Russia’s embattledruler meets his public.
BY JULIA IOFFE | DECEMBER 16, 2011
MOSCOW – Russians had not really seen Vladimir Putin sincehis ruling United Russia party was walloped, at least by Russian standards, inthe Dec. 4 parliamentary elections. Since then, Moscow, and the rest of thecountry, had been rocked by anti-government — and anti-Putin — protests. Tens of thousands of previouslypolitically inactive people pinned white ribbons to their coats and came out across Russia to contest theelections, expressing theirdispleasure at being treated like idiots by the Kremlin for the past decade. Upuntil Thursday, the Kremlin’sreactionto this outpouring implied either panic, denial, or both. Putin remained well out of sight. He spoke throughhis spokesman in vague, contradictory statements, and, once, in a meeting of his People’s Front, blamed the protests on U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton,claiming she had sent Russians a certain “signal.”
This self-imposed almost-silence ended today, in afour-and-half-hour telethon that marked Putin’s first real public appearancesince his glitsy thermidorian system started to unravel at the edges, and in itPutin made sure to address the outrage that drew more crowds to the streets thanRussia has seen since 1993. Soothing words were not what he offered. “To beperfectly honest,” he said,”when I saw something on some people’s chests, I’ll be honest — it’s not quiteappropriate — but in any case, I thought that this was part of an anti-AIDScampaign, that these were, pardon me, condoms.”
Yes, that’s right: in case Russians hadn’t been offended byyears of brazen maneuvers and bland television tailor-made for the lobotomized;in case they hadn’t been insulted by the glib switcheroo of Sept.24, whenPutin and his handpicked successor as president, Dmitri Medvedev, announced theywould simply swap positions; in case the crudely falsified elections and thebaton-happy police hadn’t angered enough people; Putin compared their symbol ofpeaceful protest, those white ribbons neatly pinned on lapels, to an unwrappedand doubled-up condom. On live TV.
The Russian Internet, not surprisingly, was quick to fireback. First to circulate was a diaphanous condom in the shape of a foldedribbon; then came Putin standing stuffily in front of a Kremlin nightscape, anunraveled condom photoshopped onto his coat. (“Happy holidays, friends!” thepostcard said.) Another web parody offered a prediction: a deficit of condomsin the city on the eve of Dec. 24, the day of the next scheduled protest.Sergei Parkhomenko, a journalist and one of the organizers of the upcoming demonstration,even proposed a new slogan for the rally: “You’re the gondon.” In Russian, gondonis slang for condom — or asshole.
Putin hardly stopped with his condom remark. Over nearlyfive hours in a TV studio taking questions from his public as part of an annualritual, he often returned to his favorite theme: Western conspiracies to weakenRussia, to “push it to theside,” or, as he characterized thewave of protests now unfolding around him, “a well-tuned scheme to destabilize societies” that “doesn’t comeout of nowhere” — like Ukraine’s Orange Revolution. As for the protesters,Russia’s once and would-be future president pointed out that “there are, ofcourse, people who have the passport of a citizen of the Russian Federation,but act in the interests of a foreign government using foreign money. We haveto try to find common ground with them, too, even though it’s often pointlessor impossible.” And then there were the mere mercenaries in those peacefulprotesting crowds. Putin said he knew that there were college students whoreceived money to come to Saturday’s 50,000-person protest — “fine, let them earn a little money” –even though the only college students reported to have received money werethose populating the pro-Kremlin rallies of the last weeks. (I met one suchyoung man, 23-year-old Mikhail, a member of the pro-Kremlin Nashi group whocame with his opposition-minded friends to the anti-Kremlin protest onBolotnaya Square. He told me had been paid to show up and talk people out oftheir anti-Putin sentiments. His logic explained Putin’s, to some extent. “Iget paid for my time,” Mikhail told me, when I asked why he thought his friendswere lying when they said they didn’t get money from the U.S. State Department.”Why shouldn’t they?”)
Leaving aside the constant repetition of this trope, as wellas that of the evil West (which “underestimates our nuclear rocket potential”),and evil America (which killed Qaddafi), and evil John McCain (who “has bloodon his hands”), the one topic — the “red thread,” according to the host — thatPutin had to keep coming back to was Saturday’s protests across Russia. Hetried, as best as he could, to leave aside the issue after offering blandblanket statements about citizens’ rights to express their views, as well asbackhanded comments about the opposition, which, according to Putin, “willalways say that elections were unfair. Always. It’s a question of politicalculture.”
