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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Secrets of Putin's Success

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The other day an elderly woman who lives in my apartment building stopped me to ask a couple of questions. She was on her way to the pharmacy to buy medicine for her sick husband who has Parkinson's disease.

By law, my neighbor is entitled to receive all the necessary medicine for her husband for free. However, the director of the public hospital refused to give her the necessary prescriptions. He said something like: "There are too many of you wanting to get something for free from the state." Thus, at the age of 65, my neighbor had to take a cleaning job in order to buy the medicine that her husband needs to stay alive.

However, she told me all this just in passing. What she really wanted to ask me was why I had been so critical of President Vladimir Putin in my recent comments on Ekho Moskvy. She mentioned that Ekho Moskvy is the only radio station that she really trusts. She also said that she voted not for Putin, but for Grigory Yavlinsky in the last presidential election.

Instead of answering, I asked a question instead. I wanted to find out why her political inclinations had turned to support Putin even as the politician for whom she voted has moved increasingly into the opposition. She answered bluntly: "Putin raised our pensions." Yes, she admitted that prices had gone up much more quickly than her pension and, yes, her life hasn't gotten any better over the last year. Still, though, she praises Putin.

Why? "He is thinking about us," she said, meaning the elderly. "[Former President Boris] Yeltsin never did. Retired people didn't even exist for him and he never raised our pensions. But Putin did. That means that he is thinking about us."

I replied that Putin has been very lucky. His presidency happened to coincide with high world energy prices, prices that in fact have not been so high since Leonid Brezhnev's day. It probably wasn't too hard for Putin to raise pensions at a time when the Central Bank is literally packed with hard currency. I also mentioned the ongoing war in Chechnya and how much it was costing the state to continue waging it.

My neighbor completely agreed. She is appalled by the war and the killing of a generation of young Russians. Being half-Chinese, she has also noticed an ominous increase in the nationalistic moods around her. Previously, the people in the grocery or the pharmacy — her usual haunts — never paid attention to her oriental looks. Now they do. "You foreigners are taking away what belongs to us," they say with increasing frequency.

Naturally, this makes her feel bad. She has lived in Moscow her entire life. Her father, a Chinese communist, was repressed toward the end of Stalin's life. She refuses to see herself as "a foreigner." She is a Russian, she says, both by faith and by geography. Nonetheless, after this digression, she returned to her original point — that I should not be critical of Putin.

Later I discussed this theme with Alexander Oslon, director of the Public Opinion Foundation. His regular polls show the same thing. People across Russia are quite critical about many specific issues and they do not expect much to change. But those who have a hard time surviving — and who account for the majority — still praise Putin for "caring about them."

"There is no mystery in Putin's high popularity ratings. People see him as a guy from their neighborhood," Oslon says. "He can do good things, he can do bad things — it doesn't matter. He is young and strong, and he is one of them. He is like a big brother."

If there is anything positive to say about the current state of politics, it is that our liberals might learn some useful lessons. During the nine years of reforms, the liberals have failed to recognize one crucial fact: You shouldn't treat ordinary people like dirt. You should at least pretend that you care about them.

When they held power, the liberals could have easily raised pensions by 20 percent, as Putin did, even if it meant printing more money and fueling inflation, as it is now. But they didn't bother thinking about their fellow citizens. They were obsessed by their vision and their mission of carrying out liberal reforms. And because they didn't bother paying attention to average Russians like my neighbor, they lost out in the end.

Yevgenia Albats is an independent, Moscow-based journalist.