Tsar Vladimir Putin is always right

March 12, 2015
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a forum dedicated to the civil society in Moscow

Russian President Vladimir Putin at a forum dedicated to the civil society in Moscow, January 15, 2015. REUTERS/Alexei Nikolsky/RIA Novosti/Kremlin

In Russia, the old saying goes, the tsar is always right.

Whether an imperial Romanov, a Soviet commissar or President Vladimir Putin, no matter how harsh the regime, Russians have traditionally viewed their leaders as virtually infallible.

Contrary to the logic that oppression breeds discontent, Russians have endured some of the worst despots in history, yet they have a near-apocalyptic fear of change of power. The end of a regime promises not hope but a cataclysm.

Throughout Russian history, the population has supported its leaders regardless of the policies they implement, often despite them. This explains the Russian people’s enduring devotion to a “strong hand” ruler, and their equal distrust of pluralist democracy. In addition, when the “other” — for example, the United States or European Union — lectures the Kremlin on its oppressive politics, Russians band together even more tightly behind their ruler. As we are seeing with Putin today.

A portrait of Kremlin critic Boris Nemtsov, who was shot dead on Friday night, is seen during a march to commemorate him in central Moscow

A portrait of Kremlin critic Boris Nemtsov, shot dead near the Kremlin, is held aloft during a march to commemorate him in central Moscow, March 1, 2015. The words under the portrait read, “These bullets are meant for each of us.” REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

So the hopeful expectations that the Moscow protests sparked by the assassination of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov might sweep out the Putin regime may be far too hopeful.

Polls in February, just days before Nemtsov’s murder, show that only 15 percent of the public sympathized with the opposition, while 68 percent did not. A majority, 54 percent, think Russia under Putin is “heading in the right direction.”

Russians continue to like Putinism, a hybrid of central power, KGB-ism, state-controlled market economics with such freedoms as selective protests or publication of a few independent newspapers. Yet critics insist that if Putinism made sense in the 2000s, it doesn’t any more.

High oil prices earlier this century gave Russians a stable job market and access to consumer and luxury products they had never experienced before, this argument goes. The stability helped foster widespread public trust in the superiority of Russia’s state-directed, oil-driven businesses over an uncontrollable free-market version of capitalism.

Putin’s policies, however, have now brought on crippling Western economic sanctions in response to Moscow’s annexation of Crimea last March. Political opponents are no longer just arrested, as was anticorruption lawyer Alexei Navalny; they are being killed. There were, of course, deaths before — anti-Kremlin journalist Anna Politkovskaya was gunned downed in her building’s elevator. But Nemtsov, once a deputy prime minister and Putin colleague, was the first prominent politician to lose his life to Putinism.

A papier mache figure for carnival floats depicting Russian President Putin is pictured during preparations for the upcoming Rose Monday carnival parade in Mainz

A papier mache carnival float figure of Russian President Vladimir Putin for the coming Rose Monday carnival parade in Mainz, February 10, 2015. REUTERS/Ralph Orlowski

Yet only 12 percent of Russians think that they should confront Putin through demonstrations. The rest believe that it is far more important that Putin is standing up against the West. For they also believe the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization want to see Russia weak and brought “to its knees.”

True, Russians are not getting all the news. Roughly 90 percent of the population receives information from the Kremlin-controlled TV networks, which are afire with U.S. bashing and European Union thrashing because of their unwillingness to accept Russia as an equal. The problem may be, however, that Russians want to believe this inaccurate view. Alternative news sources, including the Internet, are available but remain largely unused.

Consider: Russians don’t want to think of themselves as aggressors in eastern Ukraine, so they choose the news that tells them the West created the Ukrainian crisis to undermine Russia’s position in the world.

Russians don’t want to be the citizens of a weak, insignificant country. It is hard for them to admit that since the end of communism in 1991, Russia has been losing size and status, even as Western cultural and economic influences increase. Russians historically came to believe that influencing Ukraine’s affairs is their right because Ukraine had long been a part of the immense empire. They may feel that the deaths of Putin’s opponents are sad occurrences; but they argue that, ultimately, it’s the critics’ fault because they are Western puppets hatefully presenting the Kremlin in an unfavorable light.

4 T

Alexander III, painted by I.N. Kramskoi. WIKIPEDIA/Commons

To show that Russia hasn’t entirely lost its famed soul to Putinism, an estimated 50,000 marched in Moscow to honor Nemtsov last week. Thousands more came to his funeral — but only because these events had few political slogans.

Russia’s reluctance to protest, though there have been occasional large waves of dissent, including the 2011-12 protests against Putin returning to the Kremlin for his third presidential term, reflects both our love for the tsar and our ingrained anti-Westernism. The 19th-century Russian Tsar Alexander III, a conservative, anti-European nationalist, once announced that Russia has only two allies — the army and the navy.

