Matthew Gordon-Banks

Russia Goes to the Polls

This weekend Russians are going to the polls in a Presidential Election.

It is widely expected that Vladimir Putin will be comfortably re-elected as President of the Russian Federation in the next few days, with only the size of his percentage vote uncertain. Although some voters will spoil their ballot papers or vote for any other candidate available, these voters are in a minority. By and large most Russians are fairly happy with their current President.

Since being brought into government during the Yeltsin years, Vladimir Putin has determined to ensure that Russian assets in any form are protected for Russians and not plundered – as they were – following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The sanctions placed on Russia by the West as a result of the ‘invasion’ of Ukraine, but which Moscow sees as a limited special military operation, to ensure a neutral Ukraine and buffer with NATO, has certainly helped the Russian economy, not hindered it. In short, the standard of living of ordinary Russians has never been better in living memory.

Russia is a huge country with eleven time zones and numerous different ethnic groupings living together under the Russian umbrella. I have known Russia first hand for forty years since the time of General Secretary, and former KGB chief, Yuri Andropov and at a distance since Leonid Brezhnev. I have seen the changes first hand as a visitor over those years from Communist controlled command economy to the early years of democracy.

In more recent years when I visited the Russian Federation and younger people in their twenties spoke to me about their desire for more liberalisation and progress, I tried to explain to them that in my country, the United Kingdom, we have centuries of so called democracy to lean on and that in some thirty years Russia had definitely changed for the better and so too had living standards. Not so very long ago it would have been impossible for Russians to freely travel abroad and now many travel widely on holiday and for business all over the world. I have emphasised in those conversations that real democracy takes many years to develop and grow and that patience and determination are required.

Frequently I read and hear all sorts in the West about Russia and how there is allegedly little freedom. The reality is very different from that narrative which can be very russophobic. In economic terms one of the best indicators of how change has improved life in the Russian Federation can be seen in the abundance of goods to buy in the shops, the quality of those goods and that such a very high proportion are actually grown or produced within Russia itself.

Socially Russia is very conservative, with an important place being taken by the Orthodox Church. This is not too dissimilar from some European countries such as Italy or Poland where for example the Roman Catholic Church plays a key role. The ‘traditional family’ is regarded as the bedrock of society in contrast to one or two other European countries where, frequently, a more liberal environment may be found.

To the younger generations in Russia it can sometimes seem that progress is slow, but if many of those same individuals could turn their clocks back just a couple of decades, they might realise the substantial nature of those political and economic changes and how much better things now are. By contrast Western Europe may, to some, seem better, freer more advanced but all that glistens is not necessarily gold.

Putin has made positive changes for the better, but how well democracy develops will only be truly seen in his legacy in the years to come.

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