20 years under Putin: a timeline

A recent study of the Center for Strategic Research showed that there is a high level of anxiety and aggression in Russian society, estimated at 65 percent in Russia and 84 percent in Moscow. The main “objects of aggression” are the United States, state officials, and migrants. IMR Advisor Boris Bruk discusses the reasons for this phenomenon.



The formation of a negative attitude toward these “objects” within the broader population is often not related to individual experiences, but rather to pressure from above. Examining the nature of anti-Americanism in Russian society, prominent sociologist Vladimir Shlapentokh pointed out that the regime and the elite play a substantial role in advancing anti-American sentiments in Russia1. Such an influence on society is exercised through various means, including the media, the system of education, and literature. The speed with which messages from the top can descend the vertical to reach their intended recipients can be surprisingly fast. One relevant example is the attitude of Russians toward two traditionally friendly nations, Ukraine and Georgia. As Shlapentokh points out, over a short period of time, both countries were transformed into enemies; in 2009, 62 percent of Russians described Georgia as Russia’s major enemy, while 41 percent pointed to Ukraine. As the political course and rhetoric shift, the public’s perception changes as well: according to recent surveys, 77 percent of respondents think positively of Ukraine, while the percentage of those thinking “positively” or “very positively” about Georgia has increased from 16 percent in September 2008 to 48 percent in July 2013.

This year, the United States is considered “the most hostile country” to Russia, taking over the lead from Georgia. Today, 38 percent of Russians see the United States as the most hostile country (compared to 33 percent who see Georgia as the most hostile). Clearly, the increased levels of anti-Americanism did not emerge from nowhere: according to some estimates, in 2012, anti-Americanism became “one of the most dominant features of the Kremlin's policy” and “was openly accepted as a key element of the official patriotism”. According to The Wall Street Journal, the new wave of anti-Americanism began when Vladimir Putin blamed the U.S. and its then-Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, for backing protests in Russia, which were allegedly aimed at sparking a “color revolution.”

Among other things, it was stated that in 2010, McFaul, “in preparation of an ‘orange revolution’ in Russia, sent Navalny to Yale as part of the World Fellows Program.”

According to several pro-Kremlin commentators, another part of this U.S. plan was the appointment of Michael McFaul as ambassador to Russia. The “architect” of the reset in U.S.-Russia relations was suddenly painted as an “American expert in orange revolutions”. Among other things, it was stated that in 2010, the American expert, “in preparation of an ‘orange revolution’ in Russia, sent Navalny to Yale as part of the World Fellows Program”.

Because of a limited number of opportunities for Russians to interact with the United States, part of the widespread negativity is aimed at closer “objects”, and in this regard state officials are an especially good target. Bureaucrats have never been liked or respected in Russia; typically, the image of the official has been negative. In that regard, Russia has not been unique; officials in public bureaucracies often become “convenient scapegoats” who bear the blame for everything that goes wrong. A classic example of the “special” attitude of political leadership toward bureaucrats is Mao Zedong's list of “Twenty Manifestations of Bureaucracy,” which brands such individuals as “brainless, dishonest, irresponsible, lazy, conceited,” and so on.

In most cases, condemnation and “bureaucracy-bashing” are a safe option that allows political leaders to receive extra electoral support and strengthen their control. When political rhetoric claims that bureaucrats pose a major threat to society, the head of state may be pictured as the protector and “savior” of the nation from bureaucratic abuses and corruption.

A recent study conducted by the Levada Center demonstrates that currently in Russia, approximately half of respondents are “certain that the head of state limits the appetites of the bureaucracy, which tries to use Russia’s assets for their own interests.” Seventy-three percent of Russians believe that “the president in full or substantial capacity should be responsible for corruption and financial abuses in higher ranks of power.” Political leaders are demanding a tightening of control over the “arrogant caste of bureaucrats,” their incomes, and their expenditures.


According to opinion polls, migrants are one of the main objects of Russian citizens' animosity.


Television programs, “overshadowing love stories and police soap operas,” regularly present reports that unveil corruption cases involving bureaucrats. The press features multiple accusatory articles and ironical comments: “Life is too unfair for Russian officials. Their rights have been, literally, cut down: many of them have to declare their incomes, they are not allowed to get involved in business activities or have accounts abroad, they are not allowed to go on strike or become members of the board in foreign and international NGOs. . . . If an individual serves as an official, he or she is by default a scoundrel, bureaucrat, goon, and bribe-taker.”

