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Vladimir Putin and the Guy Code

Sunday, November 6th, 2011

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]

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]

Disaster Politics

Tuesday, September 27th, 2011

MOSCOW — On Saturday afternoon, Vladimir Putin announced that he would finally sync reality with formality and become Russia’s actual president yet again. Once the initial sting wore off — Putin seems on track to rule as long as Stalin — cooler heads began to prevail. This will bring clarity and end the schizophrenia of the tandem contradicting itself, the thinking went. Putin was talking like he understood reform was necessary — and even doubters had to admit that he was the only person with the political capital to accomplish it.

Just two days later, however, the ground shifted yet again. Dmitry Medvedev, coming off a couple of really bad days, very publicly fired the finance minister, Alexei Kudrin: perhaps the one person in the Russian government whom Western investors see as credible, the one who saved Russia when the bottom dropped out in 2008, the one holding the Russian government back by the scruff of the neck from total economic disaster. Kudrin’s abrupt firing stunned everyone and completely destroyed the thesis that Putin’s announcement would calm down Russia and its uneasy economy. Everyone knew there were power struggles going on behind the curtain, but rarely have there been so many elbows and knees jutting through, and, in recent weeks, actual people flying out.

What is going on? In short, no one really knows. But one thing is clear: Putin’s return is not going to usher in a new reign of stability. If anything, the system is as unstable as it’s ever been, and no one can tell when — or into what form — it will settle. And with the country’s most competent economic official heading for the door while Russia stares down the barrel of another massive recession, it’s probably not going to be anything good.

After Putin’s surprise announcement on Saturday, everyone was asking: Why so soon? The substance of the announcement, of course, surprised almost no one. It’s been clear for months that Putin was positioning himself, via motorcycle gangs and half-naked girls, for a comeback. But the timing was shocking. Going into the United Russia party congress, the conventional wisdom was that nothing about the presidency would be announced. It was too soon to hobble Medvedev, too soon to end the intrigue that only reinforces Putin’s position as the country’s arch arbiter. If you recall, last time around this announcement came in December; so why September, a full six months before the presidential elections? One explanation is the impatience of elites, evidenced by a growing unrest in the system that culminated with the implosion of the Right Cause project less than two weeks ago: Mikhail Prokhorov, the Kremlin-curated party’s leader, bucked control and publicly slammed the very secretive curator of Russian politics, its eminence gris: Vladislav Surkov. It was a major, messy fail for the Kremlin, and it deepened the sense that the system has ossified to the point of inoperability.

The other, perhaps more urgent, explanation is the impatience of the market. At least $50 billion have leaked out of Russia this year. That’s just one of many miserable economic indicators that point to big trouble ahead: the ruble at a two-year low, sliding domestic stock indexes, a budget that could barely be balanced even if oil were still at $116 a barrel (today, it’s $107). Siberian oil fields are in decline, it’ll be decades before Arctic drilling comes online, and the center of world oil production is shifting increasingly to the Americas. Then there’s the looming economic crisis in Europe scraping at the door. None of it, frankly, looks very good.

So Putin’s goal on Saturday may have been to step in and put a firm hand on the wheel, to assure everyone that the system was in fact functional at such a sensitive moment. The day before, behind the scenes of the first day of the convention, one of his strategists told a European news channel, “It’s not the time to experiment with big political change in times of such economic uncertainty.” Putin’s return for, potentially, 12 years was supposed to signal an end to talk of such an experiment. The speeches he made at the conference — including the one about government’s duty to give “bitter medicine” — were supposed to reassure foreign investors that he would implement urgent reforms. (Or, as the famous Kremlinologist Olga Kryshtanovskaya told me the other day, “Modernize or die.”)

And for a day or so, this strategy seemed to be working. People spoke of clarity, of stability, of concrete reforms. “Putin is a person of balance; he is constantly balancing the conservative with the liberal,” said Kryshtanovskaya. (Putin is, in fact, a Libra.)

“During [Putin’s] first two terms, there was so much money that the feeling was, why do you need anything like political parties?” Nikolai Petrov, a political analyst at Moscow’s Carnegie Center, told me after Putin’s speech. “Now the situation is more complex and the system has to become more complex to accommodate it, and Putin can do it more effectively. And when the system lines up under him, you get rid of the complexity and decoration that was making it ineffective.”

The Kudrin fracas completely turned this notion on its head. On Sunday morning, Moscow awoke to the news that Kudrin, in Washington at the time, had already started fulminating against the swap, which would make Medvedev his new boss instead of Putin. “I do not see myself in a new government,” Kudrin said to reporters. “The point is not that nobody has offered me the job; I think that the disagreements I have [with Medvedev] will not allow me to join this government.” On Monday, before a meeting of the Kremlin’s Modernization Committee, Medvedev — who had long clashed with Kudrin on budget issues, particularly increased military spending, which Kudrin has been staunchly against for years — awkwardly, angrily read out a nasty pink slip from his iPad screen.

Kudrin’s departure set off a new round of conspiracy-theory-spinning (was he just trying to swipe at Medvedev for taking a job many thought would be his? Was this a long-term strategy to become head of Russia’s central bank?), until Tuesday night when he issued a new and more broadly explanatory statement to the press. He revealed that his kamikaze statement in Washington had been carefully considered. He also admitted that, due to his long-running fiscal conflict with the Kremlin, he had handed in his resignation to Putin back in February. Putin rejected it, telling Kudrin he was needed for the election season.

So, basically, Kudrin left when he felt the election season was over: the day Putin announced his return. “On September 24, the power structure in our country was determined for a long time to come,” Kudrin wrote. “And I determined things for myself, too, after explaining my position.” What was his position? “Over the course of several months, despite my numerous — and public — objections, there were decisions made vis-a-vis the budget that, without a doubt, increased the risk to the budget,” Kudrin wrote. These, he added, would then spread to the rest of the domestic economy.

The whole situation, it turns out, was far simpler than anyone had thought: Kudrin was just fed up and, quite likely, did not want to be held responsible for a policy he couldn’t control, especially on the eve of another economic meltdown. Kremlinology had become its own obfuscation. And now it looks like we’re set to miss the biggest story in many, many years: The rigid system is teetering, and its key components are breaking down. Oil money is running out, the economy is sputtering, social discontent is growing, all of the massive problems that the Kremlin first threw money at and then ignored in favor of pointless political intrigue are coming home to roost. And the charades that the Kremlin used to be so skilled at pulling off in order to release political pressure are now falling flat because very senior-level participants are, essentially, defecting. There have been two such implosions in the last 10 days and, given the fact that they’ve only made the system more untenable for those who remain, there’s no reason that they’ll stop.

Things are eerily simple this time around because things are eerily grim.

As for why Medvedev had to fire Kudrin even though Kudrin has publicly criticized him before, that’s simple, too. Kudrin — probably intentionally — hit Medvedev at his weakest moment, which is why much of Medvedev’s rant was about the fact that “No one has abolished discipline and subordination.”

“Anyone who doubts the course of the president or the government can openly appeal to me with a proposal,” Medvedev went on. “But I will put an end to any irresponsible chatter — up until May 7,” he said, referring to his last day in office.

In the meantime, everything’s still more unstable than ever. Today came the news that the number of Russians living below the poverty line increased by over 10 percent in just the first half of this year. And Kudrin is still out of a job: evicted from his official dacha, a photo of his boxed-up office surfacing on Twitter.

While Kudrin packed his things, Medvedev was in Cheliabinsk, watching a military training exercise. Military spending, he said afterward, would always “be the government’s highest priority…. Whoever doesn’t agree with this can go work somewhere else. That’s an order!” And so Kudrin did, perhaps because he discovered that there’s only so much you can do to save a sinking ship, no matter how many guns it has.

Disaster Politics [FP]

The Return of the King

Saturday, September 24th, 2011

MOSCOW – Back in December 2007, with his second presidential term running out, Vladimir Putin decided not to violate the letter of the Russian constitution. Instead, he chose to step down, become prime minister, and nominate one of his old St. Petersburg buddies, an aide named Dmitry Medvedev, for president. Back then, a good joke started to make the rounds: Russia, 2023. Putin and Medvedev are sitting in one of their kitchens, drinking and shooting the breeze. “Listen,” slurs Putin. “I’ve lost track again. Which one of us is prime minister, and which is president?”

“You’re the president now, I think,” slurs Medvedev.

“Well,” slurs Putin, “then it’s your turn to go and get more beer.”

It was a prophetic joke, and one that turned out to be all too accurate Saturday, when Medvedev announced the latest switch: Putin will return to the presidency in next year’s election and Medvedev will take up the prime minister’s post. And yet the joke was somehow lost on us over the last four years as we (rightly) let other debates get in the way, from the long silly distraction of wondering who was actually in charge (answer: Putin, of course) to the disputes over whether to believe Medvedev’s talk of modernization. Even despite these last few months, when it became clear that Putin would come back, we managed to be surprised all over again when it actually happened.

