To understand why Russians love Putin, you shouldn't look at today, but back to his first term...


I translated two short stories that I think capture very well what Russians think about Putin. To put them in context, I have included my thoughts on the subject in the three small "preface" sections below. Read my ramblings, or go straight to the cool stories.

The first piece is from a satirical author, around the time when Putin took power. I think it explains the sad situation during Putin's first term rather well.

[for reference, here is Putin shortly after taking office. The video isn't translated, but you can see he isn't quite the confident "Tsar" we see these days]

The second story was written recently, and it highlights the situation nowadays - that even intelligent businessmen, suffering from economic problems and unimpressed with Russia's foreign policy, often continue to support the current government because of the hard lessons of the 90s.


Most Westerners see Putin only as a shirtless man riding a bear, who somehow popped into existence one day to replace a dying alcoholic Yeltsin. Although we're being told his government is corrupt, oppressive and inefficient, he also manages to have approval ratings roughly double that of any Western leader, and re-build Russia both domestically and on the international stage. What gives?


Bear with me (hur hur pun) for three small paragraphs:

In my, I argue that there are basically three levels to it:
- Chaos, when individual power groups rip the country apart,
- Monarchy/dictatorship, when the country is united by a small but unresponsive elite,
- A republican or collectivist government, when the ruling group expands via limits to the elite's power and a "representative government" in one form or the other

History knows almost no examples when a country impoverished by chaos could establish representative government without first having an extended period of "monarchy".
This is because, during "chaos" or early "monarchy", the elite only consists of a few overlords who are actively against limiting themselves via representative government.
However, as "monarchy" brings stability and economic growth, the population gets richer and more powerful, and eventually has the power to demand representation.

... Russia isn't up to that last step yet, not by a long shot.
But Putin is the man who brought order from chaos, Russians genuinely love him for it, and they'd be insane not to.

Yeah, you hear a lot about "Russian opposition" on outlets such as Radio Free Europe (AKA "Voice of Langley"), but that's roughly comparable to North Koreans complaining that communists are being oppressed in the USA.
By now, pro-Western neoliberals went from masters of the country to being despised by 95% of the population (mere 65,000 supporters voted in the election for United Opposition Council [1]) .


So, Putin did some positive things in the past; does this mean Putin's government is a good thing for Russia going forward?
How would I know? Ask somebody else - I'm not an economist.
Actually, don't ask an economist, either - the Russian ones ruined USSR, and the Western ones orchestrated the post-USSR implosion of Russia.

I am a translator who can tell you what people think right now, what's happening; an amateur historian who can tell you what people used to think and what happened back in the day. As for how to use this improved understanding - that I leave up to you.

Without further ado...



One day Vladimir Vladimirovich ™ Putin was speaking to his people. He stood in a suit against a brown wall. Beside him was a Russian flag. A red light is came on on the camera. Vladimir Vladimirovich ™ sighed.

- It is difficult and painful to talk - he began his speech - Our land just had a terrible tragedy. In the past few days, each of us felt with all his heart the events that happened in the Russian town of Beslan. There we faced not simple murderers, but those who slaughtered defenseless kids. And now I'm sending my words of support and empathy to those who have lost the most precious thing in life. Lost their children, their relatives and friends. I ask everyone that you remember
those who perished at the hands of terrorists in recent days.

Vladimir Vladimirovich ™ fell silent.

- In the history of Russia there were many tragic and difficult events - he continued after a pause, - We live in the aftermath of a collapse of a huge, great state. A state that was not viable in a rapidly changing world.
But, despite all the difficulties, we managed to keep the core of this giant together. And we called this new country - Russian Federation.

We all expected changes. Changes for the better. But we were totally unprepared for many of them. Why? I ... I do not know. I’m doing everything right, you know, working with documents, meeting with foreign heads of state, giving out money for defense... changing corrupt ministers one after another. And it’s all the same - the money gets stolen, the police take bribes, foreign countries don’t respect us... So I’m told we should, like, strengthen our borders. That it is necessary to allocate money and buy new equipment. Tell me, what do I do? If I do not allocate money – you will say that I'm not doing anything. And if I do – they will pile on it like rats on a garbage bin, steal it all, and no border would get built anyway. There are lines by the police stations and courts - waiting for me to fire all the corrupt officials, to immediately take their place and demand, demand, demand even more bribes...

Vladimir Vladimirovich ™ paused and lowered his eyes.

- Of course, I can now say that it's all because of international terrorism that wants to destroy Russia. - He said, a little hesitantly, - Well, if I say that, what changes? You still won’t fight. You do not send your sons to the army, because there is hazing. But hazing is also done by your sons, why aren’t you screaming about that? Huh?

Vladimir Vladimirovich ™ stared at the camera.

- You're all waiting for me to protect you , - Vladimir Vladimirovich ™ said firmly.

- There are hundred and fifty million of you, and one of me. How do I protect you if you are only drinking vodka and watching football? You have chosen me, put me in a golden cage, and now you’re looking – can he get out of this situation? He can’t? Well he’s a bad president then!
Why did you vote for me if I’m so bad?

Vladimir Vladimirovich ™ wiped his presidential nose.

- I have nothing to protect you with - he said - You yourselves have destroyed everything I could use. I do not have governors, just thieves and anti-Semites. I have no army, because no one wants to serve. I have no weapons, because the generals sold them to build their mansions.
I have nothing, and it was all stolen long before I became president. I can’t even put all thieves and corrupt politicians to jail, because when I try to do it - you start yelling: hands off our oligarchs, hands off our governors! And you yourselves steal from your jobs, don’t pay taxes, and only demand, demand, demand. Benefits, pensions, cheap vodka, cheap beer, cheap gas ...

Vladimir Vladimirovich ™ paused and touched the national flag hanging next to him. Then he looked into the camera.

- Yes, we are at war - he said, - Yes, if we want to end this war, we can only do it together. I am the same as you. And just like you, I don’t know what to do. And just like you, I know that the police take bribes, that politicians are only trying to get rich, that the army is used as free construction workers, that oligarchs steal oil and do not pay taxes, that the feds in Chechnya rob people, that everything is rotten and falling apart. This is not the fault of some special people, my
people. This is you. All of you. All around me. And I'm the same as you.
Do you not understand?

Vladimir Vladimirovich ™ raised his left eyebrow.

- Guys, do you not understand - he said quietly into the camera - that WE have declared this war upon ourselves?

[As an aside - the story above is basically applicable to every head of state ever. It is easy to attribute everything that happens to the will of the big man on TV, but in reality, individual officials have far less power than you'd think.]



I remember Perestroika well. Marlboro cigs for 1.50 appeared at our supermarket, and we smoked them enthusiastically, sitting in the gazebo at the neighboring playground. The taste of them was magical - far, far better than the Soviet “Kosmos” for 0.70. The future as adults was no longer certain, but also seemed magical through the smoke, like in an American movie.
It took me many years to realize why we thought that...

And then everybody was suddenly into politics. Intellectuals all started hating on long-dead Stalin, the Communists refused to compromise, popular newspapers would constantly publish this or that “historic discovery”. When I returned from the army, and first saw people standing in lines for some crap cigs from Bulgaria, which were rationed to boot, I first found myself feeling [as a character in a bad comedy, and not Hollywood movie]. But even then, I still did not understand.

That happened later - I stepped into adult life, and understood how the world works. At one point, watching dumb mugs on TV struggle under the weight of arrogance and inability to form coherent sentences became unbearable. How can those “democrats” run the country, if they can’t even organize their own thoughts? By the time Yeltsin’s tanks shelled their Parliament, I already wasn’t interested - politics turned into a murky sideshow which only occasionally had some effect in real life.

Meanwhile, real life went into full “rat race” mode, chasing money above all, with brief breaks to celebrate small victories that seem ridiculous by today’s standards. Strolling across flea markets, filled with brand-name clothes all of a sudden. Flashing across night-time roads on my first “beamer”. Endless ruins moving past the train windows, [the country's factories and infrastructure - sold to murky investors for pennies on the dollar, and immediately scrapped for a quick buck -] stretching all the way from Moscow to St. Pete.

It would be wrong to say that we weren’t [celebrating freedom]. After all, freedom is when rules and restrictions disappear, right? There was even a children’s book like this - “A holiday of Disobedience”, [about children who were left to do as they please by their parents, and how short-lived their euphoria was]. That’s exactly what happened - after the official dismantling of the state, it slowly disappeared from people's heads. Nobody was left to establish order, and the rules were set by those who have managed to steal something big, or bribe their way into government positions.

The whole country played Cowboys and Indians. There were no cops - except those men in blue uniforms who existed solely to collect bribes on highways, and pass almost all of their loot higher up the ladder. Everyone lied and stole. Some guys were dodging the draft, some were stealing from their jobs, nobody I knew paid any taxes.
Yes, a lot of it started back when USSR went off track. But in Soviet times, people still obeyed most laws. They went to official jobs, had apartments they legally owned, etc. Yes, even back then some people bought stuff on the black market and could pay a bribe for a driver's license exam, but those who did that were a tiny minority. Slightly more people nicked stuff from work, but in general it was something insignificant. Most people could honestly say they were good, upstanding citizens. Plus the “real men” of the WWII generation were still around.

