Tough leadership from the top in all areas of society is his formula for rebuilding a strong (but not impartial) state after years of confusion and diluted authority under Boris Yeltsin.
And the press has not been spared. As well as manipulating institutions and groups such as the patriotic youth movement Nashi (Ours), Putin has fostered an atmosphere of exaggerated national pride that encourages persecution of dissidents and freethinkers and a tradition of impunity that is steadily undermining the rule of law.
Independent journalists and human rights activists are exposed to considerable danger, especially in the North Caucasus. Brutal physical attacks on journalists, including Mikhail Beketov in November 2008 and Oleg Kashin in November 2010, have risen in recent years. Five were murdered in connection with their work in 2009 and at least 26 have been since Putin came to power in 2000. TV stations have been brought back under close control.
A high price has been paid but Russia is changing. As memories of the Soviet Union fade, the burgeoning middle classes identify less and less with the United Russia leader’s violent, nostalgic and deliberately paranoid rhetoric. Will he be able to adapt and embody the country’s modernization and liberalization, including at the political level? It seems unlikely. His response to the unprecedented wave of protests that has swept the country since December 2011 has been dominated by contempt. He says the demonstrators have been paid to protest, refers to the white ribbons they wear in their buttonholes as “condoms” and accuses critical news media of being manipulated by the US state department.
These media have meanwhile had to grapple with a bizarre series of management changes and various forms of internal pressure. But promises of democratization have also been made and some TV stations have gone so far as to allow the political opposition to speak on the air. Will Putin yield to the winds of change, trying to preserve whatever is possible, or will he cling to his old ways of thinking and resist? Much of the Russian media’s future depends on what the Kremlin’s ruler decides.