“It was the most obvious and therefore the least probable move of the ones I could have predicted,” said Andrei Kolesnikov, the Kommersant journalist who, in his intimate chronicles of Putin, has become the man’s hagiographer. We were standing in the press section of the grandstands at the convention for the United Russia ruling party, looking down on the swarm of thousands of delegates filing their paper ballots in unanimous support of Putin’s party platform.

“We all waited for this moment for a long time, and still this is a surprise precisely because it’s so obvious,” he said. “It’d be nice to have some actual surprises because the situation is just so stable” — Putin’s watchword — “that when they made the announcement, I got really sleepy. Really. Because this is for keeps.”

While Kolesnikov drifted off, the Twittering masses of Russia were either euphoric or in despair, depending on their political leanings. The despairing liberals, a dwindling crowd after two decades of dashed post-Soviet hopes, were utterly winded and deflated. Why does God hate Russia, one asked. And then everyone started doing the math: How old would we be when Putin finally leaves office in 2024 (a date that supposes he serves two more consecutive terms, which were extended to six years back in 2008)? Russia’s digital airwaves quickly filled with a younger generation bemoaning their lost youth: Many of them will be pushing 40 by then, and they’ve already spent their last 12 years under his watch.

“When Putin finishes his second six-year term, I’ll already be 58,” one older blogger wrote. “Almost my entire life will have been spent with him.” He punctuated this with a frown.

But Kolesnikov, at least, was still seeing a glimmer of opportunity in this latest Kremlin machination. “I hope we’ll see a new Putin, this is my only hope,” he told me, “because the earlier iterations have exhausted themselves.”

In 2000, he and two other journalists (one of whom later became Medvedev’s press secretary) authored a book called In the First Person, an as-told-to account from Putin of his life. At the time, Putin was a little-known former KGB agent newly installed in the presidency by an ailing Boris Yeltsin; though obscure, Putin from the start talked of his plans to restore Russian pride after a post-superpower decade of economic collapse and political intrigue. Periodically, Kolesnikov said, he goes back and reads certain sections and is amazed to see how prophetic it all was, how much of what Putin promised back then he’s since delivered. “Even the idea of monarchy,” Kolesnikov noted. “He said that, it may sound weird, but the idea of monarchy is appealing to me because a monarch doesn’t have to worry about elections and can focus on the well-being of his subjects, so it’s not such a bad idea.” And even this idea, Kolesnikov noted, “is being realized.”

No doubt the fact that Russia is staring down another looming economic crisis makes this return — to the presidency or monarchy or whatever we call it — rather problematic. The ruble dropped precipitously this week, and Putin and his finance minister have been squabbling in public in recent days over whether the state can deliver on its mounting social obligations without increasing taxes, or fomenting social unrest. Then again, given Putin’s predilection for talking tough but not necessarily doing much, not to mention the fact that many of Russia’s current problems — corruption, cronyism, Byzantine politics — were cemented into place during his reign, it seems the course he’s choosing is to plow ahead and change as little as possible. Which, if you think about it, is a rather bold move, too.

“Putin is a very talented politician,” said Aleksei Chesnakov, a United Russia official who was one of Putin’s key strategists during his first two terms. “He never repeats himself and yet always remains himself. A politician’s style is set early and forever, and his style, his manner of making decisions are well-known, and they will remain the same.” Chesnakov assured me, however, that “Putin has always been a keenly responsive politician” who will continue to adapt to conditions as they develop. (“The child hasn’t been conceived yet, and you’re asking if it’ll be a great mathematician,” he told me, when I pressed him on what we can expect from the new Putin epoch.)

That remains to be seen. For now, though, Kolesnikov’s monarchy thesis — which, by the way, has more than a few supporters among the Russian elite — seems to be coming to pass, but with more subtlety than the name would suggest. Russia has shed its still-new adornments of modernity and is once again coming out as a deeply conservative government based on personal ties.

“On one hand, it’s a good thing because any ambiguity has now been removed,” says political analyst Masha Lipman, referring to the “whither Putin, whither Medvedev” schizophrenia of the last four years. (This, by the way, will also make American foreign policy easier: just one man to deal with.) “On the other hand,” she points out, “for everyone who has been thinking and writing about political modernization in Russia, the hope of this happening has been definitively negated.” That is, even though few ever really believed Medvedev had the power to modernize without Putin, there was a hope that his installation in the Kremlin was the trial balloon for loosening the reins. Apparently, the balloon has burst.

But that leaves more questions than answers. Why has it failed? How has Medvedev failed, if he was acting the entire time with Putin’s approval? Why will he be more effective as prime minister than as president? Neither the president nor the prime minister — match the names to the titles as you see fit — explained this in their speeches on Saturday, perhaps because the answer is obvious and yet cannot be uttered in polite company.

Gleb Pavlovsky, who helped Putin get elected in 2000 and who was an advisor to Medvedev until he was fired in May, had another question. “Medvedev never planned to say no to a candidacy for a second term,” Pavlovsky told me. “What happened? Was he pressured? Did they make him an offer he couldn’t refuse? He didn’t explain his refusal in any way.” The explanation, from where I sit, lies in that joke from late 2007, and in past columns I’ve written here: Medvedev, despite his haggard, emotional appearance at the United Russia convention Saturday, has always known that it was not his decision to make. And that once Putin made the decision, he could do nothing but accept it. That was the bargain he struck in 2007, a bargain that would be hard to call Faustian: The end was clear from the beginning.

So what will happen now that the end and beginning are one? Some are predicting a new wave of immigration — or a class of dual-citizenship holders — for those who had other things in mind for the next 12 years. Others see Medvedev, as prime minister, shouldering the blame for the next wave of economic crisis. (“Prime ministers are easy to replace,” notes Lipman.) Still others see Putin steering the ship of state for a few more years and stepping down early. But Kolesnikov sees 12 more years for Putin, “because it’s the first version” again. Pavlovsky, though, sees altogether different man: “The Putin of 2000 was a politician I loved, but that Putin is dead,” he says. “And the Putin of 2007 is gone. Today’s Putin is a zombie.”
What’s certain, however, is that the office of president — buttressed as it was by the degradation of every other institution over the last decade — has lost quite a bit of its legitimacy. And United Russia, created a decade ago to be the country’s new ruling party, has apparently been dealt a body blow. It’s being slowly swallowed up by the nebula that is a new entity set up by Putin known as the National People’s Front, while United Russia will now be led through the parliamentary elections by Medvedev, a man who was just publicly stripped of his scepter. That may be good news for people who see United Russia as the Party of Crooks and Thieves, but where does that leave Russia? “I think we’ll see a decline in the authority of the government, people will see it as silly, as odious,” says Pavlovsky, “and power will have to lean increasingly on those who depend on it for wealth, for status. That’s not a healthy scenario, but it will be with us for a long time.”

Which is perhaps why so much alcohol was traded hands via Twitter in the aftermath of Saturday’s big announcement. Someone lost a couple beers on their presidential bet, others won cases of cognac. I won a bottle of Hennessy. Others just wanted to get to drinking away their shock at suddenly facing what’s been hidden in plain sight these four years. At the very least, it might pleasantly confuse them about where the rotating door might spin in the future.

The Return of the King FP]

The Kremlin’s Spin Machine … and Me

Tuesday, September 6th, 2011

MOSCOW — I’d never been in a green room before, especially not one with ultra-nationalist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky sucking up all the air in it. Yet there he stood in a blue suit, surrounded by concentric rings of advisors, assistants, and supporters. Producers and hosts ran around with clipboards. Billionaire and budding politician Mikhail Prokhorov sat nervously on a couch as his publicist prattled on next to him. Margarita Simonyan, the head of the Russia Today network, was getting her make-up done; the leader of the ousted liberal party Yabloko stalked about gloomily. Two higher-ups from the ruling United Russia party checked their watches; the deputy head of the Communists sparkled in a shiny suit and a flawless coiffure. And then there was me, lightly dusted with powder, standing a careful few feet away from the refreshments table with its sweating cold cuts, unpeeled banana halves, and Hennessy.

Earlier that week, the hosts of the political talk show “NTV-shniki” (or “NTV-ers”) had invited me to appear along with the leaders of Russia’s main political parties and some Russian journalists to kick off the political season by asking the politicians some questions. Given the degree of state control over Russian television — “NTV-shniki” appears on the Gazprom-owned NTV channel — I was wary of participating: Would I be edited out of the final show unless I asked softball questions? Would I be, as one Russian friend warned me, “legitimizing their charade”? “Don’t be shy,” one of the producers told me a couple of days before the show. “Be provocative!” She added that Simonyan wanted to prod Prokhorov on his alleged dalliances.

