Following on from last week’s introductory talk with ‘C’, a senior Russian citizen who has lived through much domestic change and drama, we continue exploring his views and experience of Russian life. It’s refreshing to bypass extensive media processing and hear words directly from source, whether we agree with them or not. Who knows, perhaps we will learn something?
A man like myself
As I stated at the end of last week’s article, ‘C’ admires Putin and will plainly say so. “I approve of his politics”, he tells me, “He is a man of my age and I understand him very well. When I listen to him, he is like me!” ‘C’ continues: “If I was in his place I would make the same suggestions. Putin wants to help people in Russia.”
It’s a viewpoint that we do not often hear spoken in the West, but one that we’d better learn to understand if we hope to fathom the mindset of (at its highest) 80% of the voting population of Russia. That would account for over 115 million people, incidentally. However, it is a little difficult to precisely nail down Putin’s popularity at this precise moment because as I write this there is a major upheaval unfolding, concerning workers retirement ages.
Currently, Putin’s approval rating hovers around 55%-63%, depending upon whom you ask. It is not a good time to commit to figures. There is an elephant in the room that ‘C’ and other Russians that I have spoken to also acknowledge.
Death is not the end
In spite of his 2005 promise to never raise them, there are current proposals to incrementally increase the male retirement age from 60 to 65 by 2028 and the female age from 55 to 63 by 2034. That’s quite a reversal of position if, indeed, the propositions (as stated) come to pass, -and they may not.
The last increase in working life-spans was under Stalin (not a great connection to have) and Russian male life expectancy (on average) currently sits around the 66 year mark (77 for females), making the prospect of a long, sunny retirement unlikely for many. Indeed, opponents claim that 40% to 60% of men and approximately 20% of women won’t reach retirement age in any case; their eligibility falling years ahead into death! Of course, by 2028 and 2034 Russian life expectancy is officially (optimistically?) projected to increase also.
Time will reveal all. Then there’s taxes (that other certainty), with VAT soon set to increase by 2% to a total of 20%. Still, as many western politicians could attest; it’s a good plan to get the bad news out early in your new term, then hopefully by the end everyone will have become too distracted to hold it against you.
These Tsarist times
For now, ‘C’ is still on board with his premier. “Russia is lucky with Putin!” he declares, continuing, “Lucky that Yeltsin gave power to Putin, though he did not expect Putin to become what he is.” Yes that is hard to imagine, the era of Gorbachev and Yeltsin with it’s mutually blooming, optimistic east-west relations seems sadly so far away now.
The harsh edge of wild capitalism has left an enduring scar for ‘C’. I recall his views, detailed last week, “We were absolutely naive and trusted that everything will be ok, (instead) Russia was thrown 20 years backwards (whilst) only a few got rich for nothing!”. Perhaps for ‘C’, Putin represents the potent antidote to such perceived recklessness, in a style that predates Glasnost, and even communism. His choice of words is fascinating:
“Russia has many different kinds of people. He is like a Tsar. Because Russia is big we must have a man like a Tsar. It is very difficult to govern this unusual country. Life is very difficult.” Upon looking into Putin’s popularity across all ages of the electorate, many comments on control, strength and stability recur. The attributes of a Tsar? National Geographic surmises:
“Vladimir Putin is widely viewed at home as the man who tamed a tumultuous post-Soviet Russia and the first leader in decades willing to stand up to the West.” ‘Both feats of Bogatyr-like heroism that appeal to Russian sensibilities.
Perhaps stability through strength is the key? I press ‘C’ for specific examples on Putin’s prowess and he responds with an example concerning Russian life in the far east of the country, 9,000 Km away from the familiarity of Moscow.
“It is very important to have people living there (Russia’s far east). Putin has ordered a new bridge to Sakhalin island from Russia (and from there to Hokkaido, Japan). This will develop economic ties. He decided to create this project. It will be done in 3 to 5 years, -like the Crimean bridge. Putin tried to help people in the far East.”
Indeed, a direct road/rail link with Japan could see an economic boom for the region that would also benefit Russia as a whole. However, ‘C’ tells me that Putin’s actions do not end there:
“There are very good regions (in the east) but the people need help. Putin has given them free land, each 2 to 3 Hectares and more, so people can develop their lives.”
He further goes on to explain that land is apportioned according to quality: the better the quality, the smaller the allocation, but nonetheless the gesture remains.
I conclude my conversation with ‘C’ next week.