The New Yorker’s David Remnick once described Russia as “journalistic heaven.” During the Cold War, the USSR was the only rival to the United States. Now, despite its weakened economy, Russia is still under the spotlight of international media.
When people discuss Russia, particularly the rule of Vladimir Putin, they often refer to “forever Putin” – the strongman’s repeatedly extended presidency. In July, the Russian government passed constitutional amendments that affected areas including national law, social welfare, the Kremlin’s power, the Orthodox faith, and heterosexual marriage. The most controversial amendment was one that could extend Putin’s rule until 2036.
Despite the combination of an oil price crash and the Covid-19 pandemic, nearly 78% of voters supported the constitutional reform. While Putin’s dictatorial approach has been widely criticized abroad, he is still backed by the majority of citizens at home. It is worth pondering the question: What is the making of Putin’s legacy?
The rise of Putin
In my recent publication Stepping Inside a Foreign Land – Russia, I’ve reviewed his 20-year presidency. Back when Putin took presidential office in 2000, Russians were sick of Boris Yeltsin’s government and the economic chaos it had created. Against such a backdrop, Russians had high hopes for Putin’s leadership. And they still do.
Putin was praised for his tough approach on oligarchs – a small group of wealthy and powerful who control the majority of the state assets – the way he handled the Chechen separatist movement and other achievements. Fueled by the high oil prices in the early 2000s, the Russian economy was also gaining momentum.
In 2006, Russia was one of the world’s top 10 economies with the crown of BRIC, which was tipped for being one of the most fast-growing emerging markets. Even though such economic prosperity and Putin’s policies appeared coincidental, he was still seen as the man who made Russia great again after the collapse of the USSR.
Russia and the West
Coming from a background as a KGB officer, Putin is acutely cautious about national-security issues, so his government put a huge emphasis on military defense. In Global Firepower’s 2020 Military Strength Ranking, Russia has the second-highest score after the United States out of 138 countries.
Russia’s strong military power is continuously under the radar of its Western counterparts. Looking back at the past foreign policy of the United States, from Bill Clinton to George W Bush and Barack Obama, their strategy had been pressuring Russia by imposing international law and expanding the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
In the eyes of Putin, Russia has been seen as the “other” diplomatically. Instead of seeking integration into the European Union, Putin’s administration is reinforcing an ideology that focuses on its domestic society and national culture.
To achieve that, the church-state alliance plays a strategic role, and the gay-propaganda law introduced in 2013 was an example. At the time, Russia was preparing to welcome athletes and visitors from around the world to Sochi for the 2014 Winter Olympics. All of a sudden, the unexpected law provoked controversy and the global discourse was almost dominated by Russia’s LGBT rights rather than the Olympic Games.
While the international community called for a boycott of the Sochi Olympics, the gay-propaganda law, which prohibited advocating non-traditional sexual relations, was warmly received by the Russian society. A survey conducted by independent Russian polling organization Levada Center found that more than 70% of 1,600 respondents from 45 regions supported the bill, while only 12% objected to it.
Orthodox Christianity is the most common religion in Russia, and the Orthodox Church has denounced homosexuality as condemned by the Bible. Putin’s anti-LGBT measures are only a means to advocate conservative values that differentiate Russia from the West culturally.
Such anti-LGBT rhetoric also appeared in constitutional amendments. It was also used in political propaganda to call for support on such constitution reforms.
Nostalgia and Russian Identity
In his book Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, political scientist Benedict Anderson highlighted the emotional aspect of nationalism, and how it plays a crucial role in identity politics. He argued that feelings such as nostalgia help individuals reimagine and construct their national identity.
In Russia, more than 60% the population was born before the Soviet Union collapsed. Their place of birth is still written “USSR” in their passports. Nostalgia for the Soviet Union remains an essential component for some people to interpret their Russian identity.
Historians once studied some letters with the theme “to the future generation” written in the 1960s. One letter said, “We’re a little jealous of all you who are celebrating the centenary of our Soviet motherland.” Ironically, the Soviet Union only had 74 years of history.
In an opinion piece in The Moscow Times, Andrei Kolesnikov of independent think-tank the Carnegie Moscow Center said the majority of Russia needs a set of values that are “crucial to its own survival,” and that “these values will make Russia great again.”
To provoke such emotions, targeting a common enemy is a pragmatic approach. As Kolesnikov put it: “The people is an abstract concept, but the enemy of the people is entirely concrete. Its negative foundation – hatred of the enemy, and the besieged fortress mentality – is a unifying concept.
“This aggressive attitude toward a hostile outside world has essentially replaced Marxism-Leninism as something for Russians to rally around.”
Enemy of the people
Some constitutional amendments indeed carry the rhetoric of threat to survival by highlighting “the Russian constitution over international treaties and other acts” and “ban giving away Russian territory to other countries.” Many observers interpret the “ban” as referring to Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
Since the imposition of Western sanctions on Russia as a punishment for the Crimea annexation in 2014, the United States has been portrayed as the enemy of the Russian majority by state propaganda. Such propaganda diverts the public’s attention from the economic recession at home to the American manipulation of the global economy.
Another enemy of the people is the opposition. Russian society has seen the rise of referring to the opposition as a fifth column (literally a group of agents who attempt to undermine a nation’s solidarity from within), or Russia’s traitors. The opposition sometimes even faces violence from Putin’s supporters.
Foreign press accounts often suggest the opposition is being targeted by Putin’s administration, but many Russians may find this description too simplistic – Russia, in fact, lacks a system in which Putin can even have a rival. Moreover, around 20% of the population was born during Putin’s terms, meaning they have never experienced political leadership from someone else.
While the Western media put the spotlight on Putin’s potential presidency until 2036, the question is why he had to amend the constitutions four years prior to the next election. Alexander Baunov, a Carnegie researcher and former diplomat, interpreted it as that “the Kremlin wanted to re-consolidate the power of the regime without Russian society or local and foreign observers having time to react.”
He added that Putin might not seek a fifth presidential term in 2024 even though the new constitution allows him to do so. To him, the constitution amendments resemble the end of an “era of dissembling,” meaning that Russia no longer aspires to be a rules-based European country.
If the constitution of the country can be changed by the president himself, Russia is on its way to authoritarian leadership. Even though most of the terms in these constitutional amendments are just an extension of Putin’s previous policies, such as from the gay-propaganda law to a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, the bottom line is that his game plan is now backed by the constitution.
In this case, even if Putin does not seek a fifth presidential term, the new president will have to follow the system curated by Putin over the years. No matter if he is still the president or not, his legacy will last until 2036 and beyond.
Brian Yeung is the founder of Brianstorm Content Solutions and the author of Stepping Inside a Foreign Land – Russia, published in 2020. With a decade of experience as a communications professional, he has contributed to more than 10 Chinese, English and Russian media outlets including print, online and broadcast.