In a 2004 letter from prison, Yukos founder Mikhail Khodorkovsky said that while Vladimir Putin “certainly is no liberal and no democrat,” he is nonetheless “more liberal and democratic than 70% of the population of our country.” While one might quibble with the tycoon’s exact number, a leading Russian pollster and sociologist recently suggested that Vladimir Putin has been able to maintain consistently high public support because he has tapped into a set of views and attitudes held by a majority of Russians that have more in common with those that were held by their Soviet predecessors than with those held today by their Western contemporaries.
Lev Gudkov, director of the Levada Center, discussed these views and attitudes in an interview with Kasparov.ru, the website of opposition leader former chess champion and Garry Kasparov, which was published on February 18. As the website noted, the Levada Center is generally considered to be Russia’s “most independent and respected sociological institute.”
According to Gudkov, liberal values in the Western sense are supported by a relatively narrow sector of Russian society. “The values of freedom [and] protecting one’s rights are seen as more significant by well-to-do people, more informed and educated than the average Russian, more connected to the West, who are younger and understand what the current tendency in the regime’s development may threaten them with,” he said. “The point is not that they are more well-to-do, that they have higher incomes. They are well-to-do because they are engaged in more complex social relations, demanding higher qualifications and [broader] horizons; competences approximating those found in Western organizations. In other words, these people (in comparison with the average Russian), are more strongly included in the wider world of global communications, the division of labor, knowledge, and skills. For them, Putin-ite authoritarianism is proving to be a brake on national development (economic, legal, state, [and] civil). This relatively narrow stratum genuinely fears the development of a regime even harsher than the current simply ‘police’ [regime]. This group of people has ‘something to lose’. But what have the poor provincials, the village inhabitants, lost or still have to lose?”
Asked what Russians expect from their next president, Gudkov responded that they want, above all, what they wanted from Putin – a restoration of Russia’s “great power status” and to fill the void resulting from a “national inferiority complex.” According to Gudkov, the desire to recapture Russia’s status as a great power has consistently come in first place in polling since the mid-1990s. Noting that this goal found somewhat less support in a January 2008 poll (51%) than in January 2004 (58%), Gudkov concluded that this is a sign not that “imperial traditions” have weakened but that Russians increasingly believe that this goal has already been achieved.
Second, said Gudkov, Russians have “weak hopes” that the new head of state “will finally be able to guarantee a strengthening of law and order, because administrative anarchy is in fact really very high and people feel [the effects of] this.”
Third, Russians have “paternalistic expectations of state aid [and of] a guarantee that the state will finally turn back to the people and give them back confidence in the future: guaranteed jobs, housing, free medical service, and education for their children,” said Gudkov, who added: “They continue to hope for this even despite the fact that social guarantees have only been reduced during the years of Putin’s administration.” According to Gudkov, 58% of Russians would like the next president to contribute to “a reduction in the social inequality and material stratification that have intensified sharply.” Gudkov concluded that the average Russian shares “the same complex of expectations” of his Soviet predecessor – expectations of “a powerful ‘fair’ government, an empire [and] a paternalistic state.”
Polling data would suggest that a majority of Russians believes that Putin’s designated successor, Dmitry Medvedev, can deliver on at least some of this. In a Levada Center poll conducted in January, 82% of the respondents who said they planned to vote in the March 2 presidential election (three-quarters of those polled) said they would vote for Medvedev.
“A large portion of our population would like the state of affairs that has developed under Putin to continue with the new president,” said Gudkov. “This completely suits people, above all because incomes are increasing in all social groups and layers, although representatives of different social groups are experiencing this to different degrees. Moreover, one can suppose that an additional effect is connected to Medvedev’s television image – [that of] a young, exceptionally ‘civilian,’ ‘non-threatening’ official, devoid of any striking individual characteristics.”
The Levada Center director concluded that Russians “to a very great degree” hope for a continuation of the status quo that has developed under Putin, and that “for the sake of this they are ready to sacrifice freedom, their rights, believing that ‘it is not so important to them’.”