Archive for October, 2011

At the Bolshoi Gala

Monday, October 31st, 2011

On Friday night, anyone who was anyone was in only one place in Moscow: at the grand reopening of the Bolshoi Theatre, closed in 2005 for a renovation that cost nearly three quarters of a billion dollars. President Dmitry Medvedev and his wife were there; the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church was there; former Bolshoi divas and primas were there; students of the ballet academy, waifish and tired, were there; so was pretty much every cabinet minister, including the recently fired finance minister, Alexei Kudrin. Someone even reported spotting Raisa Gorbachev, who has been dead for twelve years. The one notable absentee was Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who, in a fine counterpoint to the orgy of high culture across town, spent the evening explaining how bureaucrats fond of taking bribes should be “punched in the face.”

For those who scored an elaborately designed invitation to the inaugural gala performance, there was a red carpet and a brass band and tuxes and mandatory floor-length gowns. For crowds of the less privileged, there was the cold, jumbotrons, and the refurbished theatre’s brilliantly lit, iconic façade. The latter would become a trope in a two-hour variety show, a greatest-hits parade of the Bolshoi’s past productions. During the scene changes, a screen would glow with elaborate graphics—some 3-D, some more like an etch-a-sketch—showing how the theatre has changed during six years of renovation, with thousands of workers and engineers rebuilding its crumbling foundation, fixing the massive cracks running up the walls, enlarging the orchestra pit, removing the cement the Soviets had poured under it, creating a cutting-edge hydraulics system to switch up the stage, reupholstering the seats (now bigger than before) with lush Italian fabrics, and restoring the touches, lopped off in Soviet years, that gave the grand hall its grand acoustics. Artisans applied eleven pounds of gold leaf to the newly ornate interior, using a mixture of whale grease, rotten egg whites, and clay, then vodka, then brushes of squirrel tail.

And, despite the predictable delays (the theatre was to reopen in 2008), cost overruns, and allegations of graft; despite the naysayers (Bolshoi principal Nikolai Tsiskaridze denounced the renovations as “plastic” and resembling “a hotel in Turkey”); despite finishing touches that included a bit or two of duct tape, everything looked as deeply and imperially posh as it was supposed to. All hammers and all sickles had been removed. The bicephalous eagle, which appears on the arms of both the Russian Empire and Federation, easily skipping over those awkward seventy years of Communist rule, had come to roost on curtains and mouldings, in gold. Clearly, no cost had been spared—Kudrin, the former finance minister, told a reporter that it was money well spent—and it looked really, really good. As for the naysayers, Tsiskaridze was simply not invited.

“Our country is very big, of course,” Medvedev said when he opened the show. “At the same time, the number of symbols that unite everybody, those national treasures, the so-called national brands, are limited. Bolshoi is one of our greatest national brands.” That word—“brand”—came up a few more times in his speech, and it struck a tinny, mercenary cord in such a lofty venue: Was this all a marketing campaign?

Part of the confusion is that Russians think of something else when they hear the word “brand”: to them it means “symbol,” where to a Western ear it is tied to an object for sale. In passing through the Russian cultural prism, the Anglicism—pronounced “brehnd”—has come to mean simply something that makes us look good, something that we’re good at. Nesting dolls are a brand, Russian literature is a brand, the Bolshoi is a brand. And in an era where post-Cold War inferiority complexes are still circling under the surface of modern Russian life, brands—things that we’re good at besides all the bad things you know us for—are important in helping Russians square their shoulders at home and hike up their chins abroad, while playing with the international majors. The symbols are also key when there is little left to unite the country other than the shared sacrifice of the Second World War and a growing tide of nationalism.

