Q and A: Putin’s Russia Ahead of the Sochi Olympics

Rudra Sil and Kevin Platt provide insight on the political climate in Russia ahead of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games.
January 1, 2014

With the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games fast approaching, Russia’s politics have become the subject of much debate. Backlash stemming from what many have deemed anti-gay legislation has created an international discourse, and fresh threats of terror from opposition groups complicate the buildup to the games. We spoke with two experts in order to gain some context: Rudra Sil, Professor of Political Science and SAS Faculty Director of the Huntsman Program in International Studies and Business, who teaches courses on Russian politics and comparative post-Communism at Penn; and Kevin Platt, Edmund J. and Louise W. Kahn Term Chair in the Humanities in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literature, who studies Russian history and culture.

How would you describe Putin’s form of governing? Has it been successful in the eyes of the average Russian?

Rudra Sil: You see a kind of general narrative of people jumping on Putin for every single thing, but if you look at the whole picture, you’ll see he is supported by a solid majority of ordinary citizens, who see Russia as having gone from a nobody in 1997, watching Kosovo get bombed, and their fellow Slavs attacked by NATO, to a somebody who is now a player on the international stage, in both geopolitics and the world economy. This is a meaningful contrast to most Russians. Not the ones that speak perfect English and tweet very nice-sounding messages, but the ones in the countryside or in the many medium-sized cities around the country where most Russians live, and even in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Overall it adds up to nearly two-thirds of Russians saying they’re better off now than 10 years ago. They feel better about the country. They have more savings. They have more job security. Unemployment is under 6 percent. It adds up to a positive future for Russia, at least by comparison to the chaos and uncertainty of the 1990s. This is one reason why Putin’s ratings are still holding at over 60 percent, even if this is lower than the extraordinary 70-80 percent ratings he was hitting six or seven years ago. We need to stop bashing him and focus more on figuring out just what is driving these favorable ratings—which are much higher than most Western politicians.

Kevin Platt: Russians in general, in their political identification, were used to thinking of themselves as citizens of a great power during the Soviet era, but they experienced the 1990s as an era of lost power and prestige. Putin has devoted a lot of his political resources and rhetoric to the idea that Russia is recovering global status, reasserting its own sphere of influence in a world which doesn’t always agree with Russia’s values or respect its interests. There’s also a tendency within Russia to credit Putin with reestablishing law and order. But the cost of this achievement has been the creation of a strict police state and the scaling back of civil and political freedoms—as well as the strengthening of corrupt and graft-ridden bureaucracies. Russia today is a society in which you don’t get anything done without some sort of back-scratching relationship with whomever has local authority over you—administrative and economic institutions and structures. Even though Putin’s rule has helped to rebuild social order in many ways, Russia now operates under a kind of corrupt corporate oligarchy.

Putin has already made statements to combat the fallout stemming from Russia’s gay propaganda legislation at the Sochi Olympics. What was the original impetus for this type of legislation?

Sil: The law in Russia does not criminalize homosexuality, but does suppress "pro-gay propaganda." This was done not out of some knee-jerk anti-gay agenda that Putin is suddenly embracing. If that had been the case, Putin would have done this during his second term as President in 2004-2008, rather than right on the heels of an election that triggered significant protests. I see the law as part of a larger combination of programs designed to increase fertility rates in Russia. Most of the other parts of that effort have actually paid dividends. This particular law, however, is not well conceived at all. Since public discussion and suppression of gay lifestyles is not likely to actually increase the percentage of Russians who choose to get married and have kids, and since the law is stirring up more anti-Russian sentiment than is worth, the benefits are clearly not outweighing the costs in terms of international public opinion. I will not be surprised if he backs off on the law, but that may come after the Olympics. 

