Don’t tease the bear: Why we Russians love Putin more than ever

(Photo from Russian Presidential Press and Information Office)(Photo from Russian Presidential Press and Information Office)

Vladimir Putin has been making plenty of headlines since the beginning of the Ukrainian crisis last November — and never in a good light.

Whenever a new crisis hits the news, from the Malaysia plane crash, to street battles in Odessa, to the controversial aid convoy this summer, it’s cited as another example of Russian aggression masterminded by Putin.

And with President Obama’s UN speech last month where he he ranked Russia among the top threats to world peace, it’s starting to sound a lot like the Cold War era all over again.

After watching Russian friends and families tear each other apart on social media all winter, and hearing conflicting news stories coming out of Ukraine and Crimea, I was dying to find out for myself what’s really going on.

I grew up in Russia before moving to Seattle as a teen, and every summer for the past four years, I’ve traveled back to different parts of the country to visit. The majority of people I’d encounter would have negative opinions of President Putin’s policies and the general situation in Russia. Many talked of immigrating to Europe or the U.S. someday.

However, this last visit was different. All the new people I met along the way praised their president’s actions in the Ukrainian crisis — and some old acquaintances that used to curse at the sound of Putin’s name are now completely supporting him.

To understand their change of heart, you have to look at things from the Russian point of view. Ukraine is not just a neighboring country and an economic partner to Russians. It’s much closer as many Russians have relatives there —myself included — and the two share so much history. Most Russians see the escalation of the conflict as perpetrated from the Western side.

“Why would Russia purposefully destabilize its neighboring country Ukraine?” said Anton Sergeev, 22, from the Moscow region. “That doesn’t make any sense. If you take a look at the U.S. and NATO plans for Ukraine it becomes clear who would profit from this tragedy.”

Anton Sergeev, who moved from Crimea to Moscow, says he supports Putin and the Russian annexation. (Photo by Valeria Koulikova)
Anton Sergeev, who moved from Crimea to Moscow, says he supports Putin and the Russian annexation. (Photo by Valeria Koulikova)

Ukraine is very important to Russia geopolitically. Which way Ukraine leans can make or break Russia’s influence in Eastern Europe, particularly in terms of the newly forming Eurasian Economic Union. Many Russians think that NATO’s eyeing Ukraine and Crimea to join them was the reason for Western support of the Maidan protests and the current government.

Let’s go back to March, when Crimea went from an autonomous republic in the Ukraine to a Republic to a district of the Russian Federation. The Western media called it “illegal annexation” where tanks and troops were on every street and people were more or less forced at gunpoint to vote in a referendum for union with Russia.

Russian media, on the other hand, reported that no Russian troops were present in Crimea besides those already stationed in Sevastopol, and that the Russian-speaking population needed protection from the advancement of the pro-Kiev forces. Biased coverage from all sides was filling up my news feed. I didn’t know what to trust.

So in August, I went to see for myself. I traveled to Sudak, a small town on the shore of the Black Sea with a centuries old Genoese Fortress towering over it.

The place I stayed was far from the beach, and on my walk to the sea each day, I passed Russian flags waving atop of almost every house, café, and car on the street. I heard Russian anthem playing on the waterfront at night.

Having visited Crimea numerous times when it was still a part of Ukraine, I didn’t know how to feel. While I may support many of Russia’s actions in the crisis, division of a country that’s so dear to me is almost unbearable to watch. Locals, who were always ready to answer my questions, convinced me that, at least for now, Crimea becoming a part of Russia might be a good thing.

“We are just glad we don’t have the horrific war that we see in Eastern Ukraine,” said Ivan Polyakov, a tourist guide who used to box under Ukrainian flag. “Right now Russia is the best option for us.”

A Putin impersonator in Moscow's Red Square. (Photo by Valeria Koulikova)
A Putin impersonator in Moscow’s Red Square. (Photo by Valeria Koulikova)

During the 22 years under Ukraine’s rule, the Crimean economy and infrastructure suffered, and people relied on the summer season for Russian tourist wave to keep them afloat.

According to Polyakov, things are already starting to brighten up, especially after Crimea started its transition to a Russian pension system. By the end of 2014, Putin promised to complete the transition, which has already doubled salaries and pensions on the peninsula.

“My grandfather, for example, was living on a pension and income that was totaling about $500 a month,” he said. “Now, he is getting twice as much.”

Sergeev lived in Crimea for seven years before moving to Moscow, and watched it deteriorate under Ukrainian control.

