Why Many Russians See a Hero in Putin

Western leaders and ‘mainstream media’ often call President Putin an authoritarian leader or even a dictator. So, why do so many Russians see a hero in Putin?

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is often called an authoritarian leader or even a dictator, especially by Western leaders and ‘mainstream media’. For example, US President Joe Biden claims that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is “not a decent man” but “a dictator” who has concerned him for decades while addressing a shift in U.S. policy allowing Ukraine to strike near Russia’s border with American weapons.[1] According to this narrative, the 87 per cent of Russians who recently voted for him were victims of coercion and Putin’s opponents were imprisoned, exiled or dead.

How true are these allegations?

It is certain that Putin and his supporters control the political establishment, the mainstream media and the majority in the Duma (i.e., Russian Parliament). But that, in itself, is not enough to understand why Putin is genuinely popular. His rating has fluctuated from 60 per cent to 90 per cent over the years. His style of government can be described as ‘plebiscitary autocracy’, in that he is confirmed as leader in every election and finds a way to communicate directly with the Russian people, as Tsar Nicholas II believed he could.[2] As noted by Vladimir Brovkin, a Russian-born American historian who was associate professor of Soviet History at Harvard University,

[Putin’s] style of leadership is unique. For Yeltsin was either drunk or sick or both to speak coherently, and Gorbachev’s talking to common people was staged and artificial. Brezhnev could not utter a word without a piece of paper. Khrushchev liked to be photographed with common people but he could not grasp any of the serious data, and Stalin never spoke with common folds after 1928.”[3]

On 1st January 1992, “the evil Soviet empire”, to borrow a term from a speech delivered by U.S. President Ronald Reagan to the National Association of Evangelicals on 8 March 1983, finally came to an end. It collapsed and was replaced by 15 new nations, the largest and most populous of which is the Russian Federation. The imperial tricolour (white-blue-red) flag introduced by Peter the Great (a tsar in the late 17th century who is best known for his admiration of Western ideas, science and culture) was readopted as the national flag in 1993. The Russian Church’s national holidays were restored.

For most Russians, however, the early 1990s was a time of despair, uncertainty and hardship. Back in those days, real power laid entirely in the hands of local oligarchs, “a group of unscrupulous businessmen who controlled the industry, the banks, the police, and the media”.[4] As noted by Orlando Figes, a British historian best known for his outstanding books on Russian history, those oligarchs “behaved as if they were the government”, demanding posts from the then President, Boris Yeltsin, who was barely able to carry out his job due to heart attacks and heavy drinking habits. “The state was in danger of breaking into fiefdoms controlled by the oligarchs”, Figes says.[5]

By the end of 1995, about a quarter of the Russian population was living below the poverty line. Since the process of disintegration of the Soviet Union had affected the economy, the supply chains of distribution were broken and branches of industry were left on their own. As a result, ‘empty shelves in food stores, lines of angry people trying to buy food, a sense of power vacuum, and a permanent political crisis made the situation similar to 1917 as well’.[6] Life expectancy had plummeted to 58 years for men, and the number of deaths exceeded the number of births by a factor of 170 to 100.[7] The per capita homicide rate in Russia as a whole was about four times higher than in the United States.[8] Drunkenness was such a problem that in some parts of the nation one in six children was born mentally retarded to an alcoholic mother.[9] A French diplomat reported endemic food shortages in all parts of the Russian Federation; breakdown of economic production and of all public services (transport, communications, health, justice); a vertiginous rise in criminality; and the collapse of the family unit.[10]

In St. Petersburg, more than 50,000 people were homeless and a million more were at risk of finding themselves on the streets overnight.[11] With a population of about five million, St. Petersburg was officially declared to have one million alcoholics and 300,000 drug addicts.[12] The suicide rate in the city was among the highest in the world. Tuberculosis, diphtheria, and dysentery had reappeared. Average life expectancy fell from 72 in 1987 to 64 eight years later.[13] Almost all Russian businesses in St Petersburg paid for protection in one form or another, either directly to organised crime groups or to private security companies with links to organised crime.[14] The gangs used grenades, rockets, anti-tank missiles and remote-controlled car bombs. Petty crime and street robberies were a daily threat.

