Russia's Most Popular Man
The most popular politician in Russia is among the West’s most reviled: Vladimir Putin. His personal style matches the muscular nationalism he displayed when he annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in 2014 and embarked on a surprise air campaign in Syria the following year. It resonates in a culture that admires strength. His instinctively conservative social views, reflected in an anti-gay law that he passed in defiance of foreign protests, also go down well in a country where liberal values are scarce. Rising oil income in the first part of his rule boosted living standards and allowed Russia to reassert power following a decade of post-Soviet humiliation. Now Putin’s personal appeal is being tested by economic hardship caused by a collapse in oil prices and financial and energy sanctions provoked by the Ukraine intervention. His popularity has hardly been dented. At least so far.
As Putin, 63, prepares to stand for election again in 2018, his approval ratings have fallen slightly. Still, they are at a remarkably high level of more than 80 percent and his United Russia party won its biggest-ever majority in parliamentary elections Sept. 18, though observers and opposition parties complained the vote wasn't fair. Putin presents a carefully constructed public personality through TV. He appears daily as an iron man of action, rebuking government officials, hosting foreign leaders, even taming wild animals and hang gliding. Cultivating his aura of power, Putin is legendary for showing up late — he’s kept the Pope, Queen Elizabeth II, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.S. President Barack Obama waiting. The private man is harder to observe. Sports is a passion — he’s a black belt in judo, a swimmer, skier and a keen ice hockey player. The public got a glimpse of his domestic life when he announced on TV in 2013 that he was divorcing his wife, Lyudmila. She was a former air hostess he married early in his career as an officer of the KGB, the Soviet spy agency and secret police force. Their two adult daughters are rarely in the public eye. Occasionally, the Putin stone face softens: After winning a third presidential term in 2012 following a tumultuous challenge from street protesters, he shed tears at a televised victory rally. More typical: In 2007, he met Merkel at his Sochi residence and let his pet Labrador retriever sniff his unnerved guest. She’s known to be afraid of dogs.
Putin honed his survival techniques as a deprived child in postwar Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). Two older siblings died during the city’s 900-day wartime German siege, according to a 2013 book by a distant relative, Alexander Putin. His mother barely survived. A 2000 autobiographical book, “First Person,” accounts for most of what is known about Putin’s early life and forebears. These include a grandfather, Spiridon Putin, who was a cook for Lenin and Stalin. The book says the Putins lived in a small room in a communal apartment without hot water or a proper bathroom. There he is said to have chased rats, learned martial arts and dreamed of working in intelligence. In 1989, as a spy in East Germany, he was forced to destroy documents when crowds tried to break into the KGB office. He said the discovery of the powerlessness of his Soviet bosses traumatized him. When Communism collapsed, Putin switched his public allegiance to the Orthodox Church, to which two-thirds of the population profess to belong. Since 2014, isolated by the U.S. and Europe over the Crimea annexation and his role in a pro-Russian rebellion in Ukraine, he's sought to build closer ties to China and other powers.
Putin once described the collapse of the Soviet Union as the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century. He sees himself as a guardian of Russia’s unique place in the world, under assault from a decadent West. His strong approval ratings suggest his constituents take a similar view. Still, despite the popularity of his antagonism to the West, the longest recession in more than two decades has cut into support for the ruling party. Though it won 54 percent of the vote in September, it was polling as high as 60 percent 18 months earlier. The question is whether Putin can maintain his image as Russia's protector.
The Reference Shelf
- A report by Chatham House looks at the legacy of Putin’s rule.
- The Kremlin maintains a personal Putin website in Russian and English.
- In her book “The Man Without a Face,” the journalist Masha Gessen says Putin never understood Russia’s leap toward political freedom after Communism because he wasn’t part of it, a Washington Post review says.
- A BBC profile.
- A QuickTake Q&A on the relationship between Putin and Donald Trump.
- Putin discussed the U.S. presidential candidates, Syria, the euro, oil, allegations of a cyber hack and a territorial spat with Japan in a Bloomberg News interview in September 2016.
First published Jan. 5, 2015
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