I caught Vitaly Mutko, Russia’s sports minister, leaving the theatre after the performance—resplendent in a tux, his hair festively shellacked. Mutko oversees another empire of Russian symbolism: shaped by the vaguely fascistic aims of the Stalin era and the intensely political competition of Cold War Olympics, Russian sports remains a key touchstone of Russian identity. National pride is still measured in gold medals; when the Russian national team flopped badly in Vancouver in 2010, it was a painful blow to the country’s psyche. (Part of the reason, it turned out, was that, on Mutko’s watch, millions were plundered from the sports budget and athletes were largely left to fend for themselves.) Aside from that, though, Mutko has also been one of the key figures in an effort to make Russia an athletic powerhouse again (though Vladimir Putin is the inspiration behind the operation). The results include winning bids to host the Winter Olympics, in 2014, and the World Cup, in 2018.

Mutko, in other words, knows a thing or two about Russia’s national brands. I asked him about the Bolshoi. “It is one of the symbols of Russia,” he said. “And now we’ve opened it after a long break, and now any person, not just a Russian but any person who visits Moscow, will seek this place out. It’s pride, it’s culture, it’s the country. It’s one of the symbols of the country.”

And so, when the gala commenced after Medvedev’s speech, the hit parade included the other great brands of Russia: Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Glinka, Shostakovich, and, of course, “Swan Lake.” There was even a little piece, “Dance of the Ushers,” by one of the more recently exported Bolshoi brands, dancer and choreographer Alexei Ratmansky. (Joan Acocella wrote a Profile of him for The New Yorker.) Ratmansky’s brand had to be exported, however, because he spun it in a more radical direction than the Bolshoi was willing to go. And that is the question for the Bolshoi now: Will it simply stick to the repertory staples, or will it push the brand forward to something more modern and forward looking? Will the symbol, in other words, grow and evolve and breathe in a place as gilded and damasked as the new Bolshoi?

At the Bolshoi Gala: [TNY]

Taking Out Tymoshenko

Wednesday, October 12th, 2011

When the former Ukrainian prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko was found guilty of abusing her power in negotiating a gas deal with Russia in 2009 and sentenced to seven years in jail in a Kiev courtroom on Tuesday, things got kind of crazy. One of her supporters tried to shout down the judge. Outside, people threw plastic chairs. The feminists took their shirts off. Europeans expressed their dismay at what they saw as a politically motivated trial and threatened to scuttle Ukraine’s pending free-trade agreement with Europe. Russian observers began to compare Tymoshenko to Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the jailed oil tycoon and opposition cause célèbre, and Tymoshenko herself compared her ordeal to the 1937 purges.

What’s going on? Rather simple, really. Tymoshenko lost the presidential election in 2010 to Victor Yanukovich, the current president and, according to most observers, the one who is tossing Tymoshenko into jail. That makes the most sense, given that, after the elections, Tymoshenko remained powerful and popular, which is not hard to do given the President’s doltish, apparatchik’s demeanor. Being in the opposition and fighting her way back to power is, according to her former advisers, her most natural, strongest state. When she was prime minister, on and off after the Orange Revolution of 2004-2005, she became a controversial, polarizing figure. In the opposition, she becomes a magnetic force, a figure for whom people will throw chairs and camp out in the center of Kiev, someone they’ll stand up and strip for. It’s too dangerous to have someone like this roving around, so she was taken out.

In Byzantium, which is where ancient Kiev and, later, Moscow got their religion and founding mythologies, this was known as political mutilation. Since an emperor was supposed to be the earthly manifestation of God, and God is perfection, so, too, an emperor must be perfect. Thus, when an emperor was overthrown—as became increasingly common in Byzantium—he was then physically mangled: castrated, blinded, or had his nose sliced off. This prevented him from being taken seriously as a man, leading troops into battle, or being the incarnation of the divine, respectively. It was in other words, insurance against having to face the same rival again.

