Russia Direct talked to Alexey Levinson, social research director at Levada Analytical Center, to understand what everyday Russians are thinking about President Putin, the nation’s economic woes and mounting anti-Americanism.
Russian traditional wooden matryoshka dolls showing Russian President Vladimir Putin and Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, front, are on sale in a street souvenir shop in Moscow. Photo: AP
During the Gaidar Economic Forum in Moscow last week, Russia Direct interviewed Alexey Levinson, social research director at Levada Analytical Center. He shared his views on the most relevant Russian political issues, including the odds of a political crisis in Russia brought about by the country’s economic problems and the prospects for reversing the anti-Americanism trend in Russia.
Russia Direct: How can you account for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s high rankings despite the increasing economic crisis?
Alexey Levinson: The explanation of his popularity or the approval of his performance as a president — this is the exact wording of our question - lies very far from the economic realm. Primarily, it deals with the matter of the glory of the nation and the revival of Russia’s position as a great power. This is what Russians attribute to him and this is the reason they consider him a real leader of the country and they don’t hold him responsible for any economic problems. This is the explanation.
Alexey Levinson, head of Levada Center’s Analytical Department. Photo: Russia Direct
RD: However, Putin is supported by a carefully orchestrated information campaign, which may also be the reason for his high approval rankings. So, did the media’s impact on the population lead to Putin’s impressive popularity, or is it just a response to what the population demands?
A.L.: Neither. The role of mass media in the support of Putin is much less than people usually think. I can provide the examples of very unsuccessful image-making or propaganda campaigns. At the same time, we know that people support him even in a time of criticism, for example, in the case of the very unfortunate story of the submarine that sank in the Barents Sea [the Kursk submarine].
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It did not affect negatively his support, while many in the media were very critical about his position and his behavior. So, neither the positive coverage nor the negative work of the media affects the attitude of Russians toward Putin. So, it is a very popular opinion, but it is very incorrect about the role of media in constructing the image of Putin.
RD: What are the odds of the current economic crisis driving people to the streets and turning into a political one?
A.L.: In particular cases, it is really a probable outcome and we had some examples in our recent history. But, in general, we don’t think that there is a cause-and-effect relationship between the economic situation and protests. Just as in the case of the support of Putin, it is different: People may be very angry and protest against something, but it doesn’t mean they want to overthrow the government or turn out the head of the state.
RD: As a sociologist, could you say what is your take on anti-Americanism in Russia?
A.L.: Unfortunately, anti-American sentiments have been constantly growing for the period of the last several years. They were very, very intense in the time of the Russo-Georgian conflict in 2008. The second pinnacle of anti-Americanism is related to what happened in Ukraine in 2014.
And what Russia’s propaganda succeeded in was the redirecting of the negative feelings towards the developments in Ukraine to the United States, I mean the idea that everything what happened in Ukraine is just a conspiracy initiated by the U.S. or State Department or CIA.
It is extremely popular, because it helps Russians explain why Ukraine, the nation, which is very similar to Russia, made another choice, turned its eyes to Europe, while Russians did not do that. And the United States is a very good explanation. To follow their logic, it is the result of America’s activity, not internal factors are responsible for that, but something acting externally.
RD: There seem to be some signs of restoring dialogue between Russia and the U.S., with Russia’s high-ranking officials and diplomats having met with their American counterparts. Putin met with Obama last year several times. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry came to Moscow at the end of the last year and was greeted by ordinary Russians when he walked in Central Moscow. His Assistant Victoria Nuland came to Kaliningrad last week to meet with Russia’s officials and discuss Ukraine. Amidst these events, what should we expect next with anti-American sentiments in Russia: What are the chances that they will decrease?
A.L.: One should expect the decrease of anti-Americanism if the political situation improves and becomes colder. Russians will be very happy to restore their formally positive attitude toward the United States and their friendship with the American people and favorable attitude toward the American president. But I don’t expect this to happen before the current president of the United States is in office. I am sorry.
RD: What about the next one?
A.L.: There are some expectations. As far as I understand, an anti-Russian Republican candidate will be more welcomed than a Democrat of moderate attitudes. This is a kind of tradition among Russians. They prefer to have an enemy with an open face and deal with him rather than have one that looks like a friend, but turns out not to be the friend. It is a matter of psychology.
RD: Some believe there won’t be any shifts in Russia’s public opinion in favor of the U.S. until Putin goes, because, according to such logic, it is Putin who should be blamed for spurring anti-American sentiments among Russians.
A.L.: Well, we can go back to the beginning of Putin’s first tenure, when his pro-Western position was clearly pronounced. There is also an opinion that he was kind of disappointed by the West not responding to his good intentions. But maybe, he can change his mind. Politically, it is possible.