To understand why Russians love Putin, you should look back to his first term — a businessman’s tale

From Fort Russ

Feb 24th
PREFACE by Tatzhit
I translated three short stories that capture very well what Russians think about Putin. To put them in context, I have included my thoughts on the subject in the small “postscriptum” section below. Read my ramblings, or draw your own conclusions.

The first story is written from a first-person perspective, and describes how Russia was before Putin, what he changed, and what people learned from it. Essentially, it explains why even profit-minded businessmen, suffering from economic problems and unimpressed with Russia’s foreign policy, continue to support the current government because of the hard lessons of the 90s.

The other two pieces are from a satirical author, one written about the time when Putin took power, and the other about him later, as the “Tsar”. These two are quite over the top, but I think there is a big grain of truth in them as well – if not about the real Putin, then about the popular view of him.

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#1: A Businessman’s Story
I remember Perestroika well. Marlboro cigs for 1.50 appeared at our supermarket, and we smoked them enthusiastically, sitting in the gazebo at the neighboring playground. The taste of them was magical – far, far better than the Soviet “Kosmos” for 0.70. The future as adults was no longer certain, but also seemed magical through the smoke, like in an American movie. It took me many years to realize why we thought that…

And then everybody was suddenly into politics. Intellectuals all started hating on long-dead Stalin, the Communists refused to compromise, popular newspapers constantly published this or that “historic discovery”. When I returned from the army and saw people standing in lines for some crap cigs from Bulgaria, which were rationed to boot, I first found myself feeling [as a character in a bad comedy, and not Hollywood movie]. But even then, I still did not understand.

That happened later – I stepped into adult life, and understood how politics works.

At one point, watching dumb mugs on TV struggle under the weight of arrogance and inability to form coherent sentences became unbearable. How can those “democrats” run the country, if they can’t even organize their own thoughts? By the time Yeltsin’s tanks shelled their Parliament, I already wasn’t interested – politics turned into a murky sideshow which only occasionally had some effect in real life.

Meanwhile, real life went into full “rat race” mode, chasing money above all, with brief breaks to celebrate small “victories”, ridiculous by today’s standards.

Strolling across flea markets, filled with brand-name clothes all of a sudden. Flashing across night-time roads on my first “beamer”. Endless ruins moving past the train windows, [the country’s factories and infrastructure – sold to murky investors for pennies on the dollar, and immediately scrapped for a quick buck] stretching all the way from Moscow to St. Pete.

It would be wrong to say that we weren’t [celebrating freedom]. After all, freedom is when rules and restrictions disappear, right? There was even a children’s book like this – “A holiday of Disobedience”, [about children who were left to do as they please by their parents, and how short-lived their euphoria was]. That’s exactly what happened – after the official dismantling of the state, it slowly disappeared from people’s heads. Nobody was left to establish order, and the rules were set by those who have managed to steal something big, or bribe their way into government positions.
The whole country played Cowboys and Indians. There was no law enforcement – except those men in blue uniforms who existed solely to collect bribes on highways, and pass almost all of their loot higher up the ladder. Everyone lied and stole. Some guys were dodging the draft, some were stealing from their jobs, nobody I knew paid any taxes.

Yes, a lot of it started back when USSR went off track. But in Soviet times, people still obeyed most laws. They went to official jobs, had apartments they legally owned, etc. Yes, even back then some people bought stuff on the black market and could pay a bribe for a driver’s license exam, but those who did that were a tiny minority. Slightly more people nicked stuff from work, but in general they took something insignificant. Most people could honestly think of themselves as good, upstanding citizens. Plus the “real men” of the WWII generation were still around.

And then, in a few years, the whole country and all its inhabitants became lawless and illegitimate. Getting a fake stamp in your Social Security or visa paperwork became a common thing. You could pay off anyone – the judge, the fire department, the EPA. Businesses completely ignored the government and produced fake financial statements with unbelievable numbers, which worked because the tax collectors knew everything, and were overlooking it for a small sum. “Business raiders” – those who made money by illegally taking over and looting businesses – were heroes on TV. Kids in kindergartens didn’t play Cops vs Robbers – just Robbers vs Robbers [1].

And I was an integral part of this lawlessness. I fudged our accounting books and didn’t think anything of it. I paid wages under the table and casually handed out bribes when I needed to register our semi trucks or buy off a tax inspector. I was kicking out contractors that used my shops to sell their own goods. I smuggled in everything, without a second thought – importing legally did not make sense, we would not be able to compete. I even drove around a car that was imported illegally, and simply bought it back for $100 each time it was impounded. I laundered money via fictional companies, and created legal entities using the identities of hobos from the street. Put forged stamps on forged invoices. I moved cash by the trash bag, and even bought an illegal handgun just in case. I was friends with the mafia guys who were protecting my business, and tagged along when they had “matters to discuss” with rivals.

Show this text to any businessman who worked in Russia in the 90s, and he will confirm that this was “business as usual” for the period, even fairly tame by that time’s standard. Politics did not concern men like me at all – it only affected us if the dollar exchange rate jumped, otherwise we only cared about cash and showing off, that’s it.

But often, during drunk arguments among ourselves, we inevitably ended up talking about the [timeless Russian questions] “who is to blame and what can be done.” And we soon understood that the end is [extremely freaking nigh], and there is no way out. We were the illegal and illegitimate residents of a sinking ship, and our actions were sinking it further. No one stood at the steering wheel or accepted any responsibility for what was happening, and no one showed any desire to do anything. Those who were smart looted as much as they could, and fled abroad. The rest were facing the abyss.