And then, in a few years, the whole country and all its inhabitants became lawless and illegitimate. Getting a fake stamp in your Social Security or visa paperwork became a common thing. You could pay off anyone - the judge, the fire department, the EPA. Businesses completely ignored the government and produced fake financial statements with unbelievable numbers, which worked because the tax collectors knew everything, and were overlooking it for a small sum. Those who made money by illegally taking over and looting businesses were heroes on TV, and kids in kindergartens didn’t play Cops vs Robbers - just Robbers vs Robbers [2].

And I was an integral part of this lawlessness. I fudged our accounting books and didn’t think anything of it. I paid wages under the table and casually handed out bribes when I needed to register our semi trucks or buy off a tax inspector. I was kicking out contractors that used my shops to sell their own goods. I smuggled in everything, without a second thought - importing legally did not make sense, we would not be able to compete. I even drove around a car that was imported illegally, and simply bought it back for $100 each time it was impounded. I laundered money via fictional companies, and created legal entities using the identities of hobos from the street. Put forged stamps on forged invoices. I moved cash by the trash bag, and even bought an illegal handgun just in case. I was friends with the mafia guys who were protecting my business, and tagged along when they had “matters to discuss” with rivals.

Show this text to any businessman who worked [in Russia] in the 90s, and he will confirm that this was “business as usual” for the period, even fairly tame by that time’s standard. Politics did not concern men like me at all - it only affected us if the dollar exchange rate jumped, otherwise we only cared about cash and showing off, that’s it.

But often, during drunk arguments among ourselves, we inevitably ended up discussing "who is to blame and what needs to be done." And we soon understood that the end is [extremely freaking nigh], and there is no way out. We were the illegal and illegitimate residents of a sinking ship, and our actions were sinking it further. No one stood at the steering wheel or accepted any responsibility for what was happening, and no one showed any desire to do anything. Those who were smart looted as much as they could, and fled abroad. The rest were facing the abyss.

I totally missed when we got a new president - I tuned out of politics after the elections in '96. All I remember was Yeltsin's heart troubles, and then immediately - “Kursk” sinking. By that time, my business collapsed, so I had the time to watch the tragedy as it unfolded on TV - especially closely, because I served around the same area.
And since I am a mind reader, I can tell you one secret - I know what Putin thought when he was staring down into the sea from that warship. Many remember that moment, but do not understand what was happening there. And Putin was thinking exactly the same thing as I. That there is no way out, and it's not just one sub sinking - the whole country is going down. And then he thought the same thing as my friends - that he just needs to grab what he can, and run.
When Putin holds the next open Q&A session - someone ask him, he will confirm that’s God’ honest truth.

If you think I described the looming collapse to explain why I admire Putin for saving the country - you are mistaken. Although, yes, he really did save us all.
But my support of Putin comes from what happened after the 90s.

After some time, my friend and I reopened our business. Or rather, he reopened it, and I joined a bit later.
First, I asked him out of habit - which mafia group protects us? And he says - none. If we have problems, we call the police. Wow, that was a surprise.
Next, we had to bring some stuff from China. We go to a familiar broker, who used to connect us with smugglers - he tells us that smuggling and forged documents are no longer in style. So we registered officially and began to transport goods through customs, legally. Then we did an audit and straightened out the accounting. Started paying salaries through the bank, not in laundered cash. Leased a legally imported semi, then another one.
After the endless tricks and trying to cheat the system in the 90s, working legally was unbelievably straightforward.

Not everything works well, of course, and still some things are done under the table. Say, we need to win a government contract to stay in business, and we need to bribe somebody to get it. Then we pay. And due to the crisis, we had to re-start paying some of the salaries in laundered cash, to stay afloat. But the money laundering is becoming so expensive, soon it would be cheaper to simply pay taxes.
Anyway, all of these things are merely exceptions that prove the main point. Somehow, suddenly - it turned out that there are some rules to doing business, after all. And there is someone who tries to make them the same for everyone. And you can work within these rules, and consider yourself an honest citizen.

I would say more - in fact, I used to break the rules mostly not because it was necessary, but because I wanted to get rich quickly and live an opulent life. But that mass hysteria - it gripped half the people in the country. Those who stayed immune to it [got pushed to the bottom] - but that immunity among the poorest people may be what saved us, in the end.

I am far from blindly attributing all of this to Putin. In fact, no one knows exactly how and why these changes came about, and if they would still happen if Yeltsin stuck around. A rigorous scientist would say such questions can’t be answered without a controlled experiment, and such experiments are not possible.

But it is quite clear to me that Putin himself had a choice - to “smash and grab” like so many before him, or to take responsibility - and he chose the latter, even though it seemed completely hopeless.
Therefore, when the “liberal opposition” started their litany of accusations against Putin, I could not agree with them calling him a thief and an enemy of the nation. If all he wanted was to steal and destroy, nothing could be simpler. Simply sit back [and let liberals run the country], like Yeltsin did.