Today, almost half of Russians believe that it is a crime for an official or legislator to be rich. The crisis of trust is quite obvious: for example, in 2012, only 2 percent of respondents agreed with the opinion that officials should declare all information concerning their incomes. According to a study conducted by Transparency International, Russians consider public officials to be the most corrupt members of society, and more than a few commentators agree that their public reputation is “very low”.

The third “public enemy” is migrants. At the end of July, a series of events in Moscow’s Matveevsky market led to the launching of a campaign to fight illegal migration. Human rights advocates have called the current situation “anti-migrant hysteria” and have noted that the authorities are exercising a “cynical manipulation of public consciousness” for their own benefit. This campaign has included police raids, the establishment of camps for illegal migrants, the development of mobile apps to help detain offenders, and multiple official statements emphasizing the negative factors associated with migration. Regarding the latter, new information has suddenly emerged highlighting a significant number of crimes in which migrants were involved. For example, according to Moscow police chief Anatoly Yakunin, “in Moscow, 50 percent of all crimes are committed by individuals coming from other areas. Out of this number, 22 percent of crimes occur with the involvement of foreign nationals. 20 percent of crimes are committed by individuals that mostly come from Central Asia.” Research shows that the theme of security often plays a key role in legitimizing coercive measures2. If the audience feels the “survival threat,” support for coercion may increase dramatically.

According to the Rating of National Threats developed by the Russian Public Opinion Research Center, “the biggest threat that Russians are worried about is that Russia is being occupied by the representatives of other nationalities (35 percent).” Another study conducted by the Public Opinion Foundation showed that two-thirds of Russians are cautious of migrants. Russians are worried about both legal and illegal migration. In areas other than Moscow and St. Petersburg, approximately 65 percent of respondents expressed their support for strict limitations to migration.

Illegal migration is a key theme of all candidates in the ongoing Moscow mayoral campaign. Acting Mayor Sergei Sobyanin is quite specific about his position: “Moscow is a Russian city and it should stay that way. Not Chinese, Tajik or Uzbek. . . . People who speak poor Russian and have a completely different culture are better off living in their own countries. Therefore, we do not welcome their adaptation into Moscow. I think that these are probably seasonal workers who must return to their families, their homes, and their countries after having worked here.”

It does not require great effort to play on the already shaped negative sentiments; to continue dividing people into camps of “us” and “them”; to punish, prohibit, and expel migrants.

Not so long ago, migration was not considered a threat in Russia. For example, following the 2006 presidential address to the Federal Assembly, in which Vladimir Putin requested to “improve the migration policy” and stimulate the inflow of “skilled migration,” one could frequently hear statements that it was impossible to solve certain internal problems without migrants. In 2008, the wave of antimigrant rhetoric that emerged as a reaction to the global crisis was neutralized when the head of the Federal Migration Service stated that “for every $1 earned by a migrant, Russia’s budget received $6.”

Most recently, few Russians recall that by no means do all migrants pose a catastrophic threat to the population of Moscow, or any other region. Similarly, few recall that there are honest and decent bureaucrats who all too often get “trapped in a bad system,” or that few Americans dream about igniting a revolution in Russia3. Indeed, it does not require great effort to play on the already shaped negative sentiments; to continue dividing people into camps of “us” and “them”; to punish, prohibit, and expel migrants. It is much more difficult to overcome disagreements and reach common ground; to solve—and not merely on the surface or on a selective basis—the problem of endemic corruption; and to bring up citizens committed to common values, rather than common objects of aggression. Today, as never before, difficult and long-term decisions need to be made; the easy path leads directly into the abyss.


1 Shlapentokh, V., The Puzzle of Russian Anti-Americanism: From “Below” or from “Above,” Europe-Asia Studies 63, no. 5 (2011): 875–89.
2 Alexseev, M., Societal security, the security dilemma, and extreme anti-migrant hostility in Russia, Journal of Peace Research 48, no. 4 (2011): 509–23.
3 Gore, A., From red-tape to results: Creating a government that works better and costs less: Report of the National Performance Review (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1993).