An Inside Look at Our New Best Friend

Originally published for The Penn Spectrum

ARTICLE BY LENA LESZINSKY

So we have a new president coming up, don’t we? President-Elect Trump, with his loud opinion and active Twitter and very unpredictable views—except for one. He likes Putin, and he likes him a lot. But why? Putin hates all things to do with civil rights, individual state border sovereignty, and defenseless innocents in Aleppo. Why him?

I’m Russian, right? So logic dictates—or maybe a lack of logic—why Russians (and Trump) like him. I mean, he’s a strong leader, right? Russia’s used to those—Stalin, Lenin, Tsar Peter I…but they’re also used to weak leaders. Just to name a few, Gorbachev, Yeltsin, Brezhnev (when he became too senile to actually count as a leader), Khrushchev (when he allowed some capitalistic aspects into the Soviet Union while putting up the Wall). All relatively weak leaders, controlled by a puppet that was either the oligarchs or the Party (the communist oligarchs).

So it’s not that Russia loves their strong leaders. If you look at history, Russians kind of do better with them, as Russia is a big and unruly state that always seems to be falling apart. Stalin knew what he was doing—state unity was big under him (since all dissenters were killed or made powerless or sent to a Siberian gulag). It’s that Russia itself likes to be strong—as it was under all of the leaders listed above (except Yeltsin, but that’s just because of the Fall). Russia is used to being a great world power, whether it was leading with Prussia and Great Britain or vying for ultimate nuclear power with a very paranoid U.S.

I don’t like Putin, by the way. Thought I’d give a disclaimer, in case my tone wasn’t clear enough. But a lot of my family friends—and family—do. So I thought—why not actually ask people, from Russia and in Russia, what they think of the big bad Dobby and why they think so?

I interviewed four people, two from here in the U.S, who lived most of their adult lives in the U.S.S.R, who both watch Russian TV and news more than anything else, and two who still live in the Russian Federation. I kind of expected that the people who live here would be more open to the idea of Putin as a demon (or at least some sort of totalitarian despot)—but I was mistaken.

There were seven questions relating to Russia in the world today and as a previous part of the Soviet Union. Answers were translated from Russian languages done over iffy Skype connections, so forgive the lack of articles and understand the translations aren’t exact. Red and green are responses from those living in Russia, blue and purple those from people living in Michigan. All anonymity will be upheld, since we don’t know what Putin does to dissenters (but I’m betting on the gulag).

So enjoy the rare look into the mind of the typical Russian/Soviet bear-person.

  • What’s your opinion on Putin?

I like, on one side, the stability and wish to move forward, but as always, not all information gets to him. I think that not all of what’s happening is from him, but bureaucracy. What else I think is not so good, everyone he knows from school and work, is working with him now, but the personal connection doesn’t mean they’re competent.

Putin is the best of the three presidents that have been in Russia, between Yeltsin and Medvedev. For the current situation, there’s no alternative.

Foreign intelligence officers are the KGB elite and naturally he is strong, smart, brave man. However, I believe that KGB officers have the special training and mentality, which helps in their profession but does not fit good to be the leader of big country. Plus I think that for presidents should be rotation. If the man keep absolute power more than ten years, he start to believe that he know everything, can do everything and nobody can replace him.

I like him. I think, at the moment he is a proper leader for Russia: strong, smart, educated, with a good sense of humor, with attractive personality.

  • What are your friends’ opinions on Putin?

For the most part, people uphold him. But I remember the time when he and Medvedev went to the Black Sea and went underwater and found an archeological site. But this is where tons of people swam before. It must have been put there for press. I get feeling that everything is staged. When they visit a province, people do everything but paint the grass green to make it seem as if everything is good, and don’t mention deficiencies and unhappiness with how things are going.

Among my friends, opinions vary. From complete disapproval to full support. But latter are majority.

Different: somebody like, most don’t like.

I think, most of them like Putin.

  • What do you see on the media on Putin and his opponents?

Not just him, but all leaders: they give him a pamphlet in the morning of information, and I think that people give him a redacted sort of version of the news, so that he doesn’t exactly get the whole picture. Basically all magazines don’t have critics of Putin. There are people who are on the news, his opponents, a very small percentage, that talk against him and the current state of Russia, but that’s not all the time. Some sort of freedom must be given. But it’s not enough. They still basically all have the same position: being with Putin. Showing other candidates really happens only right before voting. A constructive position is accepted, as long as they give an option besides just criticizing Putin. But still, parties take others’ suggestions into stride and affect change by fixing a road or doing something or other to better Russia and the community. But still, not all change goes where it needs to go.

From the media, there are published many different opinions, including that of the opposition. The majority does not uphold the opposition. In general, these are people who have brought a lot of bad things to the country and population. We don’t trust them.

Russian pro government media naturally support Putin, no criticize. And in some opposition internet media, you can hear many strong statements about Putin policy and him personally. To my surprise, no repressions for these people. It looks Putin does not care about it.

