Not too long ago, most Russians were reportedly unhappy with Vladimir Putin. His crackdown on freedom and his kleptocratic economy were hardly popular. Most likely, given their druthers, Russians were not all that interested in Putin’s risky and costly dream of gobbling up former Soviet Republics to create some grander version of Russia’s mess.
But now? As the ruble crashes, as Russia’s oil income dives, and as sanctions start biting the man in the street, Putin, in counterintuitive fashion, is apparently more popular than ever.
Why? Because he has become an easy mechanism for ordinary Russians to vent frustration and anger over what they perceive as a too-powerful and bullying West. In a fairer world, Western decadence and self-indulgence would not have earned Americans and Western Europeans singular wealth, leisure, influence, and an overall good life — at least not more so than an Orthodox, politically proud, and historically illustrious Mother Russia. Add in the fact that Russians prove covetous of Western things, especially an elite that, like a moth to a flame, seeks to replicate exactly the sort of good life that it condemns as Western decadence.
Most Russians are not Putinists, any more than the nearly two-thirds who voted against Hitler in 1932 were Nazis. But both present-day Russians and Germans of the 1930s were willing at first to be amused by, and later to vicariously invest in, a movement that voiced openly what many at times felt silently. In the German case, scapegoating was multifaceted: the stab in the back to the German army that was forced to quit fighting while on the offensive in France and Belgium, the vengeful Versailles treaty that rubbed the German snout into the muck, the Jewish banking cabal that sucked the blood out of the Volk with punitive reparations, and a myriad of other fantasies that explained away why Imperial Germany lost badly to its supposedly weaker enemies.
Add in the fact that most people have little ideology other than wishing to ally themselves psychologically with a perceived winning cause, and one can see how a Hitler or a Putin could turn minority support into a popular consensus — as long the leader continued to appear successful and bring benefits, whether material or spiritual, to the man in the street without much commensurate cost. Should Putin meet his Stalingrad, then of course Russians would turn on him, as Germans in the end turned on Hitler. Should ISIS lose Mosul and shrink back into obscurity, Muslims will assure the world that ISIS never had any popular support.
And even with Mosul in ISIS hands, something like that is happening in the Muslim world. By all accounts, only a tiny minority, perhaps no more than 2 or 3 percent, of Muslims in the Middle East actively supports ISIS and violent Islamic ideology. But various international polls also show a much higher level of approval for what Westerners would call Islamism or Islamic terrorism — as expressed by support for the tactic of suicide bombing or agreement with the late Osama bin Laden. Approval from this larger minority polls anywhere from 15 to 20 percent, depending on the country in question and the wording of the question. In other words, 60 to 80 million Muslims in the Middle East may, at least silently, condone almost any tactic felt necessary to further the cause of a purer Islam at the expense of the West in general and of what they would see as secularized or Westernized Muslim sellouts in their midst.
This minority of many millions of Muslims in the Middle East and in Europe resents the West. From the time in the morning when they get up and flip on their television sets to the instant they go to bed checking text messages on their smartphones, the West and Western technology are ubiquitous. But — radical Muslims demand, and the Muslim Street itself often wonders — why must this be so?
In terms of culture, the West, with its pornography, open and accepted homosexuality, radical feminism, atheism and agnosticism, lavish and unsustainable entitlements, declining birth rates, and fragmented families, surely does not deserve such global clout. What gives Europe and the United States — our generation’s version of a shrinking and rotting 15th-century Constantinople, whose riches properly belong to the stronger and more pious who can take them — such undeserved sway?
Apparently, the Russians have not learned that life is not fair. Not everyone is successful. Most successful people have experienced some measure of failure or disappointment. It is the same lesson Obama has failed to learn as well.