In the latter part of the 18th century, not too long after an earlier annexation of Crimea by Russia, a Russian governor by the name of Grigory Potemkin hoped to impress Russian empress Catherine II by building fake villages along the banks of the Dnieper River. As Catherine’s vessel floated downstream, she saw village after village of waving townspeople, not knowing that after her entourage passed, the village was disassembled and set up all over again further downstream. To Catherine, all was well in Russia.
Comparing the March 18 Russian presidential elections to Potemkin villages is not a perfect analogy, but with a few adjustments, there are lessons to be learned by those of us watching the elections in the West. In the new iteration of this old and perhaps apocryphal story, Russian President – and presidential candidate – Vladimir Putin plays the role of Potemkin, and the rest of the world plays the role of Catherine II.
As he is so expert in doing, Putin perverts democratic principles – in this case the idea of free and fair elections – in an attempt to show the world that Russia is democratic. Two things are certain: the first is Russia is not a democracy; and the second is that Putin will win his “elections.” While these facts are self-evident, making it easy to shrug one’s shoulders and simply move on, it is worth trying to understand why most Russians are untroubled by Putin’s cynical machinations.
Like a Potemkin village, all seems normal on the surface in the Russian Federation. It is undeniable that Putin is popular among his countrymen. Polls consistently put his numbers at a level most Western leaders would envy, and while some of these tabulations are undoubtedly controlled or at least influenced by the Russian government, most Russians do seem to support their president.
Furthermore, other Russian candidates lag far behind Putin, and there is virtually no chance anyone like Ksenia Sobchak or Communist Party leader Pavel Grudinin will be able – or allowed – to overtake Putin. Indeed, more cynical Russians may believe the Russian government has specifically requested these other “candidates” run, so that Putin will be able to claim he actually defeated political opponents in a fair competition. Putin has seen how this works in open societies, and while he fears the real process, he is unafraid to mimic it. Just like Grigory Potemkin.
But the roots of Putin’s popularity are suspect. The Kremlin tightly controls how most Russians get their information. The majority of Russians get their news from state-controlled television networks, which unsurprisingly paint Putin in a positive, Czar-like fashion. While it is true that there are opposition media voices in Russia, they are in a distinct minority and disadvantaged. Outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg, especially in rural areas of Russia, television news rules supreme.
For a younger generation of Russians who may have access to the internet, the Russian security services carefully monitor content on social media, and more importantly, who is using it. It is no coincidence that Russian law instituted in 2014 requires social media companies to maintain their servers on Russian territory if the servers contain information on Russian citizens. The internal Russian intelligence service, the FSB, needs to know if there are many young Russians trying to organize against Putin.
A Strong Leader
There are other societal factors at play. It is often said that the Russian citizenry values above all else a strong leader, a Czar-like figure, so as to avoid the evils of the chaos Russians believe is overtaking Western liberal democracies today. Russians do seem to be more inclined than citizens in Western democracies to sacrifice personal freedoms in exchange for stability. Recent polling indicates many Russians are actually nostalgic for the Soviet Union, and even Joseph Stalin, responsible for the deaths of untold numbers of his own countrymen, is still a popular figure. Putin himself has famously stated that that fall of the Soviet Union was a geopolitical catastrophe for Russians.
Even when Russians do take to the streets, the political protests are tame by Western standards. One middle aged protestor in Moscow during the Bolotnaya marches of 2011 seemed a bit embarrassed to be criticizing Putin, saying, “These protests are not about revolution, they are about evolution.” Not exactly a rousing cry in support of political reform.
Great Power Status
In addition to wanting a leader who will first and foremost provide stability, Russians seem to want a president who will return the country to its former “Great Power” status. From the perspective of many Russians – and recall that these perspectives are at least partially shaped by state-controlled media – the West disrespected Russia after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and took unfair advantage in an attempt to weaken and humiliate Russia on the world stage. (How weakening Russia in this way would have actually benefited the West is not often addressed cogently in Russia, but the perceptions remain nonetheless.)
Putin embodies the goal of re-establishing Russia as a dominant force in the world, despite relative economic weakness. Russians are well aware of the actions their president has taken (again, thanks to state-controlled media) that have moved them closer to regaining lost glory: the annexation of Crimea into Russi;, the demonstration of military might in Syria; and the use of hybrid warfare to attack the electoral processes in Western democracies such as France, Germany, and of course in the main enemy, the United States.
Playing to a Domestic Audience?
An argument can be made that much of Putin’s foreign policy, as well as some of his domestic initiatives, are calculated to increase his popular support inside of Russia. While there may be some truth to this, it is also important not to make the mistake of viewing Russian politics through a Western lens. Putin and his co-conspirators in the Kremlin have little to fear from their own citizens, because the Kremlin can terrorize its own citizens at a moment’s notice.
Putin is the proud standard-bearer of the Chekist tradition that has run through many versions of Russian governments. The Cheka – the feared internal police founded during Lenin’s time – was renamed and reorganized many times, but remained true to its founding principles. Whether it was called the KGB or now the FSB, it has always been a tool of political control and oppression for whoever was leading inside the Kremlin.
Russian journalists, opposition figures, and the occasional oligarch gone astray have found themselves dead or imprisoned as a result of challenging Putin. Russians understand this on a visceral, historical level, and they therefore understand the limits of political opposition – and its possible consequences.
So on the one hand, Russia is an autocracy run by a Chekist who is supported by a group of rich, corrupt oligarchs. There is a thin veneer of “democracy” overlaid on Putin’s system, to provide deniability when confronted by the West. Opposition figures who become too dangerous are eliminated or marginalized. Ordinary Russian citizens rarely if ever see the benefits of living in a country rich in natural resources and potential.
Yet on the other hand, these same citizens by and large support the central figure in this system, Vladimir Putin. This support, though, is brought about by manipulation of state-controlled media, playing to themes that resonate with Russian citizens. As British Prime Minister Winston Churchill famously said, “Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”
Russia’s presidential elections have been criticized time and time again by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and myriad other international organizations. They will not be free and fair this time around, either. There can be little doubt but that Putin will once again win. His victory will bear a greater resemblance to a win in a WWEprofessional wrestling ring rather than a true election.
But to some extent, like at a professional wrestling event, that seems to be what the crowd wants. Or perhaps Russians understand better than we the consequences of protesting too much.
by Steven L. Hall
Steven L. Hall retired from the Central Intelligence Agency in 2015 after 30 years of running and managing intelligence operations in Eurasia and Latin America. Mr. Hall finished his career as a member of the Senior Intelligence Service, the small cadre of officers who are the senior-most leaders of the CIA’s Clandestine Service.