Something peculiar happened last week. First my friends joked about it. Then it was the hot topic of discussion during a raucous Friday night surprise party with former colleagues working in media. My balkanized Twitter feed looked like an endless sky-blue colored scroll with iterations of the same text popping up in 140 character segments. Though there were still cat photos on Facebook, so the occupation of my social media was not complete.
But then Julia Ioffe wrote about it, and I had no choice but to accept that it was true. The death/disappearance/ascendency into heaven of Vladimir Putin had secretly scared the hell out of everyone.
Ok, but he’s not dead, right? Something about babymama drama, maybe another round of botox?
News reports from the future and old photos of Putin being passed off as recent have not helped matters.
And when theories turned to palace coups or catastrophic strokes, the awkward laughs made a dynamic diminuendo al ninete. The silence was always bested within a moment, but it was the space between overlaid voices, clinking glasses and laugher that told the story; they were the thin-skinned plates floating on the soft plastic mantle of reality which had been manufactured for them. They didn’t have to love him, they could have cried ‘Russia without Putin’ countless times from the streets of a not too distant Moscow that seems in today’s climate infinitely far away. It doesn’t matter. Many secretly were being faced with something the creative classes never could have envisioned facing: They couldn’t imagine a Russia without Putin.
How did this come to pass? Traumatic bonding in mass? Perhaps.
In an exhaustive editorial published by Vasily Gatov in the Moscow Times entitled ‘How the Kremlin and the Media Ended Up in Bed Together’, Gatov argues that a key component of the state’s artificial agenda is “an exaggerated role” for Putin in public life.
Regarding the final real flareup between Putin and protesters in May 2013, Gatov notes how “the main weekly program on Channel One, ‘Vremya’, ran 11 pieces on Putin’s various activities and only two covering other recent events. What’s more, every mention or depiction of Putin was not only positive, but slavishly complimentary.”
Fawning coverage of the president in an authoritarian state is par for the course. And while my liberal Russian acquaintances, and even his more sophisticated supporters among Moscow’s middle class, all feel comfortable pointing a finger at the quasi-North Korean style portrayal of Putin in state-run media, there was always an understanding that it was chum for the provincials.
It is this knowing wink from the ruling class that belies the complexity of Russian propaganda, and the cult of personality around Vladimir Putin. For the working class and perennially complaining grandmas who see Putin as a ‘right kinda guy’ when he’s galavanting shirtless and doing any number of manly things, the creators of this image are doing so with a knowing wink towards their urbanite peers.
Just like all of the other contradictions rife in Russian life, the ‘Dear Leader’ treatment is both a provocation and an appeal to the ego of Russian liberals. This is trash, turning our president into the cover of a Daniel Steele novel, we know it, and you know it, but look at ‘our people’, ‘our people’ love this. We, and especially you, know better of course. And personally, I find many of your memes to be quite humorous.
But it goes beyond the semiotics of kitsch and masculinity. The media is not only fawning over Putin, but through carefully orchestrated PR stunts, it provides him with a Wizard of Oz sort of air, deftly micromanaging his subjects across 11 time dozes.
When residents of the small town of Pikalevo, just outside of St Petersburg, raided city hall and blocked a federal highway over dire economic conditions stemming from their shuttered aluminum plants in May 2009, they directly appealed to Putin to intervene and resolve the crisis (although Medvedev was technically president at the time.)
After a nationally televised defrocking in which the plant owners (including Oleg Deripaska) were likened to “cockroaches”, Putin also accused the town’s residents of being paid to stage a “provocation.”
None the less, Deripaska was ordered to foot the bill in order to kickstart the town’s faltering economy. He was also required to shell out over 41 million rubles ($1.3 million) in wage arrears to the city’s residents. And just like that, Putin had saved the day.
Of course, in a country with upwards of 400 monotowns (cities whose economies are basically dependent on a single industry or company), Putin had to act, especially in the heart of a financial crisis. In many ways, Pikalevo was a symbol for the great beyond; what those outside of Moscow call the ‘Real Russia.’
This perennial appeal to the heartland is all about stability. Just look at Putin’s annual marathon Q&A sessions, which start heavy and devolve into a daytime television platform for him to doll out goodies to fawning provincial journalists.
“The residents of Kuzbass would like help with our struggling coal industry, can you help us Vladimir Vladimirovich?”
To which Putin replies: “Something something buzzword (infrastructure) done!”
“Why thank you Vladimir Vladimirovich, please, take a stuffed Yetti!”