It was in the midst of this tragic reality that Putin had to work in St. Petersburg. He had just returned from Germany to his hometown. In due course, he became the city’s deputy mayor, and, in 1996, Putin moved to Moscow. Honesty was paramount to him and most people who worked with Putin maintain that he did not accept bribes. The head of the Trade Committee, Sergei Pokrovsky, said that Putin was one of the few officials in Mahor’s Cabinet who were clean.[15]  Putin’s refusal of invitation even to have a lunch left the image of an incorruptible public servant. He felt that if he accepted anything, this would be morally wrong and could be used against him.[16] When Boris Berezovsky, the notorious oligarch, opened a car dealership selling foreign cars in St. Petersburg and offered a new car as a token of appreciation, Putin refused to accept it. Berezovksy was stunned. ‘He was the first bureaucrat who didn’t take bribes’, he told journalist Masha Gessen years later.[17]

Boris Yeltsin was re-elected in 1996 thanks to the support of these unscrupulous oligarchs.[18] And yet, he began thinking of the “incorruptible” Putin as a possible Prime Minister in the summer of 1998. ‘I profoundly admired his actions’, Yeltsin later wrote.[19] Putin had already been effectively in charge of Russia’s second city, St. Petersburg. He impressed Yeltsin with his straight approach and for not allowing himself to be manipulated by anyone. ‘We need a person who is intelligent, democratic, but also firm in the military style’, he argued. Putin, Yeltsin thought, matched that description.[20]

On August 5, 1997, Yeltsin summoned Putin and told him, ‘I have made a decision. I would like to offer you the post of Prime Minister.’[21] Putin first hesitated. ‘I hadn’t thought of that. I don’t know if I’m ready for that,’ he said. ‘Think about it. I have faith in you,’ Yeltsin replied.[22] On August 16, Putin was confirmed as Prime Minister by the Duma by a narrow margin.[23] On December 31, 1999, Yeltsin announced his resignation, choosing then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin as interim president.

During the following presidential elections, Putin’s refusal to campaign was aimed at demonstrating that he was above all political machinations. ‘All election propaganda is dishonest’, he said. ‘It involves looking millions of people in the eye and making promises that you know are impossible to keep. I can’t bring myself to do this.’ Putin would not hold election rallies or participate in televised debates, let alone broadcast political messages on radio and television. ‘This is publicity,’ he told a journalist. He didn’t intend to put himself on the same level of ‘selling Tampax or Snickers’.[24]

Putin was elected President following an election held on March 26, 2000. He won in the first round with 53 per cent of the vote.[25] His only serious competitor was the Communist Party leader, Gennady Zyuganov.[26] Putin’s criticism of the old Soviet-style bureaucracy as “an exclusive and often arrogant caste, considering state service as an alternative form of business” formed the core of his election campaign.  Numerous, sometimes more than a hundred, different permits had to be collected to open a new business. “People rightly say,” Putin said, “that you can’t solve even a small problem without paying a bribe.”[27] “Russia must try to build a society where state officials cannot use the interests of the state … as a cover to fill their own pockets. There can’t be any kind of positive development in this country until this problem [of corruption] is solved,” he told a television audience in 2000, during the election campaign.[28]

Ordinary Russians, desperate for an end to their misery, found in their new president an energetic politician who could lead their country towards a brighter future. Putin’s talk “conveyed the image of a tough, determined young political outsider from a background which most readers could related to, who thought and talked in ways which ordinary people could understand”.[29] While he sought to give hope to Russians, he was brutally frank about what needed to be done. Russia had to find its own path, “combining the principles of a market economy and democracy with Russians realities”. What was needed, according to him, was not a socialist ideology but “an organic unification of universal human values with the traditional values of Russia, first and foremost patriotism and the belief in the nation’s greatness”.[30] He also insisted on the need for a “full-blooded civil society to monitor and act as a counterweight to the authorities.”[31]

