2018’s Fall Grayson Kirk Lecture: Dr. Graeme Robertson on “Putin vs. the People?”

Picture courtesy of CNBC.

By Helen McHenry

On October 23, Dr. Graeme Robertson of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill came to Miami to discuss the current situation of Russian politics under President Vladimir Putin. Based on his forthcoming book Putin vs. the People, a collaboration with Samuel Greene, Dr. Robertson focused his lecture on three basic facts about Russian politics: Putinism necessitates popularity; regimes based on popularity are strong yet vulnerable; following Putin will most likely be more of the same.

Vladimir Putin came to power after Boris Yeltsin resigned on New Year’s Eve of 1999. Young, energetic, and sober, he was Yeltsin’s antithesis in almost every way. He began his term with enthusiasm and his popularity soared – particularly after he established direct rule of the state of Chechnya in May. His political strategy was and is to this day based on “co-construction,” or manipulating the relationship between the elites and society to remain in power.

Presidential inauguration of Vladimir Putin in 2000, pictured with Boris Yeltsin. Picture courtesy of Pinterest.


Putin was also able to reverse the dire economic trends of Yeltsin’s days, when the economy actually contracted, largely because of the hefty increase in oil prices. By 2009, however, oil prices began to fall and Putin, having been in power for almost a decade, was witnessing his constituents lose interest in him. Economic stagnation set in, followed by the rise of protest movements. It was clear to the Kremlin that the “don’t excite the people” strategy of early Putinism had outlived its usefulness, signaling the need for a new approach.

This led into the period of what Robertson termed “high Putinism,” which involves a two-pronged strategy of political restraint and repositioning. The Kremlin authorized a systemic suppression of protest movements, arresting people from a variety of socioeconomic groups to show that no one was untouchable. By bringing divisive issues such as LGBTQ rights and Orthodoxy to the forefront, Putin mobilized dormant political bases. This repositioning divided and distracted the population in order to create a more precarious political atmosphere.

LGBTQ rights activists in 2013. Picture courtesy of Liberation School.


Robertson then transitioned into an analysis of the reality of Putin’s popularity. Surprisingly, the numbers are only slightly skewed – although a small number of people lie about their support for Putin, the majority of the population supports his policies. His support base grew by about 20% after the annexation of Crimea in 2014, particularly amongst nationalists. The annexation was a rallying point for Russians, creating a “shared experience” that elevated their sense of unity and identity.

But is such a regime stable? Robertson believes it is not. His work has shown that a regime built upon popularity, like Putin’s, is highly vulnerable. While Western sanctions against Russia help to polarize the Russian populace against the West, it also brings their attention to the reality outside the “Crimean fantasy.” If Putin’s popularity were to fall, rapid change would likely follow – the speaker likened the situation to Gorbachev and his reforms, which precipitated the hasty decline of the Soviet Union.

Robertson ended on a rather discouraging note with his ideas about what is to come after Putin. According to him, even if Putin were to step down soon, not much would change. He sees it possible for either a member of the opposition, such as Alexey Navalny, or a “friend of Putin” to come to power. However, even Navalny, who is anti-corruption and pro-Western, would find reform difficult, because real change is slow.

The lecture’s bleak ending portrayed the stark reality of politics in Russia today, maintained through the constraint of expression and spotlight on purposefully divisive issues. Recent trends in politics across the globe reflect the same reality, as nationalism threatens the liberal world order that has kept the world from major conflict since World War II. Although Robertson did not offer a cure, his honest perspective serves as a wakeup call to hopefully inspire real change, both in Russia and worldwide.


Helen McHenry is a sophomore majoring in International Studies and REEES.

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