April 8, 2021 Special Dispatch No. 9279

Levada Center Director Lev Gudkov: Putin 'Has No Other Choice But To Constantly Create And Maintain The Image Of The Enemy'

April 8, 2021
Russia | Special Dispatch No. 9279 journalist Georgy Markov sat down with the director of the Levada Center, Professor Lev Gudkov to try to make sense of a paradoxes that have emerged in the organization's surveys of Russia's citizens: Why does Putin's ratings remain high despite economic stagnation and a decline in the standard of living. How come so few Russians are willing to engage in any form of protest activity, if their situation is so dire. Gudkov explains that deep distrust in the system actually depresses protest activity, because citizens do not believe in their own effectiveness. Putin remains popular, because he is perceived as a protector against the West and for that image he must frighten the citizenry with the chimera of the West's designs against Russia. These and other insights emerge in the interview that follows below:[1]

Lev Gudkov (Source:

This week, the State Duma passed a bill allowing Vladimir Putin to run for president once again. Although dissatisfaction with his policies is growing, and the standard of living in Russia is declining, the majority of respondents in the Levada Center polls are unprepared to join the street protests. Why is this happening, how has the rating of Alexei Navalny changed, to what extent do Russians trust the army and the FSB – this in a interview with Lev Gudkov, director of the Levada Analytical Center, and Professor at the Higher School of Economics' Faculty of Social Sciences.

- What does the rating of political institutions mean and how does one regard it?

- Rating is always a shorthand of an attitude towards an event, social institution, policy, and so on. This indicator makes sense only in the context of relations towards other politicians, institutions, and so on. Another important aspect of this indicator is the way it changes over time. We have been recording a trust index for government institutions since 1993-1994. This index is measured as the difference between the answers: “absolutely trust” and “ absolutely distrust”, as well as half of the answers such as “do not trust entirely”, “trust to some extent” and so on.

According to our polls, the 90s was a period of an extremely low level of trust in all institutions of power: the President, the State Duma, the government and regional administrations. This indicator ticked up slightly during the1995-96 presidential campaign.

In 1997, positive expectations [among the population] began to grow, but the 1998 crisis caused a sharp drop in them. Against this background, the new leader of the country, Vladimir Putin, came to power. So trust [in government institutions] increased. Moreover, at that time there were no changes in the [country’s] economy and political course. During first couple of years of his [Putin’s] reign there were still no positive results.

People projected their expectations for an improvement upon the new leader, thus ensuring the growth of his popularity. These were infantile illusions that he [Putin] would lead the country out of the crisis. In his early days as head of state, Putin was “the president of hope”.

[The sentiments] of all political forces converged in these hopes for the new leader, though each political force imputed to him their own motives and interests.

- What does the current level of trust for the institutions of government show?

- As of August 2020, the army is in first place, the president is in second (this pattern has held for about two years), and the FSB and other special services are in third place. The church and philanthropic organizations come next. All other institutions are in a zone where trust is contracting. The institutions that constitute a rule-of- law society, which, theoretically, should represent the population's interests, are at the very bottom. They are: parliament, the judiciary system, business, parties and trade unions.

By the way, the elections to the State Duma will be held this year. Well, citizens have an extremely negative attitude towards it. When we ask them to evaluate the activities of certain deputies, we hear very unflattering responses, even obscene expressions, even though the population precisely elects them.

OK, we now have an authoritarian regime dominated by the special services and the army, Russia is a strong centralized repressive state, there cannot be talk of democracy. The FSB in Russia is, in fact, political police that operates extra-legally. Nowadays, the courts even refuse to consider FSB- related cases, they [judges] say that this structure is beyond their jurisdiction.

The FSB's rating has been growing since the late 1990s from 40% to the current 65%. At the same time, the distrust in this service, which was distinctive during the perestroika times and [associated with] the failure of the State Emergency Committee’s [coup d'état against Mikhail Gorbachev], has decreased.

