As the title of this article suggests, I think Russia’s President (and Prime Minister) has done – under the circumstances – a decent job over the last 18 years. Such rhetoric frequently elicits gasps and winces from many of my American friends (and several Russian ones) – especially as I lived in the States for most of my life. It did not, however, prevent me from being invited to give a speech on the matter that was broadcast on Alaskan public television a couple of years ago. Hence dialogue is clearly possible, and this article is my best attempt at bridging the wide reality gap between these two societies (the upcoming election is as good a reason to try as any). With ceaseless talk of espionage and acts of war, now – more than ever – cooler heads must prevail, and we must all see the other’s side.
My point here is not to exonerate Putin or Russia for the many bad things that he (and we) has perpetrated. Plenty of people have died in Syria and Ukraine as the result of his decisions. Russia’s history with its European neighbors to the West has been checkered at best, and I can more than understand the fear and apprehension with which peoples in the Baltic States, Poland and other countries view any sort of resurgence or posturing. I have yet to encounter a fellow Russian who does not systematically gripe about the corruption that permeates many aspects of the local healthcare, police, courts and other systems. In many ways, the country just doesn’t believe in itself.
That said, I recently went through the bureaucratic process of registration at my flat in Moscow for – among other things – the ability to cast my ballot on Sunday for a guy who’s likely to walk away with around 70% of the popular vote anyway. Here’s why.
Blast from the Past
To see where we’re going, let’s take a look at where we came from. To put it mildly, the country wasn’t in its best shape when Boris Yeltsin appointed Putin Prime Minister in 1999. Our disastrous war in Chechnya that had cost tens of thousands of lives and ended in humiliating defeat created a massive refugee crisis. A New York Times article from 2005 estimated the total death toll from the conflict at 160,000. This was compounded by Russians’ historically troubled relationship with the people of Chechnya. Stalin (himself a Georgian) had brutally deported Chechnya’s population almost in its entirety in 1944 following allegations that they had colluded with Nazis. Although rehabilitated later by Khrushchev, memories of the savage act were very much still alive in the 1990s.
Following Chechnya’s example, separatist movements sprouted, to various degrees, throughout Russia’s vast geography: in Tatarstan and Bashkortostan (European Russia) and Tuva, Buryatia and Yakutia (Siberia). In the case of Bashkortostan, its leaders announced in October 1999 that they would no longer pay income tax into the federal budget as required under law. An article entitled “Is Russia on the Verge of Collapse?” was published in Novye Izvestia as late as 2004.
Meanwhile a wave of terrorist attacks occurred across several Russian cities. In the middle of the night four apartment blocks were blow up in the cities of Buynaksk, Moscow and Volgodonsk in September 1999, causing 293 casualties in total. I personally knew people who organized nighttime patrols with their neighbors so nobody could plant a bomb in their building’s basement. Chechnya’s leaders announced they would invade Russia’s neighboring region of Dagestan, to which they had no ethnic or historical claim. Their brief experiment in independence hadn’t worked out even though Russia had continued providing them with free natural gas and pension payments after their de-facto secession. A human slave market operated opposite the presidential palace in Grozny.
There are, of course, abundant conspiracy theories (not unlike those about 9/11) pointing the finger at Putin for organizing the bombings as a pretext for launching the Second Chechen War in 1999. Back then the leading theory was that Yeltsin had ordered the bombings to implement a national state of emergency and hold on to the presidency indefinitely. That didn’t pan out. The multiple Chechen invasions of Dagestan that were ongoing at the time were already enough of a pretext to launch the military campaign.
This was all following one of the most devastating transitions to a free market in history. A number of experts referred to Russia’s demographics of the time as one of the largest non-wartime population drops in history characterized by soaring death rates and low birth rates. In the 1990s transportation and economic links had broken down as families were torn apart by the Soviet Union’s political breakup. Hyperinflation decimated people’s life savings. Real wages plunged. Unemployment skyrocketed. Millions of middle class people were impoverished. Journalist killings peaked in 1995 at 12, seeing a substantial reduction later under Putin. Anyone questioning Putin’s assertion that the USSR’s collapse was one of the major geopolitical catastrophes of the 20th century should bear these facts in mind.
