After years of humiliation and economic depression, the public mood in Russia has turned more self-assured and feisty in the four months since Vladimir Putin became prime minister, a shift that is remaking the political landscape.
On the eve of Sunday's parliamentary elections, pollsters, analysts and many Russian citizens describe a strong sense that the country is shedding its self-image of chronic helplessness. The most striking sign of this new, hard-edged confidence is overwhelming support for Putin, whose leadership of the war in the breakaway region of Chechnya has propelled him to the highest public approval ratings of any Russian leader since President Boris Yeltsin in 1991.
Less than seven months before the presidential election, Putin has buried his rivals and brought differing groups to a consensus on policy for the first time in years. As a result, the presidential contest has been transformed. Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov and former prime minister Yevgeny Primakov, considered leading candidates as recently as August, have collapsed in the surveys. Their decline has come in part because of a Kremlin-directed smear campaign against them, but also because they were eclipsed by Putin's surge in popularity.
How the shift in moods will be reflected in the legislative elections on Sunday is not clear, since half of the 450 members of the State Duma, the lower chamber of parliament, are elected according to party affiliation, the rest as individuals. However, the parties and candidates are grabbing for Putin's coattails. His endorsement almost overnight boosted the fortunes of a party recently created by the Kremlin and headed by Sergei Shoigu, the government's emergencies minister. Another party, the Union of Right Forces, headed by former prime minister Sergei Kiriyenko, hastily plastered up wall posters this week declaring that Putin is their presidential candidate.
Behind Putin's rise, analysts and many citizens see larger social and economic factors at work. The Russian economy is crawling back from the 1998 ruble devaluation and default crisis. Even if still dominated by business tycoons and corruption, the economy's effect on daily Russian life has improved. Wages are being paid more regularly, consumer confidence has edged upward and some industries are reviving.
Another factor helping Putin is the Kremlin propaganda machine, including television stations owned by the state and by friendly tycoons that have been used to ruin the reputations of Putin's potential rivals.
Even more important, however, is the war in Chechnya. A series of apartment house bombings in Moscow and other cities that killed nearly 300 people in September and sent shock waves through Russian society were blamed by the Kremlin on separatist Chechen guerrillas. The subsequent military offensive in Chechnya, accompanied by a blitz of public relations in the media, has catalyzed support for Putin as a decisive, no-nonsense leader. Russian casualties Wednesday in a firefight in the Chechen capital, Grozny, have been publicly denied by officials here and have not had any impact so far on public opinion.
"The conflict with Chechnya has been dragging on for a very long time," said Elena Kudriashova, a social and political philosophy professor in the far northern city of Arkhangelsk. "And many times there have been attempts to solve the problem by other means. These attempts brought nothing. In the mass consciousness, it was long ago realized that decisive action was necessary, as well as a victorious war. Putin brought home that idea."
This view is shared among Moscow intellectuals and business people and is the subject of frequent discussion over their kitchen tables these days.
"My feeling is this is a guy who's got some core, a man with character," said Sergei Zapunny, a 44-year-old businessman who describes himself as a pro-market liberal. "I am sure he's the kind of guy who could take a blow. That's the feeling I have about him. Tough guy!"
Zapunny described Putin as an antidote to feelings of decline and deterioration that have confronted Russians almost every day of the difficult shift to democracy and a market economy.
"In my opinion," he said, "in the last five or six years, Russia has been trampled in the mud, and the mentality of a Russian person is historically the mentality of a victor, part of a great power. That's how we were brought up. I feel that such a person as Putin is welcome. Instead of old and sick Yeltsin, suddenly a tough guy appears."
Putin's ascendancy was swift. A career KGB agent, Putin, 47, has never been elected to anything and was virtually unknown four months ago. With a cold stare and thin, sandy hair, he cuts a lean, spry figure.
"Putin is a jackal, ready to leap," Zapunny said. "His eyes are concentrated." He said Putin reminds him of a hero from a famous Soviet film who went after bandits with a dogged determination.
But Zapunny's wife, Nina, a 44-year-old accountant, was more cautious. "For him, the ends justify the means--a typical KGB man," she said. "Putin is an extremely closed person; nothing is known about his family. He's just a man in a mask."
"Putin is a marionette," she added. "Someone else is pulling the strings, most likely [tycoon Boris] Berezovsky."
Putin's ascent has been so unexpected that the Zapunnys' son Volodya, 18, who will cast his first votes in the upcoming elections, was incredulous. "What has he done? When the problem of Chechnya arose, he appeared on the scene. Our hero! . . . This is the explanation of why his ratings went up. When something drastic happens, people can sigh with relief when a hero comes and fixes things."
Pollster Yuri Levada, director of the All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion, said the surge for Putin reflects Russia's nascent political culture. Voters, he said, "have not matured at all. On the contrary, they believe in another miracle maker. In this case, they trust the prime minister, they believe in victory over the Chechens. . . .
"There is an attempt to compensate for helplessness with a hope for success," he said. "Our authorities and our military are trying to use this helplessness, this feeling to demonstrate that we have strength now. . . . For the time being, the majority of people like it."
Writer Vladimir Voinovich said Putin has captured many people's hopes for the emergence of a strong figure to lead them out of Russia's misery. "People always expect that a kind and clever czar will come along," he said. "Most of the people simply want to live well, and they hope that a Putin or someone else will come along--a strong man, he will bring order, subdue Chechnya, put all thieves and corruptionists in jail, confiscate the money of the oligarchs--and all will be well."
Kudriashova said many Russians are also drawn to Putin's youthfulness. "People have grown tired of old politicians, who are sick, who are trying to lead the country from the sick bed," she said.
Vladimir Makhnach, a professor of history and philosophy at the Moscow Higher School of Economics, said Putin had been more decisive than others who tried to cope with Chechnya, including those who led the disastrous 1994-96 war there, in which Russian troops were driven from the region. "What became popular is the active prosecution of this campaign, compared to what was done in the first one," he said.
But analysts say another reason for the changed public outlook is the slow recovery of the economy from the shock of last year's ruble collapse. "What happened is that wage payments got better, unemployment stopped growing and people have slightly more confidence in the authorities," said Levada. "This gives a certain plus to the mood, in spite of all other factors."
In a poll question that he has been asked many times in recent years, Levada queried Russians about whether they are adjusting to changes in the last decade. In early 1998, 50.2 percent of those questioned said they had adjusted or expected to adjust soon, while 40.7 said they would never adjust. But in the latest survey, 60 percent say they have made the adjustment or expect to, while only 36 percent say never.
"People now are much more adjusted to the situation they have found themselves in," Makhnach said. "In different ways, a lot of people have managed to find a niche in this new world."