For a man so allegedly beloved by his people as Vladimir Putin believes himself to be—he cried at his victory rally in March, which he then ascribed to the wind—it was a strange sight to see his black cortege speed through the deserted streets of Moscow on the way to his third Presidential inauguration. No parade wave from the new President; he sat behind the most tinted of windows. Not a soul cheered from the sidewalks as Putin and a phalanx of security sped to the Kremlin; they had all been cleared and the streets and metros cordoned off. The people may have elected him, but this was not an event for the people.
Even the Queen of England, elected by no one, I thought, waves to her subjects.
I sat watching Putin’s frigid Presidential ritual with Sasha and Masha, the two “Persidents” of Ruissia, a farcical country whose borders happen to coincide coincide with Russia’s. They are the authors of the KermlinRussia twitter account, which started as a biting parody of the twitter feed of the now departed Russian President, Dmitry Medvedev. It has become a wildly popular satire of Russia’s bizarre, “Sopranos”-like political system and economy. If Russia had a Stephen Colbert, it would be Sasha and Masha. (I profiled the anonymous duo, and you can catch a glimpse of them in David Remnick’s recent account of Russia twenty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union.)
“Where are the citizens who elected him?” I wondered aloud.
“Were there citizens who elected him?” Sasha said, looking up from his iPhone, where he’d been checking responses to their most recent tweet. “I think the citizens of Moscow would kill him.”
“I can only imagine what they’d write on their posters if they were allowed out,” Masha added.
Even with fraud, Moscow delivered one of the lowest shares of votes for the new-old President: forty-five per cent. His total nationally was sixty-four.
Putin’s cortege swung off the embankment off the Moscow River and up past the ice-cream cones of St. Basil’s Cathedral. We remembered the legend of its construction: a Russian architect had built it for Ivan the Terrible, to mark the capture of the Tatar cities of Kazan and Astrakhan. Ivan loved the unusual construction, and asked the architect, “Think you can build another?” When the architect answered in the affirmative, Ivan blinded him.
“That’s what happened with Putin and Medvedev,” Masha explained, referring to their swapping the roles of President and Prime Minister after Medvedev had served one term as President. “Putin said, ‘Think you can get elected again?’ Medvedev gave the wrong answer.”
By this point, Putin’s limousine was already inside the Kremlin gates. It rolled over the cobblestones past the lush Kremlin gardens, blooming with the fragile blossoms of spring. Putin was mounting the stairs, draped in red carpet.
“Oh, I see the swelling has gone down,” Masha said, alluding to Putin’s alleged—but very obvious—plastic surgery, which had appeared late last year.
Putin was announced, and two guards in full 19th-century regalia pulled open a set of massive doors to let the President-elect into the hall. (“Why don’t they just slam him with the door?” Masha wondered.)
To say that the Andreev Hall, the site where Putin was about to swear his oath to protect the Russian constitution, was gilded would be like calling Times Square “well-lit.”
“My god, it is so tacky!” Sasha moaned. “Why did they decorate it like that?”
“Well, that’s certainly not Italian,” Masha said, referring to the Renaissance Italian artisans who built the Kremlin walls.
The camera panned across the crowd applauding as Putin strode into the hall: the invited political, economic, and artistic élite, some guests from “the people,” all aged, all loyal, all of distinctly Soviet—or Botoxed—aspect: the modern nomenklatura.
“There’s the electorate!” Masha said.
Sasha shook his head.
“They’re so ugly,” he sighed.
The camera caught sight of Lyudmila Putina, Putin’s wife, who disappeared from public view around the time rumors surfaced that Putin had taken up with the young rhythmic gymnast Alina Kabaeva. (Rumors also place Putina in a convent near Pskov.) Putina blinked rapidly and seemed unsteady on her feet. She did not look well. Kabaeva was in the crowd, too, and someone posted a picture of her at the event on Twitter.
“Let’s repost it and write ‘The first lady,’ ” Sasha suggested.
“No, no,” Masha said, knowingly shaking her black bob. “Second lady.”
Up it went.
“Really, though, Medvedev is the first lady,” he said. “He goes to all the social functions, he does the children’s charities.”
On the screen, Medvedev was intoning something about the duties he dutifully, perfectly carried out. He seemed to be giving a wedding toast or a bar-mitzvah speech.
“Oh, the pathos,” Masha rolled her eyes. “Stanislavski is spinning in his grave listening to you, comrade.” The camera panned to Silvio Berlusconi, also in the audience: “Where’s Qaddafi?” they tweeted.
Putin stepped up to the dais, rolling like a tough guy. The camera showed his hand, with wedding ring, on the red leather-bound copy of the constitution. He promised to uphold the freedoms of the Russian people, the country’s security and sovereignty.
“Your sovereignty from the constitution,” Masha said. She added, flatly, “Looks like there’s no wind in the Andreev Hall of the Kremlin.”
“What do you mean?”
“He’s not crying!”
We laughed, they tweeted it, but the mood was quickly souring. The day before, Moscow was convulsed with violence as riot police clashed with opposition protesters. Four hundred people were arrested. Scores were injured. The police snatched some of them from cafés and metro stations. Young men of military age were specifically targeted, and then slapped with draft cards. Today, as we sat in a sunny Moscow café, laughing at the pomp and the circumstance, reports were coming in over Twitter of more people being arrested all over the city. There was supposed to be a flashmob of people wearing white—symbol of the winter’s peaceful anti-Kremlin protests—and the order had come down to arrest people walking the streets with white ribbons. People were snapped off of park benches, as they strolled Moscow’s romantic boulevards. Riot police stormed a café, Jean-Jacques, known as a hub of opposition social life. They grabbed people sipping coffee outside, turned over tables, and shattered dishes. Then they occupied it, and the pub next door. Immediately, a picture juxtaposing today’s image with a photograph of Wermacht enjoying a Parisian café in June 1941 made the rounds online. “This,” one blogger declared, “is war.”
And, increasingly, it’s begun to feel like one. But if satire is perfect for ribbing the stagnant, silly regime of a leader who dives for urns and rides around with Orthodox Christian motorcycle gangs, it can feel a little out of place in a war, and, especially, in a siege.
Putin was walking back out the hall now, passing hundreds of his clapping guests. They were reaching out to shake his hand, to touch him. If he felt any pleasure at their adoration, he didn’t betray it.
Masha quietly scrolled through her phone. Sasha looked out the window.
“It’s so sad,” he said. “All of this.”
Putin’s Inauguration: Satire and Violence [TNY]