At the same time Russia got a new, very small class of highly wealthy individuals controlling the vast majority of the country’s rapidly privatized wealth. Most of them acquired these assets through very shady means. Many of them, like Mikhail Khodorkovsky, had held important posts under the old regime and used their communist-era contacts to get access to murky privatization schemes. In Western media and political circles, as documented by Thomas Friedman in The Lexus and the Olive Tree, many feared an eventual return of the Communists.
Thus Putin’s original law-and-order platform resonated well with the Russian electorate as he famously promised to wipe out terrorists anywhere they go, “even in their outhouses.” In addition to leading an ultimately successful military campaign to restore federal law in Chechnya, Putin signed off on a series of liberal economic reforms. A revised tax code and 13% flat tax were introduced in 2001; a new labor code the following year. He had inherited a neo-feudal state with regional laws that contradicted federal ones, making it all but impossible to operate a business legally. Putin made the regions abide by the Russian constitution. He introduced tax breaks for small businesses. He continued privatizing some companies, under considerably more transparent circumstances. Eventually Russia would join the WTO.
“It’s the Economy, Stupid”
Russia’s economy, as measured by GDP adjusted for purchasing power parity, would rapidly overtake the largest economies in Europe like the UK, France and Italy over the next 15 years. It briefly overtook Germany in 2013 to become the largest economy in Europe before the 2015 recession began (see chart). By GDP per capita (PPP), Russia went from a trough of around $5,000 in the 1990s to around $28,000 today (according to the CIA World Factbook), converging rapidly with the UK (see chart). His 2000 pledge to catch up with the poorest EU country (at the time, Portugal) in GDP per capita terms by 2015 has been as good as met. So have his pledges in the 2003 State of the Nation address to double Russian GDP, cut the number of people living in poverty in half and reform the army. Between 2000 and 2013, average monthly salaries went from $82 to $931 (admittedly, the latest crisis caused a hit). One can only imagine the popularity of a US president who increased people’s incomes by over 11 times over 13 years.
Before the Crimean Crisis, Russia was one of Europe’s largest sources of tourists. The percentage of Russians holding a passport for international travel has rapidly converged to the level of Americans (28% vs. 36%). Internet penetration has largely converged with Europe and the US. For the first time ever, the average Russian can read and hear what Westerners are saying about him.
Before Putin agriculture was practically dead; it was occasionally hard to find a locally made product on a grocery shelf (depending on the store, of course). Two years ago Russia overtook the US as the world’s largest grain exporter. There’s a continuing major drive to make Russia a more attractive place to do business. In 2012 the first thing Putin did after being re-elected President is sign a series of decrees to get Russia up from 120th place in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index to 20th place by 2018. Today it stands at 35th (just behind Japan). Combine that with historically low inflation and rapidly falling interest rates on mortgages and small-business loans, and I don’t know what more can be done to make running your own company any easier.
Under Putin Russia would overtake the Soviet Union’s record in passenger car production as almost every major global manufacturer set up shop locally. Today Russia is exporting passenger cars to Europe (and produces 70% of the cars for sale on the domestic market). In 2002 Russia produced seven passenger planes. By 2016, it was nearly 40 planes. They’re flown to Texas by Mexican airline Interjet. Russia also controls a very sizeable share of the world’s helicopter market, military and civilian, and is constructing 40% of nuclear power plants in the world.
Exports of IT products have skyrocketed: look no further than the shelves of your local Walmart to see Kaspersky Antivirus software, courtesy of one of Russia’s largest IT companies. The country’s biggest search engine, Yandex, IPOed on the NASDAQ in 2011.