- What does such a rating for the FSB demonstrate?

- The growth in the security agencies' rating draws upon the increased popularity of all Soviet ideas, including the cult of Stalin. These are not just militaristic values:  heroic glory, militarism, selflessness, but these are also the values of empire, a great power and the priority of the state over the person”.

- What about the president's rating? Why is he in second place?

- The peak of the president’s popularity was in 2008 and 2014. In 2008 there was a war with Georgia, and 2014 is the year of the Crimea annexation. These events gave people a sense of pride for their country, it is important for people to belong to a great power.

If we talk about the drops in the President’s ratings, then in 2005 it happened due to the monetization reform [social welfare monetization], and another one in 2009, when people felt the consequences of the economic crisis, and then - in 2011-2013.

Against the background of mass protests, the steady and, as it seemed to me, irreversible decline in Putin’s popularity was happening.

Back then 47% [of the respondents] said that they did not want to see him in the president’s office next term. 61% of the respondents said that they were tired of waiting for him to fulfill his promises. Then the [annexation] of Crimea happened, which caused nationalist euphoria. But by 2016, the rating had sunk again, then grew and fell again in 2018 after Putin supported the pension reform, which caused popular outrage.

However, the president’s rating never fell below 60% when we asked the direct question “Do you trust Vladimir Putin?”

This means that we are dealing with an orchestrated consensus (in other words the result of work of strong administrative and propaganda machine). Political scientist Kirill Rogov believes that in authoritarian regimes, a drop in the rating below 60% becomes critical for the head of state. Below that number the erosion process of the ruler’s legitimacy will intensify.

However, if one would ask an open question, “whom do you most trust among politicians?” without naming Putin, then the erosion of his core support becomes evident.

In November of 2017, when answering this open question, 57-58% [of respondents] trusted Putin. Nowadays this indicator of his “strong supporters” is about 29-30%.

- How do you interpret such data?

- This suggests that, in public opinion, there is no alternative to Putin today. [Prime Minister] [Mikhail] Mishustin, [Foreign Minister] Lavrov and [Defense Minister Sergei] Shoigu are not independent politicians, all of them are Putin’s functionaries. [Vladimir] Zhirinovsky and [Gennady] Zyuganov cannot receive more than 11-15% [of answers], Sobyanin receives no more than 4%.

Navalny’s rating is 3-5%. In 2011, the Navalny’s work was approved by up to 40% [of respondents]. Back then he put forward the slogan, “United Russia is a party of crooks and thieves.” However, the constant efforts to discredit him reduced his popularity to the lowest values.

This means that there are still no new faces in the public politics yet. And as long as there is an organized consensus of the administration, courts and police, the new active and popular politicians cannot appear.

Putin’s high rating of 60-65% signifies the weakness of other public institutions: the courts, representative authority and of various forms of population’s self-organization.

[Putin’s high rating] is not an indicator of any special love or enthusiasm for the president. After 2012, when [the assassinated liberal politician] Boris Nemtsov published his book “Putin. Corruption”, we began constantly measuring people’s sentiments on whether the head of state is responsible for the abuse of power that his opponents accused him of.

In 2014 (when Crimea was annexed) the number of those who admitted [that Putin might be responsible for the abuse of power] was at its lowest. However, this indicator has now grown, people think, “Probably, yes, he is guilty of abuse of power, like all high-ranking officials, but I know little about this and I do not have my eye on this topic.” This indicator is currently stable at about 25%. This opinion is shared by those who believe, “Even if this is true, the fact that the country began to live better under him is more important.” People who think so constitute almost a quarter of the population. These two components create a dominant - “the abandonment of moral assessments in relation to the country's leader”. It is a willingness to adapt, to accept the situation as it is.

Political scientist Hannah Arendt presumed that public apathy and political alienation are the support pillars of all totalitarian and authoritarian regimes. Those alienated from the system, do not resist it, make no claims or silently approve its actions form its basis [of system’s support]. This political acceptance has even grown from 73% to 75% since 2007.

