No one would deny that Vladimir Putin now has a cult of personality. However, that is not an explanation but rather something that must be explained, especially given its evolution from one in which he was backed as a lesser evil than Boris Yeltsin to one in which he presents himself as a lesser evil than chaos, according to Kseniya Kirillova.
At each stage, she argues, “the cult of Putin” has been “a means of compensating for a lack of trust in the authorities” rather than a form of adulation because it is based “more on fear” that things have been worse or could become worse.
What is the most tragic aspect of this, the commentator continues, is that many who accepted Putin in the past as a lesser evil than Yeltsin, who joked about him, and who protested against his rule in 2011-2012 have fallen under its spell even though most of them are aware that they are doing so because they have accepted the notion they should fear a future without him.
During his first term, Putin was admired by Russians primarily for not being Yeltsin and often was a subject of humor, “but in the new artificially created world where humor in principle has no place, many people have simply shut down their psychic defense mechanisms” and accepted the idea that they have no choice but to support Putin or face a new period of chaos.
This shift, one intensified by the economic crisis and the invasion of Ukraine, has been further developed by the fact that “the cult of personality of the leader is useful not only and even not so much for Putin himself as for his elite” which view it as a cover for their own crimes and as something that may in the future allow them to escape responsibility for them.
When he became president, Putin looked good to many Russians especially when compared to his predecessor and the chaos of the 1990s. But “in the first years of his administration, Putin in the eyes of the majority looked not ideal but simply normal,” something that at that time was considered almost “a miracle.”
“A distinctive feature of this period was that it was very difficult to distinguish between the healthy popularity of this or that leader and what would be a real cult of personality,” Kirillova says, especially as “humor and parody were the invariable accompaniment of the popularity of Putin in those years.”
At that time, “Russians loved put [but] at the same time they laughed about him and laughed at themselves for this sympathy,” not taking note of the fact that “they were thus swallowing a poison pill” that would come to harm them later.
Thus the situation continued until the economic crisis of 2008 and the protests of 2011-2012, Kirillova says. Those things made it clear for the Kremlin’s “political technologists” that “for the thinking part of Russian society, [this approach] hadn’t worked” because “they no longer loved Putin but they continued as before to laugh about him.”
The laughter of Russians disturbed them the most, Kirillova continues, because it was clear that they didn’t fear him, especially when many of them would make remarks like “don’t rock the board, our rat will get sick.”
Consequently, they decided “to change their tactics,” exploiting one aspect of the support Putin had enjoyed – that he was a lesser evil than something else – but change the evil to which he was to be compared from Yeltsin and the past to the threat of instability and chaos in the future and then insisting that any defeat of Putin would lead directly to that.
It is worth noting that at least at first, there was no idealization of Putin or the government but only the old notion that he and it were “’lesser evils’” than the alternatives. That is hardly a true cult of personality in the usual sense of the term. But it set the stage for Putin’s actions later when it was made clear that the time of jokes “had in fact ended.”
Moreover, by flooding the media with conspiracy theories and thus providing “a model” for patriotism which involves unquestioned support for the national leader, the Kremlin political technologists set the stage for and saw their efforts reinforced by the rehabilitation of the Soviet images of the country as “a besieged fortress” which depends entirely on Putin.
The deep and widespread conviction among Russians that “’without him things will be worse’” took shape at the end of 2011 at both the conscious–“and what is still more dangerous–even at the subconscious level,” and its rootedness means that most Russians continue to support him despite clear evidence that he is “leading the country toward a catastrophe.”