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Why are Russians attracted to strong leaders?

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Russian History: A Very Short Introduction

By Geoffrey Hosking


After a decade of a chaotic but exhilarating democracy in the 1990s, Vladamir Putin as president and prime minister has been restoring a strong state. At least, that is how we usually understand it. He has certainly restored an authoritarian state. On assuming office in 2000, he strengthened the ‘power vertical’ by ending the local election of provincial governors and sending in his own viceroys – mostly ex-military men – to supervise them. Citing the state’s need for ‘information security’, he closed down or took over media outlets which exposed inconvenient information or criticised his actions. Determined opponents were bankrupted, threatened, arrested, even murdered. He subdued the unruly Duma (parliament) by making it much more difficult for opposition parties to register or gain access to the media, and by encouraging violations of electoral procedure at the polls. Until recently, the Russian public seemed to accept this as part of the natural order.

This is all part of a well-established historical pattern. There are good reasons for Russians’ attachment to strong leaders. They fear both external invasion and internal subversion. A glance at their history reveals why. Their frontiers are very long and open, and over the centuries they have suffered invasion many times. In 1237 the Mongol onslaught brought devastation of towns and mass murder or enslavement of citizens. In Suzdal, for example, according to the Chronicle, “They plundered the Church of the Holy Virgin and burned down the prince’s court and burned down the Monastery of St Dmitrii, and the others they plundered. The old monks and nuns and priests and the blind, lame, hunchbacked and sick they killed, and the young monks and nuns and priests and priests’ wives and deacons and deacons’ wives, and their daughters and sons – all were led away into captivity.”

Older people can still remember the German invasion of 1941, in which such scenes were reproduced over broad swathes of the country. Russians will support almost any regime which offers them security from attack, even if they distrust and resent the local officials with whom they have everyday dealings. And that means that almost any regime can legitimise itself by claiming that Russia is in danger. Putin has done so by insinuating that NATO is threatening Russia militarily and subverting it from within through foreign-financed NGOs.

The latter accusation resonates with Russians, since they also fear troublemaking underlings inside the country. Three times in the last four centuries the Russian state has collapsed: in the early 17th century ‘time of troubles’, in the revolution of 1917-21 and in the collapse of the USSR in 1991-3. In the first two cases the result was civil war, and that nearly happened in 1993 as well. Even without civil war, if the state is weak, rich and powerful local bosses can throw their weight about unrestrained. They enrich themselves and their clients, seize the property of opponents and beat them up or murder them, if they see fit. Russians still vividly remember the 1990s, when state property was dispersed among oligarchs, and as a result many hospitals, schools, and old people’s homes became impoverished and decrepit, while pensioners, teachers, and nurses were paid late in inflated rubles – if at all.

These memories help to explain why Putin is still trusted by many Russians, especially of the older generation. Under him material life has greatly improved. But this is largely because the price of Russia’s main export, oil, has soared. Trust in Putin is wary and was declining even before autumn 2011. Russians are aware that he encourages or at least tolerates unsavoury practices which damage their lives. They know that their immediate superiors are corrupt and overbearing, and that redress for abuses is unattainable. An authoritarian state is not necessarily a strong state. On the contrary, rather than enforce the law, it may merely co-opt greedy underlings and licence their depredations.

Here too Russians are re-enacting familiar scenarios. In past centuries serfs generally accepted their lot as necessary and in any case ineluctable. Besides, it offered them modest benefits: some cultivable land and membership in a village community which usually ran its own affairs by negotiation with the landlord’s steward. (The British Empire, by contrast, could not manage without enclosures, the Poor Law and the workhouse.) But there were always discontented serfs who escaped the burdens and injustices to resettle in the empire’s open frontier lands. If opportunity offered, moreover, or if new abuses were inflicted on them, even the peasants who stayed at home could and did cause serious trouble. There were massive rebellions in the 1660s, 1770s, 1905-6 and 1917-18, and continual smaller-scale protests in between.

Nowadays there are no more serfs in the literal sense, but ordinary citizens often feel like semi-serfs. Young professional people find their careers blocked by local power brokers; businessmen in official disfavour see their premises raided, their tax affairs minutely examined, and sometimes their businesses bankrupted. Many of them have visited or even lived in other countries; they know that at least in some of them the authorities are restrained by the rule of law. They would like to see it established in Russia too.

That is why, when the parliamentary elections of December 2011 were blatantly falsified, the passivity abruptly ended. Massive protest demonstrations took place in the major cities, calling for a rerun of the elections and ‘Russia without Putin’. Young professional and commercial people, using the new social networking sites, were at the core of the demonstrations. But many ordinary workers, pensioners and others participated too. There was no mistaking the widespread anger and resentment. They all know that the state is not doing its proper job of enforcing the law.

It is impossible to tell at the moment whether the population will once more relapse into sullen acquiescence, or whether an effective opposition movement will take shape. Nor can we tell whether Putin, back in full power as president from May 2012, will continue to crush his opponents by force, or whether he will introduce serious reforms. What we do know from the past, however, is that once change starts in Russia it tends to be cumulative and sweeping, and to result in greater changes than seemed possible at the outset. We also know that when Russians yearn for a strong state, they also yearn for a just one.

Geoffrey Hosking is Emeritus Professor of Russian History at University College London. Geoffrey Hosking was formerly Professor of Russian History at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, UCL from 1984 to 2007. He is a Fellow of the British Academy.

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Recent Comments

  1. John Doe

    I liked this article very much. Thank you for giving a very well written account of the current climate in Russia.

  2. [...] incomprehensible, and thus probably dangerous. Yet this may be less harmful than clichés about how Russians love a strong ruler; Russians have no historical experience with democracy so cannot understand it; Russia will always [...]

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