I want to add that that the system's stability is ensured by a well-known ambivalent attitude towards power “the tsar is good; the boyars are bad”. [Meaning Putin is good, the officials are bad] Therefore, when the standard of living declines, incomes fall, prices rise, the economy stagnates for 10 years, people channel their dissatisfaction towards officials, but not at the “national leader”. Because for them he is a symbol of state power, he cannot be touched.

At the same time, no more than 11% [of respondents] are ready to join the street protests and demand improved living conditions. And that is just their words.

Why? -  People have time to adapt to a deteriorated standard of living, because it does not occur sharply but slowly: year after year. We use such concepts as "negative adaptation" or "compulsory adjustment" through reduced demands [people’s] requests, economizing on daily expenses, and abandoning usual forms of consumption.

- But "negative adaptation" cannot be interminable; there is a limit to everything. What else is the Putin’s regime using to perpetuate itself and justify itself in the face of constantly falling standards of living?

- One more thing on which the legitimacy of Vladimir Putin rests deserves mention. The 20th Century German legal expert Karl Schmidt, who by the way actively supported the Nazi regime, put forward the idea that politics is an identifier vis a vis the enemy. An enemy must exist, who will ensure the consolidation of society around authority. In the face of a deadly threat, mobilization [of society] takes place. That is, politics is essentially only foreign policy. Accordingly, the one who assumes the task of society's protector from its enemies is the politician. In a country’s internal affairs, there is no need for politics unless internal enemies appear. In that case it is necessary to fight them, these enemies are: Jews, class enemies, the fifth column, foreign agents, and so on. Terror and repression can be used against them.

This thesis of Karl Schmitt can explain on what Vladimir Putin's regime rests.

As soon as he came to power, anti-Western sentiments began to be heard in the Kremlin. In 2007 Putin made a “Munich speech” in which he outlined his claims upon Western countries. Thus, a new era of confrontation began, which eventually led to a policy of intensification of sanctions.

Let’s note that during the 89 - 90s only 13% of respondents believed that the country had enemies. There were many categories of such enemies: mafia, businesses, communists, separatists, the CIA, and so on. 52% [of respondents] answered that there is no need to look for enemies when all the problems are self-related. Back in 1994, 60% believed that we need to follow the Western path and integrate into Europe. What’s more, according to them, someday Russia should become a member of the European Union, and 40% supported the idea of the country’s joining NATO.

- How was the image of the enemy formed? Was it artificially created by the authorities through propaganda, or did the citizens of Russia naturally come to it?

- I didn’t mean that propaganda is omnipotent. It does not create new ideas, instead it raises a layer of old Soviet stereotypes of a closed society: the notion of a “besieged fortress”, with enemies all around. Propaganda extracts from society itself those narratives that are important to people. You can’t be chronically depressed, inferior or nationally insolvent and so on. People need to have some inspiring idea.

When we ask what you are proud of, people answer, "victory in the Great Patriotic War, the first manned flight into space, great Russian literature". And answering the question what causes shame, people say, "a great nation living in poverty, rudeness and boorishness, slave-like mindset". This is an inferiority complex.

And propaganda draws upon these narratives out and compensates for the chronic feeling of humiliation and dependence on the authorities by reminding us of great victories, of the glory of Russian weapons, of our country's territorial enormity. This is an important thing. In what group does this imperial nationalism manifest itself first of all? - In the impoverished strata of the population.

Recently a book “The Light That Failed, Why the West is Losing the Struggle for Democracy” by Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes was published, in which they scrutinize the conservative phenomena in Eastern Europe as a reaction to the imitation of Western institutions.

Back in the second half of the 1990s, the communists started to make statements and explanation that market reforms were the implementation of America’s plan to destroy the USSR. But they were not accepted until a certain time. In 1991, anti-Americanism was characteristic only of 5% [of the respondents].