As the new Russian leader Putin strongly supported the influx of foreign investment. “We need foreign resources, Western expertise and new technologies. We don’t need to be afraid to attract Western big capital. Business is egotistical by its very nature, but we can set strict legal limits”, he said.[32] One his first measures was to forge a close relationship with the West. To join the European Union was deemed compatible with this vision and there were even talks of Russia eventually becoming a member.[33] And yet, Putin was a pragmatist. At a meeting with Tony Blair, he told the then British Prime Minister that “the Soviet version of socialism had so poisoned the minds of the people that reforms were going to be difficult.”[34] Blair’s impression was favourable: “Putin wanted Russia to orient towards Europe”, he wrote later. “He admired America and wanted a strong relationship with it. He wanted to pursue democratic and economic reform”.[35]

One of the ways to change Russia for the better, Putin thought, was to open up the economy so that local manufacturers would be forced to compete with foreign imports. The remedies were not complicated: “licensing procedures should be simplified; the reduced role of the state; strengthening civil society; and the rule of law enforced.”[36] He also supported the repatriation of Russian capital from abroad and promotion of local manufacturing, as well as tax reform to lessen the tax burden coupled with a clear legal framework. “The state can’t support and doesn’t need such a large public sector,” Putin said. Russian small and medium-sized businesses were being strangled by the “bureaucracy and gratuities” paid to local officials for permits and signatures.[37] “[These companies are] burdened by bureaucracy and have no motivation for positive change, let alone dynamic improvements.”[38]

Putin’s first term as a President was marked by a series of ambitious economic reforms that stimulated the economy and consolidated the free market, thus relegating the last vestiges of communism to the dustbin of history. In the years to come many aspects of Russian economic life were radically transformed. Personal income was reduced from as much as 30 per cent to just 13 per cent. Corporate tax fell from 35 per cent to 24 per cent. A new land code would make it possible to buy and sell commercial and residential land. This land reform affronted millions of communists who believed that the land belonged to the “people.” Yeltsin never dared to oppose them.[39] This was a historic moment and now the real people had finally won the right to own land for the first time since the communist revolution of 1917.

These successful policies naturally qualified Putin as an economic liberal.[40] There were also measures to curb money laundering and an attempt to break up some of the great state monopolies.[41] The effect of this package of reforms was extraordinary. In early 2005, Russia’s debts to the IMF (US$3.3 billion) were paid in full. In August 2006, Russia paid off all of its nearly US$40 billion Soviet-era debt to the Paris Club from foreign government creditors, thereby saving US$7.7 billion in servicing costs.[42] Not only did the government balance the books, but it went into surplus. It began to pay off its huge foreign debt, which amounted to 130 percent of GDP in 1998, reducing it in 2006 to just 18 per cent.[43] Inflation plummeted from 20 per cent in 2000 to 9 per cent in 2006. The country’s economy grew steadily at around 6-7 per cent per year, and each year there was a substantial trade surplus. In 2008, the Russian Central Bank acquired the world’s third-largest reserves, totalling US$570 billion. Real income rose by 10 per cent a year on average for the general people.[44]

At the end of 1999, Russia’s GDP was US$200 billion, ten years later it was $2 trillion, a growth of 1,000 per cent. Industrial production grew by 50 per cent by 2010, from US$100 billion to US$500 billion. By 2012, Russia had become the third most attractive country for foreign direct investment, after the U.S. and China. Russian exports grew fivefold, the share of oil and gas in exports declined, and exports of grain and other food products soared, as Russia became one of the world’s largest grain exporters. In fact, these economic indicators were better than in any other period of Russian history. Unemployment had fallen, the minimum wage had increased, and GDP grew steadily year after year. The GDP growth averaged 6.6 per cent per year over Putin’s first two terms. [45] However, one of the most important achievements was the change of mood in the country. From apathy and lethargic non-involvement, people realised that things were really getting better. To improve birth statistics, Putin introduced the Mother Capital program, which encouraged mothers to have and keep children. Russian women were surprised that for the first time someone cared and tried to help them.[46]