I totally missed when we got a new president – I tuned out of politics after the elections in ’96. All I remember was Yeltsin’s heart troubles, and then immediately – “Kursk” sinking. By that time, my business collapsed, so I had the time to watch the tragedy as it unfolded on TV – especially closely, because I served around the same area.

And since I am a mind reader, I can tell you one secret – I know what Putin thought when he was staring down into the sea from that warship. Many remember that moment, but do not understand what was happening there. And Putin was thinking exactly the same thing as I. That there is no way out, and it’s not just one sub sinking – the whole country is going down. And then he thought the same thing as my friends – that he just needs to grab what he can, and run.
When Putin holds the next open Q&A session – someone ask him, he will confirm that’s God’ honest truth.
If you think I described the looming collapse to explain why I admire Putin for saving the country – you are mistaken. Although, yes, he really did save us all.
But my support of Putin comes from what happened after the 90s.
After some time, my friend and I reopened our business. Or rather, he reopened it, and I joined a bit later.
First, I asked him out of habit – which mafia group do we pay for protection? And he says – none. If we have problems, we call the police. Wow, that was a surprise.
Next, we had to bring some stuff from China. We go to a familiar broker, who used to connect us with smugglers – he tells us that smuggling and forged documents are no longer in style. So we registered officially and began to transport goods through customs, legally. Then we did an audit and straightened out the accounting. Started paying salaries through the bank, not in laundered cash. Leased a legally imported semi, then another one.
After the endless tricks and trying to cheat the system in the 90s, working legally was unbelievably straightforward.
Not everything works well, of course, and still some things are done under the table. Say, we need to win a government contract to stay in business, and we need to bribe somebody to get it. Then we pay. And due to the crisis, we had to re-start paying some of the salaries in laundered cash, to stay afloat. But money laundering is becoming so expensive, soon it would be cheaper to simply pay taxes.

Anyway, all of these things are merely exceptions that prove the rules exist. Yes, suddenly – it turned out that there are some rules to doing business, after all. And there is someone who tries to make them the same for everyone. And you can work within these rules, and consider yourself an honest citizen.

I would say more – in fact, I used to break the rules mostly not because it was necessary, but because I wanted to get rich quickly and live an opulent life. But that mass hysteria – it gripped half the people in the country. Those who stayed immune to it [got pushed to the bottom] – but that immunity among the poorest people may be what saved us, in the end.
I am far from blindly attributing all of this to Putin. In fact, no one knows exactly how and why these changes came about, and if they would still happen if Yeltsin stuck around. A rigorous scientist would say such questions can’t be answered without a controlled experiment, and such experiments are not possible.

But it is quite clear to me that Putin himself had a choice – to “smash and grab” like so many before him, or to take responsibility – and he chose the latter, even though it seemed completely hopeless.

Therefore, when the “liberal opposition” started their litany of accusations against Putin, I could not agree with them calling him a thief and an enemy of the nation. If all he wanted was to steal and destroy, nothing could be simpler. Simply sit back [and let liberals run the country], like Yeltsin did.

And the reason I finally made up my mind and completely sided with Putin was… taxes.
They became kind of a diagnosis, a litmus test.

When Putin-haters rant to me that “Putin’s bunch are criminals and thieves”, and I ask – do YOU or your business pay taxes – and they always respond with sincere indignation.

They say things like “Why should I pay, when they can not make an online registration system, and I have to stand in a huge line to get a land ownership certificate? Why should I pay if the bureaucrats steal most of it? Why should I pay, if they can’t repair the road to my summer house, and I have to kill the suspension on my car? And why should I pay these bastards, if they would use the money to further oppress the Russian people?!”

No one, not a single one of government-haters I know, pays even half of what they should. How can the government pay for a new registration system, for the anti-corruption task force, or for fixing the roads, if no one gives them any money? … But they can’t even comprehend that question.

One Putin-hater I know hasn’t found an honest job in 20 years, because he can only BS people and take a cut of someone else’s profits. So he hangs around people who are doing business, and tries to act as an extra step in the supply chain via knowing “who to grease.” Naturally, he hasn’t paid any taxes whatsoever since the fall of USSR – although he sure carried a lot of bribes from one part of the chain to the other.
Who do you think was the first among in my social networks to re-post Navalny’s movie accusing Prosecutor General of corruption[2]? Yep, him. He even added some scathing political commentary.

And I had to explain to another one of my buddies, who spent his entire adult life working as an unregistered construction contractor, that his daughter’s tuition at school and college did not come out of some abstract “state budget”, but out of my pocket specifically. Because my business pays taxes, and his does not. Do you think he stopped hating on the government after that? Of course not – now he simply hates me along with Putin. And I understand why – people like that need to shift blame elsewhere, in order to justify leeching off of the rest of us.

Check among the people you know, if you like. To me, the nature of this conflict is clear. Those who seek to play by the rules – those support the state and Putin. In nothing else, because any rules are better than no rules. And those who prefer to cheat the system – they are against the government. And to hide why they do it, they switch the cause of their actions. [3]

First, they do not pay taxes and such – simply out of greed, like me in the ’90s. And only then they start hating the state, as a justification. But they always tell you the opposite, that they don’t pay out of principle.
If “Putin’s trolls” really do exist, I gift this text to their bosses. Use it however you like, and the money you save on writers can be given to the regular trolls as a bonus [4]. Let it be a small atonement for the damage I caused to our motherland back in the 90s.

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For the other two stories:
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