“People needed changes and Russia could provide them,” Sergeev said. “You didn’t need to make people go to voting stations. It was their conscious choice.”

Western sanctions imposed in response to the Crimea crisis don’t seem to be scaring most Russians (though they did make it harder for me to attend an international youth forum held in Crimea – but that’s another story). In fact, many believe they’ll be a good thing in the long term, finally forcing Russia to invest in its domestic food market and open up Russia to new world markets such as China and Latin America.

Russia has already turned to China to weather Western sanctions. In May of this year the two nations signed a $400 billion gas deal and dozens of other energy, trade and finance deals between the two countries were inked earlier this month.

"Our answer to sanctions" A t-shirt on sale in Crimea shows Putin using his judo skills on President Obama. (Photo by Valeria Koulikova)
“Our answer to sanctions.” A t-shirt on sale in Crimea shows Putin using his judo skills on President Obama. (Photo by Valeria Koulikova)

Of course, not everyone in Russia is thrilled with all these changes. There are those who are cautious about Putin’s motives in Ukraine and despise the government for all of its reported corruption, greed, and tyranny. But they definitely a minority of the people I encountered on this trip.

Russia’s tarnished international reputation has had an impact on those of us living or traveling outside of the country.

My cousin told me that on her trip to Europe this summer a lot of people had a negative reaction when they learned she was Russian. One of the most memorable quotes she told me was from a guy in Rome:

“I’m not Russian, so I don’t like Putin. But if I was, I would love the man.”

With domestic support for his leadership over eighty percent, Putin must be doing something right.

A number of my Russian friends and acquaintances who grew up in the U.S. are now moving back to Russia — it’s looking a lot more appealing since Putin came to power. By many, he is seen as someone who is finally representing Russia’s interests and is challenging the unilateral world leadership currently held by the United States.

Everybody loves to see their country succeed and people don’t like to see other nations challenging their way of life. The difficult fact is that the U.S. and Russian interests collide on almost every single foreign policy issue, and it’s a pretty obvious choice for most Russians.

“Don’t tease the bear,” says Sergeev, voicing this national pride. “If you start going into its lair and poke it with a stick, not much good can come from this.”

For me, as a proud Russian with strong roots in the U.S. it’s sad to see two cultures that are part of my upbringing see each other as enemies. It might be hard to believe, but regular Americans and Russians have a lot more in common than the media and politicians lead us to believe, even if our politics put us in conflict.

And while I’m not sure yet where I’ll pursue my own future, I know from personal experience that Russia has become a much better place on Putin’s watch.

16 Comments

  1. Valeria,

    I appreciate your experience and perspective, but am interested in hearing your opinion on a couple of things I see problematic with villainizing Western media depictions of the conflict.

    First of all, I’d like to address this paragraph:
    “Let’s go back to March, when Crimea went from an autonomous republic in the Ukraine to a Republic to a district of the Russian Federation. The Western media called it “illegal annexation” where tanks and troops were on every street and people were more or less forced at gunpoint to vote in a referendum for union with Russia.”

    Obviously, reports that people were forced to vote at gunpoint are exaggerations that were wrong for American media to publish, but the fact that the region was annexed illegally is a fact when considering international laws and regulations meant to be followed by all sovereign states.

    Additionally, having visited Crimea myself in 2013, I can also back your observations about the ethos of Crimea being a very patriotically Russian one. However, when you consider Putin’s rhetoric and justifications for the Russian intervention in Crimea, the story gets turned in on itself. The Russian government spread misinformation that people in Crimea were fearing for their lives. That they worried that Ukrainians would come and take over and kill them at any moment. The annexation was supposedly instigated for the safety of ethnic Russians. Yet even you write that ” I passed Russian flags waving atop of almost every house, café, and car on the street. I heard Russian anthem playing on the waterfront at night.” How could there be such widespread fear in a place where the overwhelming majority of the people and culture is Russian? As a contextual point, I would just like to say that I would have had little qualms with a legal referendum and legal annexation of this region, despite the fact that I spent all of my summers in Crimea as a child and see it as a vital part of Ukraine.

    There is also the well-known art of Putin’s “doublespeak.” He denied sending troops to Crimea, but a couple of months later admitted to it. (Slate article has a timeline of many instances of such doublespeak: http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_world_/2014/09/05/the_art_of_doublespeak_a_timeline_of_vladimir_putin_s_excuses_and_evasions.html). Again, I don’t think that the reporting of such doublespeak by Western media is false or foundationally unsupported.