And the reason I finally made up my mind and completely sided with Putin was... taxes.
They became kind of a diagnosis, a litmus test.
When Putin-haters rant to me that “Putin’s bunch are criminals and thieves”, I ask - do YOU or your business pay taxes - and they always respond with sincere indignation.
They say things like “Why should I pay, when they can not make an online registration system, and I have to stand in a huge line to get a land ownership certificate? Why should I pay if the bureaucrats steal most of it? Why should I pay, if they can’t repair the road to my summer house, and I have to kill the suspension on my car? And why should I pay these bastards, if they would use the money to further oppress the Russian people?!"

No one, not a single one of government-haters I know, pays even half of what they should. How can the government pay for a new registration system, for the anti-corruption task force, or for fixing the roads, if no one gives them any money - they can’t even comprehend that question.

One Putin-hater I know hasn’t found an honest job in 20 years, because he can only BS people and take a cut of someone else’s profits. So he hangs around people who are doing business, and tries to act as an extra step in the supply chain via knowing “who to grease." Naturally, he hasn’t paid any taxes whatsoever since the fall of USSR - although he sure carried a lot of bribes from one part of the chain to the other.
Who do you think was the first among in my social networks to re-post Navalny’s movie accusing Prosecutor General of corruption[3]? Yep, him. He even added some scathing political commentary.

And I had to explain to another one of my buddies, who spent his entire adult life working as an unregistered construction contractor, that his daughter's tuition at school and college did not come out of some abstract “state budget”, but out of my pocket specifically. Because my business pays taxes, and his does not. Do you think he stopped hating on the government after that? Of course not - now he simply hates me along with Putin. And I understand why - people like that need to shift blame elsewhere, in order to justify leeching off of the rest of us.

Check among the people you know, if you like. To me, the nature of this conflict is clear. Those who seek to play by the rules - those support the state and Putin. In nothing else, because any rules are better than no rules. And those who prefer to cheat the system - they are against the government. And to hide why they do it, they switch the cause of their actions. [4]
First, they do not pay taxes and such - simply out of greed, like me in the '90s. And only then they start hating the state, as a justification. But they always tell you the opposite, that they don’t pay out of principle.

If “Putin’s trolls” really do exist, I gift this text to their bosses. Use it however you like, and the money you save on writers can be given to the regular trolls as a bonus [5]. Let it be a small atonement for the damage I caused to our motherland back in the 90s.



[1] Considering elections were open to all comers, we can assume about ~130 million voters... Which means only one in 2 thousand Russians cares about any of the opposition parties. To put it in perspective, it means there are probably less than 100 eligible voters who would support an opposition candidate in an average-sized city of a ~200,000 people. Which also explains why liberals haven't won any elections at any level in quite a while.

(Of course, there are plenty of people who are not involved in politics, yet still support opposition and/or dislike the government, but virtually any survey shows them to be a tiny minority.)

[2] Young guys who grew up in the 90s saw TV praise people like Mavrodi - the guy who ran an enormous pyramid scheme, defrauded an estimated 10-15 million ordinary Russians, married a supermodel and evaded justice, living in Moscow until 2003.

Young guys growing up today see TV praise people like the two Donbass militiamen who, at a critical moment during the Slavyansk siege, kept firing their 1930s anti-tank rifles point-blank at 1980s model tanks - and died in their foxhole, but stopped the attack.

[3] Navalny, probably the most famous Russian opposition activist, recently published a movie that shows that the son of Chaika, the Prosecutor General of Russia, has some very expensive real estate registered under his name.
There are two ironic footnotes to be made here.
First, Navalny himself was convicted of corruption - as detailed above, being a businessman in Russia isn't a clean job, but it does rather hint at "pot calling the kettle black".
Second, the reason Navalny even found out about Chaika's son's properties is that the documents are clear and publicly available - so this whole matter is a consequence of the previously untouchable elite starting to obey the rules.

[4] This childish belief in "getting something from nothing" is, of
course, not limited to Russian liberals. The old adage "we just have to
keep chanting the slogans of RFE/Marx/Mohammed and throwing bricks at
the cops, and we will become prosperous" resurfaces anywhere where
people think they are owed a better life, and is at the core of every
revolution - liberal, communist, religious, etc.
Ironically, the
activists at the core of Russian opposition, Ukrainian Maidan coup, or
"progressive" social protests in Arab countries, have a lot more in
common with their supposed arch-enemies (the Communists / the islamic
extremists, respectively) than with the supporters of the legitimate

[5] No comment :).
Just kidding, I would be seriously surprised if Russia doesn't run some sort of covert PR actions online, but I would doubt it is as dumb as commonly described in newspaper articles (running a couple dozen third-rate Russian-language blogs on the same LJ platform, out of a single building in St. Pete).
Anyone I collaborated with appears to be doing translations/reporting as a hobby.


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