Far from being idiots

What it means to be ‘Putin’s person’ in today’s Russia and why such people support the Kremlin but wish the war was over, explained by sociologist Svetlana Stephenson

Far from being idiots
Oskar Kuchera and Yury Dud. Screenshot taken from a video

A true product of the Putin era

A recent interview with Oskar Kuchera, a well-known Russian actor who runs a “patriotic” Telegram channel, by Yury Dud, a popular YouTube blogger, has sparked massive debate on Russian social media. The interview titled A talk with a supporter of the Russian army had registered 17 million views by the morning of 22 January. In a three-hour-long video, Kuchera switched between passionately defending the regime and becoming flustered under Dud’s logical reasoning, while repeatedly seeking to justify Russia’s actions in Ukraine.

All of Dud’s points — explaining that by invading an independent country, the Russian state has committed military aggression, that by supporting Putin, his guest is also supporting corruption, lies, lawlessness, and murders of Russian and Ukrainian people — were countered either by direct denial or the frequently repeated evocation: “Please understand that there are many shades between black and white. The world is more complex than you believe”.

Discussing the interview, many opponents of the war agreed that Kuchera was an ignorant, uneducated man who could not see the logical inconsistencies in his views. Others stressed that Kuchera was a perfect example of how Russian propaganda zombifies people, who casually reproduce its controversial cliches as their own opinions.

However, Kuchera is far from being an idiot, nor is he a dumb victim of propaganda. He has a sufficiently clear belief system which he was trying to put across to Dud.

Urging Dud to abandon what he saw as a black and white picture of the world, Kuchera’s message to Dud and his audience was, “Understand me, I think differently”.

Indeed it is crucial that we do understand him, as his way of thinking and logic represents the world view of someone living in the era of advanced Putinism, and this makes him of great interest and importance for us when we reflect on Russia’s present and its future.

This interview tells us a great deal about people loyal to the authorities, beneficiaries of the Putin regime who will continue to shape the development of the country even after this regime ends. These are members of a prosperous bourgeoisie that has emerged under the current regime, and more or less well-off ordinary people who finally started living well under Putin and hope that, despite the current “geopolitical turmoil”, their comfortable and peaceful way of life will eventually return.

Key aspects of the belief system of ‘Putin’s person’

What foundations does the world view of “Putin’s person” rest upon? What is the basis of how these people understand the principles of the social order built under the current regime?

Firstly, for Kuchera, a true product of Putin’s time in power, material and social success are clear priorities. He is a wealthy person, and he makes no secret of it. His children go to a much sought after school in Moscow. His prestigious consumption includes vacations in Italy or the US, places with a good climate and fine restaurants, and he is distressed by the temporary suspension of these holidays as a result of the war. The world must remain open.

Like many fellow members of the Russian bourgeoisie, Kuchera did his best to ensure a US passport for his child: his wife gave birth to their younger son in Miami. “It would have been stupid not to do so,” he says in all sincerity. The right to purchase villas in Italy or Spain is an inalienable right of every human being, be they a celebrity or a state propagandist, since a vacation in a nice place is sacrosanct.

The political views and the declared anti-Americanism have nothing to do with the right to travel wherever you want and spend vacations in the “right places”.

A successful person and their children should feel good everywhere and, of course, the potential draft of those children for a war does not fit into this picture of the world; this would be, as Kuchera puts it, “utter nonsense”. He also wants the war to end to so that he can return to his comfort zone.

Secondly, the world functions this way: everyone seeks wealth, but people do not act on their own. They support their own kind, acting in accordance with informal norms and obligations, rather than following the law or pragmatic business logic. When Dud asks Kuchera what he thinks of Putin creating opportunities for old friends of his to become fabulously rich, he frankly replies that he sees nothing wrong with it. The crony capitalism that emerged under Putin and the lack of separation between power and wealth are perceived as the natural order of things, and “Putin’s person” genuinely does not understand how this can be any different.

Thirdly, might is right — force rules the world. Law is just a hollow word. The annexation of Crimea and the invasion of Ukraine are not perceived as intolerable violations of international norms and conventions. The Russian Constitution may also be amended to provide the regime with what it needs at any given moment. Any commitments one makes may be violated, and any past promises the regime gave both to Ukraine, whose territorial integrity had been recognised by Putin many times, and to the Russian people (not to amend the Constitution and not to increase the retirement age) may easily be forgotten about since the world has moved on.

Fourthly, with no respect for universal law and a firm belief that the world is ruled by the rich and powerful, “Putin’s person” is nevertheless certain about his own distinctive spirituality. He is concerned about traditional values and purity of thoughts and rejects anything that is destructive to family and public morals. He despises “inner enemies”, people who “besmirch Russia”, those who refuse to be drafted into the army, “non-binary persons”, and representatives of the wicked West. He complains about how TV panders to the basest feelings of ordinary people.

Although Kuchera had himself once hosted a talk show for three years, where he would expose the dirty laundry of Russia’s celebrities to the full glare of the studio lights, he claims he was only doing it for the money, while at the same time experiencing some internal conflict about the prurient questions producers had written for him.

And finally, “Putin’s person” believes that he must always support the country’s leadership. If an ordinary person does not understand what the authorities are doing, this is not a problem. There are reasons for everything and sometimes those reasons should remain undisclosed. Draftees must go to the front without asking what they would be fighting for. Of course, it’s a pity for those guys, and they need our help, but one cannot question the objectives of the war or doubt that it will end in a victory. There is no need to look for “negative things” about people in charge of the country or to investigate their personal enrichment and corruption. All this does not exist, and even if it does, there is no point in digging into it.

Putin’s spiritual heirs

In Kuchera this interview showed us a typical person formed by Putin’s lengthy rule. He is inconsistent and sometimes insincere, but there is no denying that he has his own picture of the world.

This picture reflects some of the key features of the social system that formed in Russia under Putin. Both Kuchera and millions of other Russians have adapted to this system and reproduce it in their own behaviour. Here, people live not by the law, but by informal rules and obligations, might equals right, patron-client relationships replace market rationality, and authoritarianism is the only possible and understandable form of rule. Cynicism and materialism go side by side here with a feeling of moral superiority over a soulless America, inner minorities and renegades.

This now-ingrained view of the world will continue to determine people’s beliefs for a very long time, no matter who becomes Russia’s leader after the current president. It should not be expected, after so many years of his scorched-earth policies, that the values of democracy and law will find substantial support among millions of Putin’s heirs.

But there is also good news. These people sincerely wish for peace, comfort, and money. They are not ready to make sacrifices for their Motherland, despite declaring their unconditional loyalty to the state.

They wish for the end of the war and reconciliation with the West. This gives us hope that after Putin, Russia will go through some sort of normalisation, however difficult and slow.

“Putin’s person” has no wish for life in North Korea or Iran. He is far from being a rabid fanatic or ascetic. He worries about the future of his children. And in this, Dud’s interview provides us with a glimmer of optimism for the future.

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