Platt: I think we should remember that Russia has come a long way over the past twenty years, when we consider the trajectories of other societies towards increased recognition of LGBT rights. Up until the end of the Soviet Union, homosexuality was criminalized and was viewed as entirely unacceptable in Russian society. Now, among a considerable portion of Russia's intellectuals—young urban professionals and cultural figures—there is broad recognition of and support for the rights of sexual minorities. To give credit where credit is due, Russia is making progress in the right direction, and, I think, will arrive at better and more egalitarian social and legal realities for LGBT people eventually. There's still a long way to go however. Turning to current politics around these issues, part of Putin’s platform, part of the key to his strong domestic support in Russia, has been his image as the champion of Russian national culture in the face of perceived pressures from the West. The question of gay rights and tolerance for nontraditional sexual orientations is something that both the Kremlin and parts of the progressive and urban liberal oppositional culture has seized upon as a wedge issue over the past couple of years, as political life has heated up in Russia. Fast-forward to the Olympics and this is a situation in which Putin is playing to both a domestic and an international audience. On the one hand he has to signal to the international community that he can play by the rules, but it’s also an opportunity to demonstrate once again to his supporters in Russia that he is defending Russian values against pressures from the “corrupt and degenerate” West.

What is the significance of the terror threats to Sochi?

Sil: All major global sporting events since 9/11 have become both sites of protest and potential targets for terrorists. But, even before that, remember that the 1996 Atlanta Olympics actually had a bomb go off.  The new threats concerning Sochi are quite real, but they do not represent a new juncture in history. Yes, the threat is coming from groups within Chechnya and Dagestan, which are encircled by the Russian federation, and this is different from the other events, but the basic idea of disrupting a global sporting event to carry out a struggle is just not all that new. It goes back to Munich 1972, and it will be around for quite some time to come. In the case of Sochi, something could happen, but it’s actually nice to see that the U.S. government is providing support to anti-terror forces in Russia in trying to stave off any serious attack. This is actually the first hint of U.S.-Russian cooperation we have seen on anti-terror measures since the joint “War on Terror” initiated in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. I just hope that all the countries sending athletes band together and remember what the Olympics are supposed to be about. 

: The proximity of Sochi to the regions of separatist violence makes it a more accessible target, and the incidence of domestic terrorism in the Russian Federation is in general higher than it is in China or London, or certainly the U.S. in 1996. The security measures will likely be rather clumsy in Sochi, however. Russian police and security forces are not known for their friendly, approachable manner. It will be difficult to train up the thousands deployed in Sochi to meet Western expectations for service with a smile. We are likely to hear a great many stories about run-ins with gruff security personnel.

Is the Western media biased in its coverage of Russian politics?

Sil: I think so. And sometimes it’s not even a conscious bias, but more a mechanical reaction to any hint of assertiveness on the part of Russia or its leaders. In some ways, I think our reporting in the Soviet era was better. Even though there was a Cold War, even though there was an ideological struggle going on, and even though there was a big geopolitical confrontation between two camps, we had a desire to find out what was driving them and not just tell them what to do. The rapid cycling of information doesn’t help. Tweets are becoming news—there are people with columns that are reporting tweets. I think the selection bias that gets in there, the sampling bias, source bias, is far greater than before because I think you don’t have those news desks anymore. And who are the people best situated to use these shortcut channels? They are fluent, English-speaking, college-educated, often Westernized people, so we get these frames that are quite representative of one part of society, but totally skewed in relation to the larger picture. As a result, we jump on the bandwagon of liberal critics of Putin, but pay no attention to the question of why the majority of Russians have been supportive of him, and why so few support any one alternative leader.

Platt: The tendency to fixate, perhaps disproportionately, on the undeniable flaws and authoritarian character of Russian political life today is part of a historical dynamic in which there has been a long-standing habit of making Russia into a major villain in the Western media. Western political actors, journalists, and public citizens are comfortable seeing Russia in this role. But it should also be said that Putin and the Kremlin are comfortable being the villain for the West, because this allows their political rhetoric to be bolstered by a justified sense of antagonistic pressures originating beyond the borders of Russia. Putin gets a lot of mileage out of this conception of "Russia vs. the West." The obverse side of this dynamic is also visible in Russian domestic politics, in the sense that those who constitute the secondary position in Russian politics today, the members of the “liberal opposition,” can identify themselves as Western liberal reformers who are outside of power, waiting for their chance to step in and replace the Putin regime and its nationalistic and xenophobic rhetoric with new policies of openness to the West and transformative liberalization.