In the end, I agreed. There hadn’t been anything like this for a while. It promised to be, at the very least, interesting. “Today, on our show, we have something we haven’t had in about 10 years,” Anton Khrekov, the main host, intoned when the cameras started rolling. “The leaders of the biggest registered parties will meet in one place to participate in an open political discussion.” What, I wondered, would that look like in Putin’s Russia, where TV politics are drab and dully loyal? Would they pull it off?

The first question, from Khrekov, was not one you hear too often on Russian television.

“Why are your parties participating in these elections if the count is dishonest, if the election is dishonest?” he asked. “Aren’t you just aiding those who have orchestrated this buffoonery?”

His colleagues weren’t much gentler. When Vladimir Kashin, the Communist, started alluding to thieves and “corruptioneers,” one of the hosts, Anton Krasovsky, started to press Kashin: “Who?” he asked. “Who? Name one name.” (Kashin didn’t.) They went after the Communists for glorifying Stalin — “How many people would your leader sacrifice to build the Belomor Canal? 500,000?” — and for being the Kremlin’s lapdog: “Your leader … meets with the president, discusses with him nuances of internal politics,” one of the hosts asked. “How come Comrade Lenin didn’t meet with Nicholas II to discuss with him the reform of the country?”

They went after Yabloko for scuttling every liberal coalition, Zhirinovsky for selling his party’s votes in the legislature. (At this, Zhirinovsky stood up and hurled his clip-on mic to the floor. “Enough lying!” he bellowed as it exploded into its separate components.) The hosts even went after United Russia for campaign posters in Novosibirsk that implied that federal funds spent on road repair in the region were a gift from the party. (Andrey Isaev, the bigwig representing United Russia at the debate, did not see a problem with this.)

After the hosts took their shots, it came time for some “famous” callers and their questions. There was a question beamed in from Oleg Kashin, the journalist brutally beaten last fall. He asked why the most common prompt in Russian Google when one searches for “party” is “party of crooks and thieves,” a prevalent Internet meme referring to the increasingly unpopular United Russia. Isaev said that it was clear that this was the work of a focused campaign funded by the West. (The hosts laughed him down.) Yevgeny Chichvarkin, a Russian entrepreneur who fled to London when a corporate raid possibly backed by the Internal Ministry threatened to turn him into another Mikhail Khodorkovsky, called in a question from his safe haven: “Should Putin go, yes or no?”

I list the questions because the answers were hard to parse, mostly because there were usually several politicians screaming their responses at the same time, sometimes while grabbing at each other’s arms. Zhirinovsky in particular made sure to interrupt everyone, waving his arms and roaring with the slight slur of the embarrassing uncle who gets a little too drunk at family events. The edited, polished version of the show, which aired on Sunday night, conveyed some of this chaos. But in the studio, it was far, far worse. The only way to shut up the screaming politicians was for the hosts to yell “Applause!” and the crowd — young supporters bused in by the parties — would drown out the brouhaha among their leaders. Prokhorov tried to distance himself from the fray as much as he could, saying, “When I was little, my parents used to take me to the circus. It was a lot like this.”

Back when the now exiled oligarch Vladimir Gusinsky built NTV in the 1990s, it was usually the fiercest critic of the Kremlin and of the first war in Chechnya. It hosted the most popular satirical program of the day, Victor Shenderovich’s Puppets. When Putin took control of the channel, in 2001, it marked a watershed moment in the new president’s rise. It was also a body blow to a once thriving and unruly Russian media. (This year, the 10th anniversary of the takeover was a major topic of discussion.) After NTV, the rest of the stations fell like dominoes and the Kremlin came to own television, which has remained the main source of information — really, about anything — for most Russians. Across all channels, political content became staid and formulaic.

But the Kremlin isn’t stupid, and it isn’t always ham-fisted. The rising tide of discontent in Russia’s middle class and urban elite is obvious. It’s what created the need for Prokhorov’s new political party, the first time since Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s arrest that an oligarch has been allowed to participate in politics. It’s why anti-corruption campaigner Alexey Navalny is still not in jail. It’s also why state media has been easing up its strict, self-enforced ban on certain subjects: In the past year, there has been a show about Khodorkovsky — usually persona non grata on television — and one on the death of Sergei Magnitsky. And it’s why NTV was able to hold something resembling a political debate.

“They loosened things up about a year ago,” one of the channel’s employees told me after the show. “Because no one was watching TV. It was impossible to watch. I mean, you can’t have sex with a blow-up doll for 10 years and insist that she’s a real, hot woman and that the sex is great.”

According to Arina Borodina, the television critic for Kommersant, NTV has always been allowed to get away with more. “They’re trying to attract the audience that stopped voting, that stopped watching TV,” she said, noting that the ratings for NTV spiked during the debates, even though they aired at 11 p.m. on a Sunday night. “Eighteen percent of the Moscow audience watched it,” she said. “That’s very, very high.”

But despite a loosening of the strictures, the most important prohibitions remain. “No one will ever grade Putin versus Medvedev, or Medvedev versus Putin,” Borodina explains. “That’s definitely not comme il faut. You can’t talk about Putin jailing Khodorkovsky. You can talk about why he’s in jail, but not who put him there. You can’t talk about things that Putin has publicly taken responsibility for, but has not carried out. You can’t really criticize him. His personal life is off limits.”

When it was my turn to ask questions, I asked why no one but the Communists were fielding a presidential candidate, offending the perennial joke candidate, Zhirinovsky — a mistake I’ll chalk up to nervousness. I asked why Putin’s People’s Front has shown such drab results in polls (53 percent of Russians don’t know what it is). More screaming. Then I asked what it says about the Russian political system that the most important politician in the country, Vladimir Putin, is not a member of any party.

Isaev explained — well, screamed — that United Russia has never hidden the fact that it was created to support Putin and that, moreover, Putin himself was more popular than all of United Russia.

I asked why, in that case, United Russia was needed at all.

I don’t have the exact quotes for his answer, because this whole part didn’t make it into the final edit, even though a lengthy sparring match ensued. (That is why Simonyan, the head of RT, hissed: “What is this, a Foreign Policy interview now?”) But it also seemed to cross a line: Prior to my question, we had been criticizing parties, not asking whether they should exist. And weirdly, although the hosts ran with the idea and started to badger Isaev, one of them afterward singled United Russia out for a special thank-you on his Facebook page. “In a situation where they should’ve cursed and destroyed us, the [United Russia] guys were watching this bacchanal with an almost Buddhist-like calm,” the host, Krasovsky, wrote. “They behaved in a way that would make Americans jerk off with envy.”

Later, when a Russian journalist quoted me saying my sharpest questions had been cut, Krasovsky called to yell at me. “Where exactly was your freedom of speech violated?” he pressed. “You think that was a sharp question? It was completely banal!”

I won’t challenge Krasovsky’s editorial decision. But it was striking that Chichvarkin was alone in taking on Putin directly. The nervous laughter that rolled across the studio after his question was also striking — as was everyone else’s seemingly magical ability to stop right before getting to the heart of the matter. People got riled up and said wonderfully angry things about corruption and incompetence. But no one asked: Why does this corruption and incompetence go on when only one seemingly omnipotent person is really in charge? The debaters bemoaned Russia’s descent into irrelevance and disrepair. Yet no one asked: Why, despite countless billions thrown at the problem, is Russia still not a competitive country? And after screaming and shouting about rigged and fraudulent elections, no one asked: Why?

The show’s utter chaos was also revelatory: not of a British-style uproarious political discourse, but of the thinness of Russia’s political culture. Natalia Sindeeva, director of Internet TV channel Rain, asked the debutante, Mikhail Prokhorov, “You’re successful, young, rich. Why did you get yourself involved in this madhouse? Why do you need this?” It was a question deeply indicative of one central rule of Putin’s nearly 12 years in power: The image of Russian politics as a madhouse is extremely useful to keeping the population entirely out of it. Why do you need this, in other words, when we can take care of it for you?

“There is one iron rule of Russian television,” says political analyst Masha Lipman. “There is a strong leader who is in charge and anything else would be worse.” In other words, NTV is not exactly giving airtime to Putin’s most thoughtful and most dangerous critics (I can’t with a straight face include myself in that group). Allowing racist clowns like Zhirinovsky and ineffective old liberals like Yabloko’s Sergei Mitrokhin to have their time in the spotlight is a shrewd gamble. In one move, the Kremlin permits the illusion of debate and disarms those who say the opposition is banned from television, while always carefully shoring up the perception that, compared to these guys, Putin really is the best man for the job.

“Look, this isn’t Soviet propaganda where you were getting a picture that completely contradicted reality — that we live in the best possible world and that things were terrible in the West,” Lipman says. “Even Putin says elections are fraudulent, he talks about corruption. He doesn’t totally contradict what people see in their lives. He’s cynical, they’re cynical. The point is to show that there is no better choice.”

