’s rejected overtures festered while its sphere slipped away to what looked like an encroaching West.

With this context in mind, Putin’s slights against democracy don’t seem at all surprising. It’s just a return to the old ways. He cut the ancient deal with the people: food and protection in exchange for political freedom. And he has, in some measure, kept up his side of the bargain. There’s no question that under Putin the average Russian’s lot has improved. Putin uses his treasury’s oil revenues to subsidize a massive importation system. Violent crime has been going steadily down for the past decade; oligarchs still abound, but they’ve been reined in by the state, and most people can get by without being harassed by the mafia. For Russians who felt the brunt of the 1990s, democracy and liberal values entail chaos, hardship and rampant crime. If Putin puts food on the table, to hell with rights. The tsarist contract remains.

In the spirit of Nicholas I’s doctrine of “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Nationalism,” Putin positions himself as the defender of traditional values against the “corrupt” and “decadent” West. State television networks are saturated with talks of NATO expansion and America’s assorted conspiracies against the Russian people. I was in St. Petersburg at the time of the Crimean crisis; I saw on television such headlines as: “Americans and Europeans Divide Ukraine and Undermine Russia,” “EU Plays Economic Warfare with Russia,” “West Shows Imperialist Tendencies,” and “CIA Possibly Behind Fascist Incursion in Kiev.” This resonates with ordinary people. While such anti-Western sentiments already inhabit the Russian consciousness, they are exacerbated by the propaganda, which gained from the Soviet era a knack for exploiting and marshaling pre-existing fears. Putin is well aware of Russia’s habitual mindset and his media outlets work daily to bring those fears back to the fore. People think of Putin as a guardian — as an autocrat, lining up squarely within the tradition of Russian leaders tasked with defending the country from external aggression.

Yes, Putin is a dictator. But he is, more than anything, a tsar, carrying on an ancient monarchical heritage. He may be a bad person; he may be a menace to the free values you and I cherish; but he is Russia’s chosen protector, and I doubt he’s going anywhere.

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