Putin in a ring of fire

Russian government attempts to deal with the heat wave and the resulting widespread forest fires have been much criticised. But Putin’s popularity rating remains high and his government seems to be more interested in keeping it that way than addressing people’s problems, explains Dmitry Travin
Dmitri Travin
18 August 2010

Throughout July and August Russia has been in the grip of a terrible heat wave. In my memory (and I am of an age to remember events from about the 1970s), this heat is unprecedented. The result of this natural disaster is forest fires, which have destroyed both trees and peat fields and villages near them too. Cities were engulfed in smog from the fires and people had difficulty breathing. There was a sharp increase in illnesses and in the middle of the summer the Moscow death rate doubled, though this information has not been fully verified.

The authorities are making a poor fist of extinguishing the fires and bringing the ecological situation back to normal. Many people are trying to avoid the smog by taking their holiday and going abroad. A large number of Muscovites have gone to Petersburg and the guesthouses near the city, as the situation in the north is much better.

In this situation Vladimir Putin distinguished himself by flying a fire-fighting plane, which douses the fires with water from the air. His fire-fighting efforts were shown on television all over the country. However, many journalists and bloggers were very critical of Putin, quite rightly pointing out that he would be more useful if he organized the fire-fighting campaign properly, instead of flying a plane himself.

Perhaps this event would not have attracted so much attention had it not coincided with data from a sociological survey published at almost exactly the same time, showing a noticeable fall in Putin’s popularity rating. Several major western media outlets (Time, for example) even began to ask whether the forest fires would cause serious political changes in Russia.

The Prime Minister in the clouds

This question seems quite logical if one approaches it rationally. If things in the country have deteriorated, then the level of support for the government should fall. Commentators also take a rational approach to the question about Putin pouring water on the fire from the clouds. We have people to fly planes, the reasoning went, but the Prime Minister’s task is to organize fire-fighting so that all the fires go out, or better still do not start at all.

This is undoubtedly the case. Putin’s fire-fighting efforts are of absolutely no use to anyone. But his purpose in flying the plane was not to make a practical contribution to putting out the fires. Every step taken by this Russian populist leader is always in and in any situation intended only to maintain his high popularity rating.

Real fire-fighting doesn’t happen in front of television cameras. But millions of people see on their TV screens the Kremlin propaganda machine, with the assistance of journalists from state television channels, doing only what will help to strengthen the regime. It hammers into people’s heads ideas, which they are supposed to remember once every few years at the polling station. Recently Putin has flown a plane, ridden a motorcycle with bikers and sung songs with Russian spies who had just been deported from the USA. Television viewers will remember all these things several years on, when the misery of the forest fires has been forgotten, and the living standard has risen thanks to petrodollars from the sale abroad of Russia’s huge natural resources.

What voters want

At first glance it seems that there is a direct connection: if the government copes with the fires, voters will be satisfied, but if not, then they will be angry. However, there is unfortunately no direct connection here. Or at any rate, it is more complicated. Specific government achievements (or failures) yield a percentage of votes. But a no less significant percentage comes from the reaction of the masses to completely different impulses. At least this is how things are in today’s Russia.

Election results don’t just depend on specific government achievements, in the same way as our current mood relates not only to how much money we’ve earned or how far we’ve moved up the career ladder. We may be very successful, but feel bad because we have inhaled some smog, been humiliated by our boss, have frequent thoughts about death or have become fed up with life at an early age. Irrational circumstances may make an ordinary person depressed, even if from a rational standpoint he looks as successful as Vladimir Putin himself.

In public life too not everything comes down to Putin pouring water on fires. Putting out the fires is by no means all that Russian voters want. 

For some people in Russia the most important thing is to identify with a strong, successful leader.  In difficult circumstances they will expect this leader to do something striking, memorable, almost heroic. People like this essentially watch television news in Russia today as if it were an action film, and so the Hero – a symbol of the victory of good over evil – must always beat the bad guys. For some time now, the hero of this action film that is the news has been Vladimir Putin.

Some citizens watch television as if it were a melodrama. For these viewers, the main character of the news is the Lover. Here it’s not fire fighting that counts, but the elegance of his clothes, his deep, meaningful gaze and the special intonation of his voice. And if this lover shows his naked torso to the public, as Vladimir Putin did recently, then the viewers will be happy beyond all measure.

The real world can also be viewed through the television screen as a comedy. The most scandalous and flamboyant character in the television news gets votes at elections in the end. These votes might in some way be compared to applause for a good clown at the circus. If we regard the Russian electoral process exclusively as a type of rational choice, we will probably find it difficult to understand why people vote for a clown. But if we realize that there is a great deal that is irrational in our choice, we will no longer be surprised that an outrageous Russian politician like Vladimir Zhirinovsky has been shocking the public for almost 20 years on television, and continues to hold a seat in parliament.

There are many more possible examples of what Russian voters really want from their candidate of choice. Real political life is made up of all of this put together. This is why in a situation of severe economic or ecological crisis it happens that the person aspiring to gain the people’s love must bare his chest, fly through the clouds or sing songs with spies. If for objective reasons you don’t have enough support from rationally-minded citizens, you can make up for it with the people who will shed an emotional tear and say: “At least there’s something pleasant in this life: Putin took to the air.”

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