They ask me one and the same question over and over again. What good things has Putin done for Russia during the recent ten years? Every time, when I hear people saying this, it surprises me how quickly people can forget things. It seems that they have forgotten a lot about the 1990s.
Do they remember the crisis of 1998, when the dollar skyrocketed from 6 to 20 rubles in less than one month? Do they remember the faces of those people who had considerable debts in dollars?
Just for comparison, the dollar rate changed just for a couple of rubles from January 2000 up until now. If someone had promised during the 1990s that the ruble rate would be practically still for ten years - no one would have ever believed that person.
Do they remember the mobsters who would race their Mercedes cars in the wrong lane? Would anyone try to stop them back then as they try to stop official vehicles now? Now one can make videos of these races and upload them on the Internet. If someone tried to film mobsters during the 1990s, they would either be injured or just killed.
Do they remember the morale which we had during the second half of the 1990s? Everyone would think that tomorrow would be much worse than today. When Putin was saying that the national GDP would double, everyone thought that he was just joking.
Do they remember the grocery stores of the 1990s? They were not Soviet-like anymore, but they were not Western-like either. They were tiny, dirty and there was not much to choose from. Do they remember so-called shuttle traders who lived at the expense of the underdeveloped commercial system? Do they remember the total absence of consumer loans, credit cards, large supermarkets and many other types of consumer infrastructure?
Do they remember the average salary of $100, which would make such things as buying new cars and booking holidays abroad a luxury?
Do they remember the Russian style of business which was prospering during the 1990s? Commodity bases in dirty basements, big and bald-headed guys in tracksuits, illegal salaries in dollars - do they remember?
Do they remember that infamous jealousy to Europeans and Americans, who had to work for just one month to afford a powerful computer? Do they remember the Internet which which was ten times as faster and ten times as cheaper in the West?
I remember all of that very well. That is why, when somebody asks me about the positive changes in the country during the recent ten years, I just want to laugh. A lot of things have changed in the country, people, really a lot.
Russia today is a normal European country which is quite affordable for living. Of course, the country has too many problems, but it is not the impoverished Russia, in which the average pension was $20. It is not the country where the IMF can be the boss.
Is this enough as an answer to the question of what positive changes Putin has brought to Russia?
I know what opposition activists will say. They will say that Putin has nothing to do here, that it was all because of high oil prices, the Soviet legacy, and the humanitarian help from the civilized West.
There is an old joke on the subject. "Every mother is certain that her children inherit wisdom and beauty from her. She is also certain that they inherit negligence, rudeness and petulance from their father."
I will not even try to prove that Putin is behind all the positive changes that have happened in the country. I'd rather put some questions in response.
What positive changes did George W. Bush bring for Russia? What good things did Angela Merkel do for Russia? What good things did Hu Jintao do for Russia?
Yes, I realize that none of the above-mentioned politicians shows direct influence on the state of affairs in Russia, but Putin, I am sorry, is not the governor of God on this earth. He is just the prime minister now, and he used to be just the president before that. That is why I believe it is not fair to hold Putin accountable for, let's say, Ivan's miserable life.
To come to an agreement with the Kadyrovs about the "subsidies" and to stop the war in Chechnya as a result of that? Yes, the president could do it and it was done. To inspire the Russians to live on and enjoy life? Excuse me, but this is the work that mass media normally do - the work, which irresponsible editors failed entirely. To stop terrorizing business? Our tandem has done some steps in this direction. Is there a point for them to move on if, for example, people spitefully rejoice over the removal of kiosks in Moscow and St. Petersburg? If people react similarly to Khodorkovsky's second sentence?
I tried to picture myself as the head of Russia. I tried to think what I would do if I were in Putin's shoes during the recent decade. Do you know what occurred to me?
I thought that all of my reforms which I mentioned in this article, would be brutally criticized by the people of Russia. Unfortunately, 18 years of capitalism is so not enough to make the Soviet people stop dreaming about a severe strongman as their leader.
One can slam Putin saying that Russia still looks like a huge social security department, in which a whole army of officials get fat in their holes and pay meager allowances. What is going to happen to the image of the person who signs a decree tomorrow to dismiss the army of idlers and start paying allowances only to those who needs them?
The Russians have already witnessed that experiment twice: during the monetization of benefits and during the abolishment of scholarships. These initiatives were positive for both the whole nation and for every individual in particular. However, each of those reforms were met with strong resistance.
I dare say that corruption in Russia exists not because of those greasy officials that sit on every level of the vertical of power. The pyramid of corruption is just a consequence of rabid Soviet negligence, which makes electors hate those politicians who propose the reforms that can reduce corruption.
Contrary to what Russian pseudo-democratic and pseudo-liberal mass media might say, Putin is not the spiritual successor of Stalin. Putin is more than just a democratic politician. He has to put on Stalin's coat every now and then so that people could see him as their strongman.