In contemporary Kiev, we see a similar dynamic. Yanukovich and Tymoshenko first met as rivals in 2004, when Yanukovich won a fraudulent election against Tymoshenko’s mentor, Victor Yuschenko. Yuschenko and Tymoshenko brought Kiev out into the streets, into the Maidan—or Independence—Square, where tens of thousands camped out and rallied for weeks until the election was overturned and Yuschenko was swept into power, with Tymoshenko as his prime minister. On the Maidan, Tymoshenko was transformed from a brunette, Russian-speaking gas-industry power player into her current guise of blond, braided, Ukranian-speaking Joan of Arc. She became a hero with her own base of support, which allowed her to eventually cannibalize Yuschenko. Then, in 2010, with Yuschenko out of the way, she took on Yanukovich in the presidential elections, and came very close to beating him. When she didn’t, she went back into the opposition, where she became an even stronger, better politician than she was when she was trying to govern. She again became the heroine at the gates of the stodgy, ineffective, and corrupt establishment. The fact that she has been accused of being one of the most corrupt players in that establishment—she’s been arrested twice before—quickly fell into the recesses of the public consciousness.

A third battle was unthinkable, and Tymoshenko simply had to be neutralized. And since one couldn’t feasibly blind her or cut off her nose (not that that would produce any real effect), she was charged with overstepping her duties as prime minister when she negotiated a gas deal with Russia, in 2009, that ended the two countries’ crippling gas wars. It is a strange charge that has puzzled international legal experts—and her negotiating partner, Vladimir Putin. “To be honest, I can’t quite understand why she got those seven years,” he said to reporters while on a trip to Beijing.

It’s funny to hear Putin say that, because he has been a master at neutralizing powerful enemies, including Boris Berezovsky, the man who made him king, or Khodorkovsky, who dared to impede his consolidation of power and, allegedly, wealth. But Khodorkovsky never went away. Prison was his makeover, from detested robber baron to beloved martyr. And Tymoshenko, it seems, is following the same route because in taking her down, Yanukovich played right to her strengths. “She likes to live in crisis,” Taras Berezovets, Tymoshenko’s campaign adviser, told me when we met in Kiev during the 2010 campaign. “It gives her more energy, and she makes mistakes in calm situations. In crisis, she is like a string. She makes fewer mistakes.” Another strength? “She is a P.R. maven in her soul,” according to Berezovets. Instead of mutilating her and removing her from the game—the conviction was supposed to keep her out of the next round of parliamentary elections—the trial has been her comeback tour, elevating her to international prominence once again, as Ukraine’s martyr. She has become not an embodiment of the divine, but of Ukraine’s victimization at the hands of the Russians: there’s a thread of commentary that sees in Yanukovich’s actions the “Putinization”—that is, Russianization, colonization—of Ukraine.

Moreover, Yanukovich doesn’t seem to have Putin’s solid-steel spine. He has already started backtracking, saying, “This is not a final decision…. Ahead lies the appeals court, and it will without a doubt make a decision within the bounds of the law, but the decision will have great significance.” When that decision comes, given the international pressure, it will no doubt leave Tymoshenko not just unharmed but strengthened, and within striking distance at Yanukovich—for a third time.

Taking Out Tymoshenko [TNY]

Meet the New Putin, Same as the Old Putin

Friday, October 7th, 2011

MOSCOW — Speaking at the Russia Calling! investor conference, hosted by state-owned VTB Capital, on Thursday, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin tried to reassure both Russian and foreign investors that, despite Russia’s recent political uncertainty, despite the tanking Russian stock indexes, despite the sliding ruble, despite more money than usual fleeing Russia, despite the bad to worse news coming out of Europe, despite all this, everything in Russia is going to be OK. The future is clear and under control.

“I’d like to speak about our priorities, about Russia’s strategic plans, so that investors and business can understand the logic and motives of our behavior, especially now, in these uncertain times,” Putin said. “And, of course, it is exactly in such times that the trust of our partners is so important. And you — we understand this — need predictability and openness.” His speech was flecked with the vocabulary of reassurance. Soothing phrases like “we understand,” “we see,” “we know” broadcast the image of a captain at the wheel, steering the ship of state past all that ice in the water because, don’t worry, he sees it.

