Putin and the creative class: Who loves him, who hates him, and who couldn’t care less?

February 20
Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) is attacked by an activist of the Ukrainian women's rights group 'Femen' as German Chancellor Angela Merkel (R) looks on during their visit of the industrial exhibition "Hannover Messe" April 8, 2013 in Hannover, Germany. (Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images)
Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) is attacked by an activist of the Ukrainian women’s rights group ‘Femen’ as German Chancellor Angela Merkel (R) looks on during their visit of the industrial exhibition “Hannover Messe” April 8, 2013 in Hannover, Germany. (Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images)

Joshua Tucker: As the Sochi Olympics continue, so does our companion Monkey Cage series of Russian politics-related posts (after Wednesday’s break for a Ukrainian politics post). Today we bring you political scientist Graeme Robertson (UNC-Chapel Hill) and sociologist Sam Greene (King’s College London).  A list of all previous posts in the series can be found at the end of this one.

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The run-up to the Sochi Olympics provided two sharply contrasting public images of contemporary Russia and its ruling regime. On one side was a celebration of Russia’s ancient beauty and technological prowess, as Russians swam the Olympic torch across frozen rivers, dived with it to the bottom of the world’s deepest lake, and launched it into low-Earth orbit. On the other side was a torrent of condemnation, as critics, domestic and foreign, slammed the games for being everything from a desecration of sacred soil to a corrupt dictator’s vanity project. One bold soul even expressed his contempt and despair over the situation in Russia by publicaly nailing his scrotum to the paving stones in Red Square, much to the bewilderment of the local constabulary!

For most Russians, though – as for most people around the world – politics evokes neither pride nor anger. Some, like David Greene (no relation) in a recent Washington Post piece, argue that Russians are existentially “adrift” — devoid of attachment to a national idea or purpose. And yet, as we’ll see in a moment, a significant minority of Russian citizens do feel strongly about how their country is governed and who is ruling it: the key is to understand who, and why. Who is proud of Russia and its rulers? Who is angry? And how do they feel about the alternatives?

To get at this, we conducted a survey (with the generous support of the Smith Richardson Foundation) among precisely those Russians who Putin’s former strategist Vladislav Surkov called the “angry urbanites” – educated, Internet-using, middle class urbanites (see here for more details and data). Instead of focusing on the typical issues of approval ratings and voting intentions (though we asked about those, too), we sought to tap into emotions, both positive and negative, as well as the degree to which citizens identify with different elements of what it might mean to be Russian. In doing so, we hoped to get some deeper sense of the emotional and material motivations of Russia’s educated urbanites.

Overall the picture is one of an urban elite emotionally unengaged with the political world, in which very few trust the incumbent regime, or are proud or hopeful when they think of their rulers or system of government. Although substantial numbers express general political support for the regime, this support is thin and conditional. If push came to shove, there is no evidence that much of Russia’s urban elite would come to the current regime’s aid. But that doesn’t mean that Russians are entirely adrift: most respondents are firmly attached to identities based in Russian culture and the state, and to a somewhat lesser degree the Orthodox Church. Moreover, among educated people in Russia’s largest cities real pockets of anger remain, despite the relative peace on Russia’s streets. There is also a significant well of support for the opposition. If we were in the Kremlin, we would be worried. (Thankfully, we’re not.)

Part of the survey was focused on the negative emotions of anger and contempt, which are thought to be important to collective action, albeit in different ways (see this research by Nicole Tausch and colleagues). Fully 17 percent of our educated, middle-class urbanites said that they were angry at the Russian leadership, and about the same number expressed fury at the general way Russia is governed. Only 24 percent reported that they were not, in fact, angry.

So, who is this angry minority? Not surprisingly, the strongest predictor of anger is economic well being: 23 percent of those who said their family’s financial situation had worsened over the past year were angry (vs. 10 percent of those whose fortunes had improved). Approximately a fifth of private-sector workers reported being angry (21 percent, vs. 11 percent of public-sector workers). And 23 percent of men were angry, against 12 percent of women. Young people were more likely to be furious about how Russia is governed in general, but not necessarily angry at Russia’s leaders per se.

The good news for Putin is that, while somewhere between a fifth and a quarter of our urbanites were angry at him, some 43 percent said they at least somewhat approve of his actions as president. Our questions about trust, pride and hope, however, suggest that this approval is thin. Only 8 percent expressed at least moderate trust, 5 percent moderate pride and 8 percent moderate hope. The numbers disagreeing with each of these emotions were much larger – 35 percent expressed at least moderate disagreement with the trust statement, 42 percent on pride and 39 percent on hope.

Unsurprisingly, those who do support Putin appear to do so for economic reasons. Of those whose family’s fortunes improved in the last year, 15 percent expressed at least moderate trust in the leadership of the country. Among those who reported getting poorer, only 4 percent did.

So much for attitudes to Russia’s current leaders – what about the alternatives? Perhaps surprisingly, the opposition enjoys support among a substantial minority. About 30 percent of our urbanites agreed that the opposition has good ideas (though only about 22 percent thought it had good leaders), while 30 percent think Russia would be freer if the opposition came to power, 23 percent think the country would be safer, and 29 percent think it would be richer. Less surprisingly, more people report having no opinion on those statements than disagree with them, and support for the opposition also seems related to economics. Among those whose economic situation has gotten worse in the last year, 43 percent said they would vote for an opposition candidate if presidential elections were held on Sunday. This fell to 32 percent among those whose economic situation either improved or stayed the same.

Understanding these trends – the Kremlin’s investments in opinion polling are almost Olympian in scale – Putin’s political strategists have tried to appeal to conservative social sentiment, including among Orthodox believers and, to a lesser extent, ethnic Russian nationalists, portraying the opposition as foreign and dangerous. While the message may well be reaching poorer, less educated and more rural Russian citizens, it isn’t swaying our respondents, only about 10 percent of whom agreed with the statement that the opposition is dangerous. More broadly, the appeal to religious sentiment appears to be wide off the mark: it is Russians’ feelings about their state, not their church, that seem most closely to line up with their political emotions.

None of this, of course, is to suggest that all is lost for Putin. His support base remains much broader than that of the opposition, and the political resources at his disposal are formidable. But if Putin wants to reclaim Moscow’s urban elite as a constituency – and he’ll need to, at least to some extent, if he wants them to invest their resources and aspirations in a Russia that has him at the helm – our data suggest that he’ll need first and foremost to prove to them that the state can deliver the kind of prosperity and momentum that accompanied his first two terms in office. Otherwise, an alternative will look more and more attractive.

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Previous posts from our Sochi-companion Russian politics series:

The culture of corruption: Russians pay, but they don’t like it

10 explanations for Russia’s coming fiscal squeeze

What you need to know about Putin’s popularity

How to understand Russia’s Arctic strategy

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