‘Russian Liberals Do Not Conform to the Identity of the Average Russian’
April 16, 2024
  • Konstantin Kalachev
    Political analyst
  • Maria Litvinova
Political analyst Konstantin Kalachev discusses why the Russian opposition has failed to win the sympathy of the majority of the country, cautions against illusions regarding Russians’ political preferences and explains his view that this term is Putin’s last.
The original interview in Russian was published in Republic. A shortened version is being republished here with their permission.

Did anything happen in the presidential election that you did not expect?

The result exceeded my expectations. I had thought that 85% was just a certain limit. But I was not surprised. Clearly, since regions compete over results, regional leaders tried to do everything possible to get the highest result both in terms of turnout and votes for Putin.

Putin’s opponents waged very confusing campaigns. By and large, there was no one else to vote for.

Our presidential elections are basically a referendum. Every year, on the “single day of voting,” regional elections are held that take the form of referendums, with the leaders easily and simply reaching the 80% mark. It would be strange if the president did not reach this mark in such an election, when the majority of the population is convinced that Russia is headed in the right direction, patriotic sentiment is off the charts, when they have not particularly felt hardships and privations from the special operation, while some have more money now [than before], and when the concept of “Russia is surrounded by enemies” and the theme of [the country’s] greatness are being perfectly realized.
I see that demands for prosperity and justice now trail those for greatness – this is the key desire of many people.
So, overall, nothing surprised me. As for the turnout, again – three days for voting, e-voting, all these lotteries, contests, giveaways, drawings for apartments, cars and so on. Each region tried its hardest, and all this together resulted in “mobilization” of the electorate.

Some of your colleagues are of the opinion that the Kremlin has gone too far with the “Turkmenistan-like” result; it is not believable. Do you disagree?

I am surprised that these opinions are being voiced. Indeed, in the post-Soviet space there are two leaders who surpassed Putin in their last elections – Emomali Rahmon, the head of Tajikistan, and Azeri President Ilham Aliyev (he had, I think, 92%). These are also situations of referendum elections, only in Azerbaijan the war ended in victory and the return of Karabakh. By the way, many Russians also believe in an imminent victory [in Ukraine].
"Noon Against Putin" line at the polling station in Yerevan. Source: Wiki Commons
Of course, in some places they went too far, which is due to the competition between regions over results, but this does not fundamentally change the situation, such is the mood now.

Our minority does not have political representation, which is bad. In fact, it came out in voting abroad.

As for those who are inside Russia: I talk with my relatives, friends and acquaintances, and I cannot deny that my mother, for example, voted for Putin.
Again, of course, there were some excesses, and the ethnic republics are at the forefront of this.
Does the current picture reflect the will of the majority? To be honest, yes, it does, whether you like it or not.

This does not mean that everyone who voted for Putin adores him. To be sure, this is a result of both the lack of alternatives and the adoration on the part of some people, while others are not ready for anything new at all.

Before the pandemic, the average Russian was 41 years old. It is hard to say for sure now, but I think that after the pandemic and the special operation, the average age has naturally increased to 42–43.

All these people are, for the most part, conservative and live by the principle “it could be worse” and “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.” And they definitely do not expect any serious changes for the better.

In 2019, 54% of respondents believed that Russia was headed in the wrong direction. But now the majority believes that the country is going in the right direction. Look at the polling about “foreign agents”: the majority believes that “foreign agents” are a “fifth column.” We may or may not like it, but we must accept reality as it is.

I follow what Belgorod residents write and say (see Russia.Post about the situation in Belgorod here), and, for example, while the city was being shelled during the election, in comments on the governor’s posts on VK there was a lot of indignation that people were being asked to vote, a lot of resentment toward the federal authorities and Putin – these comments, by the way, were quickly deleted. But if you believe the [voting] numbers, does it mean that the majority of Belgorod residents chose this life under shelling?

There is no need to look for logic. People often have a mess in their heads, mutually exclusive thoughts. Regarding complaints on governors’ posts – governors play the role of lightning rods, and where governors are unpopular, it is there that low results for Putin are obtained. But Putin himself is Teflon.