Putin had already tried to smooth these choppy waters two weeks ago at the conference of United Russia, his ruling party, by announcing his return to the presidency, potentially for 12 years. The point was to erase the uncertainty that had the bureaucracy playing musical chairs all summer and return some stability to the system. But that quickly backfired. “Brezhnev” and “stagnation” quickly became the words of the day, and not two days later, Alexei Kudrin — finance minister and darling of the West, whose conservative budgetary policy had saved Russia from calamity in 2008 — was fired by a jumpy Dmitry Medvedev. The plan to stabilize things had, in other words, opened up a whole new can of entropy. Or, as one prominent Western investor in Russia described the whole thing in the couloirs of yesterday’s conference, “Yeah, it was a fuckup.”

Thursday’s performance was a take two of sorts. Putin seemed to be speaking not only to the class of people who squeegee money around the world, but to a broader audience of those who wonder what’s in store for Russia with another decade of Putin on the horizon. Putin’s answer today was, in so many words, that Putin’s back, and he’s the same Putin he’s always been.

“Changes are, without a doubt, necessary, and they will happen,” Putin intoned from the podium, “but it will be an evolutionary path. We don’t need great shocks, we need a great Russia!” Responding to a question about the growing number of Russians wishing to emigrate, Putin said:

Both I and the acting president Dmitry Anatolievich Medvedev have sent a clear and precise signal to the country: We are not going to destroy, mangle, or demolish anything. We’re going to develop our political system, but we want to strengthen its fundamental foundations. We have lots of political bustlers — faster, higher, stronger, use your saber to chop this, hack that. But we’ve already gone through this. We’ve seen this several times in our history: We’ll destroy everything, and then? And then what?

“We’ll build a new world, whoever was nobody will become somebody.” We all know these words [from the Internationale] from our childhoods. And what came of it? What came of it is that, in the 1990s, everything collapsed. So all of this “hack,” “chop,” “run without turning back” — we have to put an end to all this. We have to calculate, carefully pinpoint the destination point of our progress, and confidently move in that direction. That is how we should act, and I’m certain that that’s when your mood will change, too. It’s not an easy task, but we can do it. We can do it!

Here, certainly, is the language of a Russia traumatized by a revolution whose pain is still all too fresh. But it is also the language of Putin the standpatter, and invokes his favorite straw man: the 1990s. There are many people in Russia — people now in their thirties, for example, or the educated, urban elite — who remember the 1990s as a golden age of liberation. Not so for those who fell into penury, or for Putin. Reared in one of the most conservative organs of the Soviet state, the KGB, Putin saw the change of the 1990s as a destructive, negative force. (Which, of course, it was, too.) His spin-doctors use this narrative to legitimize the stability of Putin’s own era: the peaceful golden years after the storm.

This story gives the people a reason not just to trust one strong leader, but also to trust in incremental, shuffling, even glacial change. Yesterday, addressing the need to decrease the role of government in the economy, Putin said, “We will gradually — I want to emphasize this, gradually — start to extricate ourselves from the capital of state corporations.” Putin doesn’t like responding immediately to public pressure. Putin doesn’t like firing people. When Medvedev fired two of his loyal generals — Kudrin last month and Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov, in 2010 — Putin was publicly silent. But those close to him spoke of a rankling discontent with this very public act of firing a standard bearer for a rash remark. For the sake of unity and loyalty — two more Putin obsessions — Putin had to abide by his president’s actions. Had it been Putin’s choice, however, he would have promoted them out of their post (as he just did, in fact, with Medvedev).

This is why Putin addressed the issue of Kudrin’s firing as he did. During his prepared remarks, he only obliquely referred to the recently departed finance minister. He spoke of Russia’s growing currency reserves and increasing rainy day funds, which Kudrin insisted on during the good times of the last decade. The policy incurred the wrath of United Russia, which wanted to spend more on bread and circuses, but it was these cushions that saved Russia when the world economy tanked in 2008 and dragged Russia down with it. Kudrin’s firing at such a volatile time unnerved investors: Would Russia now spend its money willy-nilly, making the Russian economy even more vulnerable to swings on the world commodities markets? Once again, Putin reassured investors. “Our priorities — and I especially want to emphasize this — have been and will continue to be budgetary discipline and increasing the effectiveness of spending, as well as limiting the growth of government debt,” Putin said. Don’t worry, investors: Kudrin may be gone, but Kudrinism stays.

