MOSCOW – A Russia blogger has gone viral with a video prank that inadvertently goes to the heart of a debate over how much public support for Russian President Vladimir Putin enjoys after 20 years in power and counting.
The discussion was launched after blogger Bashir Dokhov posted a video to Youtube in which he glues a large portrait of the Russian leader on the wall of a Moscow apartment elevator.
“I’ll put a camera in the corner, too,” says Dokhov, while setting up the joke. “God forbid someone should steal him.”
Putin’s picture remained, but reactions to seeing the Russian leader weren’t kind.
Four-letter words abound as startled Russians enter the lift. “Why is he here?” asks one passenger. “What a nightmare!” exclaims another, who then proceeds to bow before the portrait while laughing as her friend snaps a picture.
“It’s the worst thing that could possibly happen to our home,” says yet another resident.
But not to Youtube. The video already has had more than 2 million views and counting after just three days.
Beyond the intended laughs, the video has renewed a long simmering debate in Russia: How popular is Vladimir Putin really?
According to polls, Putin has been Russia’s lone towering figure in politics for most of his 20 years in power — with popularity ratings any western politician would envy.
State polling agencies find the Russian leader’s support at about 73%. Independent Russian pollsters, such as the respected Levada Center, peg that number a bit lower — at 68%.
“The rating is rather stable and went up in 2019,” explains Levada’s Denis Volkov to VOA, noting the Kremlin leader’s numbers fluctuated amid the introduction of an unpopular pension reform the year prior.
Putin’s peak came in 2014, when Russia’s annexation of Crimea from neighboring Ukraine saw Putin’s numbers soar to 86%.
Yet dig deeper and the numbers vary.
Putin’s trust and “electoral ratings” — which ask whether you would vote to reelect the president were an election held next week — prompt far less impressive results. Just 33%, according to a 2019 poll.
Case in point that the Kremlin pays attention: Putin announced a slew of reforms during his annual state of the nation speech last month — later installing a new Prime Minister amid promises that the focus of his 4th term in office would be improving Russians lives.
The other point of the speech? Constitutional reforms aimed — perhaps — at extending Putin’s influence beyond the end of his current and final term in 2024.
Indeed, Kremlin critics have long argued that even the most scientifically rigorous samples are skewed by a lack of political alternatives, state propaganda, or misleading questions by pollsters.
In that regard, Kremlin opponents saw the elevator stunt as a simple up or down vote on Putin’s performance. A case of reality at last unfiltered.
“You watch these types of videos and don’t understand why Putin is still in power. There’s no more myth of 86% support,” tweeted Alexander Golovach, a lawyer affiliated with opposition leader Alexey Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, in referring to Putin’s peak approval rating.
A Russian prankster glued a massive portrait of President Vladimir Putin to the inside of a residential elevator. He then placed a camera in the elevator to record people’s reactions pic.twitter.com/EwMradd3yl
— The Moscow Times (@MoscowTimes) February 11, 2020
“Ingenious! It’s the best sociological survey of those I know,” wrote one viewer in responding to the video on Youtube. “And probably the most honest!”
Yet another factor in the Russian leader’s numbers? Geography.
Surveys show Putin’s support is strongest in the regions where the leader has garnered support with a mix of anti-western rhetoric and traditional conservative values.
Yet critics note those same surveys provide Russians a rare opportunity to reach out to Moscow with problems of more immediate concern. “Why bite the hand that feeds?” the argument goes.
Russia’s urban centers certainly have been ground zero of opposition protests — a sentiment perhaps reflected in the Moscow elevator stunt.
Indeed, the prank’s author insisted his “elevator sample” wasn’t scientific in the least.
In an interview Monday with Echo of Moscow radio, the blogger Bashir Dokhov, admitted he’d simply culled the most entertaining reactions.
“There were lots of times when people didn’t react at all,” says Dokhov. “Others just took selfies.”