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Putin’s approval rating and the nature of popularity

Ryan Denison is the Senior Fellow for Theology at Denison Forum, where he contributes writing and research to many of the ministry’s productions.

He is in the final stages of earning his PhD in church history at BH Carroll Theological Institute after having earned his MDiv at Truett Seminary. Ryan has also taught at BH Carroll and Dallas Baptist University.

He and his wife, Candice, live in East Texas and have two children.


Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures as he watches the launch of the newest heavy-class Angara-A5 rocket at Plesetsk cosmodrome in Arkhangelsk region, via a video link at the Russian Presidential Situation center at the Kremlin in Moscow, December 23, 2014 (Credit: Reuters/Alexei Druzhinin)

According to a recent Levada-Center Poll, Russian President Vladimir Putin‘s approval rating is remaining strong at 86% despite a faltering economy and denouncements from the leadership of many Western nations. However, that mark is not an anomaly. In fact, his approval rating has hovered around the mid 80’s since last May, which happens to be the time that the conflict in the Ukraine began to escalate.

Some doubt that the high number should be taken seriously though. Ben Judah, author of Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell In and out of Love with Vladimir Putin, argues that you can’t get an accurate read on Putin’s approval rating because Russians are not free to express negative opinions of their president. He believes that people are saying “yes” when asked if they are happy with Putin simply because they are afraid to say “no.” Judah points to the protests in 2011, where a growing middle class attempted to bring about change, noting that they were put down with a combination of propaganda, arrests, and exile. They serve as a still lingering reminder to the people of what will happen should they seek to alter the political landscape.

However, others are less sure that the approval rating cannot be trusted. They point to the rejuvenated sense of pride in their country that many Russians seem to have, stemming in large part from the way Putin has resisted what has been portrayed as Western attempts to control their nation, as a reason for the people’s endorsement of their president. Moreover, Russia has been successful in getting many of its citizens to see the annexation of Crimea as something akin to a rescue mission. For comparison, the majority of the world sees it as a gross misuse of power and an attack on a sovereign land.

However, even those who think the approval ratings may be accurate still point to the worsening economy as a problem that is not going away. If people start to go hungry on a more consistent basis, their high opinion of the Russian leader may begin to wane. Moreover, as Frida Ghitis, a world affairs columnist for the Miami Herald, recently wrote on, “Even if he can keep strong popular support, Putin has to worry most of all about keeping happy the oligarchs, the wealthy Russians who back him in exchange for continued prosperity.”

Whether Putin’s approval rating is accurate, inflated by fear and oppression, or somewhere in between, it is not a measure in which he should take lasting comfort. You see, popularity is a fickle beast. It is usually not based on who you are as much as what you have done. Putin is popular with some because he has restored their pride in being Russian. He is “popular” with others because he has made them sufficiently afraid to think otherwise. In both cases, his past actions have dictated the level of his current approval.

That is not how popularity works with God. There are times where he may approve of what you are doing more than others, but his affection for you and his opinion that you were worth the death of his only Son never changes. It is not based on what you have done but on who you are and you are a child of the one true God.

Whatever your approval rating may be with others, never forget that the God of the universe loves you and values you. When you allow your identity be defined by that love, you will come to know the kind of security and peace that can only come from the unconditional acceptance of our all-loving heavenly Father. Is that how you see yourself today?