MOSCOW – Backers of Russian President Vladimir Putin like to brag that he has a sky-high approval rating. But what does that look like in real life?

That’s what I wanted to find out when I spent a recent weekend afternoon shadowing a Russian opinion pollster. Polls show that Russians overwhelmingly support Putin, but that they’re far more negative about the politicians and bureaucrats underneath him. Five hours spent knocking on doors in a working-class apartment complex on the outskirts of Moscow bore this out. It was still fascinating to see the dissonance play out in real life.

I’m often asked whether Putin’s support is real. My strong impression is that it is, but that when people say they support Putin, they don’t mean the same thing as what an American might mean when she says she supports President Obama. More than 16 years into Putin’s rule, many Russians see him as having transcended politics, not someone who can be voted in or out of office. So when you ask someone whether they approve of Putin, that’s like asking them whether they approve of Russia. Who’s going to say no?

One 20-year-old man told the pollster, Lyubov Kostyrya, that he strongly approved of Putin. But when she asked him an open-ended question about which politicians in Russia he supported, he couldn’t name a single one. In his mind, so it seemed, Putin was somewhere above it all.

Others said they believed in Putin, but found other ways to convey their concerns about the direction of the country. Again and again, people told the pollster that they were worried about making ends meet. They didn’t think that most politicians in Russia were looking out for the little guy. Many spoke of newly constrained lives: vacations not taken, medicines not purchased, small comforts forsaken because prices are quickly rising even as salaries shrink.

“It's beginning to feel like the nineties again,” said one woman, who smoked a cigarette as she referenced a decade that many Russians see as a painful period of economic chaos, corruption and lost possibilities. (The polling agency, the state-owned Russia Public Opinion Research Center, allowed me to shadow its pollster as long as I didn’t reveal the identities of the people who talked to her.)

“I like Putin,” the woman said. “May God give him a long life and health. But I'm worried about what comes after.” She didn’t like that he has no clear successors, she said.

Many people didn’t want to talk to a pollster at all, shouting from behind closed doors that they didn’t take part in politics. There’s no way to know for sure whether that group of people differs from those who are willing to talk to a pollster. But some Putin critics speculate that polls overestimate the degree of support for the Russian leader because those who dislike him simply refuse to take part in the polling.

“I'm not a patriot. You don't want to talk to me,” said one 32-year-old woman when she answered her door in a white t-shirt and blue shorts.

Kostyrya said she was happy to talk her.

“The economic situation is awful,” the woman said. “The central bank is worst of all.” She said she was worried about rising prices and thought the economy will get even worse. And she said she didn’t plan to vote in upcoming parliamentary elections, because she didn’t think it would make a difference.

But when Kostyrya asked whether she approved of Putin, this is what she said: