20 years under Putin: a timeline

According to Levada Center polls, 2019 was perceived by the Russians as slightly better than the previous year. Confidence in the president and the government has increased, as well as the feeling that the country is going in the right direction. However, according to Levada head and sociologist Lev Gudkov, this registered positivity is rooted in the people’s low expectations and a powerful propaganda campaign aimed at “reconciling people with reality.”


According to a Levada poll, the Russian people named the December summit between Russian president Vladimir Putin (center) and Ukrainian president Vladimir Zelensky (left) as the most memorable event of 2019. Photo: kremlin.ru.


In December 2019, Levada Center published a series of opinion polls that reveal how Russian people perceived the past year as a whole, and how they currently view the president, the government, and also the West. The results of all of these polls indicate a slight positive shift in public attitudes.

It is noteworthy that Russians did not find 2019 particularly memorable. According to the December survey, the top-mentioned, most memorable event of 2019 was the so-called “Normandy Four” summit in Paris, featuring a high-profile meeting between the presidents of Russia and Ukraine—Vladimir Putin and Vladimir Zelensky. This event was mentioned by 14 percent of respondents. The death of former Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov polled as the second most memorable event (8 percent), with the doping scandal, Russia’s ban from participation in international competitions, as well as various emergencies and road accidents taking third place with 6 percent each. To compare: 22 percent of respondents said they had no memorable 2019 events to report, while 23 percent were undecided. 

Evaluating 2019 as part of another survey, 50 percent of respondents said the year was “the same as the previous one,” while 37 percent found it more difficult and 14 percent easier than 2018. These numbers are slightly up on the 2018 survey, when the answers to the same question were distributed as follows: 44 percent said the year was the same, 45 percent more difficult, 11 percent easier. Overall, the majority of Russians (66 percent) rated the year as “average,” while 12 percent considered it to be “bad” and 17 percent “good.” To give a sense of perspective on the change in Russian attitudes, 2015 and 2016 were viewed as “bad” by 25 percent of respondents, and “good” by 9 percent and 10 percent, respectively (56 percent and 57 percent, respectively, rated it as “average”). 

Responding to the question of how  living standards had changed over the course of the year, 43 percent said that the situation had changed for the worse, another 43 percent considered it unchanged, and 13 percent said that things had improved. Levada also cited 2015 data that show a different pattern: back then, 75 percent of Russians said that the situation in the country had worsened, 17 percent said it had unchanged, and only 3 percent thought it had improved. 

According to another December poll of public attitudes to government institutions, 49 percent of Russians believe that the country is going in the right direction, while 43 percent hold the opposite opinion (8 percent were undecided). Compared to 2018, these numbers show a slight shift toward more favorable views of the government: 45 percent (vs 44 percent who held unfavorable views). However, they are still a far cry from the 2017 approval levels—58 percent vs 28 percent).

In 2019, Vladimir Putin’s approval rating also increased slightly to 68 percent (31 percent disapproved of him) compared to 66 percent in December 2018 (when 33 percent disapproved of his work). But the president continues to lag sorely behind his 82 percent approval rating in 2017, let alone the 85 percent he scored in 2014-2015.

Last year, Russian people also held slightly more favorable views of the government—44 percent of respondents approved of its work (54 percent disapproved), compared to December 2018 polls when only 37 percent did so (63 percent disapproved). Again, these numbers are in stark contrast to the 2014 polls when 60 percent of Russians held favorable views of the government (39 percent disapproved).

Finally, following the cautious positive trajectory, Russians’ attitudes to Western countries have also improved. In November 2019, 47 percent of respondents held favorable views of the United States (41 percent unfavorable), compared to May 2018 data when the ratio was noticeably negative: 22 percent favorable vs 69 percent unfavorable. A similar pattern can be observed in attitudes to the European Union. In November 2019, European countries were seen positively by 52 percent of Russians (34 percent negatively), while in May 2018, as in the case with the United States, the situation was reversed: 28 percent saw them as good, and 55 percent as bad.

Commenting on the polls, Lev Gudkov pointed out that this positive shift in public attitudes is largely due to the initially low expectations. “Compared to 2018, which was very difficult and disappointing, not only because of the pension reform, but also because of the accumulated decline in real incomes, 2019 turned out to be better. Let me remind you that since 2012, real incomes in Russia have fallen by 11-13 percent. It is very tangible, though not quite dramatic for the regime. But in 2019, this decline stopped. People were expecting the worst. But the worst did not come, and this was perceived as positive,” Gudkov explained. The second factor that contributed to the public mood shift, according to the sociologist, was the ongoing success of the powerful propaganda machine, which sought to impose awareness that this [decline] “needs to be accepted as [the new reality].”