COSTA SMERALDA, SARDINIA – “Every nation gets the government it deserves,” observed Joseph de Maistre, the Sardinian kingdom’s diplomatic envoy to the Russian empire, some 200 years ago. He was commenting on Russians’ deep-seated political apathy – a trait that persists to this day.
Of course, Russia is no longer an absolute monarchy as it was in Maistre’s time. Nor is it a communist dictatorship, with the likes of Joseph Stalin using the threat of the Gulag to discourage political expression. But President Vladimir Putin has learned much from the autocratic tactics of his predecessors, whereas the Russian people seem to have learned nothing.
In an opinion poll at the end of 2014, 68% of respondents said that Putin should be “Man of the Year.” His seizure of Crimea from Ukraine in March, together with his refusal to bow to the Western powers that disputed the move, made him a hero among ordinary Russians.
In fact, Putin’s efforts to recapture Russia’s former territory have overshadowed his stifling of non-governmental organizations, repression of independent media, and silencing of opposition voices. Even as Russia’s economy collapses – with the ruble having lost more than half of its value against the dollar since June, interest rates rising to 17%, and inflation reaching double digits – Putin retains an 85% approval rating.