In the end, it’s hard to parse what the debate was, exactly. On one hand, it was unprecedented and lively and fun, and the ratings and subsequent discussions in the press confirm this. On the other, it danced carefully around the elephant in the room. It loosened the strictures of federal TV while carefully observing the most important ones. A half-step forward, a quarter-step back? “Wait, what did they allow?” said Oleg Kashin, when I asked him what he thought of the debates we both participated in. “Everyone who regularly visits one office in the Kremlin got together in one TV studio. Am I missing something here?”

The Kremlin’s Spin Machine … and Me [FP]

She’s Number 3!

Wednesday, August 24th, 2011

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — About halfway through last week’s controversial elections in two St. Petersburg municipalities, the state television channel Rossiya showed up to election precinct No. 1348 to film the proceedings. The young TV reporter buttonholed a tall young man with a dim face and a pink shirt — an election observer sent by the ruling party, United Russia.

“So,” said the reporter. “We just need you to stand here and say everything is going well.”

“Everything is going well,” said the election observer. “We are very pleased with the high turnout.”

In fact, everything was going swimmingly, both for the observer and his candidate, the former governor of St. Petersburg, Valentina Matviyenko. As the other United Russia observers chastised reporters for talking and tried to keep photographers away from the voting booth, Matviyenko was just a few hours away from winning representation to the municipal council in a landslide.

Why would the governor of Russia’s second city, one of the most recognizable politicians in the country, demote herself to the municipal level? Simple, really: The election is the first move in a Kremlin-orchestrated backdoor promotion for Matviyenko. Now that she’s won the seat, she’s eligible to replace Sergei Mironov, the deposed speaker of the Federation Council (the Russian senate, whose members are chosen from among elected regional officials only — that is, not governors). This will make her the No. 3 politician in Russia, the person with access to the nuclear buttons should Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin become incapacitated.

In the upside-down world of Russian politics, Matviyenko’s upcoming promotion, expected to be finalized by September, will be richly deserved. Over eight years of controversial, bullheaded rule, Matviyenko polarized this exceptionally educated, cosmopolitan city. In 2003, she was elected with nearly two-thirds of the vote. Three years ago, her approval rating was 35 percent; this July, it had nearly halved, to 18 percent — and this during a time when St. Petersburg was being resuscitated by rising oil revenues.

Matviyenko largely spent her time antagonizing her subjects. At the end of 2006, she signed the city onto a joint project with Gazprom to build the Okhta Center, a glass stalagmite that was to reach over 1,300 feet into the city’s firmament. Unfortunately for Gazprom and Matviyenko, the proposed plan was taller than the city’s limit on vertical construction (a la Washington, D.C.) — by 1,150 feet. St. Petersburgers proved surprisingly tied to the historical architecture of their city. Opposition to the project brought thousands into the streets, in one of the most organized and powerful — and one of the very, very rare — lasting Russian civil society movements of the past decade. Last fall, Matviyenko had to give in and agreed to move the project to a new location where the tower wouldn’t violate the city’s neo-classical skyline.

Since then, she has been involved in other controversial construction projects, including a posh $100 million judo center for the Yawara-Neva Judo Club, of which Putin happens to be the honorary president. There was the Sea Façade, a public-private venture to build an expensive complex of ports for which the city government — rather than the private investors — bears much of the risk. Then there was the project to renovate the famous Kirov Stadium, the costs of which mysteriously balloon every year. Add to that the utter inability of the city to deal with heavier-than-expected snowfalls last winter — and the more-deadly-than-usual icicles, which dropped into strollers. Meanwhile, Matviyenko’s son Sergey grew so fabulously wealthy in such a short period of time that many suspect him of cashing in on his mother’s connections.

So why is this woman about to become the speaker of the senate? In fact, this is the Kremlin’s way of putting her out to pasture. It’s hard to recall a time when the Federation Council has ever voted against any legislation; it’s also hard to name a single person in the council, but easy to recall why they land there: Many regional elites, given their storied, shady pasts, can hardly do without the immunity this post offers them.

Matviyenko is perfect for a Federation Council spot, and the untouchability it confers, because she has become an albatross around United Russia’s neck. Her publicly available poll numbers may be low, but according to two people familiar with the much more thorough secret internal polls commissioned by the Kremlin, the real figures are even lower.

“The people in the mayor’s office are walking around with eyes like dinner plates,” said a St. Petersburg source with access to the polls. “United Russia is panicking.” Why? Because her polls mirror United Russia’s fall from public favor across the country. Kremlin polls are said to put the party’s average nationwide approval ratings at below 50 percent. In St. Petersburg and other urban areas, it’s even lower, around 30 percent.

This is bad. United Russia has big parliamentary elections coming up in December. Three months later, either Putin or Medvedev (probably the former) have to be swept convincingly into power, without too much outcry about election fraud. Matviyenko has the real potential to fumble the parliamentary elections in the second-most-important Russian city, and she is inexorably tied to her mentor, Putin. She simply had to go.

But how? The very reason she needed to be moved — her unpopularity — would make it hard for her to get elected virtually anywhere. Matviyenko and her Kremlin backers, however, proved up for the challenge.

First, there need to be an election for her to win, so a few local deputies in four municipalities were encouraged to resign, automatically triggering new elections to replace them. Through a sneaky set of misdirections, Matviyenko then forced all potential opponents out of the race by not allowing anyone to figure out where she was actually planning to run until the 30-day period for registering candidacy had expired. United Russia officials told reporters that Matviyenko would run in the Lomonosov municipality, and the opposition began registering candidates there. Then, on July 31, Matviyenko announced she was running in two other precincts: Petrovsky and Krasnenkaya Rechka. By that point, the registration for other candidates was already closed. The candidates who did end up listed on the ballot against her appeared to be United Russia plants; one was a retired coat check worker who had been away from St. Petersburg for months at her dacha.

“You can’t call this an election,” said Boris Vishnevsky, a local reporter for Novaya Gazeta and a member of the national council of the liberal Yabloko party. “That would be like saying, OK, we’re going to have the World Cup but we’re not going to announce when it is or who’s participating in it. When we do, the only game will be between the national team of England and some unheard of country where no one even knows what soccer is. You call that a World Cup?”

There were other bizarre happenings, too. Former prime minister and opposition heartthrob Boris Nemtsov decided to go to St. Petersburg to campaign in the municipalities where Matviyenko was running. He canvassed apartment buildings and handed out fliers telling people to spoil their ballots (in a Russian election, if 40 percent of ballots can’t be read, the vote is moot). He was quickly arrested; apparently, it had been made illegal to campaign against — rather than for — candidates.

When he was released a few hours later, he was attacked by activists from the pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi, who pelted him with rocks and eggs. Nemtsov and his colleagues jumped into a car and sped away, at which point they were stopped by two cop cars. According to Nemtsov, the police waited to approach Nemtsov until Nashi had caught up. That’s when the police asked Nemtsov to get out of the car — and into the line of egg-fire. When Nemtsov refused, he was arrested again — the second time within 24 hours. As the police lead him away, a crowd of old women materialized by the side of the road, rained down abuse on Nemtsov, and praised the poor, defenseless Matviyenko. Local bloggers later identified one of them as the same babushka who had tearfully thanked the departing governor at a recent public appearance. Coincidence? Probably not.

“After we were arrested, the police flooded the building we had been canvassing,” Nemtsov told me later, safely ensconsed in a Moscow café. “It was a 15-floor building, and they put a cop on each floor. They weren’t letting people back into the building and started questioning everyone about the flyers.” He took a sip of his fresh-squeezed celery juice and added, “All the people in the building probably didn’t care about the elections before, but I’m pretty sure that now they’ll go out and vote against Matviyenko!”

Whether they did or not, we likely won’t ever know, since there were no independent election observers allowed into the election precincts this past Sunday. Nor was anyone allowed into the office of the municipal election committee. In election precinct No. 1348, in the Petrovsky municipality, local United Russia boss Vyacheslav Makarov stormed into the office and blared commands at the United Russia observers. “Look at what you have going on here!” he bellowed. “Look at all these — these — journalists!” He said the last word as if it were quite a dirty one. “Get them out of here!”

Makarov, a former colonel in the Russian military, probably got used to hollering commands back when he was an instructor at a nearby military academy. And all day, the trickle of voters into this precinct all looked strangely alike: perfect posture, buzzed hair, a martial step. Despite their civilian clothing, it was clear who they were: cadets from the same academy, which has a storied history of marching out its students to participate in elections, always for United Russia. It wasn’t surprising when the Petrovsky municipality delivered 95.6 percent for Matviyenko.

In Krasnenkaya Rechka, the other municipality, the voting was accompanied by music, as well as free souvenir snapshots and medical exams for people who voted. Most of them voted for Matviyenko, either because they didn’t know the other candidates or because they felt her victory was inevitable. “It doesn’t really matter,” said Tatyana Sedova after she cast her ballot. “You can’t do anything against the state. We’re just regular people; they’ve already decided everything for us.”

