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How Putin’s and Trump’s economic messages are similar

Traditional Russian wooden nesting dolls depicting President Donald Trump, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin in a central Moscow gift shop. ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images

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Peter Pomerantsev spent many years in Russia working as a television producer and has seen the country’s economic highs and lows. He’s the author of the book “Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia” and is a visiting senior fellow at the Institute of Global Affairs at the London School of Economics. He talked with Marketplace host Kai Ryssdal about the Russian economy and media. Below is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Kai Ryssdal: When you were writing your book about what was happening in Russia, and the media, and the economy, what was it like there in the economy? What was the feel?

Peter Pomerantsev: I was there from 2001 to 2010. It was the oil boom. Russia was just becoming incredibly wealthy very fast. I mean, people were becoming super rich, but also ordinary people were becoming richer than they ever had been in Russia’s history. They could afford, you know, cars and Western holidays and mortgages, and all those terrible things. But Moscow, where I was living, I mean, that was, you know, there is just this boom where people who seemed to be coming sort of billionaires in the blink of an eye. And not just, you know, because they were somehow related to the state and all sorts of business in IT and TV and advertising. So it was incredibly exciting. It felt like, you know, Jazz Age New York or Elizabethan London.

Ryssdal: And so what’s the compare and contrast to today or whenever the last time you were there?

Pomerantsev: I visit regularly, and I was also there during the financial crash. So 2008, when that bubble really deflated. I have to say, Russians took it much better than Westerners. Westerners were all having nervous breakdowns over the financial crash, and Russians were like, “You call this financial crash?” They’ve been through so much in the last 20 years where even the richest people had to queue for milk at some point. So actually, Russians took it much more in their stride than Westerners did. But that kind of boom stopped. That sense of being able to earn anything at any point, that went away. And the government had to adapt its politics.

Ryssdal: Trump is, or claims to be, a billionaire, and yet he says he fights for the common man, and clearly that has worked. Does Putin do the same thing?

Pomerantsev: Very much so. Putin will define his enemies — or certainly did when he came to power — define his enemies as the oligarchs. Just like Trump plays on this idea of sort of an elite in Moscow, which is all cosmopolitan and therefore not like the common man, and he is, of course, with the common man. So that’s a game they both play, and both very successfully framed their opposition as, you know, globalist, cosmopolitan, all these words that they both kind of indulge in… I think we tend to actually end up playing their game and mirroring this frame back at them. And I think one has to be very careful not to sort of, like, you know, reflect these divisions that suit these leaders.

Ryssdal: Get me to the economic truth of this. Because what’s happening in America over the past decades has been a widening income gap and wealth disparity, and the rich getting richer, and the poor not getting by. And we saw that in this election. In Russia, I imagine, it’s very much the same thing. Although the stratification, the layers, might be more clearly defined with the poor staying poor and the very rich elite profiting and Putin capitalizing on that.

Pomerantsev: Well, everyone got richer in Russia during the 2000s. This is the thing everybody was allowed, that sort of various slices of the pie whether you’re a cop on the streets being corrupt and taking bribes. That was OK as long as you were loyal to the Kremlin all the way up to the top where the oligarchs could steal as much as they like as long as they were being loyal. So it was kind of corruption for loyalty. And the cleverness of the system is that everyone ends up corrupt. In America, there is, I think, a gap not just financial but also in a way that it is psychological. As I was in Iowa, I watched TV a lot, and what was very noticeable was that it seemed to be a bunch of New Yorkers talking to themselves about themselves, making jokes that they understood with absolutely no relationship to Iowans. And I think the American media may have made a little bit of a mistake here. It’s created a gap. So it’s all about being relevant. I mean, I think it can be, as you know, it can be a spiritual gap as much as the financial gap.

Ryssdal: What’s your sense of the “movement” that President Trump has started in this country and its duration?:

Pomerantsev: I don’t think it’s a movement the way that they would like to portray. I think that might be an overarching moment, and we see this throughout the world, of wanting to tell the people who’ve been in charge to, I mean, F-off. You know, a moment where you can express yourself. I don’t see, like, 1930s-type movements emerging at the moment. That doesn’t mean it might not emerge, because sometimes if you say these things, they become true, and the movement will appear. But at the moment, I think, I still think there is actually a gap between the rhetoric and the reality. Having said that, there is, you know, we do see these parties emerging throughout Europe who have managed to capitalize on one theme really, which is immigration, and who have normalized racism essentially. And that is a very, very disturbing thing, because they’re normalizing sort of hate speech and violence, and we don’t know where that will end up. When you let those demons out, it’s unclear where they end up. 

Ryssdal: Peter, thanks very much.

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