Staunton, June 8 – Much of the public support in Russia for Vladimir Putin reflects the fact that his actions allow Russians to believe if only for a time that their country is once again a great power even though they fully understand that Russia is not in a position to be one the equal of the United States, according to Aleksey Levinson of the Levada Center.
In the second part of his interview given to Andrey Lipsky of Novaya Gazeta – for the first, see here) the sociologist argues that Putin’s role as a symbol is “sharply growing” and that “the dimensions of Putin exceed himself” because mass consciousness in Russia ascribes to him “a world-historical role”.
Support for Putin also reflects a deep desire among many Russians for a sense of unity, Levinson says. For those who grew up “in a totalitarian milieu” and even their children and grandchildren, the sociologist continues, “there is the sense that to be not united and varied is terrible and bad.”
And consequently, many Russians are prepared to “primitivize” themselves and their world “in order to become united and simple. To separate from the complicated West and even from Ukraine [which is complicated too],” and thus live more simply but on our own. Putin plays to those feelings, and he gets support because he does.
Of course, much of this appeal for self-isolation and for simplification of life is “bravado” and won’t last more than some months, Levinson says. Russians really aren’t prepared to go back to the past, but saying so makes them feel good and explains why some of them even welcome sanctions: those will help Russia rebuild, in their view.
Levinson points to another important phenomenon that is sometimes overlooked: Russians may give high ratings to Putin because he is a symbol of their country being able on occasion to act like a great power, but they continue to be sharply critical of many of his policies and not just the ways in which the bureaucracy is implementing them.
Never before in Russian history, except in Stalin’s times, has “the concentration of attention” on the leader been as great as it is now. Putin is referred so frequently that no other individual can be imagined as a leader and because “to a great extent,” this reflects a public need for “a unifying symbol,” not about unity in general but “based on the idea of a great power.”
As such, Levinson suggests, the current Putin phenomenon “should not be called a cult of personality.” There are elements of that, and there are people around him who are pushing that idea for their own purposes. That reflects the fact that today people clearly distinguish between private and public discourse.
In the former, Russians behave quite rationally, weighing their interests, “but in public discourse, “it is necessary” to talk about “our industry” and “our independence” and “our security” against outsiders, whether this is rational or not.
Such attitudes could “in principle” rest on “a completely rational, market-oriented and democratic” basis, but they don’t. What is on offer is “a fundamentalist approach, namely, a fundamentalist one and not a patriotic one.” That is because what is being done is inflicting so much harm on the people.
In another comment, Levinson says, that “what is happening now is not only the change of a political course but also some change in cadres and figures in various positions of power.” That adds to the conformity one sees. As in Soviet times, those with aspirations cannot fail to say what everyone is saying if they want to get ahead.
That conceals real divisions among Russians, divisions which may not be as deep as those in Ukraine but real nonetheless. And under the impact of the flow of events, these can reemerge just as they did after Mikhail Gorbachev’s dissolution of the Congress of People’s Deputies or Boris Yeltsin’s suppression of the Supreme Soviet.
In short, the supposed unity of the Russian people behind Putin is just as fragile and ultimately illusory as the supposed return of the Russian Federation to the status of a super power and could disappear more rapidly than many, including Putin and his supporters, now think possible.