We are fast coming up on the 10th anniversary of Putinism. On August 9, 1999, Putin was named first deputy prime minister after the government of Sergei Stepashin was dismissed. The same day, President Boris Yeltsin named Putin acting prime minister and anointed him the presidential successor. On August 16, the Duma approved Putin as premier, making him Russia’s fifth prime minister in 18 months. And the rest is history: Yeltsin resigned on New Year’s Eve, and Putin was elected president on March 26, 2000.
So I suppose we can expect a lot of anniversary reflections over the next few weeks. The Levada Center got things rolling with a new poll on opinions about Putin. The interesting thing about the Levada poll is the stability of the views expressed over the span of the last five years. Twenty-two percent of respondents now say that Putin’s greatest achievement has been raising living standards (including wages and pensions), while 24 percent held that view in March 2004. In the latest poll, 17 percent responded that his main achievement was “the economic development of the country,” while 9 percent lauded his role in “raising optimism and hope for short-term improvements.” Only 8 percent said Putin had no significant achievements, a figure that was down from 12 percent in 2004, but up from the 5 percent registered in March 2008.
On the other hand, 35 percent of respondents said Putin had been least effective in combating corruption (President Dmitry Medvedev’s signature issue!), while 23 percent said he’d done worst at “subduing the oligarchs.”
Asked about changes in the gap between rich and poor since the Yeltsin years, 48 percent said the gap had increased, while another 31 percent said it remained the same. Only 15 percent believe the gap has been narrowed.
And why is Putin so popular? Thirty-five percent said it is because people believe Putin is capable of coping with the problems the country faces. However, 31 percent said Putin is supported because “people don’t see anyone else they can count on,” a reflection of the Kremlin’s iron-fisted control of the central media. Nonetheless, 63 percent of respondents said the fact that “practically all power in the country” is concentrated in Putin’s hands is “good for the country.” Just 16 percent disagreed with that view.
Gazeta.ru today published a really interesting commentary by veteran journalist Boris Tumanov that starts to lay some of the theoretical groundwork for looking at a decade of Putinism. It also, by the way, sheds interesting light on the ongoing debate about interpretations (falsifications) of history generally. Tumanov writes that “Russia is the only country in the world here history revels in the subjunctive mood,” and marvels that the country “still can’t decide whether the hecatomb of Stalinism was a monstrous crime or a great boon for the country.”
Anyway, Tumanov challenges the notion that if Russia had carried out a sweeping lustration (a process of exposing and barring from public life people who had worked in high Soviet posts, in the security organs, or the military leadership), then Putinism might not have happened. By the way, he calls what we have seen over the last decade “the revanche of the sovok” (sovok being a colloquial word for Soviet-minded people). I am one of those who feels the lack of lustration in Russia was and is a major obstacle to the country’s democratic development, so I read Tumanov’s take with great interest.
Tumanov basically argues that the urge to restore elements of the Soviet system began not in 1999, but in 1993 or even earlier. He argues that the results would have been largely the same if Yeltsin and Boris Berezovsky “had chosen not an ex-chekist from Petersburg, but a Petersburg lawyer or the head of a furniture store. Or even someone from Vladivostok or Novocherkassk.” No choice would have “altered the intractable clan nature of power in Russia.” Essentially, he says, anyone Yeltsin had chosen would have divided the spoils among his “own people” – people from his hometown, or people he’d studied with or people from the government agencies where he’d made his career.
The return of the sovok is inevitable in a society “where people silently endure any humiliation on the part of their own government but are outraged at the very thought that the United States might not ‘respect’ Russia or, worse ‘isn’t afraid’ of Russia.”