Every year, Putin holds a four-hour-long direct talk with the Russian people. People from all over the country submit their questions, organisers group them together, and then live on the air Putin endeavours to answer them. In a large room in various parts of the country, in front of huge TV screens, local journalists gather to ask questions live on air. Some questions touch on serious foreign policy issues, such as why Donbas’ refugees don’t get enough support, but most focus on mundane things and everyday topics, such as why there is no kindergarten in a certain city, why salaries haven’t been paid, etc. Putin answers each question in great detail and instructs governors, mayors, tax officials, and so on, to act. He demonstrates that he knows all kinds of numbers by heart, about unemployment rates, retirement rates, mothers’ incomes, and student budgets. Can anyone imagine an Australian Prime Minister being asked why in a West Australian coal town a kindergarten was closed and miners laid off? What would he say? And yet, Putin acts as if the burning issues of everyday life are things he knows and cares about. He has made it his own responsibility, acting like a caring Tsar who loves his people and is eager to hear from them. If this was done once or twice, it could have been dismissed as a good publicity stunt. But Putin has been doing this for years and it has built his reputation.[47]

The 2004 presidential election in Russia was held on March 14 and Putin won in a landslide with more than 71 per cent of the popular vote. From the beginning of his second term, Putin set about making it patently clear that the years of oligarchical hegemony were over. The oligarchs were faced with a rather simple choice: accept that they no longer could dictate politics or pick a fight with the government and lose.[48] As a result, some of those oligarchs left Russia but the richest and most powerful, oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky, stayed to back opposition candidates. He had ambitious plans to sell his shares in the oil and gas company Yukos (he had bought those shares during the notorious “loans for shares” auctions in the mid-1990s) to the U.S. oil giant company Exxon. In October 2003, Khodorkovsky was arrested after been charged with extensive fraud and tax evasion, not least as a warning to all those oligarchs, some of them who were divested of their companies.[49] 

Putin holds strong patriotic feelings but, at first, he was quite willing to be a partner with the West. He assumed that so long as his nation backed the U.S.-led ‘Global War on Terror’, then western leaders would treat Russia with respect and not threaten its borders.[50] Soon, however, Putin started to realise that, instead of trying to bring Russia into new economic and military alliances, “the US and its North Atlantic allies acted as if the Cold War had been ‘won’ by them, and that Russia, the ‘defeated’ power, need not be consulted on the consequences of the Soviet collapse in regions where the Russians had historic interests”.[51]

Following the beginning of Russia’s military operations in Ukraine on 24 February 2022, the United States, the European Union, and other western countries swiftly imposed a mix of wide-ranging diplomatic and economic sanctions.[52] These sanctions included asset freezes of Russian individuals and companies, as well as the removal of Russian banks from the SWIFT banking system, and the confiscation of about half of all Russia’s foreign reserves – roughly US$ 315 billion.[53] Some western commentators soon predicted that such unprecedented sanctions would soon “bring the Russian economy on its knees”.[54] U.S. President Joe Biden declared on March 27, 2022: “As a result of our unprecedented sanctions, the ruble was almost immediately reduced to rubble. The Russian economy is on track to be cut in half”.[55]

One should expect that a nation facing these unprecedented sanctions would see its currency dramatically decline in value. However, the effect of such sanctions has been the very opposite. Russia’s currency, the ruble, is the best-performing fiat currency in the world. The Russian ruble has reached record highs against the EU’s euro and the U.S. dollar. It has increased in value by more than 25 per cent over the last months. Thanks to the continuing sales of oil and gas, the nation’s foreign currency reserves remain the fourth largest in the world, which explains the current levels of popularity enjoyed by their president.

During the early stages of Russia’s military operations in Ukraine, on February 24, 2022, there was speculation in the western media that Putin’s days as a leader were numbered.[56] Arguably, Russians would be going to abandon their loyalty to him as the wider population would start to feel the economic pain and be unwilling to accept the growing death toll for Russians Forces in Ukraine.[57] In reality, Putin’s approval rating among his people has always remained well above 71 per cent since the beginning of the war and western economic sanctions.[58] High global energy prices have helped him follow through on his pledge to reduce poverty and inequality despite crippling western sanctions. According to Alexander Hill, professor of military history at the University of Calgary:

“Russian public opinion polls have suggested an increase in Putin’s popularity after the invasion. Support for the war itself is not as high as Putin’s overall approval rating – but he can still count on majority support for the invasion. Additionally, the Russian economy has remained surprisingly robust – to a considerable extent helped by the sanctions meant to damage it. By denying themselves Russian oil and to a lesser extent gas, European countries contributed to an increase in oil and gas prices that has buoyed the Russian coffers”.[59]