‘Well Vladimir Vladimirovich, that Yeti girl was very clever! If you give our newspapers more money even as you cut back state media budgets, I will give you a teddybear.”
“We have no more money for media” Putin replies, “but something vague, ‘additional support measures’, and done!”
“By the way, are you in love?”
Anyways, you get the point. Putin is something like a cross between a father and a genie who can grant all wishes to those who merely ask in good faith and with sufficient love for the motherland.
Sometimes he provides the bullets for his own messengers when his own policies force officials to cut back on services they can’t pay for, just like when he accused his ministers of going mad for cutting regional rail services in these austere times.
Now the idea that Putin can do everything might be derided in liberal circles, and many are well aware that in a power vertical, it seems odd that the buck stops anywhere but the top. But for many Russians, the president is the only unassailable feature of their country, at least in their kitchens.
But that isn’t the story anymore. ‘Russia without Putin’ was a battlecry against this illogicality, the belief that a system based on the power of one man, and not institutions, could somehow also tell its people that everything going wrong in the country was the fault of everyone but this one man. But the real depression, the real fear in those silent spaces when Putin death jokes turn to more frightful alternatives, is that while Putin might be a slightly murderous Ovcharka who feeds himself first and turns on his sheep when he has to, there are no shepherds waiting in the wings to replace him. Rather, there are wolves.
A recent run down in The Interpreter outlines Russian blogosphere buzz regarding how more hardline elements could take over after Putin, and, if much of the speculation is correct, they already are.
The Interpreter cites LiveJournal blogger v_n_zb, who said that a “quiet political coup” was currently under way n Russia, much like with the resignation of Boris Yeltsin which ushered Putin in in the first place.
“So it’s quite possible we are seeing the last days of the setting of the political star of V.V. Putin. Behind-the-scenes players may leave him in his seat, placing around him ‘their’ people (in that case, Medvedev’s government will be dismissed and Putin’s heads of intelligence services will be fired) and he can be sent into honorable retirement to babysit the newly-born Kabayeva child. This may be helped along (as an extreme variant) with death ‘from a cold,’” v_n_zb wrote.
Without delving into all of the palace intrigue which is part and parcel of a system so shrouded in secrecy that political writing becomes an exercise in reading tea leaves, I’ll mention one theory from v_n_zb, who says that if rumors of the death of Viktor Zolotov (essentially Putin’s chief bodyguard) are true, that could mean that Putin has already “been crushed.”
“Now it is not so important whether Putin lives or not – the real power has passed into the hands of an increasingly hard and brutal group.”
I am not endorsing this interpretation of events, nor am I in any position to verify them. No one is, at least, no one who would ever talk. But even if they are paranoid fantasy which will be dismissed when Putin is seen topless on a bear trotting down Red Square, what’s more important is the message this alternative reality presents. Just as on the streets of any Russian town, where nationalists and outright fascists far outnumber liberals, siloviki (“politicians” who first cut their teeth in the security services or military) have all but sidelined the liberals. To be fair, that was a process that got underway as soon as Putin ascended the presidency, but liberals to some extent always had his ear, (former Finance minister Alexei Kudrin being the most prominent example.)
The narrative since the Crimea crisis began is that Putin has increasingly isolated himself from more moderate elements of his government, allowing hawks to rule the roost. And in a country so marred in political violence, and fresh off of the brazen murder of former deputy PM Boris Nemtsov not more than 50 yards away from the Kremlin, the public is primed with the type of paranoid fear where even the briefest absence of Putin sets the mind in a talespin of catastrophizing.
It is also his fault. In weakening every single institution except the security services, in failing to diversify the economy and leaving 50 percent of the budget precariously dependent on oil and gas prices (neither of which are tied to a currency the government has any control over), in stifling every attempt at the development of organic civil society, in the destruction of real opposition through marginalization, co-option, and the creation of Potemkin political parties, through the harassment and imprisonment of opposition leaders (who are day by day more aptly described as dissidents), and the creation of a climate where others can possibly be murdered for being viewed as “national traitors”, there is no one left to take over when Putin goes.
One only need to look at this recent article in the Guardian naming non-systemic opposition figures who could possibly challenge Putin for the throne to realize how absolutely dire the situation is.
To paraphrase Jim Kovpak, for years Russia has been one slip in the shower away from falling apart. That was funny, until it wasn’t. I for one am hoping that when Putin does reappear, likely from “holidays with Alina and the baby”, as one special correspondent from state media put it to me, he’ll seriously invest in some bath tub mats, among other things.