In 2014 the country that was borderline going hungry 15 years prior successfully hosted the Sochi Olympics. There have been huge investments into infrastructure and stadiums under Putin, and not only in Sochi. As part of the $7 billion of federal money invested into the Far Eastern city of Vladivostok ahead of the 2012 APEC Summit, it got a new airport, highway system, hotels, opera house and entire university campus on Russky Island. The campus is connected to Vladivostok via the world’s longest cable-stayed bridge. Mazda set up its first car production plant in the world outside of Japan in Vladivostok.
Amidst all of this, the share of natural resource extracts among Russian exports is approximately the same as (or even less than) Australia and Norway, two of the richest and most educated nations in the world. If each of those is also “a gas station masquerading as a country,” I’ll take my gas station.
“Reports of my Death Were Greatly Exaggerated”
Turning back to demographics, one big meme circulating in academia and media continues to be that “Russia is dying.” Barack Obama said as much a few years ago in an interview with The Economist. In fact Russia is one of the world’s largest receivers of immigrants after the United States. This is part of the reason why its population has actually been growing the last nine years. The one mainstream outlet doing proper fact-checking on the subject was Forbes, which ran an article five years ago titled “11 Things Everyone Should Know about Russia’s Demographics.” The author pointed out a remarkable improvement in every major metric to date: abortions nosedived; life expectancy has grown remarkably; the murder rate has dropped significantly; alcohol and tobacco consumption have fallen by nearly a quarter since a widely successful campaign was introduced in 2014.
The “declining power” meme that’s largely ubiquitous in mainstream discourse needs serious revision as it’s simply factually inaccurate to refer to Russia “declining” by any major long-term metric. During a visit to Grozny two years ago with some friends (unimaginable not long ago), the modern skyline reminded me of Dubai. This was the place characterized by the United Nations as the world’s most destroyed city 15 years ago.
As one would expect, trust in Russian institutions such as the President, parliament, federal government and police has grown remarkably since a nadir in the middle of the last decade to highs a few years ago. Several pollsters, including the highly respected and independent Yuri Levada Center, have noted record-high trust levels toward law enforcement (starting from a low base) that have been growing since 2014 after a major overhaul of the police several years prior. Admittedly, trust in these institutions does fluctuate – but I’m interested in long-term trends, as they are apparently one of the best indicators of a country’s long-term stability. Enough so that concurrently falling levels of institutional trust in the United States are worrying its Director of National Intelligence.
The current media narrative of Putin basing his support on authoritarianism and an unfree press is simplistic and ignores a large part of Russia’s experiences since independence. Putin continues to be portrayed as a reactionary, anti-gay, nationalistic liberal hater, yet he has maintained a moratorium on the death penalty despite the fact that, until very recently, a solid majority of Russians supported capital punishment. He’s avoided criminalizing homosexuality like they’ve done in a lot of countries (including several US allies) despite high levels of support for that. He’s invested in national healthcare, science and made huge improvements to infrastructure. Russia has sensible gun laws.
Moral High Ground
One thing that draws my ire in conversations among American media personalities is their sanctimonious tone (“He’s a killer”). Coming from a society that has a mass shooting every day, a President who can (and does) sign executive orders to have citizens of his own country tortured and killed and that finds it acceptable to launch wars over nonexistent WMDs? And these points very much traverse party lines. Give me a break.
Few Americans think of trying to imagine how a people who suffered multiple invasions from the West during the last 200 years, the last one causing 27 million military and civilian deaths, see their country’s conduct in Ukraine and Syria. Few remember that soon after he became president, Putin asked NATO and the European Union to accept Russia as a member and was declined. Even fewer bother to examine how true the claim that no spheres of influence exist in the modern world sounds to those same people, a claim made multiple times by former Vice President Joe Biden. This thesis was coming from the same government that had brought Russia to the brink of nuclear Armageddon as recently as 1962, effectively, for violating its own sphere of influence in Cuba. Would the US be comfortable if Russia based those missiles there today at Cuba’s request?
