President Vladimir Putin has cultivated his image as the force that guided Russia through the fallout of the collapse of the Soviet Union. That’s left many voters with little choice in the upcoming election.
At a recent campaign event in Moscow's Luzhniki soccer stadium a capacity crowd waited for the guest of honor. A sea of banners proclaimed "for a strong president" and "for a strong Russia."
Police put the attendance at some 80,000 with another 50,000 waiting in the wings. Anywhere else this would be a normal stop on the campaign trail. But in 2018, this was Russian President Vladimir Putin's only official rally, not counting an "impromptu" stop in Crimea. Russia's de facto leader for the last 18 years has never been an eager campaigner, but in an election season where his renewed victory seems all but a foregone conclusion, his enthusiasm appears to have reached new lows.
His short address to the assembled masses barely lasted six minutes. And after a promise to secure Russia new victories, like the Olympic gold hockey team that flanked him on stage, Putin quickly took his leave. And so too did tens of thousands of Russians, who showed little interest in the performances event organizers had planned for rest of the rally. International and opposition media would later report that many of those present were put under pressure to attend. It seems "Team Putin," as the organizers in Luzhniki christened themselves, didn't want to leave the optics to chance at their only campaign stop.
Putin's political empire
The rally was just one of the carefully crafted photo ops that have become the hallmark of Putin's political empire; one designed more to sell the persona rather than present him as a candidate. A fact that didn't seem to be lost on many in attendance. As more and more people left the arena, a women in the crowd commented to a photographer still snapping away "You were supposed to take pictures at the beginning, when everyone was still here."
Perhaps unsurprisingly for a former KGB officer, Putin is a man who values his privacy and strictly controls what information reaches the public. In his almost two decades in power, this has seen his public personality morph from a young, relatively unknown leader to the carefully crafted embodiment of Russian machismo and the state's rediscovered political ambition. And part of that political ambition demands a reinterpretation of history.
"There's a feeling of humiliation surrounding the falling of the Soviet Union. It's no longer seen as something that happened because the Soviet Union made mistakes. In other words, something they bare responsibility for. Rather it is seen as something that was done to them by foreign and in some cases internal enemies," Jens Siegert, a political analyst based in Moscow, told DW.
And that desire to redefine Russia's past seems to be at the root of Putin's increasingly combative tone directed at both Europe and Washington. During a recent address to Russian lawmakers, Putin unveiled a bevy of new nuclear-capable weapon's platforms he claimed could easily avoid any US missile defense systems. "You didn't listen to us then," declared the Russian leader during his speech "So listen to us now."
Navigating through the chaos
Putin's continuing popularity among voters also seems rooted in the chaos of the 1990's. The disintegration of the Soviet Union and the economic and social fallout that followed have left deep scars on many Russian citizens. During the nine years between the birth of the Russian Federation and ascension of Vladimir Putin to power, Russia's economy went through several major crises, had its gross domestic product cut by around 50 percent and saw average life expectancy drop.
"If you want the short version, he saved our country," social media star Maria Katasonova, a prominent Putin supporter, told DW. She made international headlines with her portrait showing Vladimir Putin, France's Marine Le Pen and US President Donald Trump. She says his efforts to stabilize the economy breathed new life in the country. "In the 90's they weren't paying pensions and a lot of companies weren't paying their employees… After Putin took power we started to live."
It's debatable to what extent Putin's polices were responsible for the increased economic stability in Russia during the early years of his administration. Russia is, after all, a resource-rich country; one that would by default benefit immensely from the boom on the commodities market that accompanied the start of the 21st century. "The economic growth played right into his hands. That's the basis of his power. The fear of slipping back into the chaos of the 1990's," says Siegert.
Recent polls indicate that he leads the handful of other candidates appearing on ballots by over 50 points. And when Russians go to the polls on Sunday, it will be the first time a generation votes that has never known Russia without Putin. His complete domination of Russian political life has left little room for a legitimate opposition to develop, says Siegert. "No one can really imagine what will come after Putin. That's an integral part of Putin's political strategy, control over the political field. Control that prohibits any possible competition. That's why so many people see themselves forced to choose between Putin and chaos or Putin and humiliation."