Just as Russia’s erstwhile strongman Vladimir Putin met with North Korea’s great leader with cup in hand, the Levada Center, a respectable Moscow-based polling organization, revealed that 80 percent of Russians consider their country to be “great.”
The irony should be painful.
Putin goes begging to one of the world’s least great countries, thereby demonstrating that Russia is anything but great, while Russians remain persuaded that Mother Russia exudes greatness.
It’s actually worse than that.
Back in 2016, only 64 percent thought Russia was great. And in 2002, three years after Putin ascended the Kremlin’s throne, the figure stood at 43 percent.
Any minimally objective person capable of withstanding the allure of Putin’s crumbling personality cult would recognize that his misrule has succeeded in transforming Russia from the status of a great power to the status of a geopolitical lightweight, an economic beggar, and an international rogue. If those qualities make a country great, then all the more power to Mother Russia.
But note that perceptions of greatness almost doubled from the time Putin seized power in 1999 to today. This suggests that Russians identify Russia with Putin and, therefore, view their country as great only because they still continue to view Putin in a positive light.
And that, in turn, is ultimately testimony to the power of Putin’s propaganda machine and the continued influence of his ragged personality cult.
In a recent Telegram posting, the rabid propagandist Margarita Simonian referred to Putin as her Nachalnik (NB the upper case), a Russian word that translates best as boss. She should have referred to him as President, so calling him Boss reveals that her attitude toward Putin is not one of institutional respect, but of adulatory subservience. As the Levada poll indicates, Simonyan isn’t the only Russian with “Putin envy.”
Hence, even though Putin has pushed his country over a cliff and is likely to bring about chaos, civil war, and collapse, Russians blithely continue to ignore the writing on the wall and fixate on their Bossman.
There is a silver lining in this sad tale. Contrary to his expectations, Putin is not eternal, and some Russian analysts predict his physical and political demise by the end of the year. Whenever that event transpires, the end of Putin will leave his Russian fans with a political vacuum at the core of their political lives. It’s possible, given Russian political culture’s authoritarian bent, that they’ll fixate their adoration on some other man.
But it’s also possible that their love of greatness and their identification of great Russia with Putin will also open opportunities for change. When their Bossman goes, who knows? Russians might even consider growing up and abandoning their infantile infatuation with “great” father figures.
About the Author
Dr. Alexander Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers-Newark. A specialist on Ukraine, Russia, and the USSR, and on nationalism, revolutions, empires, and theory, he is the author of 10 books of nonfiction, including Pidsumky imperii (2009); Puti imperii (2004); Imperial Ends: The Decay, Collapse, and Revival of Empires (2001); Revolutions, Nations, Empires: Conceptual Limits and Theoretical Possibilities (1999); Dilemmas of Independence: Ukraine after Totalitarianism (1993); and The Turn to the Right: The Ideological Origins and Development of Ukrainian Nationalism, 1919–1929 (1980); the editor of 15 volumes, including The Encyclopedia of Nationalism (2000) and The Holodomor Reader (2012); and a contributor of dozens of articles to academic and policy journals, newspaper op-ed pages, and magazines. He also has a weekly blog, “Ukraine’s Orange Blues.”
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