Even before the current swoon of the ruble, the signals were all there that Vladimir Putin had embarked on a course that is increasingly isolating his country, undermining its long-term economic prospects, and shattering the illusion of ordinary citizens that they can count on rising living standards as they did for much of the previous decade. Instead, those standards now look poised for a steep decline.
Still, opinion polls show that the Russian president’s use of force in neighboring Ukraine and general defiance of much of the Western world is hugely popular at home. But don’t be fooled. Putin now knows that, more than ever, he had better watch his back. His future political survival is no sure thing.
How has the Kremlin leader maintained his popularity so far? Perhaps the most obvious part of the answer is his total control over television, which still is the primary and often the sole source of news for most Russians. But as Peter Pomerantsev explains in Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia, what is less obvious is the formula that makes often unbelievably crude Soviet-style propaganda work. “The task is to synthesize Soviet control and Western entertainment,” he writes. In other words, Soviet-style boring is bad, Western-style glitz is good, all in the service of the big boss.
That, along with the Kremlin’s frequent use of outright repression to silence dissenters, has helped contribute to an echo chamber effect. “The news is the incense by which we bless Putin’s actions, make him president,” Pomerantsev quotes Russian TV producers as saying. He knows what he’s talking about. His parents emigrated from Russia to Britain in the ’70s, and he spent nine years as a TV and film producer in their former homeland, exploring the new Russia. The result is a poignant portrait of a country where cynicism, deception, and despair are all too common, all in the service of a completely corrupted elite that is only concerned with clinging to its own wealth and power.
But there’s another factor that may be just as significant as the impact of non-stop propaganda: Russians are exhibiting the classic traits of people who are trapped in abusive relationships. And many are still in denial about the nature of their relationship with their leader, even as the abuse intensifies. Harking back to the tsars and Lenin and Stalin, Pomerantsev notes: “The country seems transfixed in adoration of abusive leaders.”
This is not a new phenomenon. Marilyn Murray, an American therapist and educator who has spent more than a decade conducting classes for Russians caught in abusive family relationships, sees a direct correlation between her work and political attitudes. “We cannot help but recognize the familial resemblance between the profile of a violent family and that of the country of Russia,” she wrote in The Moscow Times in 2012. “Mother Russia is the quintessential battered wife.”
Battered wives are kept largely isolated, not allowed to make decisions, and convinced that they must rely on their abusive, often alcoholic husbands for basic necessities and protection from a hostile outside world, she pointed out. While Murray limited her direct analogy to Soviet rulers, her answer to the question about why Russians “continue to marry unhealthy leaders and remain in destructive unhealthy systems” remains valid today: “Because like all battered wives, she seeks what is common and familiar to her.”
Pomerantsev doesn’t invoke her theory directly, but he certainly agrees. Like a battered wife who has become adept at pretending all is well in her marriage, the Kremlin is orchestrating “one great reality show,” he writes, where the language and mechanisms of democracy are employed to mask “undemocratic intent.” He now recognizes that he was initially allowed to pursue some real stories, like the sordid truth about what he calls the “Gold Digger Academy” for young women seeking to snag wealthy mates, to help make the reality show “look and sound and feel Western.”
The same was true of its political messages, with the Kremlin offering the pretense of openness, debate and democracy when everyone on the inside understands the game that is being played. At times, he confesses, even he was almost taken in, since “it’s hard to get your head around the idea that they are lying quite so much and quite so brazenly.”
While genuine dissenters still exist in Russia, they are stymied at every turn. So far, Putin has been highly effective in quashing the kinds of protests that broke out after widespread charges of fraud in the 2011 parliamentary elections and his decision to return to the presidency in 2012, the post he held from 2000 to 2008. That move offered final proof, if it were needed, that his interim stint as prime minister was merely a charade to avoid overtly breaking the constitution’s term limits provision.
However, the poll numbers that produce more than 80 percent approval ratings mask a widespread sense of discontent that is only likely to grow as a result of the current economic downturn. Pomerantsev focuses much of his attention on ordinary Russians who never talk of human rights or democracy, as he points out, since the Kremlin has emptied such rhetoric of its meaning. “The rage is more inchoate: hatred of cops, the army,” he writes. “Or blame it all on foreigners.”
Putin has worked assiduously to keep Russians focused on such distractions, particularly “foreigners” at home (ethnic minorities) or abroad (the U.S., NATO, the E.U., Ukrainian “fascists”). As long as they ignore the real culprits, he can continue merrily on his way—even in a time of economic crisis.
But what if the sycophants surrounding him, who have accumulated unparalleled wealth because of their proximity to the ultimate abuser, begin to sense that Putin has turned into a liability? Yes, he’s now their insurance policy that they can hold on to their riches. They know that if he were to leave office under any circumstances, they are likely to lose everything, as Pomerantsev points out. They understand that’s how a system based on purely arbitrary political and economic power, the system they helped construct, functions. The only rule is that there are no real rules.
Nonetheless, even battered wives occasionally glimpse the truth, particularly when it is staring them in the face on a daily basis as it is now. If Putin’s inner circle senses that the Russian people may experience such an epiphany, they could become worried enough to take matters into their own hands. They could figure that the risks of sticking with Putin are greater than the risks of crossing him.
That may still seem like a long shot now, and Pomerantsev is not predicting anything of the sort. But abusers are always in full control—until they are not.
Andrew Nagorski, a former Newsweek bureau chief in Berlin and Moscow, is the author of Hitlerland: American Eyewitnesses to the Nazi Rise to Power.