I was able to watch debates on a main Russian TV channel at time of election to Duma. The opinions expressed openly were frequently very negative towards current president and Russia situation in general. Something like this would not be possible in dictatorship regime – how frequently contemporary Russia is portrayed by Western world. But the opponents of Putin haven’t come up with any alternative that sounded interesting or serious enough to be considered for implementation.  

  • Has your opinion on Putin changed in the past few years (since the Ukraine and Crimea incidents)? If so, what changed your opinion? What do you think on Syria?

I and others thought in the beginning that it was good to join the Crimea, but then as we thought more on what happened, we thought that the voting in Crimea was driven more on emotions than analytical thinking. If the collecting of votes and opinion had been done in such a way as to avoid hostility, it would have been better. It’s complicated. With all the sanctions and inflation, people began to think, was it worth it? People who went to Ukraine recently said that everything’s fine, and more or less cleaned up. For me, all this bombing doesn’t seem to be fit for the 21st century and our modern civilization. Even with the satellite pictures of trunks entering Ukraine from Russia, pictures can be altered. Even with the plane being shot down, no one really knows exactly what happened, and knowing more as time goes further forward isn’t realistic. I don’t know how people got into Ukraine, but there was really no organized movement on the side of Russia, an obvious movement from Putin. What they show is not what’s happening. It’s an uneducated mess, lack of intellect is what’s causing all the mess. And on Syria, we’re in there because other people are there, and we’re interfering because other people are there. If we left them alone, they would have solved it themselves, probably. And when a third party comes in, it gets a lot more complicated. It’s all complicated, and no one is solving it and sitting down and talking about it as nations.

Yes, changed very seriously. In beginning, I didn’t vote for him. Now I do. Thanks to Putin, Russia is getting up from its knees, starting to be respected and to some extent, feared. I’m used to being proud of motherland. I don’t like when people laugh at it.

Yes, his decision about Ukraine show that he could not evaluate all “side effects”of his actions and he does not has good analytical team (or did not want to ask specialists).

No. I liked him before, and that hasn’t changed.

  • What’s your view of the USSR and the way things are now in Russia in comparison? Do you think Putin is taking Russia on the right path?

It was worse when everything was falling apart in the 90s, but then everything seemed to sort itself out, and it’s still hard, but more or less I think it’s going on the right path. We had better culture and education in USSR, and there was free health care back then. But also no one really had anything, which was always. But overall, communism was never reached, and socialist and communist ideals are impossible to reach. The USSR was going towards a dead end.

I was born and grew up in USSR. I think that its fall is a tragedy. I hope that I live to see trial of people who caused it. Of course, Russia is far from the power of the USSR, but very shy steps towards economic development are being made. Putin is taking Russia to right direction, but surroundings are messing with his plans. The “elite” needs to be kicked out, the wealth that they unjustly gained should be taken away.

In general, Putin has no sympathy to communists. However, tried to create the “Great Russia” which can rule of former Soviet republics. It is big mistake and Ukraine the example.

The way USSR was developing was leading the country to the dead-end. Perestroika began the process which is under way now, and going at much faster pace than I expected. Russia is becoming powerful again, respected. Latest moves of Western world, including sanctions, are proof of that: the world felt comfortable with powerless Russia. That is not the case anymore. Of course, it will take much longer for Russia to become a great for everyone who lives there, but I truly believe that it will happen. I think, Putin is leading the country in right direction.

  • Do you think American or European capitalism and economic systems are better?

In principle, I don’t think that either one is completely right. I think that parts from each are good to be merged into one. I think economists need to decide what’s good, not the government. The government is important to keep some regulation, because you can’t just have free market.

No, the American or European system is not good. Capitalism is old and holds back development.

I think the American economic system is more effective. However, I don’t like that American economy stimulate people to work more and more to buy more merchandise which really they don’t need, to buy more big and expensive homes, cars and so on. In Europe people don’t have that luxury, but they work less and have more free time to spend with family and friends.

European capitalism is, probably, better in a way that it provides more security for population of those countries.

  • How do you view the recent weakening of Russia’s economy and the sanctions?

I don’t think there was ever a really strong economy. Real numbers I don’t think anyone knows due to misreporting. Whatever was produced, they were not sold in other countries or Russia, but now, the sanctions seem to helping infuse power into Russian industry because they’re trying to make the goods themselves, which is boosting Russian economy’s power. But what is bad is people take loans, and supposedly, they do it to start producing something. Instead, they lie to the banks and invest their money in euros and dollars, which takes money out of the Russian system. Someone in the government says that now that’s why the dollar is so high now.

This is the result of many years of chaos and the purposeful demolition of the USSR’s economics. During the USSR, we didn’t have inflation or economic crisis.

For some reasons Russian government was sure that the oil and gas prices will rise forever. For the last ten years Russia got the huge “oil” money. And practically it was no big investments in science, new technology and infrastructure. In the same time it was big military investments. And now the Russian economy is in big trouble. The similar situation was in USSR in early eighties.

Sanctions were a big hit on Russian economy. However, that only propelled local manufacturing stimulating local small businesses to grow or rise. Which is a very positive moment!