This attitude was shared by 20th-century Communists, including Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin. They both closed Soviet borders in an effort to restrict Western influences. Stalin repeatedly eliminated his political opponents — for example, prominent Bolshevik ideologue Nikolai Bukharin — by accusing them of being British capitalist spies.

Competition usually makes the Russian people feel insecure. When they don’t feel on top of the world, they accuse others of sabotaging their success.  Nemtsov was wrong to say that Putin, a former KGB recruiter who used to read people for a living, “has programmed Russians to hate strangers.” Putin didn’t need to do this. We Russians can be patriotically bigoted and nationalistically narrow-minded all by ourselves.

Therefore, tens of thousands of challengers who went to the streets to pay respect to Nemtsov’s memory won’t pose a threat to the Kremlin rule. There will still be millions who support the state, dutifully rallying behind the flag against the West and warning of chaos that may come if Putin is dismissed.

One hope remains, however: a palace coup. Other politicians, frightened by the prospect of untimely death in Putin’s Russia, may decide to put an end to Putinism.


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

The worry must be, however, that the palace is by now full of people at least as extreme than Mr Putin (that, after all, will be how they climbed the “vertical of power”), and that any coup is likely to make matters even worse.

Posted by Ian_Kemmish | Report as abusive

Do not even dream about a coup. Russia is not a banana republic like Ukraine and Putin is not a weakling like Yanukovich or Khrushchev or Gorbachev.

Posted by Kondra | Report as abusive

Amazing absolutely amazing, 90% believe state controlled media. Have you watched BBC CNN FOX etc. Or maybe just re read your article.

Posted by Moties001 | Report as abusive

Millions of people are wrong but the author is right. I just love academics.

Posted by Moties001 | Report as abusive

Nina Khrushcheva: “Putinism, a hybrid of central power, KGB-ism, state-controlled market economics… dutifully rallying behind the flag against the West…”
… If so sad, what do you care about all this. You no longer have anything to do with Russia. You were published here because of your great-grandfather, among other things, to discredit his name.

Posted by VVS | Report as abusive

When does the list of foreign sovereign leaders – “Not Behaving Correctly” – end ??

Posted by Laster | Report as abusive

Insightful article. Despots tend to be paranoid and like to create an imaginary enemy, but the real enemies lurk within their own circle. Putin must know why he employs special food tasters.

Posted by pbgd | Report as abusive

Russians know a leader when they see one. That’s why Obama and the Americans are laughed at.

Posted by waggg | Report as abusive

Speaking of opposition even Jesus Christ had one as a matter of fact that opposition still exists 2000 years latter. The most illiterate leader of the USSR your grandfather had one too. Many presidents of Banana republics fled their countries with multibillion dollar stashes to the safe heaven UK.Compared to them Mr Putin could easily stash at least a trillion dollar fortune and leave Russia to the savages. A question arises and that is what is he there for and the answer is he is there for his people he is there for the motherland. Every warning by Mr Putin in the past 15 years was ignored by the West and he was pushed into doing things that even he isn’t happy about one of them Ukraine. Mr Putin inherited from the drunkard Russia in ruins , corruption and Jewish mafia oligarchy that gathered around the drunkard and got state owned conglomerates for a bottle of whiskey.

Posted by Macedonian | Report as abusive

@waggg So did the Germans in the early half of the 20th century

@Moties001 Yeah FOX is definitely controlled by the white house!

Posted by FLparatooper | Report as abusive

Never, never take poll numbers in Russia on their face value, especially with the tight control that Putin presently has on the country’s media. People in Russia are scared to death at the moment and may answer a poll question in a way that does not reflect his/her actual opinion. Polls are not reliable in a country that is now being led by (basically) one person. The people are scared of Putin, the Duma has said nothing contrary to his edicts, an opposition leader was just killed by who knows who, and so on.

The Russian people themselves are good people. But when their government wants to take back control on everything around them, they most likely automatically go into survival mode and tell any authority or pollster around them that ”they are on their side”. I would. My grandparents were sent to Siberia in the 1940s. I wouldn’t put myself into the position that some government lackey declares I’m an enemy of the state and “disappears” me…

Posted by tomswift69 | Report as abusive

Every comment basically reinforces the article, thank you for only proving her point :)

Posted by pyradius | Report as abusive

There is no “the old saying” like this. It’s remaking.

Posted by linesman | Report as abusive

The article just convinces the world that the Russian people are just as guilty as their leaders and they should suffer the consequences for Putin’s invasion and annexation of the Crimea and Putin’s invasion of Eastern Ukraine. All sanctions should now be imposed directly against all Russians both in Russia and in the free world.