Does Putin's relationship with the Russian Orthodox Church influence his politics? How did this influence his reaction to the Pussy Riot protest?

Sil: There has always been a political game to be played when it comes to the Kremlin’s relationship to the Orthodox Church. This goes back to Boris Yeltsin and his original law on religions, which gave the Russian Church extremely favorable treatment. As far as the Pussy Riot incident goes, imagine if this had happened in Israel, in a serious synagogue, an orthodox synagogue: a group of young people entering with masks and inappropriate clothing and screaming punk music right on the altar. Most countries have laws protecting places of worship from such intrusions, and I am not sure whether anyone would bat an eye if anyone doing what Pussy Riot did would be arrested on misdemeanor charges. At the same time, was it necessary to jail them? I don’t know. But, as far as Putin is concerned, these are not the fish he wants to fry. They’re just not that important as part of his grand strategy or his vision for the Russian nation. In fact, it’s more likely that the local courts and the local police were deeply offended by this and decided to take it on themselves to pursue harsher sentences. But this is not the kind of thing that I think Putin stays up worrying about; if anything, it’s more an annoyance to have to deal with the aftermath of their being arrested and jailed. Maybe this is why he had no problems with granting amnesty to the jailed members of the group. 

Platt: Let me start by separating politics from religion—Russia has a great many devout believers whose faith I respect and who understand that matters of religion should be distinct from those of public life. Yet it also must be said that the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church has very little respect for this distinction. Over the past decade, the Church has been progressively integrated into the structures of the Russian political establishment. In 2011-12, Patriarch Kirill publicly endorsed Putin's bid for reelection as Russian president. This was the primary object of the protest of the Pussy Riot women in the Church of Christ the Savior. The Pussy Riot affair points once again to the cleavage between domestic politics and international politics for Putin. In the West, everyone thinks that the women of Pussy Riot were unjustly persecuted and were prisoners of conscience. Here, the Kremlin lost its public information campaign. But in terms of domestic Russian politics, the Kremlin won. The vast majority of Russians think that the Pussy Riot women were engaging in a blasphemous and offensive activity that deserved to be punished.

What is Russia’s strategy in allying itself with oppressive regimes such as that of Bashar al-Assad in Syria?

Sil: It has a lot to do with geopolitics and Russia being a player again. Ever since the bombing of Kosovo, there has been a strong desire, both in the Kremlin and among ordinary Russians, for the country to become an influential member of the international community. But that didn’t happen with Afghanistan, it didn’t happen with Iraq, and it didn’t happen with the Arab Spring. The last straw was what happened in Libya. The Russians and Chinese voted for the NATO-sponsored resolution which said we would defend and provide humanitarian assistance and protect unarmed communities from military attack. The problem was that the resolution was then interpreted by NATO to provide a basis for an all-out military campaign to support those against Qaddafi. What Russia and China signed up for was turned around.  That’s why with Syria they were much more adamant, and so they kind of backed Obama into a corner. The Chinese stayed silent on the matter, but I am guessing they are pretty pleased that the Russians have stepped up their role and that this is not turning out to be yet another U.S. or NATO-led show. Of course, there is still a bloody conflict going on and so it is time for anyone who wants to be taken seriously in the arena to step up and figure out some sort of resolution before more civilians are killed or hurt.

Platt: In states which are very close to Russia, in the region known as the “near abroad” in Russia, Russian foreign policy is geared towards maintaining a sphere of influence. This, I think, is what in many ways is driving its involvement in Ukraine. It also fuels a lot of interstate diplomatic sparring in Eastern Europe, the Baltics, and the Caucasus. This was the driving priority in the Russian-Georgian conflict of 2008. Other parts of Russian foreign policy are driven by economic interests—the Russian relationship to China, for instance. Finally, there are ideological stakes related to great power status. Often, it seems that the Kremlin wants to be able to assert its authority however it can in order to counterbalance what it perceives as the near total hegemony of the U.S. and Western Europe in world affairs. Syria is a foothold in the sense that here is somewhere where Russia continues to have influence in the Middle East. There’s a lot of both domestic and international PR gain for Putin when he can stick a wrench into the attempts on the part of the U.S. and Western Europe to manage the globe.