But more to the point: a common meme I encounter is that, were Putin to go, a more acceptable liberal figure would emerge to lead the country organically into the embrace of Western institutions. The frequently cited reason that no one among Russia’s liberals has a popularity rating even approaching the double digits is that Putin has repressed (in some cases, killed) them. Before jumping to such conclusions, I highly advise my Western friends to examine the personal reputations of some of Russia’s so-called “liberal reformers.”
A case in point was Boris Nemtsov, gunned down near the Kremlin three years ago. US Republican Senator John McCain issued a press release at the time stating that “Regardless of who actually pulled the trigger, Boris is dead because of the environment of impunity that Vladimir Putin has created in Russia, where individuals are routinely persecuted and attacked for their beliefs, including by the Russian government, and no one is ever held responsible.”
Perhaps. Or his killing could have been connected with one of the various scandals he had been mired in as former governor of the Nizhny Novgorod region and, later, Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister. Nemtsov had been married to his wife since 1981. Since then he admitted to having children from at least two other women. In his own autobiography (“A Provincial in Moscow”) Nemtsov had written, “I’ve been told more than once that “popular opinion” says that if anymore would ever want to find compromising materials on Nemtsov, he could unearth the entire world, but not be able to find anything except ‘chicks.’ But you can find chicks. I’m flattered by this opinion.”
I’ve generally found this type of behavior, with a few major exceptions, to be reminiscent of most of Russia’s “prominent liberals” who take their own moral high ground within Russia above everybody else. My point here is not to moralize or pass judgment on any of these allegations. I have no idea if they’re true. But I do find it professionally prudent of any journalist to examine possible motives for murder before similarly passing judgment on the purported killer. It seems anyone at all critical of Putin gets a free pass from Western media these days, and their readers a subsequently warped picture of Russia’s political realities. People who do sleazy things make enemies in any country, sometimes dangerous ones, regardless of their political beliefs. Full stop.
A Side Note for American readers
Some time ago I vowed never to comment on anything election-hacking related as I found it ridiculous from the get-go (see image below). However in certain circles the story has grown so big at this point that it can’t avoid mention even in this context. If, after two years of hysteria, your own House Committee finds that basically nothing happened and Special Prosecutor comes up with 13 people who used a budget of just over $1 million to fly to the States, buy a few SIM cards and make a some Facebook posts – this says more about your society than anybody else(s). I recall when I lived in the States how 19 people armed with box cutters – who, albeit, did actively seek to hurt America – sent the country into two of its most expensive, longest, most pointless and, as yet, unwinnable wars. Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.
History in the Making
Almost every Russian presidential election of late has come with a surprise: the Communists did surprisingly well in 2008 (likely as a response to the economic crisis, which was followed up with generous stimulus measures), while oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov made a strong showing four years later (higher youth, pro-Western turnout, as indicated by follow-up protests, which where themselves followed-up by the return of direct gubernatorial elections and other liberal reforms). I largely agree with the take that the current election is similarly a de-facto referendum on the current administration: if nationalist parties do well, we can expect a greater emphasis on things like immigration policy, relations with Russia’s regions and patriotic education in schools. If “liberal” parties do well, we’ll hear more about repairing relations with the West, promoting free trade and a market economy and stronger free speech laws. If the communists do well, we’ll see more policies aimed at fighting inequality and promoting a larger state role in the economy.
Love him or hate him, Putin is an historical figure that will be remembered around the world long after leaving office. In my opinion he’s done a lot of good for Russia over the last 18 years, so I’m willing to give him a vote of confidence for another (presumably final) six. Call it a chance to throw my two cents into that history.
Artem Zagorodnov has spent the last 10 years working in various Russia-related media outlets and has commented on Russia affairs for a wide variety of publications like The Economist, BusinessWeek Russia and Petroleum Review. During his career, he’s interviewed such leading figures as ex-Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, billionaire entrepreneur Alexander Lebedev and ex-Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov. During 2013-16, he was based in the Middle East and launched the first English-language corporate newspaper of Lukoil Overseas, a subsidiary of Russia’s largest private oil company. Artem holds a BS in economics from The Ohio State University and an MSc in International Relations from the London School of Economics.