I’ve noticed an almost immediate reaction from people whenever Vladimir Putin comes up in our conversation. I know the pattern well. After some general eye-rolling, I prepare myself to hear a few thoughtless cliques about his KBG connections or his desire to turn back the clock to communist rule. To most Americans, he seems an accident of history, an aberration in that flow of historical progress so many thought was set back to its normal course after the fall of the Soviet Union. Russia has certainly taken a different path than most Americans thought it would back in 1991. But Russia is not America and its trajectory since Putin is no aberration, but the path of a new Russia reinventing itself on the global scene.

As a product of American political culture, I admit that some of Putin’s policies are unsettling to me. First of all, having an economy based so much on a single commodity, such as oil, is never sound policy. I think the recent volatility in that market has certainly underscored that point.  Moreover, I never think it is a good idea to attenuate basic civil rights, such as the freedoms of the press and expression. (For example, last summer Putin had political opponents edited out of a Russian talk show. Their image was even digitally removed before the show aired. I am reminded of Stalin having images of Trotsky airbrushed out of photos of the Russian Revolution.) But until the revocation of the Patriot Act here in America, I will withhold further thoughts on that issue.

For the average Russian, here is what the presidency of Putin has meant. The powerful oligarchs and criminals who seized control of many of Russia’s energy profits and committed crimes with impunity during Yeltsin’s rule have been reigned in. (In the western media this was almost exclusively portrayed as Putin stifling his political enemies. Of course they were his enemies–he threatened their livelihood.)  In 1999 inflation in Russia rose to 127 percent and unemployment was at 13 percent. By 2007 inflation fell to single digits and unemployment was only 7 percent. Foreign exchange holdings went from 8 billion to 300 billion dollars and much of Russian’s foreign debt was paid down. And as far as Russia’s war with Georgia, the United States has lashed out unilaterally for much less provocation. And the facts in this case were terribly misconstrued by our own media. To use Pat Buchanan’s words, Georgia started it, Putin finished it. True, Putin replaced democratically elected regional leaders with Kremlin appointees, but this was done to curb corruption. Ironically, those who cite democratic scruples against such an action should consider that Putin’s approval rating still hovers around 80 percent. What American president can claim such confidence from our people?

Putin, like all politicians, has his flaws, some quite profound. But the current opinion of Putin on behalf of many Americans, I am sure, is a result of our abysmal ability to perceive ourselves and the world from any other perspective but our own.