Putin’s record in perspective

Amid talk of whether Vladimir Putin would leave the G20 early and numerous reports of frosty encounters between him and other summit leaders, Western media coverage has generally operated from the sometimes forcefully expressed underlying assumption that the West is dealing with an erratic and dangerous dictator whose rule damages the once-great country he leads.

Since uninterrogated assumptions are never helpful, it may be worth seeing if there is another perspective available.

I will not argue that Putin is a democrat.

An abiding image from my visit to Russia in 2008 was that of armed and uniformed people on the street. So, not Scandinavia.

His background – like that of George Bush the elder – was in intelligence and Russian democracy.

It remains imperfect, with extraordinary concentration of wealth, legally mandated internal surveillance of its citizens, pliable courts and very little civic opposition.

(Then again, the Snowden revelations, the use of torture and drone strikes by Western nations, the homogeneity of our parties and the power of our own richest should give us pause.)

Nevertheless, there are good reasons – beyond media control – why the Russian president enjoys poll ratings of which an Abbott or an Obama could only dream.

To understand them, a brief retrospective is in order.

The fall of the Soviet Union saw state assets distributed to party bosses and friends of Boris Yeltsin, himself a weak and unstable, albeit authoritarian leader (when sober).

Unemployment and crime skyrocketed, and pensions and wages fell through the floor (when they were paid at all).

I remember being shocked when I heard Russian and Ukrainian friends referring to the Brezhnev era as schastliviye vyek (a happy age) – because people had a job and food to eat.

Gorbachev, beloved of many in the West, is regarded by just as many Russians with loathing, as the man who opened the path to Yeltsin and the wholesale destruction of the state. Continue reading

Justin Glyn is a Jesuit presently studying for the priesthood.

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