Putin v. the People, the Perilous Politics of a Divided Russia (Book Review)

Pamir Dietrich, Ayşe
For centuries Russia had been ruled by authoritarian tsars, and Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian tendencies grew out the previous periods of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. Putin did not create authoritarianism, but he inherited it and is a product of it. He justifies his authoritarian style of leadership to garner popular support for his policies which he claims strengthen the nation, protect Russia from both external and internal threats, and benefit ordinary citizens. Often referred to as a modern-day tsar, Putin’s popularity is based on an image of leadership that can be traced back to the Soviet era and beyond into the time of the tsars. This image is that of an effective leader prepared to defend the honor and position of a nation that is a self-reliant world power. Putin has revived the policy of attaining security through the overt use of Russian power, an attitude that would have been familiar to the tsars. This book is about what ordinary Russians think about Putin. What has made Putin so popular? Who are his supporters? And why do they support him? It is also about struggle and resistance, the rise of authoritarianism and its opponents. The authors dedicate a chapter to his biography at the beginning of the book, and in the following chapters discuss his strategies, his policies in handling tragic events and turning them into his advantage, the inside of his mantra “Don’t excite the people”, and how he has used existing but dormant social events, wedge issues, against the opposition to the advantage of the regime. In addition, the writers examine the mix of people and politics in the formation and maintenance of a regime centered on a single charismatic, authoritarian figure. Greene and Robertson in their book show us how Putin rose “from lowly KGB colonel to an extraordinary position in the politics of the country”, and explore the role of Russian society in building Putin’s power, what authors call “the co-construction of Russian power”, and examine Russian citizens’ unconditional support for him. The authors’ approach to understanding the basis and application of Putin’s power is to investigate the actual relationship between the authoritarian regime and ordinary citizens, not only from the perspective of those at the top, but also that of those on the bottom. By conducting interviews and surveys the authors sought to determine the reasons for Putin’s popularity and the methods he used to maintain popular support, such as control of the media and dominating it; efforts to whip up “collective euphoria” over current events in the region and then gauging popular reaction; creating strategies to gain and keep the advantage over political rivals. However, the authors assert that the success of all these methods is contingent on popular response, what the authors term “co-construction”. Loyalty to Putin becomes equivalent to loyalty to the community, and many Russians will claim that Putin’s power is not simply his ability to impose his will on Russian society, but is actually the result of numerous private citizens acting as voluntary enforcers of his will across society. Examples of this can take many forms, such as “the boss who insists his employees vote; the school teacher who inculcates uncritical acceptance of official stories of Putin’s heroism” etc. However, the authors argue that basing his power so heavily on the support of ordinary Russian citizens has left Putin vulnerable should popular attitudes change. If the government or media become less effective in shaping public opinion, or public perceptions of society or the economy shift, or if Russian social institutions such as churches and schools begin to adopt a more critical stance toward Putin and his government, Putin’s ability to maintain his hold on power becomes more uncertain. The authors conclude by tracing Putin’s metamorphosis from a tool of the oligarchs intended to protect their interests, to becoming the “father of the nation”. They describe the ways in which he was able to use incessant media coverage and impose his views across all segments of Russian society in the course of achieving his current status. The writers also argue that Putin’s vast network of popular support makes him difficult to replace, since neither his charism nor the support that it has garnered can be easily transferred to a new leader. This work is well researched and well written and provides not only information on Putin’s life and career, but extremely informative about how he attained his current popularity and status in Russia, and how he maintains it. The book is highly recommended for anyone interested in not only Vladimir Putin and contemporary Russian politics and society, but also for anyone interested in the means by which charismatic authoritarian politicians rise to power, silence or eliminate their opponents, and maintain their hold on power.
International Journal of Russian Studies


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Citation Formats
A. Pamir Dietrich, “Putin v. the People, the Perilous Politics of a Divided Russia (Book Review),” International Journal of Russian Studies, vol. 8, no. 8/2 2019, pp. 194–195, 2019, Accessed: 00, 2023. [Online]. Available: https://www.ijors.net/issue8_2_2019/reviews/ayse_dietrich.html.