By Paul Goble
Vladimir Putin’s continued high ratings and the absence of any mass willingness to protest against him reflect less unqualified support for his person and policies than the absence of alternative leaders and the continuing impact of traditional Russian attitudes about a national leader, Lev Gudkov says.
Even Russians who think Putin is misusing his power or has the wrong policies mostly continue to give him high ratings either because they view the chief of state as the embodiment of the country or because they have “an ambivalent relationship” to power as such, the Levada Center head continues (znak.com/2021-03-26/doverie_naseleniya_k_prezidentu_snizhaetsya_no_k_massovym_protestam_eto_ne_privodit_pochemu).
Even when times are bad, the sociologist and pollster says, Russians believe that “the tsar is good and the boyars are bad,” and they focus their anger not on “the national leader” but on his underlings.” For them, “he is the symbol of power and must not be touched.” Consequently, “no more than 11 percent” are even willing to say they will protest let alone do so.
In addition, Putin’s rating remains as high as it is because he exploits the insight of Karl Schmidt, a German legal specialist who “by the way actively supported the Nazi regime.” Schmidt argued that “politics is defined by its attitude toward an enemy. There must be an enemy to ensure the consolidation of society around the powers that be.”
“Under conditions of moral danger, mobilization occurs,” the German theorist says. “That is, politics in essence is only foreign policy” because he who can create or highlight foreign threats can unify his own country around him. “This thesis of Karl Schmidt can serve as an explanation of what holds up the regime of Vladimir Putin.”
To that end, Putin uses propaganda, but of course, it is “not all powerful.” It can magnify or even exaggerate threats but there must be some basis for them. And then the leader must talk about what is needed to counter them in order to exploit the existence of these threats for his own power.
Putin has evolved as far as his identification and exploitation of enemies is concerned. Now, his argument rests on the combination of two propositions – “We are not they” and “they are not we,” the notion that whatever the West has achieved is meaningless because the West lacks the values that Russia continues to defend.
At the same time, Gudkov says, Russians are increasingly critical of Putin but aren’t prepared to make demands for change. They don’t see an alternative to him and don’t feel they are in a position to act. “People have a short time horizon as far as planning is concerned. They don’t have any savings. And they live from paycheck to paycheck.”
As a result, “they are extremely uncertain about the future. They have no trust in institutions like the courts, police and so on which should guarantee social order. And from this, in a completely natural way they conclude – I can do nothing, I don’t want to take part in politics, but also I don’t want to be responsible for politicians.”
All that too works for Putin as the incumbent national leader even if it is corrosive of any possibility of Russia moving toward democracy.