Vladimir Putin as a Mirror of Russian Society

The enigma of Putin's identity has captivated researchers, journalists, and scholars worldwide. The famous question of who Mr. Putin truly was remains unresolved.

Vladimir Putin has been in power for 24 years, now aiming for another 5-year term. Even during the interlude when Dmitry Medvedev held the presidency (2008-2012), Putin’s influence was unmistakable, orchestrating governance behind the scenes. This Putin-centric power structure makes his victory in any electoral contest predetermined. This enduring tenure at the helm of Russian politics offers a profound glimpse into the fabric of Russian Society. 

The enigma of Putin’s identity has captivated researchers, journalists, and scholars worldwide. The famous question of who Mr. Putin truly was remains unresolved. While prevailing narratives often cast him as an authoritarian figure, some perspectives suggest he operates as a pivotal figure within the Kremlin’s power dynamics, with his decision-making capacity perceived as nuanced rather than absolute.

Delving into the roots of Putin’s sustained rule reveals a complex interplay between perceived subjugation and genuine popular support. Putin’s governance style, marked by a steadfast focus on stability, assertive leadership, and pronounced national pride, mirrors significant aspects of Russian societal norms. This alignment with traditional Russian values—collectivism, respect for authority, and a preference for a strong, centralized state—underscores the resonance of Putin’s authoritarian governance with the populace. 

Putin’s policies often prioritize national interests over individual freedoms, echoing Russia’s communal traditions. He often appeals to the collective good, and while Putin’s understanding of it may be different, even contrary to most of the society, his steadfast commitment to the collective good closely aligns with a societal inclination towards valuing collective national interests above individual rights. His tenure is characterized by a diminution in democratic freedoms and media independence, justified under national security pretenses. Seen as repressive from an external viewpoint it resonates with the society’s collective ethos.

The Russian society’s esteem for strong authority figures is mirrored in Putin’s long-standing leadership and consistently high approval ratings, signifying a preference for decisive governance. Putin’s embodiment of strength, both domestically and internationally, along with his assertive foreign policies, cater to the nationalistic aspiration for a globally respected and formidable Russia.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Russia was engulfed by a quest for unity, driven by the political agenda to halt disintegration and foster societal consensus. This era’s obsession with centralization found easy resonance with the populace, paving the way for the acceptance of a centralized state narrative.

Putin’s ascendancy to power is not merely a choice by a significant segment of Russian society; he epitomizes the quintessence of the Russian spirit. Putin is its perfect reflection, even a mirror. Originating from an ordinary background in Tver oblast, Putin’s journey from a modest family to the KGB, and eventually to the presidency in 2000, was embraced by Russians who saw in him a young, vibrant reflection of themselves. Putin’s electoral success and political trajectory reflect a profound connection, even kinship, with the ordinary Russian, underscoring a deep-seated kinship that elevated him to a global political stature.

Vladimir Putin’s connection with the Russian populace extends beyond mere political leadership; it embodies a mutual identification, with Putin articulating sentiments that resonate deeply with his electorate. This symbiotic relationship raises intriguing questions about Putin’s authenticity, suggesting that the facets of his persona displayed over the years are all genuine reflections of his adaptive leadership.

For instance, in his address to Russia’s Federal Assembly in April 2002, Putin outlined Russia’s foreign policy, emphasizing the building of constructive, normal relations with all the world’s nations and conducting foreign policy in a pragmatic way based on national interests. Additionally, in his program article before becoming Acting President, Putin stressed the need for a strong state power, which he defined as a “democratic, law-based, workable federal state.” 

In December 2021 when sending his ultimatum to “the collective West” Putin spoke as an authoritarian leader emphasizing security issues for Russia, democracy, and federal state points disappearing from his rhetoric. Indeed, Putin of 2021 could send to jail Putin of 2002. But both Putins resonated with respective societies.

The concept of succession of power, crucial for democracies, is a universal necessity across all forms of government, from parliamentary republics to absolute monarchies. Democratic transitions of power not only ensure governance continuity but also foster a societal expectation for such changes, making it resistant to potential usurpations of power. Russia’s very brief experience with democratic succession—during the transition from Mikhail Gorbachev to Boris Yeltsin after the USSR’s dissolution—illustrates a readiness for stable, unchanging leadership, a preference seemingly reinstated by Vladimir Putin’s long tenure. This return to prolonged leadership reflects both Putin’s distrust of potential successors and the Russian populace’s acceptance of familiar governance structures.

Moreover, Russia has a history of tolerating stark income disparities, with research highlighting extreme inequalities dating back to the Russian Empire, where aristocrats, constituting a mere 0.5% of the Moscow region’s population, enjoyed incomes over 78 times higher than the average in 1811. This disparity far exceeded the inequality levels that precipitated the French Revolution (in 1788 the disparity of inequality in France was 5 times), yet Russia waited a century before addressing its societal imbalances. 

The USSR, despite its ideological stance on equality, also witnessed significant income discrepancies, with differences in real income sometimes reaching a hundredfold, according to Efim Manevich, a prominent Soviet labor economist, and founder and director of the Institute of Labour of the USSR.

Under Putin, Russia has seen a resurgence of these historical patterns of inequality, alongside the emergence of a power structure centered around his authority, mirroring the cults of personality seen in past leaders. This tendency has devalued public anti-corruption request, making it superficial. Putin’s image, quickly becoming a cult, has become a pivotal political institution, overshadowing traditional mechanisms of social order and functioning as a quasi-religious figurehead, with perceptions of him ranging from Savior to Antichrist, depending on one’s viewpoint. 

Putin’s unique contribution to this dynamic is the transformation of religious sentiment into a tool for political loyalty, making him seemingly immune to criticism and enhancing his leadership through a mix of reverence and propaganda. This sacralization of Putin’s leadership has solidified his position, making the political system highly resistant to change and criticism, predicated on the populace’s quasi-religious faith in him. And Russians were more than ready for this, blindly replicating Stalin-era societal patterns of behavior. 

The notion that Russia is being directly governed by divine will, as suggested by Putin in a statement to the World Youth Forum on March 3, 2024, underscores the intertwining of religious belief and political authority in maintaining his regime’s stability. Not only Putin did not see any contradiction in aspiring his 24 years of governance of Russia to God, but young Russian leaders did not see it either. This fusion of sacred authoritarianism with Putin’s long-standing leadership challenges traditional notions of governance and highlights the complexity of Russia’s political culture, where the line between secular and religious leadership blurs both for power and society.

This environment, characterized by a blend of historical tolerance for inequality, the centralization of power, and the sacralization of leadership, reveals a society that has adapted to, and in some ways, endorsed the conditions and leadership style presented by Putin. It reflects a mutual evolution of leader and populace, moving towards a shared vision that diverges from reality, anchored in historical precedents and contemporary political narratives.

Rich in violence and poor in governance Russian society readily accepted Putin. It also allowed him to influence it with propaganda. Not only Putin’s views and policies have visibly changed for 24 years in power, but Russian society has changed as well. This reciprocal affection is taking both out of the real world into a virtual reality of wishful thinking and aspirations, but we must acknowledge that they march together.

Gabriel Laub said “A tyrant is a mixture of cowardice, stupidity, arbitrariness, irresponsibility, and narcissism. Thus, he represents the majority of society.” And this is Putin’s Russia, the one he created for himself, the one that wanted to be created by him.

Vitaly Charushin
Vitaly Charushin
Vitaly Charushin is a Russian pro-democracy activist and member of Advisory Board of Creative Cluster, a French-tech ecosystem partner. He has previously worked at the National Democratic Institute in Moscow.