The forthcoming Olympic Games in Sochi have served as a hook for Western commentators to indulge in a prolonged round of Russia-bashing. A collection of negative preconceptions about Russia continues to dominate discussions of that country. Four of them are particularly prevalent, but none are true. Here are the reasons why.
Myth 1: Vladimir Putin has turned Russia into a political dictatorship similar to the Soviet Union. As a Globe and Mail editorial put it: “Communism is officially dead, but the state led by Mr Putin has preserved and resurrected many of its worst characteristics.”
The ‘worst characteristics’ of the Soviet Union included an artificially-induced famine which killed around six million people; a ‘Great Terror’ in which 680,000 people were executed; and the deportation of entire nations, such as the Chechens, to Siberia and Central Asia. Communism was a system with a centrally dictated ideology in which the ruling party had cells, and its secret police had spies, in every workplace and apartment building in order to ensure compliance with government views.
In fact, Russia’s foreign policy is far from aggressive or expansionist.
Russia has not altogether shaken off its legacy of xenophobia and prejudice, as shown by recent legislation banning the spread of ‘homosexual propaganda’ to children. But despite such black marks, Putin’s Russia is nothing like the Soviet Union. There is no centrally-imposed ideology; the state’s reach is very limited; and political opposition is not only possible but common.
Putin’s primary objective is to strengthen the Russian state, and he is aware that this requires a strong economy. He has repeatedly said that economic success relies on private enterprise, which in turn requires individual freedom and initiative. A strong civil society, he has emphasized, is a prerequisite for a strong state. It is true that Putin’s view of civil society differs from that of liberal democracies: he believes that civil society should be a partner of the state and not something completely independent of it. Nevertheless, this is very far removed from the totalitarian outlook of Soviet communism.
Myth 2: Putin is bent on restoring the Soviet empire and is implacably hostile to Western power. As Lilia Shevtsova wrote recently in the Financial Times, “Putin has turned to imperialism as a flying buttress for Russian authoritarianism.”
In fact, Russia’s foreign policy is far from aggressive or expansionist. It spends about 4.5% of its GDP on defence, roughly the same as the United States and many times lower than in Soviet times. Yes, Russia pursues its own interests, but so too does every other country. And yes, those interests sometimes diverge from those of Western states, but that is hardly unnatural. In any case, far from opposing the West at every opportunity, Russia has lent NATO considerable support in Afghanistan, and it withheld from vetoing the crucial United Nations resolution which permitted NATO to attack Libya. It has established quite warm relationships with several individual European nations (most notably Germany) and has signed numerous bilateral agreements, such as one settling its Arctic border with Norway.
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Myth 3: Russia is on the verge of economic and social collapse. Its economy is supposedly falling behind Western ones, while its population is dwindling away. Oliver Bullough, author of a 2013 book The Last Man in Russia: The Struggle to Save A Dying Nation, claims that due to rampant alcoholism, Russia faces a “demographic crisis whose consequences are so enormous that they are almost impossible to grasp.”
In reality, although Russia’s GDP fell by more than most during the recession of 2008-09, it had grown faster than that of most European countries before that moment, and has done so again since. Russia enjoys nearly full employment, and wages have risen steadily for about fifteen years.
Alcohol consumption has fallen dramatically. Deaths from alcohol poisoning are down from a peak of 35 people per 100,000 in 1994 to under 10 per 100,000 today. Russia is the second-largest recipient of immigrants in the world, and last year enjoyed natural population growth (i.e. births exceeded deaths). By contrast, the population of Bulgaria is falling by over 5% a year, Latvia by 4.5%, Hungary by about 4%, Germany by 2.4%, and so on. Many European countries are facing a far more severe demographic crisis than Russia.
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Myth 4: Putin is increasingly unpopular, an idea for which the strong showing of opposition leader Alexei Navalnyi in last year’s election for the post of Moscow mayor is invoked as support.
According to the independent polling company Levada, support for the Russian president has remained constant at around 65% for the past two years. Given that Putin first came to power at the end of 1999 (over 14 years ago), this level of support is extraordinarily high. Stephen Harper’s current approval rating, by way of comparison, is around 25%.
The facts about Russia, when not obscured by the above myths, speak of a country which is slowly rebuilding itself after the traumas of communism and its collapse. The rebuilding process is unsteady, gradual and imperfect. Economic growth exists alongside great corruption, while the political system combines an unfamiliar mix of liberalism and conservatism, democracy and autocracy. Russia is far from being a model liberal democracy. However, it deserves a better, more honest press than it has been getting.