At this moment in Russia capital investment is up and the nation’s unemployment rate is only 3.9 per cent, its lowest since the statistics service started publishing the figure in 1992.[60] Forty per cent of all gas in EU originates from Russia and its government is now making these European countries pay for gas with the ruble. Numerous international buyers are also paying for petroleum products in rubles.[61] The state-owned energy giant Gasprom has recently announced a record first-half profit of 2.5 trillion rubles (US$ 41.36 billion), sparking a 30 per cent in its share price.[62]

By contrast, Europe is facing a record depreciation of the euro currency over the past 20 years.[63] Many European companies are presently on the verge of bankruptcy. Europe’s economies are deteriorating and its population’s living standards are plummeting.[64] Following catastrophic electricity and heating bills, Europeans face mass unemployment and a dramatic decline in living standards. In the United Kingdom, 60 per cent of all enterprises are on the verge of closing due to higher electricity prices. Electricity bills have risen by more than 100 per cent in that country compared to two years ago.[65] The natural consequences are mass business closures and one of the worst rising employments in UK’s history. And the Germans are not faring any better. “A German crisis would be a crisis for all of Europe, one that would rock the entire European Union and the many economies that surround it”, says Weimir Chen, a research assistant at the Austrian Economics Center.[66] In fact, the Germans are unable to avoid a serious recession that, according to the Leibniz Institute for Economic Research, made a considerable number of companies going bankrupt.[67] The leading indicators point to significantly high insolvency figures.[68] 

As for the United States, Brian Brenberg, an economics professor at King’s College, comments that his country is on the verge of a “deeper recession”.[69] Steve Forbes, chairman and editor-in-chief of Forbes magazine, comments that the U.S. is already in recession that such a recession is already “making people poorer”.[70] According to Nouriel Roubini, who is emeritus professor of economics at the New York University, it is simply “delusional” to expect just a short and mild recession rather than one that will be “long and severe”.[71] In light of these depressing prospects, the ongoing conflict in Ukraine may assist the Biden administration deflect the attention of the American public to domestic problems including inflation hitting its historical benchmark, the worst crime wave in U.S. history, and the worst retreat in U.S. military history in Afghanistan.[72]

The days Russia would lean over backwards to avoid antagonising the United States and European allies are long gone. The country has paid off its foreign debts, depriving the West of an important source of leverage. After the Yeltsin “Period of Troubles” in the early 1990s, “Putin deserves full credit for stabilising the country at home and restoring its role on the world stage”, writes Mark Galeotti, a global affairs professor at the New York University.[73]  So it should not come as a surprise to anyone that Putin is so popular. The only real opposition party to him in post-Communist Russia has been the Communist Party.[74] And yet, Putin’s popularity remains consistently about 70 per cent and his present approval rate is around 82 per cent. The ‘popular Tsar’ will likely rule ‘Mother Russia’ for many years ahead.

[1] Brett Samuels, ‘Biden: Putin ‘not a decent man’ – he’s a dictator’, Yahoo!News, 6 June 2024, at

[2] Vladimir N. Brovkin, De Vladimir Lenin a Vladimir Putin (Routledge, 2024) 263.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid. 254.

[5] Orlando Figes, The Story of Russia (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2022) 270.

[6] Vladimir N. Brovkin, From Vladimir Lenin to Vladimir Putin: Russia in Search of its Identity: 1913-2023 (Routledge, 2024) 224.

[7] Ibid. 234.

[8] Philip Short, Putin: His Life and Times (The Bodley Head, 2022) 182.

[9] Ibid. 125.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid. 210.

[12] Ibid. 183.

[13] Ibid. 210.

[14] Ibid. 182.

[15] Ibid. 194.

[16] Ibid. 195.

[17] Ibid. 194.

[18] Vladimir N. Brovkin, From Vladimir Lenin to Vladimir Putin: Russia in Search of its Identity: 1913-2023 (Routledge, 2024) 254.

[19] Philip Short, Putin: His Life and Times (The Bodley Head, 2022) 267.

[20] Ibid. 269.

[21] Ibid. 276.

