Moscow: Like Neymar, Russian president Vladimir Putin is also a polarising figure here. Some can’t sing his praises enough while many look at him as the embodiment of authoritarianism, corruption and crony capitalism.
A cab driver put it one word, when he was asked about his opinion on the Russian president. “King,” he said. Royalty may be long dead in Russia but his die-hard fans look at him as a monarch of this sprawling country.
Putin would sweep a poll of foreign journalists and fans because the World Cup has been a silky smooth affair for all of them. There has been no glitch whatsoever in all host cities. One can’t help but wonder how everything is so calm and safe in a country as large and diverse as Russia.
Alexander, a middle-aged man, said crediting Putin alone for the World Cup would be wrong. “Thousands of people had worked behind the scenes for the successful conduct of the World Cup. He is there at the top, that’s all,” he said.
The macho image of Putin is more appealing to foreigners who laud his ability to stand up to the US on various issues. A group of Syrian fans had used the World Cup as an excuse to come all the way from Damascus to express their gratitude to Putin for “saving their country from the clutches of Islamic State.” There are critics who lash out at the Russian leader for his intervention in the Syrian civil war.
That Putin likes to be seen as a muscular leader is an open secret. Astride a horse without his shirt on and his so-called expertise in judo are careful attempts to burnish his image. Many shops here sell t-shirts, key chains and caps with Putin image.
Oleg Seliverstov, a 22-year-old independent filmmaker, yearns for a change. “People wearing Putin t-shirts and caps are poking fun at him. I’m sure they aren’t his supporters. They want to highlight the corruption under his regime,” he said.
“Putin is neck-deep in corruption. I want to see how Russia will be under another leader, having spent 18 years of life in the shadow of Putin, who runs the government for rich people,” he added.
The articulate young man, a staunch supporter of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, said he wasn’t even willing to believe Russia’s unexpected wins at the World Cup were real. “I have a suspicion that Putin has bought those results. Older people support him in the fear of going back to the worse days of the early 90s. But I’m for change because I want my country to be a beacon of liberal values,” he added.
According to Alexander, people in government and quasi-government jobs are happy under Putin. “But young people of this country aren’t his big fans. I would also like a change but the transition should not be sudden,” he added.
It’s an irony that a leader who brooks no dissent has given asylum to the fiercest dissenter of the 21st century, Edward Snowden. It’s therefore difficult to categorise Putin, whose true position in Russian history is somewhere between the two camps....