    I was very interested in the piece of information you included about the transition to a Russian pension plan, and would like to know more about it. The article you sited was from the Spring, and though you include a piece of anecdotal evidence being fulfilled, I am interested to know if the promise has been fulfilled to Crimeans on a larger scale. I only ask this because I know that the original projected budget for the Crimea region has been significantly reduced since the promises made during annexation. Some statistics an be found here: http://eurasianintelligence.org/news.php?new=100&num. Crimea was always a “doomed” region so to speak because of the poor infrastructure and poor access to water and so forth. In fact, that is one of the reasons Russians gifted the region to Ukraine, they didn’t want to deal with those problems. I doubt they are going to want to deal with these same problems now.

    Lastly, I would like to ask what you think about your thoughts on who is funding the Ukrainian separatists. The Ukrainian national army cannot afford to get boots for their soldiers, yet alone high tech equipment or weapons, so how do the separatists have tanks and weapons capable of shooting down airplanes? I am not trying to insinuate that Russia is the only option for funding, only trying to uncover why there are sources of revenue for a small group of separatists but not a national army.

    Also it is important to keep in mind that statistical representations of support for Putin might be inaccurate, as any statistical data is. I would be interested in knowing which portion of the population was surveyed and by what means.

    I do agree that it is very sad to see the two nations you love tearing each other apart, and I hope that you will not experience hate from Americans (or any other citizens of the world) simply for being Russian.

  2. There are times in history where there is a dark side, and a light side. A side for a good future of humanity, and a side for an authoritarian, dictatorial, repressive, evil side. It’s clear what side Putin is on. The question remains: what side are you (and every individual) on?

    1. @thompst
      Sir, you just exhibited a classic example of a Black and White Fallacy. If you would like to make your arguments more constructive, you might find this video very useful. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eqz53d-fYL8&list=PLtHP6qx8VF7dPql3ll1To4i6vEIPt0kV5

      To the commenters trying to shame or otherwise discredit the author (or other commenters, for that matter) using personal attacks (Ad Hominem), or labeling it as propaganda… It is possible to question her findings with respect, and avoiding fear-mongering – case in point, see Kseniya Sovenso’s response. It is very easy to dismiss people’s arguments, I dare you to analyze and try deconstructing them.

      I find this article a well written recount of author’s experiences. And while I may not agree with everything, I can give her the courtesy of respecting her point of view.

  3. “I know from personal experience that Russia has become a much better place on Putin’s watch… A number of my Russian friends and acquaintances who grew up in the U.S. are now moving back to Russia — it’s looking a lot more appealing since Putin came to power…. ”
    Valeria, have some decency and follow their example. Don’t be a pity sleeper and peddle Kremlin propaganda in US that gave you home and possibilities. Many of us have friends, families and colleagues in Ukraine, yes, in that Ukraine that your beloved Putin’s Russia invaded, stole its territory and natural reserves, State and private property, and is waging a WAR killing Ukrainians. The Kremlin wasn’t shy about showing its propaganda and lies in throats of Westerners around the clock every day, Valeria, even without your help.
    I’s beyond abhorrent to see young pretty girl, employing opportunity of living/studying in USA as a chance to promote Kremlin wicked propaganda and justify unjustifiable – invasion of Ukraine by Russia, using each slimy trick to purport Russian aggression in Ukraine as a “good thing”.
    Hey, after all, it can not be bad for sovereign country of 45 million to be invaded, for thousands of Ukrainians to be killed, territory stolen and destroyed if some character “Ivan” in Valeria’s article is pleased that his grandfather now can get higher pension????
    You like having a cake and eating it too, Valeria, using a chance to be in USA to feed Americans Kremlin BS? You are not afraid of obesity? Go home, Valeria, eat your propaganda there, one cake should be enough.

  4. This entire ‘article’ reads like a Kremlin press release. I find it interesting that people who have benefited greatly from the educational and economic opportunities in the US are so quick to jump on the Putin band-wagon and bash the West.

    Side note, it doesn’t seem like “Russia has become a much better place on Putin’s watch” for independent journalists and the gay community.

  5. Kseniya
    For ur information it’s not clear if separatist shoot down the plane .. some says Ukraine airforce did..

  6. It’s really sad to see posters like Matt and Romeo bash the author. It’s become like this: if you defend anything Russian, you are automatically crazy, a war monger, and a propaganda machine. Well guess what? That’s simply not true and should not be even considered in a just and fair world. Clearly, Matt and Romeo are way out of their depth but still have the audacity to speak. What a sad world we live in.