But when he was asked by a Scandinavian investor about Kudrin’s firing, Putin said something a bit different. After pointing out that Kudrin is one of the foremost financial specialists in the world, Putin began by saying, “Personally, he is my very good friend, with whom I have maintained very tight, close relations over the course of many years, beginning in the 1990s.” Loyalty, 1990s.

Then Putin let it out: “It’s well-known that the decision was made by the president. It was made because Alexei Leonidovich made a series of incorrect statements about the fact that his position does not coincide with that of the president. What else can I say?” After distancing himself from Medvedev’s decision, Putin turned the knife. “I want to tell you — this is my opinion, and the opinion of President Medvedev — despite this emotional malfunction, Alexei Leonidovich remains a member of our team, and we will continue to work with him. I hope that he will work with us. He is a useful and needed person.” More useful, that is, than the walking “emotional malfunction” that is Medvedev.

As if Putin hadn’t humiliated and negated Medvedev enough over the last two weeks, here was one more opportunity to show that the president was president only because of a technicality. As Kommersant pointed out, just the title of “the acting president” — which was how Putin insisted on referring to Medvedev throughout his forum appearance — was a slap in the face: “Actually, one speaks about a person like this only after the election,” Kommersant said. The title puts a sand timer on the title bearer’s head, as well as on all his “emotional” decisions. This is what Putin intended to do on Sept. 24, but Medvedev foiled it by asserting his — now purely technical — authority.

Yesterday, Putin put an end to all such attempts. Make no mistake, investors: He is the president de facto. No more emotional malfunctions. To underscore that, he picked up the themes that had been seen as Medvedev’s pet projects: fighting corruption, promoting nanotechnology and innovation generally, and diversifying the economy away from dependence on natural resources. The purpose was twofold: to show that the Kremlin would not abandon those (very necessary) initiatives, and to show that, all along, they had been Putin’s. Change would continue the way it had always been happening, slowly to the point of it being indistinguishable from inaction, and festooned as always by pretty rhetoric.

At the end of the performance by the de facto president, Andrei Kostin, the head of VTB, his host at the conference and, apparently, his very exuberant fan, thanked him. “Vladimir Vladimirovich! You have a very momentous period ahead of you, and I’d like to wish you not just success, but the most conclusive success!” Kostin said, red and beaming. “Investors vote not just with ballots, they vote with investments. I think that, in half a year, there’s enough time to figure things out and invest in the Russian economy.”

So far, they’ve voted by taking $50 billion out of Russia so far this year, beating every prognosis for capital outflow. Perhaps the next six months — roughly the time Medvedev has left as “acting president” — will be different from the other months, when he was just acting.

Meet the New Putin, Same as the Old Putin [FP]

Twilight of a Seat-Warmer

Tuesday, October 4th, 2011

MOSCOW — Late on Thursday night, Sept. 29, after a week of snickers and open mockery, a decision was made: The president — that is, Dmitry Medvedev — would go on television and explain himself. Why had he, an acting president, with another seven months left in his term, gone up to the podium at the United Russia convention five days earlier and said, “It would be the right thing to do for the convention to uphold the candidacy of Vladimir Putin for the presidency.” Medvedev, never a figure of strength and masculinity in a country obsessed by such things, seemed like he had been dragged through the mud and humiliated — especially when Putin took his turn at the podium and announced that the decision had been made years ago. That one phrase seemed to negate Medvedev’s three-and-a-half years in office. Medvedev looked like a broken man: His face was bloated, his eyes ringed with fatigue or misery — despite the near-constant smiles. At times during his speech, it seemed like he might cry.

