I became interested in this project due to my work as an business editor at The Moscow Times, Russias only independent English-language newspaper. In covering Russian business, it became quickly obvious how many institutional problems Russia faced, from endemic corruption to crumbling infrastructure. At the same time, Putins ratings were and are incredibly high - he routinely has an approval rating of over 80 percent. By working on this project, I hope to understand how this circle is squared. Do many Russians see the problems around them, but believe the Kremlin is not culpable?
So far the biggest lesson I've learned is that the Kremlins power depends in part on keeping Russians politically passive, both those who would normally stand in opposition and even those who support them. Russians in the regions who stand in opposition to the Kremlin believe that political action is pointless, as their votes will not be counted, while protesting in the streets is either too dangerous or will be ignored. These Russians have turned their back on the political system, and instead speak of developing their own personal lives.
Russians who more or less approve of the Kremlin are deeply aware of political corruption in regional and parliamentary politics, and, at least verbally, can be vehemently aggressive about solutions - one young oil worker praised Chinas practice of executing corrupt officials. But they, like those in opposition, also believe that they effectively have no voice in the system, and that voting is pointless. Of all the people I have meet, only one has said they will be voting in the coming parliamentary election.
In working on this project, I hope to inspire more empathy among Westerners for ordinary Russians. Putins government may be a deeply corrupt, aggressive, and paranoid regime. However, just because many Russians say they support Putin, it does not mean they do so actively. The Kremlin relies on keeping its population passive in order to keep control. For opposition-minded voters, this means keeping them disillusioned. For pro-Kremlin voters, it means keeping up a facade of competency while feeding voters a steady diet of propaganda. In some cases, perhaps, the systems corruption is also useful in sustaining voter complacency. No one votes, because, except in the presidential election, it doesn't really matter who wins or loses, as everyone is viewed as corrupt.