Another voter, who didn’t give her name, said she voted for Matviyenko because the governor had the elevator in her building painted gray. “And gray is my favorite color.”

Observers weren’t given much access at this municipality either, and I was kicked out of the precinct along with a Russian reporter because he had the temerity to sit on the floor, something that was not on the short list of what journalists are explicitly allowed to do during elections.

“It’s not very nice,” one police officer told him. Another added that they were kicking him out for his own good: “What if you sit on the floor and catch a cold and get prostatitis?”

In the end, the unexpected didn’t happen there either. Matviyenko swept Krasnenkaya Rechka with 94.5 percent of the vote, and announced the next day that she was taking off for Moscow to join the political retirement home known as the Federation Council.

Her replacement in Petersburg for now — and likely for the future — is a man named Georgy Poltavchenko, a top-ranking bureaucrat known for his faceless, diplomatic efficiency in dealing with unruly colleagues. In this, Matviyenko’s departure resembles that of another celebrity Russian mayor with inexplicably rich relatives: Yury Luzhkov. Luzhkov, who was unceremoniously booted from office last September, was also replaced by a quietly loyal, anonymous bureaucrat. There was no chance that his replacement, Sergey Sobyanin, would ever upstage Putin — and there’s no chance that Poltavchenko will either. And now that the last of the outsized mayors has made her departure, that stage is increasingly Putin’s for the taking.

As for Matviyenko, she had one matter to see to before leaving office: For her highly characteristic final act as governor, she handed over a big chunk of city land to Alla Pugacheva, Russia’s original diva and the country’s answer to Cher, Barbara Streisand, and Elizabeth Taylor. Pugacheva, who looks not unlike like Matviyenko, has plans to build a theater named after herself. Matviyenko, known for cutting generous development deals at the city’s expense, sold the land to Pugacheva’s consortium for 39 million rubles. Experts say its value is at least 10 times that. Rumored to be connected to the project? Matviyenko’s son, Sergey.

She’s Number 3! [FP]

Surreal Politik

Thursday, August 11th, 2011

It’s been a busy summer in Russia, electorally speaking. The malaise and tea-leaf reading of the spring have started to dissipate as the December parliamentary elections and the March presidential elections draw near. Powerful constituencies have emerged, and they’ve been lobbying hard for their interests and their candidates. Best of all? They are really, really hot.

First came Putin’s Army. It was led by Diana, a self-proclaimed college student in vertiginous heels and cleavage to match, a girl who claimed to have “lost my mind for a person who has changed the life of our country. He’s a good politician and a fabulous man.” That man, shockingly, was Vladimir Putin, Russia’s prime minister, and decider of the question of the year: Will he change his status from “basically in charge” back to “officially in charge”? While Putin spends his time deciding whether he or current President Dmitry Medvedev will become president (for six years) in 2012, Putin’s Army has not shied from making its feelings very clear. Last month, Diana and the girls of Putin’s Army announced a contest to “Tear it up for Putin!” — “it” being, say, your shirt — a contest in which you can win an iPad, even if you can’t win Putin’s election for him. Putin’s Army even had an official draft day in the center of Moscow, where two dozen young ladies, wearing teensy undershirts printed with Putin’s face in pop-art pink, gathered to parade on a makeshift catwalk and draft other soldiers to their cause.

Medvedev’s supporters, however, were not to be left behind. They formed an army, too — an army of three — called it Medvedev’s Girls, and came out to another square in central Moscow with a different gimmick. In support of Medvedev’s anti-beer initiative, they asked the strollers-by: “Choose beer or us!” What this meant in practice was that people could dump their beers into waiting buckets, and, for each beer dumped, Medvedev’s Girls would dump an article of clothing.

Then there’s “I Really Do Like Putin,” which staged a bikini car wash in Moscow to support the premier. If that didn’t convince undecided Russian voters, the group’s next event definitely didn’t. On Monday, it held a Tandem Ride with Medvedev’s Girls. They paired off on tandem bikes and cycled around Moscow. (This, mind you, was not in order to express support for the two-man tandem presidency of Putin and Medvedev, but because Putin promised Nashi, the Kremlin-made youth group, that he would lose a pound and learn how to ride a tandem bike with Medvedev.)

And then there’s my personal favorite, a music video by the group Girls for Putin. The video ends with a bang — the smashing of a watermelon with a baseball bat — but it’s more a pastiche of black panties, Jack Daniels, and tears of heartbreak, fitting for a raging rock ballad called “I Want to be Your Koni.”

“I want to be your Koni / on the table and on the balcony,” the girls sing. Koni, in case you’re wondering, is Putin’s beloved black Labrador.

It’s funny, this stuff, and yet it betrays something deeper even than the predominance of sex in Russian public life or in Russian youth politics. That part is obvious: Sex sells. More important is what this says about the current incarnation of the Russian political system.

When the Kremlin created Nashi, the first of its youth groups, in 2005, Russia — rightly or wrongly — felt under attack. The so-called Color Revolutions had swept through one former Soviet republic after another, bringing — in Russia’s perception — American influence right into its backyard. George W. Bush had started a war with Iraq, Russia’s long-time, lucrative ally, and lectured Moscow on democracy and human rights.

Russia itself, although no longer the hobbled post-Soviet country of just a few years before, was still in transition. The power vertical — the political system in which all power flows to and from Vladimir Putin — was still under construction, a relatively easy task given Russians’ bewilderment at the version of democracy they experienced in the 1990s. Any real opposition in parliament had been routed in the previous two election cycles, and yet there were still burblings of discontent.

Hence, Nashi. Formed to engage an otherwise apathetic youth luxuriating in new oil profits, the group protested and agitated, it spoke of “sovereign democracy” and Russia’s territorial integrity, it terrorized opposition journalists. Its members were brainwashed, yes, and they certainly weren’t going to do anything — the Kremlin guards the levers of power closely — but they were well-trained and they were keenly political. Even though the Kremlin was just gesturing at issues politics, in other words, at least they were gesturing.

Six years later, the country has far more on its plate than a sanctimonious U.S. president: monumental corruption, creeping stagnation, mounting ethnic tensions, a breakdown of safety oversight for civilian transportation systems, a stumbling reform of the rapidly decaying military, continued insurgency in the North Caucasus, continued dependence on resource extraction, an atrophied industrial sector, moribund and corrupt education and health systems. There is a lot of work to be done, and therefore, a lot to talk about.

And yet, somehow, with only four months to go until the Duma elections, and seven months until Russians elect a president, we are not hearing anything about it. All we get from the two supposed candidates for president is how and when they will make the decision to even run. Since they haven’t announced even that, speculating on the issue is the only issue this election season. Even at this year’s Nashi youth retreat — not perhaps a bastion of substance, but at least, in past years, a chance to bang on about solving the country’s problems — the emphasis was on things accomplished, not on future tasks. And youth politics more generally have devolved into a parody of a latter-day Britney Spears video. One would be a fool to even suggest a comparison between Russia and the United States, but shouldn’t even a simulacrum campaign season have at least simulacrum campaign issues?

We don’t even have those. Instead it’s a fake party here, a staged election stunt there, and all around the ceaseless chatter of anonymous sources “tipping off” journalists that Putin has finally made up his mind one way or the other.

Until Putin announces his historic decision and some level of reality on this very unreal question enters the campaign, we can either spend our time tearing our hair out guessing and twisting — or we can relax, forget about the mess that is the Russian economy and political system, and enjoy the fluff that has come to replace even the mirage of an election campaign. Because there is lots to be done. We can, for example, ogle the nubile young loyalists, we can watch in amazement as Putin, on his third scuba dive ever, magically pulls up a sixth-century Greek urn (and happens to have an archaeological expert right there to identify it), and we can marvel at the refreshing honesty, the release in acknowledging that, much to the relief of Russians rattled by their brief, post-Soviet taste of democracy, that finally, there are no more politics in Russia.

Surreal Politik FP]

Taking It Off for Putin

Thursday, July 21st, 2011

Last week, a video appeared on YouTube featuring a Russian college student named Diana. Dressed in a fitted blazer, leggings, and six-inch heels, Diana teeters along Moscow’s sun-filled streets while talking on her iPhone and carrying a bag from the Apple store. In her hip Moscow accent, she says,

I’ve lost my mind for a person who has changed the life of our country. He’s a good politician and a fabulous man.

He is Vladimir Putin.

The camera lingers on an ornate Orthodox cross resting on Diana’s tan, youthful cleavage as her narration lays out her political platform:

He is beloved by millions; he is trusted. But there’s a pack of people who smear him. Perhaps they do it out of fear, perhaps out of personal weakness, because they will never be in his position.

At the end of the video, Diana writes, “Porvu za Putina”— “I’ll tear it up for Putin”—in red lipstick on a white tank top. Then she puts the tank top on, reaches for the collar, and tears it off.

