Foreign Policy Blogs

Is Putin the President Russians Deserve?

A recent article in one of Russia’s liberal newspapers described the tragedy of Putinism as the President’s fear for the worst when it comes to change, and an expectation of the worst when it comes to people.

I thought about this for a while and had to agree. But then I thought about Russia and Russians. Here is a country with a seemingly endless supply of stoicism. A country that revolted only once in its history and even then, it was only a small group of utterly unrepresentative intellectual fanatics (with a command of marketing uncannily savvy enough to think of calling themselves the Bolsheviks, or the Majority).

No amount of suffering, it seems, is too great for Russians to endure: Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, serfdom, the pogroms and poverty of late tsarism, the Red Terror, the White Terror, the Great Terror, World War II, the Gulags, the rationing, the shelling of the White House, privatization  mass pauperisation, the mafia, the “sale of the century,” Chechnya, and now Putinism. Surely any other people would have long said, “basta!”. But not Russians.

I’m going out on a limb here but my suspicion is that the core belief underpinning our famous stoicism (masochism?) is actually a deep rooted pessimism — that things could always be – and may very easily become — much worse. That might sound crazy, but unfortunately seems to be a position constantly reinforced by Russian history.

Think the Civil War was bad? Well, here’s Stalin! Don’t like Gorbachev? Just wait till you see Yeltsin! And after the latest “improvements” undertaken over the last 12 years, it’s hard to blame Russians for their aversion to change.

And what about the corollary – expecting the worst of people? Unfortunately, that also seems to be a pretty deeply rooted Russian trait. Anyone ever seen a Russian smile at a passerby on the street? In fact, random kindness or even friendliness from a stranger is invariably met with suspicion, fear or, at best, condescension — because “only a fool smiles for no reason.”  That’s one reason why Russians tend to think Americans are all driveling idiots — because they smile all the time, like “ne-normalnie.”

A typical Russian retort to allegations of such fabled chilliness is that “unsubstantiated” or “unprovoked” displays of positivity are somehow “false” or “fake” – traits frequently associated with Western modes of public interaction. I’ll smile if I have something to smile about, Russians might say. Or, I’ll be friendly to you if you’re my friend, instead of wasting it on strangers. Indeed, one of the things many Russians who end up in America find hardest to navigate is the practice of calling seemingly mere acquaintances friends. It is a source of great pride and even cultural superiority to many Russians that while (or even, because) they ration out friendliness, kindness and smiles only to the most deserving recipients; when it is given, it is intense and selfless to an almost harmful degree. Fundamentally, however, the idea that we only smile when there’s something to smile about, and are only nice to people we know as meriting kindness, reflects a very pessimistic set of assumptions. The default mode is one of dour guardedness; the default approach to others is circumspection. Unworthy of smiles until proven otherwise. Guilty until proven innocent.

In his approach to change, to dissenters and outsiders (intellectual, cultural or territorial), is Putin merely channeling this fundamental cultural trope?  Could it be that one reason why he remains more or less liked when his party and his entire government are nearly universally despised is that most Russians see in him “one of us”? It is a feeling Gorbachev – the optimist, the believer in people’s better angels, the man who smiled not just at strangers, but at Reagan! – never managed to achieve.

None of this is to say that Russians deserve our horrible president because we are horrible people; only that maybe we are reluctant to punish Putin’s worst traits because we recognize them as our own. Deep down, we know that Putin’s a son of a bitch, but at least he’s our son of a bitch.

  • AK

    (1) Putin’s party and his entire government are not “nearly universally despised”.

    (2) Gorbachev was not universally despised. He was, in fact, extremely popular until 1989 or so (when the economy started creaking and crumbling).

    The sources for both the above are opinion polls.

    (3) Putin does reach out to “dissenters and outsiders”. Some accept it (e.g. Venediktov), others reject it (e.g. Masha Gessen). Whatever.

    I am not entirely sure what you mean by reaching out to “territorial” outsiders. Does that mean something like giving away the Kurils to Japan like you recommended a few years ago? :) Of course, not even Gorbachev was prepared to give away Soviet territory like that.

  • CaseyC

    I don’t really think it’s our place to say whether or not the Russians “deserve” a president like Putin. Yes, he surely has his faults; but Russians also have those same “faults.” In the post, it said that Putin had a “fear for the worst when it comes to change, and an expectation of the worst when it comes to people.” But it seems like, according to the post, most Russians are in fact, like this. It only seems fit to have a president who represents them and has the same personality quirks too. As a country with a population that loves to smile and be friendly to strangers on the street (unlike Russians), it only seems fit that we have a friendly and smiley president. The same applies vice versa. If the Russians want to be unfriendly people then how is it our place to comment on the fact that their president is not particularly likable to foreigners (or really, his own people)? Is it really NOT our place to judge because we’re not Russian and we haven’t gone through a bloody and painful history. Beyond the obvious personality quirks, you can’t really get around the fact that Putin is not the best guy to run Russia, I don’t care how you look at it. Regardless of that, it’s really not our place to interfere just because he’s afraid of change and has a pessimistic view on people. But we can comment all we want on it.

  • Olga

    “It is a source of great pride and even cultural superiority to many
    Russians that while (or even, because) they ration out friendliness,
    kindness and smiles only to the most deserving recipients”

    I can’t wholeheartedly agree with this – Russians are, in my experience, one of the very few societies where friendship ties are as strong as family ties. For example Russians are quite OK with lending money to their friends and asking for money from friends. In a western country (at least in an Anglo-Saxon one) this is a taboo, something people are very uncomfortable with, an evidence of bad manners. True that to get friendliness and kindness from a Russian there has to be a connection between you. But this connections can be a briefest one – you can be a friend of a friend, a stranger met on the train, somebody met on a tourist trip… this is enough for Russians to show you great kindness, in no way you have to be “the most deserving recipient”. In this way Russian are extremely open.


Vadim Nikitin
Vadim Nikitin

Vadim Nikitin was born in Murmansk, Russia and grew up there and in Britain. He graduated from Harvard University with a thesis on American democracy promotion in Russia. Vadim's articles about Russia have appeared in The Nation, Dissent Magazine, and The Moscow Times. He is currently researching a comparative study of post-Soviet and post-Apartheid nostalgia.
Areas of Focus:
USSR; US-Russia Relations; Culture and Society; Media; Civil Society; Politics; Espionage; Oligarchs