[22] Ibid. 277.

[23] Ibid. 278.

[24] Ibid. 304-305.

[25] Mark Galeotti, A Short History of Russia (Penguin Random House, 2022) 174.

[26] Philip Short, Putin: His Life and Times (The Bodley Head, 2022) 307.

[27] Ibid. 453.

[28] Ibid. 450.

[29] Ibid. 297.

[30] Ibid. 294.

[31] Ibid. 295.

[32] Ibid. 233.

[33] Idid. 235.

[34] Ibid. 302.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid. 453.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Ibid. 454.

[39] Angus Roxburgh, The Strongman: Vladimir Putin and the Struggle for Russia (I.B. Tauris, 2022) 51.

[40] Philip Short, Putin: His Life and Times (The Bodley Head, 2022) 234.

[41] Angus Roxburgh, The Strongman: Vladimir Putin and the Struggle for Russia (I.B. Tauris, 2022) 50.

[42] Ibid. 53.

[43] Ibid..

[44] Philip Short, Putin: His Life and Times (The Bodley Head, 2022) 459.

[45] Vladimir N. Brovkin, From Vladimir Lenin to Vladimir Putin: Russia in Search of Its Identity: 1913-2023 (Routledge, 2024) 257.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Philip Short, Putin: His Life and Times (The Bodley Head, 2022) 316.

[48] Mark Galeotti, A Short History of Russia (Penguin Random House, 2022) 174.

[49] Orlando Figes, The Story of Russia (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2022) 282.

[50] Mark Galeotti, A Short History of Russia (Penguin Random House, 2022) 176.

[51] Orlando Figes, The Story of Russia (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2022) 283.

[52] Christopher Michaelsen, ‘Are the West’s sanctions against Russia actually working?’ The Conversation, September 20, 2022.

[53] Ibid.

[54] Alexandre Hill, ‘Why Vladimir Putin still has widespread support in Russia’, The Conversation, September 7, 2022, at

[55] President Biden, Twitter, March 27, 2022, at

[56] Alexandre Hill, ‘Why Vladimir Putin still has widespread support in Russia’, The Conversation, September 7, 2022, at

[57] Ibid.

[58] ‘Global Foreign Exchange Rates’, Reuters,

[58] ‘Putin’s Approval Rating’, Levada-Center, September 14, 2022, at

[59] Alexandre Hill, ‘Why Vladimir Putin still has widespread support in Russia’, The Conversation, September 7, 2022, at

[60] ‘Six months into the war, what is the state of Russia’s economy’, World Economic Forum, August 30, 2022

[61] ‘Harvard Economists Baffled By How Gold-Tied Russian Ruble Goes Up’, ZeroHedge, June 10, 2022

[62] Nik Martin, ‘Is Russia’s Economy Really Hurting?’, Deutsche Welle, September 6, 2022, at

[63] ‘Europe’s Economy And Living Standards Are Plummeting’, Oriental Review, September 19, 2022, at

[64] Ibid.

[65] Ibid.

[66] Weimin Chen, ‘Germany’s (And Europe’s Self-Inflicted Upcoming Energy’, The Mises Institute,  September 19, 2022, at

[67] ‘Europe’s Economy And Living Standards Are Plummeting’, Oriental Review, 19 September 2022, at

[67] Weimin Chen, ‘Germany’s (And Europe’s Self-Inflicted Upcoming Energy’, The Mises Institute, 19 September 2022, at

[68] ‘Institute IWH expects more bankrupticies in Autumn’, NewsinGermany, at

[69] Tom Ozimek, ‘Steve Forbes Criticises Fed for ‘Making People Poorer’, Insists America Is in Recession’, The Epoch Times, September 20, 2022, at

[70] Ibid.

[71] Ibid.

[72] Wayne Root, ‘Here’s Your “Red Pill” Moment About the Russian-Ukraine War’, Gateway Pundit, March 6, 2022, at

[73] Mark Galeotti, A Short History of Russia (Penguin Random House, 2022) 182.

[74] Vladimir N. Brovkin, From Vladimir Lenin to Vladimir Putin: Russia in Search of its Identity: 1913-2023 (Routledge, 2024) 260.

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