Diana belongs to Putin’s Army, a group of “beautiful, smart young women” holding a contest called “I’ll Tear It Up for Putin”: Post a video of yourself ripping something for Putin, and you might win the iPad in Diana’s shopping bag.

The basic definition of the verb “porvat’” is “to tear,” but in Russian slang it means to retaliate, to be extremely, violently defensive of someone or something. As in, “If you hurt Putin, I’ll tear you to shreds.” But, like so many turns of phrase associated with High Putinism, porvat’ ultimately traces its roots back to fenya, the argot of the Russian prison system. In prison, porvat’ would sound more like a threat: I’ll tear you a new one.

The video, which has been viewed more than a million times, went viral after Kirill Schitov, a twenty-six-year-old Moscow city councilman affiliated with the youth wing of Putin’s United Russia Party, posted it on Live Journal, Russia’s most popular blogging platform. Schitov wrote that he stumbled upon the video on YouTube, and he told me he doesn’t know who is behind the video, or behind Putin’s Army. But as he wrote on his blog, he likes the ideas it expresses: a strong Russia and the telling coincidence that “cute, successful girls” are largely absent from the ranks of the opposition.

Diana’s video comes after a calendar given to Putin on his birthday last fall by journalism students from Moscow State University who stripped down to lacy, elaborate underpants and uttered phrases like “Vladimir Vladimirovich”—Putin—“how about a third go?” (Putin, who was barred from a third presidential term in 2008, is now considering coming back for another stint as president, this time for twelve years.) At the time, Vladimir Tabak, the calendar’s creator, told me it was a spontaneous show of emotion by the students of Russia’s most prestigious journalism school. The calendar spawned a Putin party at a Moscow nightclub, complete with topless dancers, on International Women’s Day. And, as with the “Tear It Up” campaign video, the calendar first appeared on the blog of a loyal functionary; this time it was that of Alexander Yarosh, of the pro-Kremlin youth movement Nashi.

Expressions of sex in the public domain have been a hallmark of the Putin era. Western visitors are often shocked—many of the men pleasantly so—by how Russian women parade their highest heels and deepest decolletage, even on an ordinary Tuesday afternoon. Putin has long been rumored to have left his wife for a young gymnast, and last month he hired a personal photographer whose body has attracted more attention than her rather mediocre body of work.

Putin is a master of bread and circuses, as is his close friend Silvio Berlusconi, known for appointing showgirls to cabinet positions and for turning Italian television into a soft-core smorgasbord. (The Thank God There’s Silvio campaign, which Ariel Levy described in a piece in May, looks like elementary-school stuff compared to Putin’s Army.) In Russia, these top-heavy campaigns are less obviously top-down, and are made to look like they come from a grassroots base. Today, for instance, a copycat group called “I Really Do Like Putin” is holding a bikini carwash in Putin’s honor, just, you know, to support him.

Putin’s Army, on the other hand, has more ambitious goals: “Putin for President!” Confusingly, the comely soldiers in his Army are calling on sympathetic ladies to do something for Putin, or, as they say, “for your president”—who, at the moment, at least officially, is Dmitry Medvedev.

Taking It Off for Putin [TNY]

Empty Words

Tuesday, June 21st, 2011

MOSCOW — The St. Petersburg International Economic Forum — Russia’s Davos — opened with a speech by President Dmitry Medvedev. It was a frank speech, a tough speech. “It is incorrect to focus on calm, slow growth. It is a mistake,” he said. “This infamous stability can hide another period of stagnation…. This is why we must quickly and deliberately change everything that hampers breakthrough development.” After listing some of Russia’s achievements since the collapse of the Soviet Union, he laid out his vision: privatizing government assets, overhauling the legal system, lifting visa restrictions, lowering taxes, and fighting corruption. Or, as Medvedev so kindly put it, “The squeeze of the noose on the neck of corruptioneers must be constant and merciless.”

The praise from Western writers was instant. It was “a blueprint for changing Russia,” Medvedev’s were “bold comments,” he had “Set a Goal to Reform, Modernize and Decentralize Russia as Quickly as Possible,” he had left investors “inspired” and “enthusiastic.”

I bet he had. Such tough-love speeches are common and often heard at economic conferences from other high-ranking Kremlin liberals. They work because they’re delivered by very smart, very persuasive people, people like First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov or privatization legend Anatoly Chubais, people who sound like they get it. And they do.

Here’s the thing, though: It’s hard to differentiate between all those speeches, and not just among those delivered by various ministers. How does Medvedev’s St. Petersburg speech, for example, differ from the speech he delivered to the Russian political elite in November 2009? And how does that, in turn, differ from its precursor, the “Forward, Russia!” editorial he penned in the oppositional newspaper Gazeta.ru? In all three, Medvedev talked about the stifling corruption in Russia, about its dangerous dependence on extraction, about the need to get some air into the Kremlin-controlled political system.

Here’s the other thing: I’m not the only one who can’t tell these speeches apart. Boris Makarenko is a well-known and intelligent political scientist at a think tank called the Institute of Contemporary Development that serves as Medvedev’s brain trust. I asked him if there were any differences between this speech and past speeches Medvedev had made. Makarenko argued that Medvedev offered something “more concrete” this time around, that he spoke of lowering the vote threshold — now set at 7 percent — for entering the Parliament. (In other words, to get even a single seat, a party needs to get at least 7.01% of the vote. If it doesn’t, the votes are split among all the other parties proportionally. This keeps smaller, often opposition parties out of Parliament.)

But Medvedev didn’t mention that in his St. Petersburg speech. He didn’t mention electoral politics at all. He did, however, mention it in Sunday’s interview with the Financial Times:

For instance, once we raised the State Duma admittance threshold for political parties up to 7 percent I think this might be the right thing to do to achieve the organization of the political forces…. However, one day we will have to revise the decision and lower the barrier so that political competition improves and those unable to clear the 7 percent barrier can scrape together at least 5 percent or even 3 percent to get to the State Duma.

In fact, Medvedev first broached the issue in his November 2009 state of the union. “Didn’t he mention this in November 2009?” I asked Makarenko.

“No, no he didn’t,” Makarenko said. Then he thought a minute and said, “Oh, yes, you’re right. He did.”

The real issue, of course, is why Medvedev continues to talk about the same things using the same words. No doubt, Medvedev and his crew know exactly what’s going wrong in Russia and have some ideas about how to fix it. But even if they actually wanted to fix it — and, given the interests at stake, that’s a big if — the real question is whether the people below them, the implementers, want to. And unfortunately, we have a pretty good idea of the answer to that question: They don’t.

Take, for example, Medvedev’s recent public outburst at the Natural Resources Minister Yuri Trutnev. It was an “outrage,” Medvedev said, that of all the plans the ministry had developed along with the presidential administration, not a single one had gotten through parliament and become law. “If you and I agree on a time frame,” the president went on angrily, “and it doesn’t work, tell the administration. We have our own levers, or if push comes to shove, I can get involved. And if it’s stuck, then you should’ve called me and told me.” Because things like this — meetings with ministers, phone calls — are usually staged, Medvedev was clearly trying to show that he was cracking down on foot-draggers in his ranks. Instead, he revealed the opposite: His words don’t easily translate to deed.

And this is not, by the way, just a problem for Medvedev, a man many mock as effete and ineffectual. This winter, WikiLeaks revealed that strongman Vladimir Putin dealt with similar issues during his presidency: “In 2006 — at the height of Putin’s control in a booming economy — it was rumored within the Presidential Administration that as many as 60 percent of his orders were not being followed,” one of the U.S. Embassy cables said.

Here’s what’s happening instead: The Ministry of Internal Affairs is indeed being overhauled and reformed, just as Medvedev called for in one of his speeches. But the law reforming the ministry was written by the ministry itself, and many legal observers say the law simply makes legal many of the ministry’s current abuses.

Following Medvedev’s speech, there will almost certainly be an overhaul of the judicial system, too. Less than a decade ago, Putin did the same. His calls for “a dictatorship of the law” were transformed into what is now known as “telephone law.” That is, a judge will often receive a phone call instructing him how to rule, a phenomenon recently highlighted by the assistant to the judge in the case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who accused her boss of kowtowing to commands from above.

It’s not hard to imagine that the anti-corruption reform Medvedev proposed in St. Petersburg will also become a funhouse version of its guiding principle. For one example, the president called for firing civil servants on the mere suspicion of corruption, even if there is not enough evidence to try them in court.

The other problem, of course, is that often the president’s own actions undermine his very inspiring words. While mulling his own judicial reform, Medvedev has proposed to reinstate Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika for another term. Chaika’s son has been implicated in a scandal surrounding underground casinos in the Moscow region that were given protection by … the prosecutor’s office. Medvedev’s war against corruption is proceeding apace, yet none of the allegations raised — in court — by anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny has merited even an inquiry. The Ministry of Internal Affairs officers who caused the death of Sergei Magnitsky in police custody after he uncovered their theft of $230 million from the Russian treasury were decorated with medals for their work.

