One evening in October 2015, my Russian friend Valera and I went to the movies in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk. There was a multiplex not far from his apartment, and with a dozen movies to choose from, we decided to see The Martian.
As we walked out of the movie, I asked how he liked it. To my surprise, he began fuming about a scene I hadn’t thought twice about: a plot point in which the Americans ask China, not Russia, for help in getting a powerful enough rocket to return to Mars.
“Why would the Americans ask China for a rocket?” he practically spat. “Everybody knows the Russians have the greatest rockets in the world. We were the pioneers in space!”
I told him I didn’t think this was meant as a slap at Russia, and that as far as I knew, the Chinese had an impressive space program too. But Valera — who’s actually one of my more apolitical friends in Russia — was convinced that the film’s producers, most likely under the direction of the US government, had picked China to deliberately belittle Russia. This was a pretty wild assertion, but it’s a sign of the times in Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
For the past few weeks, President Trump has unsettled foreign leaders around the world, not to mention both Democrats and Republicans at home, with his unrelenting praise of Putin. He regularly lauds the Russian leader as smart, strong, and popular — and I can personally attest that he’s right about that last trait.
I saw Putin’s enormous public support firsthand during three months I spent in Russia in 2015. My takeaway: Many ordinary Russians believe he has has — to paraphrase a Trumpism — made Russia great again. And they love him for it. While Western observers criticize Putin for his dismal human rights record, brutal crackdowns on dissent, the annexation of Crimea, and apparent desire to upend the geopolitical order, none of these things has dented Putin’s public support at home.
This is the story of how Vladimir Putin transformed himself from being a little-known mayoral adviser to the most popular and powerful leader in recent Russian history.
Putin inherited a broken, dispirited country. Russians believe he’s fixed all that.
In 1995, 2005, and 2015, I took three identical trips across Russia (I’ve been visiting Russia since 1988). On each of those three 5,000-plus trips from Vladivostok to St. Petersburg, I stopped in the same 11 cities and interviewed the same people — sort of like the British documentary series 7-Up, but with Russians.
On the first trip, in 1995, the country was in shambles. Just four years out of the Soviet era, the Russian economy was tanking and the value of the ruble had plummeted, wiping out many people’s savings. A tiny sliver of enormously wealthy people was perched at the top of the economic ladder, while most of the rest struggled. Western goods were now available in Russia, but the general population couldn’t afford to buy them. And anyone wanting to start or run a business had to contend with the ever-present Russian mafia, which routinely demanded exorbitant sums for “protection.”
The president then was Boris Yeltsin, who was, it’s fair to say, not a paragon of stability. During the course of his presidency, he morphed from heroic resister of the 1991 coup attempt, standing valiantly atop a tank, to a fleshy, unpredictable, alcohol-fueled embarrassment. In its 2007 obituary of Yeltsin, Time magazine observed that “in the US, Boris Yeltsin will be more fondly remembered as the man who turned the menacing Russian bear of Cold War fear-mongering into a warm and cuddly creature, supine, pitiable and willing to perform in exchange for scraps.”
For a country that had for decades been one of the world’s two superpowers, this was an ego-smashing fall. When I asked about America on that 1995 trip, Russians often responded with admiration, even envy. One 18-year-old in Moscow, a McDonald’s employee named Yuri, told me that “the only people who criticize the wave of American culture in Russia are either nationalists or they're crazy.” And a 14-year-old named Denis, who was puffing on cigarettes when I interviewed him, told me, “I would definitely go live in America. Right now. No question.”
The prevailing attitude among most of the Russians I spoke with seemed to be a friendly, wistful appreciation of the United States. And Putin was a complete unknown, working in St. Petersburg under then-Mayor Anatoly Sobchak.
On my second trip, in 2005, things had changed. By then, Putin had been president for five years, and I saw a marked difference in the fortunes not only of the Russians I’d first interviewed 10 years earlier but of their towns and cities as well.
Almost all the people I talked to, in places such as Chita, Chelyabinsk, Novosibirsk, Irkutsk, and Kazan, were better off financially than they’d been in 1995; many now had credit cards, had traveled to Turkey or Thailand on vacation, and could afford to buy imported clothes and food. In their towns, potholed streets had been repaired, bridges had been built, new apartment buildings were going up. Between 1995 and 2005, the price of oil nearly tripled, and with that rise came a rise in Russia’s fortunes. In the eyes of many Russians, these improvements were a direct result of Putin’s leadership.