People can complain about the mayor, about the governor, but the old Russian pattern of “good tsar, bad boyars” works. To deny this is to deny reality; we have a quasi-monarchical system.

And people do not see a connection between Putin and the shelling; they see a connection between the shelling and Zelensky. Ukraine, the US and Biden are to blame for everything.
People look for simple explanations, the authorities give them these simple explanations, and they work.
And the shelling of Belgorod just confirmed to them that, in fact, we are not attacking but defending.

Let’s not deceive ourselves. In Russia there are many modern, curious, progressive people, but they do not make a difference, they are a minority.

And young people do not determine anything. Moreover, our youth is different – there are youth in the big cities, and there are those in the heartland…

Might the opposition, which represents the progressive part of society, begin to give simple answers to society or at least speak the same language it does?

In fact, modern channels of communication make it possible to build a system of agitation and propaganda that could compete on an equal footing with the government or pro-government system. But the majority of the country sees the opposition as people who are anti-state.

In this sense, Navalny’s death is truly an irrevocable loss, because he actually spoke the same language as the people. But our opposition is people who definitely should not be allowed into the crowd, among the people. They have not learned anything. I was in the Democratic Russia coalition in 1989–90, a movement that fought the monopoly of the CPSU. I saw that these people were terribly far from the people and that their views and proposals could not become the basis for a broad public consensus or a broad popular coalition.

This is the serious problem of the confrontation between the intelligentsia and the people, which has deep roots, one might say, into the 19th century.
Maxim Katz, a Russian oppositionist who runs a well-known YouTube channel with the same name. Source: YouTube
So, Putin acts as a mirror for the people; he has the right vocabulary, simple answers and, overall, people get him. There are, of course, exceptions... like [Yuri] Dud’ or [Maxim] Katz – actually attempting to expand their audience as much as possible, not just agitating the agitated, which is what most of the opposition does.

How did Navalny’s death affect Russian society? Levada had data where a significant percentage of Russians in open surveys mentioned “the murder of an oppositionist in prison.”

Of course, Navalny’s death had an impact. If Navalny had not been a problem, then Putin would not have said that he only wanted to send him into exile so that he would not appear in Russia again. I even believe that Putin had a sincere desire to get rid of the problem the way he got rid of the problem of Khodorkovsky – lifetime exile. Exiles lose political influence very quickly and do not pose a real threat.
For oppositional mythology, the tragedy of Navalny’s story is important, but Navalny is not about today. His death could affect tomorrow. He will be canonized, glorified...
He is still a hero for young people, and it is quite possible that his name will actually play a bigger role in Russian politics as the years pass. Not now, but when there is a change of generations, when those who in one way or another participated and sympathized [with him] grow up.

Putin understands that the problem of Navalny cannot be solved by Navalny’s death. A dead Navalny could turn out to be even more dangerous than a living one if he becomes a symbol, a banner.

Navalny’s supporters and investigative journalists believe that even if Putin wanted to swap him at some point, his fear that Navalny could gain more support in Russia when Putin’s power weakened won out.

In any case, this is speculation, and we cannot see into someone else’s head.
I am ready to discuss facts and logic. Sure, Navalny had a situationally big result in the Moscow mayoral election [in 2013]. Navalny was certainly a bright, talented politician, an extraordinary personality.

Navalny, not Navalny – this does not matter. This is a problem of positioning. Navalny tried to position himself counter to Putin. But for his ratings to rise, Putin’s had to fall. Well, they are not falling, only rising.

Polarization is happening, there is a minority that hates Putin. But he was a mirror for the majority and remains such.

Before February 2022, Putin’s ratings were declining, were they not?

They were falling, but that’s exactly what I am talking about: in 2019, 54% of respondents believed that Russia was going in the wrong direction. But the special operation did its job. It started and his ratings went up.
A protest rally on Bolotnaya Square, Moscow, February 2012. Speakers left to right; Boris Nemtsov, Grigory Yavlinsky, rock musician Yuri Shevchuk. Source: Wiki Commons
So, your colleagues are right who say that the actions of the Kremlin in 2014 in Crimea and southeastern Ukraine were a reaction to Bolotnaya, while the special operation was a response to 2019? The conclusion is that when someone has the ability to boost their ratings through military conflicts, there is little that can be done to stop them.

