Vladimir Putin and the rural roots of authoritarian populism in Russia

Rural Russians are the major supporters of the authoritarian regime of Vladimir Putin. How can we explain this phenomenon, and what are the prospects for a replacement emancipatory rural politics?

Natalia Mamonova
3 April 2018

Moscow open-air photography exhibition, 2017
Open-air photography exhibition in the centre of Moscow, 2017. | Natalia Mamonova. All rights reserved.

An open-air photography exhibition in the centre of Moscow, November 2017 (4 months before the 2018 Russian presidential election). The exhibition depicts idealised scenes of traditional peasant life in (northern) Russian villages. Photo by Natalia Mamonova, all rights reserved.

The recent presidential elections returned Vladimir Putin to power for the fourth time. In the elections, rural areas had the largest turnout and the highest percentage of votes for Putin. Why does Putin find his strongest support among the rural population?

Contemporary Russia is often referred to as an example of authoritarian populism. Some even believe that Putin was the first who breached modern liberal democracy and created an authoritarian regime that enjoys popular support by making empty populist promises and exploiting the political short-sightedness of ordinary people.

The Russian regime, however, is somewhat different to what we commonly understand as authoritarian populism. Putin’s governance is not characterised by a genuine anti-establishment and anti-corruption agenda. Moreover, while populist leaders in other countries aim to mobilise and politicise their supporters, Putin’s regime is based on the demobilisation and depoliticisation of the Russian population.

However, depoliticisation is not necessarily in opposition to populism. On the contrary, populist movements often substitute ‘rule by the people’ with a ‘rule for the people’ embodied in their leader, and, thereby, curbing broad political participation. Populism can also be quite an elitist movement, especially ‘populism in power’, where governmental leaders use populist rhetoric and practices to gain popular support and maintain their positions – as is the case in Russia.

Putin’s rural base

Putin’s authoritarian populism has a strong rural basis in Russia. According to a recent public opinion poll by the Levada-Centre, 70% of Russian villagers express an outright positive attitude towards Putin (62.5% of urban dwellers are of the same opinion). Rural Russians are the major supporters of key features of authoritarian populism: strongman leadership, authoritarian governance, populist unity between the leader and the ordinary people, nostalgia for past glories and confrontation with the ‘Others’ (in the Russian case – the ‘Others’ abroad). For example, 45% of villagers believe that Russia needs strongman leadership, and 61% regret the collapse of the Soviet Union (in urban areas, these figures are 35% and 56%, respectively).

In a recent ERPI Working Paper, Understanding the silent majority in authoritarian populism: What can we learn from popular support for Putin in rural Russia?’, I distinguished three main assumptions and shortcomings in understanding popular support for authoritarian populism:

  • supporters of authoritarian populism are commonly portrayed as ‘irrational’ ‘simple’ people, who vote against their self-interest, as they are not sophisticated enough to resist the propaganda they encounter;
  • supporters of authoritarian populism are studied as a homogeneous group, without attempting to distinguish different motives and interests among them;
  • the existing analysis often overlooks the political economy and structures of domination that gave rise to authoritarian populism.

By studying rural support for Putin’s governance, I can reveal that Putin’s supporters are not as homogeneous or as naïve as some would think, and that the agrarian property regime and power relations in the countryside define the political position of different rural groups.

What then are the peasant roots of authoritarian populism in Russia and the prospects for an emancipatory politics?

Peasant roots

Putin’s popularity among ordinary Russians is commonly attributed to the regime’s skill in manipulating public opinion through propaganda, which has been particularly intense since the Ukraine crisis.

Rural Russians are, certainly, more traditional and less exposed to alternative political ideas, but it would be wrong to link their support for Putin with propaganda only. Propaganda does play an important role, but if propaganda messages do not fit national archetypes, they become rather inefficient and are most likely rejected.

If we look closer at Putin’s public appearance and his governance style, we can find a number of traditionalist patriarchal features that appeal to the archetypal base of Russian society – namely, its peasant roots.

For example, the president builds his relationship with ordinary Russians using the principle of ‘naïve monarchism’. Naïve monarchism was a traditional peasant myth in Tsarist Russia. It portrayed the tsar as an impartial and benevolent benefactor of the ordinary people, whereas all failures were ascribed to officials, who deliberately misrepresented and misinformed the tsar. This peasant myth is used today by the state to maintain the existing order and to create an illusion of populist unity between the president and ordinary people.

Furthermore, the public image of Putin as a real ‘muzhik’ (real man – man of the people) is very popular in the countryside. It is interesting to note that the word ‘muzhik’ literally means a peasant man in Tsarist Russia. Although the peasant meaning of ‘muzhik’ is less common nowadays, research has showed that Putin’s real muzhik image is especially popular among more conservative small-scale food producers, who also score very high on traditionalist (patriarchal) understandings of power and domination.

And finally, we should not forget that populism as a political movement emerged in Tsarist Russia in response to the hardships of the peasantry. At the time, populists aimed to mobilise the peasants against the elites, and to create a socialist society based on the principles of the peasant commune.

Certainly, contemporary rural Russians are not traditional peasants; however, they share some common features with peasant society – namely, conservatism, traditionalism, a subordinate position, and anti-elite and anti-capitalist sentiments. This may explain why authoritarian populism finds strong support among villagers, who are more conservative and traditional than urban dwellers.

Prospects for an emancipatory rural politics

The weakness of the Russian liberal opposition is that it is unable to align with the ordinary people. The progressive ideas of liberal democracy, freedom of speech and civil rights do not resonate with the concerns of ordinary Russians, who live in small towns and villages. Putin’s regime, on the contrary, appeals to conservative traditionalist values, which are shared by the majority of Russian society.

In order to confront authoritarian populism and make emancipatory rural politics possible in Russia, as in other countries, we should understand the reasons behind the popular support for authoritarian leadership.

We need to listen to the voices of the ordinary people if we want to understand why they are giving up some democratic freedoms and following an authoritarian leader who aims to represent ‘the will of the people’ and bring about a return to ‘national glory’.

Only by understanding the supporters of authoritarian populism can we foster emancipatory transformations to more democratic and fair forms of society.

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