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In liberal democracies, the approval ratings of political leaders have been shown to track citizens’ perceptions of the state of the economy. By contrast, in illiberal democracies and competitive autocracies, leaders are often thought to boost their popularity by exploiting nationalism, exaggerating external threats, and manipulating the media. Using time-series data, I examine the determinants of presidential approval in Russia since 1991, a period in which leaders’ ratings swung between extremes. I find that Yeltsin's and Putin's ratings were, in fact, closely linked to public perceptions of economic performance, which, in turn, reflected objective economic indicators. Although media manipulation, wars, terrorist attacks, and other events also mattered, Putin's unprecedented popularity and the decline in Yeltsin's are well explained by the contrasting economic circumstances over which each presided.