How does Putin remain popular with the Russian people?

Associated Press/Alexander Demyanchuk, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo
Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures while addressing a meeting of the Council of Legislators under the Russian Federal Assembly at the Tauride Palace, in St. Petersburg, Russia, on April 27, 2022.

Many Western observers remain mystified and confused by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s popularity with the Russian people. Putin’s position seems relatively stable for now, with one major prediction market projecting that he stays in power until September 2026. Disinformation no doubt plays a role in maintaining Putin’s power, as does the natural patriotism of the Russian people in wartime.

More important in explaining Putin’s staying power, I believe, is his development track record until the war with Ukraine. Russia’s development gives him the material and morale resources he needs to prosecute the war on his terms. By comparing Putin’s track record to both earlier Russian rulers and other countries, we can get a better idea of how Putin stacks up, and why average Russians are sticking with him so far.

Fortunately, we have some simple, powerful tools to make these comparisons. Cutting through the  propaganda, opinion and rhetoric, two measures — taken over time — reveal the arch of a country’s wealth and health: GDP/capita. Gapminder World depicts every country’s development along these two dimensions of GDP/capita (measured using purchasing power parity — PPP) and life expectancy. Using these measures, we can learn some basic things about life in Putin’s Russia.

From 2000 (when Putin took office as president) to 2020 (the latest year for which Gapminder has data), Russia’s GDP/capita grew at a compound annual rate of almost 3 percent. By comparison, GDP/per capita shrank by a bit more than 2 percent per year under Putin’s predecessor Boris Yeltsin. And contracted by over 3 percent under the last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

Putin’s economic track record also stacks up well against Russia’s most admired historical figure, Joseph Stalin. Per capita GDP grew by an average almost 3.5 percent per year during Stalin’s tumultuous and bloody reign. However, Putin’s record in this area is not quite as strong as either Former General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Leonid Brezhnev or Former Premier of the Soviet Union Nikita Khrushchev, both of whom saw GDP/capita growth near or above 4 percent per year during their terms in office from the 1950s to 1980s.

When we turn to the other dimension of development — health—a similar picture arises. Under Putin, Russian life expectancy has grown by almost 8 years to 73.3 years old — by comparison, U.S. life expectancy in 2020 was 79 years old. Stalin puts Putin in the shade, though, with life expectancy growing by an eye-popping 34 years despite the purges, the gulag and World War II. No other Russian leader since Lenin has produced such figures.

So, strictly in Russian terms, Putin’s track record on wealth and health stacks up very well. What about in comparison to other countries?

Let’s first turn to the other major emerging economies Brazil, India, China and South Africa — together with Russian, they’re known as BRICS. During the period 2000 to 2020, Russia ranks in the middle of the pack when we look at GDP/capita growth. China has the lead at about 8 percent per year, South Africa brings up the rear at less than 1 percent, and Russia clocks in between the two.

On the health front, Russia also is in the middle. South Africa leads the group, gaining an impressive 11 years of life expectancy. Brazil finished last with a 5-year gain. The U.S. increased its life expectancy during this period by about 2 years.

A few more international comparisons are worthwhile. Turkey (ruled since 2003 by Putin’s fellow strongman, Recep Tayyip Erdogan) has done a little bit better on the economic front than Russia, with GDP/capita growing an average of nearly 4 percent per year over the period 2000-20. On the health front, Turkey has not performed as well as Russia; life expectancy rose by 4 years.

Ukraine also seems like an interesting comparison. While both GDP/capita growth (about 2.5 percent) and life expectancy increase (nearly 6 years) are a bit less than Putin’s Russia, they are still quite respectable.

And a final relevant comparison is with neighboring Poland. Poland’s GDP/capita growth is a bit more than Putin’s Russia (approaching 4 percent), while its life expectance increase (4 years) is lower.

Of course, it is important to remember that these numbers measure development prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Also, they only capture part of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has had negative impacts on life expectancy and GDP/capita growth in many countries. And, like all international development data, these measures should be taken with a grain of salt.

Still, what can we conclude from these international comparisons? Russia’s development under Putin has been in the middle of the pack. Overall, health has improved relatively more than wealth for the average Russian during Putin’s time in office.

And, taken as a whole, what does doing the math tell us about Putin’s track record? How does he stack up? First, his development track record has been decent, even strong in comparison to historical Russian standards. Like Stalin, Putin remains popular with Russians despite his bloody and horrific actions. Although that’s strange to Westerns, the result is explained in part by Russia’s advance on the wealth and health fronts during his reign, as was true of Stalin. Second, Putin’s track record looks better when viewed in isolation from other countries — and further skewed through the lens of Russian propaganda.

And why does all this matter? Because Russia’s ability to conduct its current war with Ukraine (and perhaps other countries) rests fundamentally on two factors: its material resources and the willingness of 146 million Russians to lend their support: Material and morale.

Russia’s wealth and health tell us that those resources have developed during Putin’s reign and in ways that are likely to keep Putin at the helm with the support of a majority of Russians for the foreseeable future. In the longer run, these fundamentals may matter more than short-term tactical setbacks on the battlefield.

The West may not like this, but that’s just the way it is.

David Lingelbach is a professor of entrepreneurship at The University of Baltimore. He lived and worked in Russia from 1994 to 1999, where he served as president of Bank of America—Russia and worked with Vladimir Putin. He is writing a book about oligarchs, whom he has studied for more than a quarter century.   

Tags GDP International Putin Russia Russia-Ukraine conflict Ukraine Vladimir Putin

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