National Leader or National Myth?

The West believes that Russia's foreign policy has become more aggressive and imperial under Vladimir Putin. Ironically, this perception forms the bedrock of his popularity at home: most Russians feel their country was damaged geopolitically by the collapse of the Soviet Union, and that it is now recovering some of its former prestige.

Yet one does not have to look far back in history to remember that only a small group of people protested the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The general public did not fight to preserve the old system. In St. Petersburg, Putin's hometown, most of the intellectual elite still believe that an attempt to preserve the empire would have required unjustified sacrifices. They also happen to support Putin, in one way or another.

In periods of stability, society gives citizens an invaluable feeling of participating in a just, strong, respected and lasting project. It allows them to feel that they are pursuing a justified and worthy lifestyle. Some may refer to these feelings as mere `collective illusions,' however, when society experiences instability, a general decline of this euphoria provokes a dramatic increase in the suicide rate, drug addiction and crime.

Years ago, life in the Soviet Union appeared to be quite comfortable. Most amicable people thought that everyone loved their country and hated only the unpopular leadership, and that the world's complaints were directed at the powers-that-be and not them, the ordinary people. Aggressive Russians were pleased to know that the world feared their country.

However, the overwhelming majority in both groups sincerely believed that they were living in a worthy, stable and respected country. They thought that, although Soviet society was not ideal economically and politically, the blame should be put on the authorities, and that the West, primarily the Untied States, knew this.

Moreover, they believed that the West considered Russia its moral equal and that the path of democracy and market development would soon bring the country to par economically with the United States.

Then these hopes were destroyed. Market development led to a production slump, unemployment and poverty. Democracy brought an incredible number of crooks to power, or, in the very least, caused them to feel free to act as they pleased.

Relations with the West turned out to be not as idyllic as people had hoped. The number and scale of conflicts has actually fallen, but it seems that they have grown manifold when compared to the time of the Soviet Union.

Most importantly, complaints are now directed not at the authorities, from whom the people traditionally dissociated themselves, but at all Russians who voted and approved of the regime that came after the end of the U.S.S.R.

The revival of `collective illusions' is the first stage in preparation for overcoming a crisis. People in a society experiencing crisis feverishly look for symbols and images that could help them to revive the lost feeling of confidence and unity. Therefore, most people will overlook the drawbacks of a leader who makes them feel even a little more secure and united.

Such a person is seen as a symbol, rather then a living human being, and therefore detailed analysis of his or her shortcomings only provokes irritation among most people.

The need for a unifying and inspiring symbol has nothing in common with imperial arrogance or aggressiveness. It is no more than a desire to survive psychologically. If there were no Putin, this common desire would have projected someone else to a position `beyond criticism.'

Today, people in St Petersburg contend that Putin is not an ordinary KGB man, but an intelligence officer, the first lieutenant of Anatoly Sobchak, the city's first democratically elected mayor. They believe him to be a patriot of St Petersburg and credit him with bringing foreign leaders to the city.

By protecting Putin, the people are protecting their feeling of psychological comfort. And they will only start criticising the authorities when they find a way to secure this feeling without assistance from the powers-that-be.

Alexander Melikhov, a writer and journalist, is the winner of several national literature prizes.

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