Seeing a man down — a man long suspected of being a dauphin, a seat-warmer for Putin — public opinion pounced. “Well, at least it’s Putin, and not Putin,” snarked KermlinRussia, the popular parody of Medvedev’s Twitter account, highlighting the now uncontestable fact that Putin and Medvedev were and had always been the same person. (A few days later, Kermlin followed up with this zinger: “This is an unconscionable act toward journalists, who had spent four years training themselves not to call Putin president.”) Citizen Poet, the satirical project of poet Dmitry Bykov and actor Mikhail Efremov, cast Medvedev as a hapless, childish Hamlet and Putin as the ghost of his father. The apparition appears and answers Hamlet/Medvedev’s indecision — “To be, or not to be?” — with a simple, “You won’t be.”

When Medvedev fired Alexei Kudrin, the finance minister known to be extremely close to — and thus protected by — Putin, his rant about presidential authority convinced no one, not even Kudrin, who responded to the president’s request for his resignation that he would consult the prime minister. That is, Vladimir Putin. The blogosphere did not let that one pass, either. A new joke began to make the rounds: “I’ll consult the prime minster,” says Kudrin. “No, I’ll consult the prime minister,” says Medvedev. (In my version, they race each other down the hallway to his office.)

It was not a good week. And so the presidential spinmeisters made the decision to put their man on television, to let him explain himself — an unheard-of proposition in Russian politics.

The broadcast — a roundtable interview with the heads of the three biggest state channels — aired on Friday night. Prime-time shows were rejiggered and swapped out around it. Russian viewers saw their hobbled president, resplendent and sad in a cobalt suit, surrounded by the three graying, skeptical, almost nauseous-looking TV execs in Medvedev’s lush library, just outside Moscow.

The first question came from Konstantin Ernst, director of Channel One, Russia’s most important state channel. “What was the primary motive behind your decision?” asked Ernst, of the Sept. 24 announcement. “Usually, presidents seek reelection. You are a politician, and politicians are ambitious people. What was your ambition in making this decision?”

Medvedev’s response was puzzling: “My biggest ambition is to be useful to my country and my people.” Was the implication that he was not useful to his country as president? Had he not been useful this whole time? He didn’t say.

Then Medvedev said something even worse: Putin and he are of similar outlook, and as they belong to the same party, why not just figure it out between the two of them? It’s not so unusual, Medvedev said, leaning heavily, awkwardly, on the Russian rhetorical tactic known as America-does-it-too-ism: “Can you imagine Barack Obama competing with Hillary Clinton?” Medvedev said. “That would be impossible. They both belong to the Democratic Party, and their decision was based on who could get better results. And this was also how we made our decision.”

It’s a novel analogy, given that it proves exactly the opposite of what Medvedev wanted to prove. As one prominent Russian journalist put it, “Who told you such a stupid thing that you decided to go and repeat it to the whole world?”

If that weren’t unconvincing enough, Medvedev gave another reason: “Prime Minister Putin undoubtedly remains the most popular politician in our country at this point, and his rating is even higher. Somehow, people tend to forget about that.”

That one is tricky. Yes, Putin is technically more popular than Medvedev. There has always been a relatively stable gap in their poll numbers. Pundits both here and in the United States spent the weekend trying to crunch the numbers, trying to explain a dip here, a bump there. But somehow people forgot something else: Ratings, like everything else in the Russian political system, are not truly ratings, but simulacra.

“I have to tell you something,” Oleg Savelev said to me once. Savelev is a sociologist at the Levada Center, one of several polling centers that monitor such data. “Our numbers don’t track public opinion; they track the effectiveness of propaganda.” That is, he went on to explain, if television weren’t centrally formulated and subject to heavy self-censorship, if newspapers had wider circulation, if the Internet had a deeper penetration, the numbers would probably look very different — which is precisely why all those soft controls exist in the first place.