And that political reform Medvedev insists is so badly needed, the sense of competition and fair play that would do such wonders for the Russian economy? Well, we’ll let the president speak for himself. The Financial Times asked him whether perhaps running against Putin in the presidential election — or even having any kind of real contest — would finally introduce the competition he talks about so often in his speeches:

FT: Don’t you think that such open competition will be good for the development of democracy in Russia?

DM: Open competition is always good.

FT: But why not for the post of the president?

DM: Well, I’ve just told you, the goal of participating in the elections is not to facilitate the development of free competition, the goal is to win.

Empty Words [FP]

Anti-Seliger

Monday, June 20th, 2011

Last summer, I reported from Seliger, the summer camp of the Russian nationalist youth group Nashi. Weeks of lakeside lectures, campfires, and visits to “breeding tents” mold the adolescent party faithful into year-round enforcers, debaters, and organizers of all manner of political activities. Last month, Nashi gathered fifty thousand young people at an anti-corruption rally in the capital.

Even if Nashi buses in young people from sleepy, blighted corners of the country and promises them a fun day in the capital, no opposition rally in the age of Putin has attracted even five thousand protesters, let alone fifty thousand. Nor do the many, fractious Russian opposition groups have a steady flow of capital from Mikhail Prokhorov and other businessmen trying to curry favor with the Kremlin. But, just the Tea Party has incorporated the methods of the community organizer Saul Alinsky, the Russian left now has its own summer camp: Anti-Seliger. The opposition camp may not be on an idyllic lake near Putin’s summer home, but it is nonetheless in a resonant site: the forest of Khimki, just north of Moscow.

In Soviet days, the Khimki forest was a federally protected reserve celebrated as Moscow’s “green lung.” In 2004, plans were unveiled for a new highway linking Moscow and St. Petersburg. It was a necessary improvement—one does not really exist now, which would be analogous to having no interstate between New York and Washington—but the planned road would cut right through the Khimki forest, instead of taking a shorter route around it. Ever since the plans were announced, Khimki has become a byword for protests and vicious retribution, such as the reprisal against the local journalist and Khimki activist Mikhail Beketov, who, as a result of a savage beating, has lost a leg, several fingers, part of his skull, and the ability to speak. In 2009 Vladimir Putin revoked federal protection for the Khimki forest, designating it an area fit for transport and industrial development. It later emerged that Arkady Rotenberg, Putin’s childhood friend and judo partner, was building the road.

“People are either getting their heads beaten in or arrested, so I’m impressed that people came,” Yevgenia Chirikova told a gaggle of reporters gathered under Khimki’s birches on Saturday afternoon.

Chirikova, a local businesswoman who has been the Jane Jacobs of Khimki to Putin’s Robert Moses, has emerged as one of the most effective civic organizers in Russia. She has drawn international attention to the cause (Bono has been brought into the fray) and has had a temporary victory: last August, President Dmitry Medvedev put a halt to the razing of the forest. A few months later, however, a Kremlin-appointed expert panel ruled that there was no better alternative, and construction is underway again.

“We have eleven alternative plans,” Chirikova said at the press conference at Anti-Seliger. “Including one option that is shorter, cheaper, and cuts out the need for a bridge, which is a rather expensive luxury in Russia.” She added, “Lots of my friends have left Russia, and I could leave, too, but I don’t want to do it. I like it here! And I believe that, with a bit of time, life in Russia will be no worse than in other countries.”

Behind Chirikova, on the stage, a band was playing. People lolled around on the grass near their tents. Others clustered around the employees of the anti-corruption blogger Alexey Navalny, whom I profiled in April. (The anti-corruption rally in the capital was Nashi’s attempt to co-opt his campaign.) Another group was following Navalny himself, who had come to offer support for Chirikova and the project.

“I’ve been communicating with thousands of people through my blog, but I’ve never seen them,” Navalny explained later. “It feels like old friends you haven’t seen for years, so people just want to come and say hi. It’s natural.” The old friends, however, quickly proved trying. “Why don’t we talk after my lecture,” Navalny said rather curtly to one supporter, “instead of asking the same question over and over again?”

Navalny was the biggest star at Anti-Seliger, but the camp on Saturday was a who’s who of the Russian opposition. Elena Panfilova, the gregarious, silver-tongued head of the Russian wing of Transparency International, was there with a plastic bag of apricots, as was Anton Nossik, a pioneer of the Russian Web and a trustee of Navalny’s project RosPil, which monitors abuse in government requests for tender. Roman Dobrokhotov, a young journalist and activist, pestered Navalny on his politics during the question period. Alexander Belov, the leader of DPNI, a banned nationalist party, got a shout-out in Navalny’s answer. Sergei Kalenik, the young man behind the Super Putin comic strip, came with his fiancée. Yabloko, which, until it was squeezed out by Putin’s power vertical, represented Russian liberals in parliament, provided the food: canned meat stew over kasha, cooked in olive-green vats of massive mobile army field stoves from Brezhnev’s day. Sergei Udaltsov, the leader of Left Front, was there, as were representatives from the National Bolshevik Party (which is headed by the writer and perpetual provocateur Eduard Limonov), the Sakharov movement, and the increasingly popular Federation of Russian Automobile Owners (FAR).

“Of course, as drivers, we say, ‘I wish they’d build the road already!’ ” FAR leader Sergei Kanaev told me, squinting in the late afternoon sun. “But this is an opportunity to put our civil society on display, to come together. The Kremlin is only happy when fight each other,” he said. “This is not an anti-road gathering; it’s anti-Seliger.”

Kanaev was absolutely right: no one could confuse this event, which attracted three thousand Russians over the course of four days, with Seliger. Last year, Medvedev helicoptered into Seliger as a surprise and danced in the rain. Anti-Seliger’s surprise guest was Sergei Mironov, the deposed speaker of the rubber-stamp Russian Senate and until recently the head of A Just Russia, an “opposition” party created by the Kremlin. There was no rain, and Mironov did not dance. Instead, he stopped a bulldozer pushing around tree trunks without a permit, and, in his stroll through the forest, took a picture of the stump of a recently cut hundred-and-fifty-year-old tree. Nashi, he said on his way out of the campsite, is “a modern version of the Red Guards”—the youth groups that did the dirty work of the Chinese Cultural Revolution—“with all the consequences that implies.” Quite a platitude from a man whose job is to criticize the Kremlin, which gives him that job.

And where Seliger had intensive techno-pop aerobics workouts, Anti-Seliger had Pavel Boloyangov, a world champion mixed-martial-arts fighter, who gave a master class in self-defense—a necessary skill for activists and journalists whose colleagues have been beaten or killed for their work. In a clearing surrounded by a few dozen onlookers and about as many photographers, Boloyangov demonstrated how to wrestle out of a headlock, how to deliver an effective crotch hit. His sparring partner was none other than Navalny, who is now being investigated on federal charges, and is the subject of constant speculation: is he next?

Anti-Seliger may have been chaotic, but it was cheerful—and constructive for a movement that, as Chirikova puts it, is like an infant who has nearly been strangled in its cradle. Still, as I stood in Khimki forest recording Boloyangov and Navalny’s tussle, I felt like I might be creating some dark souvenir for the future.

Anti-Seliger [TNY]

Road Rage in Russia

Tuesday, June 14th, 2011

It was a hot and sunny Sunday afternoon when Lena Miro (the pop-lit writer Elena Mironenko) was wheeling her way home, happy and sated after a Goya exhibit and some stuffed cabbage at a chic Moscow cafe. “When all of a sudden, out of nowhere, a vile old woman with a massive bag on wheels threw herself under my car,” Miro wrote on her blog. “I almost knocked the bowling pin down.” Miro was rattled, but then she had a soothing thought: “It occurred to me: I could’ve run over this scum (the world would only benefit from this), but to give myself a serious headache over some old cunt was a little silly.”

And then she got to thinking: what the fuck. Why are these people even here, in her city? Why not impose an entry fee to Moscow — say, $200. “Then we’ll have beautiful people driving around in beautiful cars, not collective farmers in their farting wrecks, or office schmucks in their miserable Passats,” she mused. “And anyway: let these office drones take the metro to their kunstkameras, or, even better, have them go somewhere far away. Maybe Kolyma” — the remote site of some of the most notorious Soviet-era gulags. “Let them pan for gold. That way, we’d at least get some use out of their pointless existence.”

Healthy thoughts, to be sure, in a city plagued by infamous congestion. Miro, a card-carrying member of United Russia, is not the only celebrity doing her part to give voice to the party’s patrician inner monologue. When confronted with the growing public outrage over his behavior on the roads, Oscar-winning Russian director Nikita Mikhalkov retold an old pre-revolutionary joke. “A peasant nursed and nursed his anger at his master,” Mikhalkov said, “but the master didn’t know shit about it.” Last month, when Mikhalkov was finally stripped of his migalka — a blue VIP car siren that, when turned on, allows the driver to circumvent all traffic laws — his public bitching about the loss seemed to know no bounds. And it’s not hard to understand why: With that blue light flashing, a driver can cut through traffic like an ambulance, and everyone else must scatter. (Although some VIPs don’t even bother issuing that warning.)