Posted by SixthRomeo | Report as abusive

Putin = hitler 2.0

Posted by PersonFromEarth | Report as abusive

Russians already have a way to end the Putin era (aside from the “palace coup”); they can simply vote in a new president in the next election. Same as we do in the United States, only there will be no group such as our Koch brothers to spend millions of dollars for misinformation to confuse the minds of lazy voters.

Posted by Roland.Menge | Report as abusive

Nemtsov became a greater symbol after his death than ever during his life. When was the last time his name was mentioned in the Western media? 10-15 years ago if ever…

As someone commented in the other thread:
… if the Putin was involved in Nemtsov’s death, then Nemtsov would have traveled to USA or Europe and “committed suicide”, “leaving” a suicide note of course. Instead, he (Nemtsov) was shot right on the door-step of Putin’s office/residence …

Posted by XenoneX | Report as abusive

Not even close on the numbers. About 5% backed Nemtsov and Vlad is close to 85% approval.

Posted by PenGun | Report as abusive

Now putting down the Russian people? What a grotesque article.

Posted by noneofdabove | Report as abusive

he is not a tsar. he is comrade vlad the impaler, the world’s first blood sucking transylvanian vampire.

Posted by CALSLAV | Report as abusive

More anti-Putin propaganda. What about some criticism of Nuland, Kerry, and Obama for the US-backed coup in Ukraine which has put us on the verge of nuclear war?

Posted by dkbaz | Report as abusive

Posted by dkbaz :
More anti-Putin propaganda. What about some criticism of Nuland, Kerry, and Obama for the US-backed coup in Ukraine which has put us on the verge of nuclear war?

Maybe fifty years from now we’ll be able to foia some truths in the matter if we don’t destroy ourselves first.

Posted by Laster | Report as abusive

The most interesting thing is that neither the author nor the editors nor readers do consider offensive the appeal of Mrs. Khrushcheva to overthrow the legal elected government (“One hope remains, however: a palace coup”) which is supported by the overwhelming majority of the population. It just means that the majority of Americans in their anti-Russian hysteria finally lost all sense of reality.

Posted by VVS | Report as abusive

There is no such saying in Russia “tsar is always right”. Mentioning all the shallow simplistic stereotypical “ideas” in this material would be a waist of time. I will just say that the “article” just shows typical ignorance about old and modern Russia with rusophobic accent. I doubt though the author is rusophobic. Everyone must make for bread and butter. Author is just attempting to play generally unknowledgeable and stereotupical western audience on Russia-hate bandwagon hoping to get some PR benefit. Good luck.

Posted by renza | Report as abusive

Nina Khrushcheva? Khrushchev’s granddaughter living in the States? And why on Earth her opinion on Russians is valuable all of a sudden? I’m so glad that at least Lenin hadn’t left direct relatives.

Posted by Russian_Bear | Report as abusive

I think Nina Khruscheva is very wrong. She doesn’t look at what brought Russia to its current state. She has to look at the history.

When USSR collapsed there was a strong interest in everything European to American among the Russian people. With the help of Boris Yeltsin the communist structure was replaced with free market economy, by the help of foreign advisers from Europe, but also USA. What actually happened was that the top communist leaders went straight in to capitalism. They were making the laws and they knew how to use them properly, the first oligarchs came.

Posted by AskeBluhme | Report as abusive

This is an odd arcticle. Russians believe in the state media and What do Americans do with CNN/Fox. UK has its BBC to parrot everything.

Posted by arman7 | Report as abusive

Vladimir Putin is a figment of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s imagination.

Posted by ARJTurgot2 | Report as abusive

agree with the author of the article: in vain American and British security forces killed Nemtsov, calculation of the revolution in Russia did not load

Posted by 11111111111111 | Report as abusive

This Reuters site and blog have become a puppet of US defense propaganda, catering misinformation unworthy of Reuters’ professionalism expected by its readers. Pl. escalate to needed corrections.

Posted by Mottjr | Report as abusive

Russia is in decline. The only people who trust Putin are the drunks and petty criminals who voted for him. The smart Russians live outside of Russia now. Investors are pulling their money out.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

“But Nemtsov, once a deputy prime minister and Putin colleague, was the first prominent politician to lose his life to PUTINISM.”

I can take or leave the whole free associtaion thing, the comments section is rife with this, but if you don’t want us using terms like Fidelity-Investment-Bondism, IMF-Facilitatism, National-Security-Directivism, you could unpackage those thoughts a bit.

Posted by Laster | Report as abusive

Russia now has a shrinking economy. They now have a GDP per capita lower than Slovenia and Equatorial Guinea. Lower than Slovakia and Czech Republic. Putin is turning Russia into the Sewer of the world, and the drunks and petty criminals who still live there, like him because he takes his shirt off in public.

What was once a proud nation has devolved into a sad clutch of freaks and losers.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

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