Many Western journalists and politicians loathe Russian President Vladimir Putin for offending liberal sensibilities on liberty and democracy. But even as Putin steps down after his term expires on May 7, he remains well-loved by his countrymen: he has never failed to win an election by double-digit margins, and his February 2008 approval rating stood at 85 percent, making him one of the most popular leaders in the world.
What is the appeal of Vladimir Putin?
He has captured the imagination of millions of patriotic Russians, who see the 1990s as a decade of humiliation for Russia. During this period, the Soviet empire was dismantled, Russia suffered eight years of economic collapse at home, and her GDP shrank to a fraction of what it was during the Communist days. Abroad, the United States integrated former Warsaw Pact members like the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland into NATO, and spearheaded the NATO bombing of Serbia, Russia’s close ally. She remained diplomatically estranged from the West, which saw Russia as less likely than Muslim Turkey to qualify for EU membership.
Compare this to the Soviet Russia that Putin and many of his countrymen grew up in—a nation that was autocratic, but powerful and respected. As a young man, Putin grew up watching his nation’s achievements shake the world. Between 1957 and 1963, the Soviet Union launched the first satellite in space, the first man in space, and the first woman in space. She had the world’s largest territory, the world’s largest military, and the world’s second-largest GDP. In sports, Soviet athletes dominated the Olympic Games, beating the United States in medal tallies almost every time and earning 473 gold medals. Moreover, the Soviets made great strides in academic fields, winning Nobel Prizes not just for physics and chemistry, but also for literature and even economics.
Given this backdrop, Putin’s vision of restoring Russia’s greatness has struck a chord among many Russians. In 2000, he introduced a highly popular measure to restore Russia’s old Soviet anthem—keeping the tune, but changing the lyrics, with old references to communism replaced by new references to God and country. Putin’s message resonates with the silent majority of Russians who reject communism, but love their country.
There is no doubt that Putin’s economic successes are an enormous part of his appeal. The poverty level has been cut in half, Russia’s GDP growth has averaged 7 percent, and GDP per capita (PPP) stands at $14,000. The nation has enjoyed a string of budget and trade surpluses.
At home, Putin has been tough on terrorism and national security, beginning with his popular war against Chechen rebels in 1999. When Islamic terrorists took hostages in a crowded Moscow theatre in 2002 and a Beslan school in 2004, Putin’s government responded each time with brute force—killing as many terrorists as possible even if it meant collateral damage.
Abroad, Putin has strengthened Russia with new alliances. With America choosing to expand NATO into the Baltic States and supporting the expulsion of pro-Russian regimes in Ukraine and Georgia, Putin has turned elsewhere for allies, some of them with less pro-Western credentials: China, Iran, Venezuela, and Syria. Under Putin, Russia’s foreign policy exercises considerable moral maneuverability—it serves not to promote democracy worldwide, but to advance Russia’s national interests. Under Putin, Russia has become not an enemy, but a rival of the United States. In keeping with this trend, Putin was selected as TIME Magazine’s Person of the Year in 2007, the first Russian in nearly two decades to receive the honor.
As Putin steps down, he will remain widely hated in the West, but widely loved in Mother Russia. Despite his unorthodox brand of democracy, Russians are willing to forgive Putin because of his single, biggest achievement: he has resurrected Russian pride. Russia has risen again.