Part of Putin’s appeal was that, unlike Yeltsin, he radiated discipline: He didn’t drink, didn’t smoke, and was a black belt in karate. His actions, words, and very bearing conveyed a message of Russian strength, and the effect on Russians’ pride was palpable. It reminded me of the effect Ronald Reagan had on conservative Americans in the early 1980s, when he followed the national malaise of the Carter era with his relentless message that America could be great again.
This is why Russians buy Putin-emblazoned refrigerator magnets, T-shirts, and calendars
When I made the third trip, in 2015, a few themes kept surfacing: 1) people (such as my friend Valera) felt that the USA didn’t sufficiently respect Russia; 2) they loved and admired Putin; and 3) they were confident that Putin would restore Russia’s proper standing on the world stage — regardless of whether that involved lifting up Russia, knocking the US down a peg, or some combination of the two.
I’d wondered whether Putin was really as popular as reports and polls suggested — a July 2016 survey from a Moscow-based nonprofit pegged it at an astonishing 82 percent — and it didn’t take long to determine that he was. Everywhere I went, I saw his face: gazing out from refrigerator magnets, emblazoned on T-shirts, plastered all over wall calendars. In people’s homes, I saw framed photos of him placed lovingly beside family photos in the living room shkaf, or bookcase. One woman in Vladivostok, in response to my question of how she felt about Putin, picked up her framed portrait and gently kissed his face.
He was fabulously popular, even though the Russian economy was once again in a slump. Between January 2014 and September 2015, when I landed in Vladivostok, the value of the ruble fell by half, obliterating Russians’ purchasing power. Yet almost none of the Russians I spoke to blamed Putin. Instead, they blamed the Americans (and the West generally), for two reasons. First, for the sanctions we imposed following the annexation of Crimea. And second, because they were convinced we had artificially depressed oil prices specifically in order to damage their economy, which is heavily dependent on income from oil exports.
This, more than anything, persuaded me that Putin’s power runs deep and wide in Russia. It’s easy for a leader to gain support when the economy is strong. What’s difficult is maintaining that support even as things start to go south, and Putin has done that.
Yet of course there’s that other, darker reason he’s able to maintain such sky-high support. During his time in power, Putin has systematically stamped out political dissent and gutted what had once been a relatively free press. Opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was shot dead within sight of the Kremlin in February of 2015. Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned with polonium-210 in London. And as I write this, fierce Putin critic Vladimir Kara-Murza — who already survived one poisoning in 2015 — is in grave condition in Moscow, after his organs failed following an apparent second poisoning. He’s 35 years old.
Journalists who’ve criticized Putin’s government have also felt its wrath, being blacklisted, intimidated, threatened with prosecution, and occasionally murdered. Opposition journalism has been relentlessly suppressed; as a result, Russians who get their news from television are treated to a steady diet of pro-Putin — and anti-US — reports. And while more sophisticated consumers of Russian media realize these reports are one-sided, others don’t.
Many Russians continue to believe that the Russian press is completely free. A wealthy, world-traveling woman in Chelyabinsk named Masha was one of these: “The Russian press is certainly more free than the American press,” she told me over lunch in October 2015. When I asked her about journalists such as Anna Politkovskaya, shot dead in her Moscow apartment building following critical investigative reporting in Chechnya, Masha replied simply, “Journalists get killed in America too.”
Which brings us back around to our new president, Donald Trump. As his White House team continues to disseminate statements that are demonstrably untrue, while simultaneously engaging in a running effort to discredit CNN as a “fake news” operation, it does appear that he’s taking a page out of the Kremlin’s playbook. And I couldn’t help but notice that his recent rebuttal to Bill O’Reilly — “We have a lot of killers. … You think our country is so innocent?” — sounds an awful lot like the assertions of Masha in Chelyabinsk.
Amid all this, one fact is inescapably true. Yes, in The Martian, the US turned to the Chinese for rocket help. But even so, there’s no doubt that unlike in the 1990s, Americans are once again paying very close attention to what Russia does. In the eyes of many Russians, Vladimir Putin has made their country great again. Now we must ensure that our own president’s quest to “make America great again” doesn’t come at a similar cost.
Lisa Dickey is the author of Bears in the Streets: Three Journeys Across a Changing Russia (St. Martin's Press, 2017). As a book collaborator and ghostwriter, she helped write 17 published nonfiction books, including eight New York Times best-sellers. Dickey began her career in St. Petersburg, Russia, writing articles for the Moscow Times and USA Today. She also regularly appears at live events such as the Moth Grand Slam.