But it kept coming back. For a while he tried to spin the protests.”There were different kinds of people there, and I was happy to see fresh,healthy, intelligent, energetic faces of people who were actively stating theirposition,” he said. “If this is the result of the Putin regime, then I’m happy.I’m happy that these kinds of people are appearing.” He said this twice,echoing the loyalist television celebrity Tina Kandelaki’s statement thatthose who came out across the country were “Putin’s generation,” a crowd ofmiddle-class democrats made possible by his policies. (A fine theory, if onedisregards the frequency with which “Putin, resign!” rolled loudly through thecrowds.)
Eventually, Putin did his best to try to dodge the issue.”For God’s sake, if it’s so interesting to you, then I’ll discuss it,” he saidafter the host gently steered him back to it. If it wasn’t the host, it was thequestioners themselves, who seemed less scripted than in previous years. And,if they weren’t asking about the protests and the falsified elections, theywere asking about the deafness and corruption of their local authorities. Putinoffered some promises of reform: Direct election of governors — eliminated in2004 — but only, as he put it, through “a presidential filter” (i.e., onlythose candidates vetted by the president — him — will be allowed to stand forelection.) No new parliamentary elections — which, of course, would belogistically impossible — but webcams installed at polling stations at the nextone.
Clearly, this was an uncomfortable new position for Putin.The live question-and-answer session, a marathon of good-tsarpopulism, is a longstanding tradition and is Putin’s favorite format. Forten years, he has swanned through rehearsed, tee-ball questions from hisadoring populace, using the occasion to graciously solve a crisis for anelderly veteran or punish an errant regional authority. He was used to being charming,confident, wry. He was Putin. This year, he approached this sublime state onlywhen tossing figures and percentages around like confetti — one Russianjournalist called him a “random number generator.” For the most part, he wasless than fluent. He stumbled. He interrupted people with jittery, flat jokes.His spin sounded less like spin, and more like the excuses of a truant caughtred-handed. He was, in short, nervous.
And yet, there was little Putin could do with hisnervousness aside from channel it into insults (see: condoms) and paranoia(see: foreign funds). This is a telling response, and representative of thestate’s reaction to the post-election furor: some dubious concessions — like removing the infamous Dumaspeaker Boris Gryzlov and promotingKremlin ideologue-in-chief Vladislav Surkov out of his position — but, onthe whole, retrenchment and reliance on classic Kremlin tactics. On Tuesday,for instance, we saw the owner of the Kommersantpublishing house (which publishes the most important Russian daily) fire one ofhis top executives and the editor of the political magazine Vlast over a photograph of a ballot onwhich someone had written, in red ink, “Putin, go fuck yourself!” Two other topeditors resigned in protest.
The unmistakable feeling, watching all this, is that eitherthe Kremlin knows nothing else, can think of nothing else, or is too panickedto find its thinking cap and slap it on. Asked if it was true that emergencymeetings were convened in the Kremlin after the initial wave of protests, Putinsaid, dubiously, “I was not invited to these meetings, I don’t know. I’ll sayhonestly that I didn’t notice any panic.” He was, he added, busy. “I was atthat time, speaking frankly, learning to play hockey,” he said, referring tohimself as “a cow on ice.” “I wasn’t really paying attention to what’s going onthere. And I haven’t been there [in the Kremlin] for a while, franklyspeaking.”
Outside the Kremlin, however, Putin’s insult-filled telethonhad the unintended effect of galvanizing an opposition that had been showingsigns of fracturing. During the Putin marathon on TV, RSVPs for the December 24rally spiked on the Facebook page dedicated to it. Users barraged it withcomments about how Putin’s snide and anxious performance had pushed them overthe edge.
And it’s true that Putin had nothing but contempt for them. “Cometo me, Bandar-logs,” Russia’s ruler toldhis perhaps befuddled viewers at one point in his bizarre show. Putin wascomparing the newly energized opposition to the foolish, anarchic monkeys in”The Jungle Book.” The ones who chant“We are great. We are free. We are wonderful.” (“I’ve loved Kipling sincechildhood,” crooned Putin.) Facebook did not take kindly to this. “What sayyou, Bandar-logs,” one journalist quipped.”Shall we go prowling?”