  7. I’m sorry my fellow sheep herds you always think that whatever western media feeds you is true and the rest of the world is full of hypocrats. You should open up your eyes read do research beyond your Fox news and CNN propaganda and see what real world is like . Even your sports are media controlled you play what they feed you like baseball or am football . Its the harsh truth but honestly I love America specially California . Ohhh sheeps get a good knowledge of poloctics and geography then come and argue with me ;)

  8. Ну и накатим за это дело :) . Украина без Крыма ну и хрен с ним, как-то выжевем. Главное что Крымчяне рады

  9. I also live in Seattle, also Russian.
    I think it’s the fault of Gorbachev and Yeltsin. Yeah, NATO perhaps, a bit. But when the USSR fell apart, Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine should have retained far better relations. Right away, there were border arguments, arguments over Crimea…
    People I talk to sometimes think Putin is crazy because he considered the fall of the USSR to be a geopolitical disaster. Those people simply don’t get it; it used to be peaceful. Now, there’s a war.
    And why did NATO have to exist even after the USSR and Warsaw Pact fell apart?

  10. And also, I wish there could be peace, and I wish I could come up to someone Slavic looking eating semechkii and ask in Russian for some, and them to reply in Ukrainian “here you go” or “oh, you’re Russian too?” or “oh, you’re Ukrainian too?”
    It used to be so cool to have so many brothers everywhere.
    I came from a bad neighborhood in the US. Lots of fights. If you were Slavic, you were automatically a “Russian commie.” Kids would gang up on the “Russian spies,” and Russians, Ukrainians and the occasional Belarusian would rush to aid the poor patsan or hlopets. It was good. Now, they fight each other.
    Lately, even though I’m no longer living there, it’s gotten worse, in some ways.
    Honestly, I prefer getting kicked by Americans than to fighting my brothers.
    And I hate that video “We will never be brothers.” It makes me sooooo angry. Why is that poet just adding gasoline to the bonfire of division? No, not angry; nostalgic and sad.
    We HAVE to bring that good stuff back. Not the US government, but us, Ukrainians and Russians.

  11. You know, I am Russian, live in the small city in the north. There come many people from the Donetsk and Lugansk republic to us. So we have freshest and first-hand information.
    I read your responses to the speech of the person who lives directly in 2 countries. Speeches your obvinitelna are also not buttressed up by facts. And so hotly and zealously you describe your feelings that seems, if the author – the agent of the Kreml, you are agents of the USA and NATO.
    It is somehow strange to read only about bad, from them who never lifted the back from a convenient sofa and didn’t wolk to the streets of the country about which speaks, being based only on information of the mass media. Be more reasonable, if you can’t come to a place, read ALL available information and compare the facts. So the real historians do. Truth – is not black and not white, it multi-color and multifaced.
    I live in Russia, and to tell the truth, I recall our president only at those moments when he appears in news. He goes in for global policy, and all remaining – on his deputies and ministers. And here in Evrop it is recalled everywhere where only it turns out. I would tell with fanaticism. On behavior of Latvia, Poland, etc. countries Evroppy quits that the Russian to be bad. But I am here, and it is normal.
    And, in summary, I want to tell, haw strange at you a freedom of speech. Quits it is only possible to tell that is approved by the Government and that will be coordinated by it in mass media. All remaining is exposed to the most severe criticism. Try look narrowly both at that and at other side of dispute. And you will understand directly that truth and that isn’t present. Now you decide. Now the judgement is imposed to you approved and coordinated by the government through mass media.
    On postdock, I apologize, but I use the translator. I not remember English so well , what to write such long articles.

  12. Hi, My name is John G Tham a.k.a Gabriel La’bard from the North Eastern part of India , a huge fan of the Russian President Vladimir Putin. I would like to say just a few words, after following his work for many years. I find him to be a better Leader compared to other leaders . Every single Russian should be proud to have such a great Leader and a Thinker. Thank you. much love From India.

  13. I’m American and I love Putin and Russia. The reason Putin is so despised by the Western media is because the western media is controlled by leftists, and Putin is everything the left loves to hate. Putin is white, male, heterosexual and conservative. He doesn’t allow liberal propaganda to infiltrate the Russian public educational system. Russian schools still stick to teaching the three Rs. Putin believes that there are inherent racial, ethnic and cultural differences among the global population, and he recognizes the folly of open borders, ‘diversity’ and ‘multiculturalism’, which are the holy trinity of western liberals. Therefore, illegal aliens are promptly deported from Russia with no apologies.

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