The first wave of anti-Americanism appeared in 1999 after the NATO bombings of Serbia, which was perceived as a show of force against Russia. The second wave is associated with the war in Iraq; and the third wave - with the military conflict in Georgia. The Russian media presented this as a process of ejecting Russia from its traditional zones of influence. [During the war in Georgia in 2008] the Saakashvili’s regime wasn’t the enemy, but America standing behind it. Because a program for Georgia's joining NATO was then announced.

These three outbursts of anti-Americanism were short-lived. When the TV was turned off, the anti-Americanism subsided. But the hostility regarding Ukraine roused by propaganda lasted a long time and began to subside only after 2018.

- That is the West nevertheless in [the eyes of] public opinion is not an absolute enemy and a beast from hell?

- We register a contradictory image of the West. On the one hand, the West is the utopia of everything that Russians covet: a high standard of living, freedom, a rule of law, high technological development. On the other hand, many understand that in the foreseeable future they will never live like Americans, thus a strong desire appears to reduce the attractiveness of the Western image.

How is this done? – By attributing negative characteristics: Americans are stupid, uncultured, indifferent, depraved, materialistic, and etc. They are just not us. Propaganda adds established aggression to these sentiments of envy, offering ready-made clichés for articulating negative characteristics.

The longest wave of anti-Americanism began after [the annexation] of Crimea and the imposition of sanctions. It peaked in the spring of 2015. At our focus groups people said, "We have become a super power; we bared our teeth to everyone and made everyone respect us."

This was an important moment for the consolidation of the population and authority. At the same time, such feelings of pride were accompanied by powerful fears of a major war. The respondents said, “We have already entered the third world war.”

A few years later, the Crimean euphoria decreased. Later, the pension reform arrived. Thus people became partially disenchanted with the actions of the authorities, while anti-Americanism is no longer able to play a mobilizing role.

Therefore, the support for Putin is based on confrontational rhetoric. If the level of confrontation with a conventional external enemy drops, Putin’s rating drops as well. Thus, he has no other choice but to constantly create and maintain the image of the enemy.

- Recently the State Duma passed a bill allowing Putin to run for president again. But does society want this today?

- The sentiments towards Putin is quite contradictory. He has several major merits. The first is the strengthening of the armed forces. The second is the resolution of the Chechen issue. The third is the growth of the population’s incomes in the 2000s and the stabilization of the situation in the country. The trauma of the 90s for Russian society was most severe. Putin with his rhetoric of "[the country] rising from its knees" has become a sort of healing agent for this trauma. But he also has failings: the failure of the fight against corruption, his affiliation with the corrupt clans, lack of income growth, economic stagnation and an inability to curb the oligarchs.

As for Putin’s features as a politician, then those who perceive him positively state that he is decisive, experienced, defends national interests, prevents the country’s humiliation and even handsome, he also does not drink. This is how women perceive Putin.

By the way, at the peak of his popularity, it was mostly women who gave him positive characteristics. He was a symbol of success for young people, “he can afford whatever he wants: to ride a tank, fly in a fighter, and so on.” Today, there are fewer people who positively assess his work, and young people generally assess Putin negatively. Social networks are at work, because 95% of the young reside there.

And young people give the following characteristics [to Putin], "deceitful, corrupt, old man in a bunker".

In brief, people view Putin critically, but are unprepared to raise claims and change the situation. Lack of resistance is the factor that keeps his regime afloat.

- Why don’t people want to resist?

- People have a short planning horizon, they have no savings, that is they live “from paycheck to paycheck”, they are extremely uncertain about the future; they don’t trust the institutions that maintain social order: the courts, the police, and so on. So, a quite logical conclusion is made, “I cannot do anything, I don’t want to participate in politics”, but also, “I don’t want to be responsible for politicians”.

For comparison, one can cite the Scandinavian countries, which have is a high level of trust in parliament and political parties. Therefore, they demonstrate a high level of participation in public life and politics.

Georgi Markov (Source:


[1], March 29, 2021.

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