“After” does not mean “because”; we look for cause-and-effect relationships and explanations later.
Bolotnaya really scared the authorities. What would have happened if people had marched on the Kremlin? But military conflicts are different. A short, victorious war did not pan out; we got a routinization of war. But in any case, we need to get out of this situation, and preferably before it’s too late.
Nowadays, many of those who said that Russia was going in the wrong direction say the opposite, that this is how things should be, Putin is great, we should take an even harder line.
If there was no demand for war, would all these voenkory (see Russia.post about voenkory here) be so popular? You can laugh at [Vladimir] Solovyov, but his ratings are off the charts. Dud’ cannot compare with him in popularity among the people.

Is Russia’s economic system responding to the current challenges and threats? It is. Is it adapting? It is. Does the political system reflect the will of the majority, which wants autocracy? It does. Does the values framework, where there is family, patriotism, spiritual values, reflect the mood of the majority? It does. You can be opposed to all this, but you must understand reality.

You mentioned the popularity of blogs by Z-voenkory as an indication of the demand for war. But the voenkory themselves complain in their posts that people read them but do not actively participate in the war, while the anti-war community, risking arrest and imprisonment, lays flowers in memory of Navalny, queues to put their signature down for Nadezhdin and turned out for the “noon against Putin” action at polling stations. Do you see the difference?

I know turbo-patriots who went to fight as volunteers back in 2016 and are still fighting, quite decent people. In other words, there are also many people on the other flank who are ready for action, including combat.

But most people just want to be in the majority, join the stronger side. Clearly, they can be manipulated; today they can think one thing and tomorrow another. Or they can even think one thing, say another, do a third, as long as no one touches them, interferes with them being in their comfort zone.

The majority both in the opposition and among turbo-patriots prefer to cheer their side on from the couch.

But actually bending the majority [in the country] will not work – in the sense that many people now think: give me [control of] TV for a week or two, and Russia will turn 180 degrees.

Let’s say something happens, liberals are in control, they are given TV. But Russian liberals have failed to become popular. Partly because they have denied the national, the patriotic, that is, they do not conform to the identity of the average Russian.
In this sense, the regime works much more effectively with stereotypes, archetypes and preconceived notions.
Propaganda works when it touches old nerves.
What works is what is understandable and familiar to people, and they really did not think differently in the first place.

I believe that only a patriotic government in Russia has a chance.

What political future does Yulia Navalnaya have? Can she learn to speak to people in a language they understand, like Alexei could? For example, now she is trying to stick up for Russians – both those abroad and inside Russia.

Abroad, we need a public ombudsman who would protect the interests of Russians and explain to the Europeans – and not only to European governments – that much of what they are doing is triggering a backlash. That they themselves are contributing to the rallying of Russian society around Putin and are not splitting it at all.

Do you think Vladimir Putin will be president until 2030, or even 2036?

Until 2030, most likely, yes, but as for 2036, I doubt it for one simple reason: the latest election result is a marker that this is his last term and swan song. In our country, the result must be improved in every election. Where else can it go? To 100%? But 100% is already North Korea, and I do not think Putin wants Russia to turn into North Korea.
He has his own ideas about how things should be; sometimes he is cynical, sometimes he is romantic. But, in any case, I think he really feels like a messiah, sees his mission and wants to make Russia strong and great. I do not even doubt it. Where all this will lead is another matter, as sometimes good intentions lead you in the wrong direction. You can leave either at the peak of your fame, writing yourself into history, or while on the decline – feet first.

Everything that Putin has built can collapse overnight. He needs to create continuity one way or another, and continuity can only be created through a successor.
If he feels like a king, he must have an heir. How many great kings were there who died without leaving anyone, and then everything went wrong, a time of troubles began? And not only in Russia.

Therefore, I believe that at some point a successor must emerge, and this term is Putin’s swan song. And after a while someone else will have to sort out all the current problems and rubble.
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