Since the very beginning of the tandem experiment, public opinion has been formed in only one direction: Medvedev is weak and nerdy; Putin is strong, manly, decisive. Medvedev plays with gadgets; Putin rides Harley-Davidsons, shoots tigers. Medvedev deals with forest fires on the phone; Putin is on the ground talking to the people and walking through the smoldering embers. Three girls come out in miniskirts for Medvedev; scores of them strip for Putin. It’s no contest, because Russians aren’t that different from Americans in this respect: The show matters, and people love a winner. And the poll numbers show exactly this. Putin is always more trusted. He is so trusted that, ironically, Russians are even more likely to see Putin, the architect of the power vertical, not Medvedev, as the ostensible liberal, as the guarantor of democratic freedoms.

If invoking the technicality of poll numbers was circular, the rest of Medvedev’s interview was a total wash. Asked why someone who had repeatedly spoken of his desire to run for a second term and then suddenly, inexplicably, changed his mind, Medvedev said: “Everything may change in this life. It’s true we have long had an understanding on how to configure the power, should our people show us trust in 2011 and 2012. It’s true, and we said so at the party convention. But at the same time, life could have made unexpected and paradoxical changes to our plans. What if the preferences of the voters change, for some reason? I must take this into account.”

In other words, it would have only been possible for him to run if voter preference — expressed not at the polls but in hall-of-mirrors polls — had swung suddenly in his favor. Compare this with what he told the Financial Times in June: “I think that any leader who occupies such a post as president simply must want to run.”

Why, Medvedev was asked, should voters even bother going to the polls if everything has already been decided for them? “I consider [such statements to be] absolutely irresponsible, misleading, and even provocative,” he said in a stiffly practiced manner. “What are you talking about? The election campaign has just started. Let’s ask ourselves a simple question: What if our people reject us — both Medvedev and Putin? What will happen to these decisions by the convention? These decisions are merely the party’s recommendation to vote for those people, that’s all.”

Apparently, he’s in agreement with the commentary of the chair of the Central Election Commission, Vladimir Churov, who said last week that the results of the presidential election are unpredictable. I have no comment for either of them.

Does he feel pressure from the Internet, of which he is such an avid fan, asked the head of NTV? “Of course, Internet polls and their results are not legally binding for governments. Nor do they accurately reflect public opinion.”

Are people becoming indifferent? Has television — and this really was a fine question, coming from the heads of state TV stations — degenerated into bread and circuses? Politics on TV, Medvedev said, is “a clear sign of poor living standards. The better our life is, the less attention people will pay to that, because they are more or less happy with their life.” No political interview could really be complete without the invocation of the thoroughly post-Soviet premise that politics are bad and dirty, and that the effective decisions are being made without the mess of politics. You, good citizen, may have no impact on the political process, the thesis goes, but you can buy as many iPhones as you want — thanks to the fact that we’re handling all this for you.

When the interview was over, half an hour later, Medvedev looked like a man who had finally gotten a lot off his chest. Perhaps it had been therapeutic. But was it therapeutic for Russians? I doubt it. No one except the people who talk about the minutiae of Kremlinology even talked about it. Medvedev seemed to be slowly receding from the news and, perhaps worse, from jokes. Talk around town is not about what sort of prime minister he’ll be, but how short a term he’ll serve before he is phased out. Some wonder whether he’ll even be named prime minister at all.

In the meantime, after the political chaos of the last two weeks, things are calm in Moscow again. It’s quiet and boring again; stability is once again upon us. But already, the outlines of the next phase are starting to show. On Oct. 4, Putin, writing in a paper, Izvestia, owned by an old friend, introduced an ambitious new project: the Eurasian Union, a wide zone of economic and political cooperation in the post-Soviet space.

Medvedev still had some work to do, too, though: He fired a couple of prison officials and toured some barracks in Nenets autonomous okrug. Back in Moscow, the Duma was discussing Medvedev’s proposed legislation to deal with pedophiles. His novel suggestion? Voluntary castration.

Twilight of a Seat-Warmer [FP]