Buried in the Russian news cycle last week was a little ditty about a man named Vladimir Putin and an organization called the Federation Fund. Vladimir Putin, we know. We came to know the Federation Fund, as I blogged about this summer, suddenly, last December, when, with almost no one having heard of it before, it staged a giant gala featuring Hollywood A-listers of yore, and Putin’s rendition of Fats Domino’s “Blueberry Hill,” in English.
The Fund was ostensibly raising money for children with cancer, but it turned out that it had only been registered ten days before the event, and, worse, that the money might not have actually made it to those sick children. “I know people are ready to do a lot for their own gain,” the mother of one sick girl wrote in an open letter published in the Russian press. (Sharon Stone had visited the child in the hospital and given her a necklace.) “But really, are they willing to do it with the help of sick children?” The answer, apparently, was a resounding yes. As I wrote in July, just seven months later—and despite a media scandal—the Federation Fund held another fundraiser, in a spectacularly prominent venue with an even splashier lineup: Woody Allen, Francis Ford Coppola, Isabella Rossellini, and “Sex and the City” ’s Mr. Big, to name a few.
The man behind the fund, Vladimir Kiselev, was said to be an old friend of Putin’s from the freewheeling St. Petersburg of the nineteen-nineties. This was something that Kiselev denied—but Putin, through a representative, didn’t. Only a connection of this kind could explain why events as contentious and controversial as the Fund’s fundraisers were allowed to operate in such open extravagance: Putin, it’s well known, is very, very loyal. The man’s loyalty to his friends is often described as that of a patzan, a bro, a dude, a—pardon me—homie. Fans of “Jersey Shore” will recognize his code as “guy code”: loyalty to your guys above all. And Kiselev, it seems, is such a guy.
The latest Federation Fund event has been taking place for three weeks in Kaliningrad, that little Russian island in the middle of Europe. This time, it looked like a Russian version of a DARE convention. It included anti-drug messages, a bike race, a regatta, concerts, and, finally, an appearance by Vladimir Putin.
“If, as a result of these actions, even one person doesn’t get hooked on the needle, or finds the strength within himself to say no to drugs, that’s already a victory,” Putin told the screaming, photo-flashing masses. “This really is a tragedy,” he went on. “But those who found themselves in a tragic situation need to know that those close to them—their families, their government—are not indifferent to their fate.”
The event reflects one of Putin’s main obsessions: “a healthy way of life,” which means no drinking, no drugs, and celebration of sports and exercise. (Putin once showed up on a Russian music channel for the finale of a televised hip-hop battle—a “Battle for Respect”—and extolled these virtues.)
This is, of course, a worthwhile message. Russia has a colossal drug problem—and by drugs, we’re often talking cheap, home-cooked, flesh-eating substances. Given that drugs are said to kill some hundred and twenty thousand people a year according to the official statistics, and given that Russia’s population is already shrinking, the government is not, in fact, indifferent. (At the higher echelons, this means waging a propaganda war on the evils of drugs; lower down, it means ordinary cops moonlighting as narcobarons and cashing in on the flow.)
And so Putin enlisted his buddy, a buddy who had been flagrantly and publicly embarrassing—a particularly emphasized no-no among Putin buddies. It seemed to observers that, having tested Putin’s patronage and his patience, he was now giving something back. Either that, or Putin is simply ignoring the bad press and getting behind his buddy—as he also likes to do—and gracing his project with his presence, and his loyalty. (This, of course, is my interpretation, but when I called Kiselev to get his interpretation, he didn’t pick up the phone.)
The event was all over the official press: in the Russian government newspaper, on the page of the ruling United Russia party, and, most significantly, on the television news. There was footage of Putin thanking an unnamed group of people. “I congratulate them from my heart for being able to organize such events,” he said.
Because this, too, is part of “guy code.” One can be loyal to one’s boys publicly, but, in private, one must make them pay for their mistakes. Thus Putin never fires anyone, he simply promotes them out of the way. And yesterday’s event was nothing if not about “guy code.” Back in the spring, Putin took part in an anti-drug event called “No to drugs! No to anabolics!” There he uttered a phrase that would not only stick but would become the title of the event in Kaliningrad and soon pop up on billboards all over Russia. He said: “Dudes! You don’t need this!”
Vladimir Putin and the Guy Code [TNY]