In this season of strange movements of the bulldogs under the rug, the migalka and all it stands for have become what passes in Russia for a hot-button campaign issue: the people — or the bydlo, the plebes, as the elite and the plebes themselves refer to the non-elite — get upset at the constant abuse of gratuitous privilege, and the state throws a few of its most insignificant pawns under the bus to show that it has the interests of the people at heart. Which, of course, is not quite true.

In principle and by law, migalki are supposed to go only to the most important officials, officials who have really important meetings to go to, meetings that could make or break the future of Russia. Thus, Barack Obama has a helicopter to get around stoplights and traffic jams; Dmitry Medvedev has a blue migalka. Then what about the prime minister, Vladimir Putin? He has one, too. As do the finance minister and the defense minister and other cabinet members. The Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church has one.

And then the definition of “important” becomes rather swimmy and 970 people get a migalka. Officially. Nearly double that number of “special sirens” are actually on the roads. Who has them? Some of the president’s advisors, some big businessmen who get them through connections. Who else? The deputy head of the Federal Customs Agency, who recently turned his siren on one weekday morning to speed to the dry cleaner’s. Filmmaker Mikhalkov, ostensibly because he was the head of the Defense Ministry’s Public Council. (When a journalist called him to ask why a film director would need a siren, Mikhalkov responded with a tirade so explicit, so bleep-worthy, that it firmly established him as Russia’s leading artistic light.) Even more bizarrely, so does this woman, who called in to a Moscow radio station in January to complain that no one pays attention to her migalka:

Radio host: “Tatyana, tell us, where do you work?

Tatyana: “I don’t work.”

Radio host: “Then in what way did you acquire a special siren?”

Tatyana: “Well, it’s my car and it has a siren installed on it and I just wanted to say that people who demand to be treated well –”

Radio host: “Tatyana, Tatyana, one second. On what basis do you have a special siren?”

Tatyana: “Why would I tell you where I got a special siren!”

The plebes, Tatyana complained, were not behaving. They did not respect the law, and the law mandates a strict split between them and people like Tatyana who have drivers and cars with migalki, people who reside in gated communities where nectar is drunk and the only law is the one that separates them from the plebes outside.

The plebes, and their cell-phone cameras, have started fighting back. That is how we know about the second in command at Customs going to the cleaners, or about the driver of Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu asking another driver, via megaphone, whether his not getting out of the way meant that he wanted to be “shot in the head, dumbass.”

Given the symbolic significance of cars — they are a major commodity in a society obsessed with status and making it look conspicuously higher — the issue has proved to be one of the very few that is able to galvanize and organize notoriously anti-political Russians. Some of the biggest protests Russia has seen in the last decade have been about, you guessed it, cars. This is why the Blue Buckets movement — a bunch of people armed with cell-phone cameras, a blog to monitor abuses, and blue buckets resembling migalki strapped to their car roofs — has become such a major concern for the Kremlin over the last two years. People I spoke to in Moscow expressed an understanding that the envelope had been pushed too far and that something had to be done.

But, this being Russia, the point is not changing the status quo — the cushy, legally extrajudicial privileges of the elite — but changing the way the status quo is perceived. In the last year, various unheard-of lawmakers have “taken up the issue” of migalki and VIP contempt for traffic laws more generally, first last April (to no effect), then in February (to no effect), then again in May (to no effect). Otherwise, not much has changed. Just a month after the second legislative push, someone posted a cell-phone video of three ambulances, sirens on, waiting for a VIP cortege to pass through Kutuzovsky Prospekt, a major artery leading from the Kremlin to the city’s elite suburbs.

The only clear advances have been the ritual punishments of Miro, who was stripped of her party membership, and of Mikhalkov. After his public whining over the lost migalka, he was caught on camera by the Blue Buckets team speeding and veering into oncoming traffic on Moscow’s central Garden Ring — minus a siren. Initially, he said he was late to a taping and said the “louts” and “jackasses with cameras” who taped him couldn’t possibly understand. Then he backtracked and claimed it wasn’t even his car and that he had never called anyone a lout.

Rare is a day in Russia when we don’t hear of another accident involving a “VIP car.” As I sat down to write this story, a new story came across the transom: In the wee hours of Friday morning in Rostov-on-Don, Dmitry Ostrovenko, United Russia deputy in the city Duma, barreled through several stopped cars with his Porsche Cayenne. One of the cars, a tiny Zhiguli, was rammed and dragged nearly 200 feet. Its 23-year-old driver (dead on the spot) had to be cut out of the car’s mangled frame. “Ostrovenko was trashed and could barely stand and tried to pay off the cops right then and there,” an eyewitness wrote on his blog. The gathered crowd nearly tore the deputy to bits.

This was not a new reaction; but then again, this is not a new situation. In 1920s Russia, cars were scarce and prestigious. Whereas before the revolution, only the wealthy could afford cars and chauffeurs, in the dictatorship of the proletariat it was only the party functionaries who were permitted luxuries so out of sync with the letter of the law. But Russia was still a rural, agrarian country back then, and the peasants resented these elite cars kicking up dust or scaring their animals as they roared past. Veering into fields and mashing up their crops didn’t help either. So people fought back. They threw rocks at the cars; they strung up wires across the roads to trip them up. One driver was killed when an angry villager flung an owl at his windshield.

And yet the functionaries and celebrities privileged enough to have cars continued to exercise a familiar kind of recklessness and immunity. According to Lewis Siegelbaum’s Cars for Comrades, on a hot summer day in 1929, Lilya Brik was driving through Moscow in her car, given to her by her lover, poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, when a young girl popped up in the road right in front of her, an experience Lena Miro would share 82 years later. “She froze, as if rooted to the ground, and then began to rush about like a chicken,” Brik later recalled. “Nevertheless, I knocked her slightly off her feet.” Brik was tried — and exonerated.

Road Rage in Russia FP]

Putin’s Puppets

Friday, May 6th, 2011

At around 7 p.m. on Friday night, I called Robert Shlegel, the young techie who sits in Russia’s parliament as a representative of the ruling United Russia party. The week was sandwiched between two three-day weekends (May Day and Victory Day), and many Muscovites never bothered to come back from the first one. The city was empty, and emptying more every minute. Which is why my call found Shlegel in a loud Moscow cafe.

“Hi,” I said, when he answered casually, “so what do you think about this people’s front idea?”

An hour earlier, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, speaking at a United Russia conference in Volgograd (the former Stalingrad), announced his plan for the December 2011 parliamentary elections: a people’s front. The front would include, of course, United Russia, Putin said, as well as “some other political parties, labor groups, women’s groups, youth groups, veterans’ [groups], including veterans of World War II and the [Soviet Union’s] war in Afghanistan.”

“About what?” Schlegel said over the background noise.

“A people’s front. Putin is forming a people’s front.”

Silence.

“Hello?”

“What is that?”

I read Shlegel the description. He laughed. Shlegel was also surprised, as was I, that it had been announced at 6 p.m. on a holiday weekend.

“They did that on purpose,” he said, then quickly corrected himself: “I mean, I think it’s very necessary. They need to somehow unify the people who are politically active.” Then he asked to have a couple minutes to read the news, and asked me to please write something nice.

Most people will not hear about this till deep into next week — which is exactly the point, because the plan is ridiculous. Let’s start with the fact that none of the groups that Putin rattled off in his speech actually exist; in fact, he and his deputy chief of staff Vladislav Surkov made sure to neuter them all. If they’ve managed to survive independently, then we certainly won’t see them as part of the people’s front. More likely, new ones will magically appear this summer and fall, falling in line with the so-called people’s front, which sounds far too much like The Life of Brian.

All kidding aside — and it’s hard with this one — the move is a clear response to United Russia’s dipping poll numbers and rather dismal results in the March regional elections. (In Kirov, they outright lost to the Communists, which also happened the year before in Irkutsk — and this with United Russia’s total media dominance.)

The point, though, seems not to be about poll numbers. United Russia would still win, and the desirable margin can be “drawn in,” as the Russians say. The point is legitimacy, assuring a population increasingly fed up with United Russia that Putin is listening to them, that he wants to include them — provided they’re “likeminded.”

“This happens every time there’s an election,” says political analyst Masha Lipman, who was just as bemused as Shlegel by the news, pointing out that national fronts are created in times of crisis and Russia has ostensibly had a party system and constitution for 20 years. “Every time, they invent a new trick for holding it together. It just underscores the ad hoc nature of Russian politics,” she said.

These tricks, let’s recall, are always rather silly. In 2007, United Russia started to sag at the corners, so the monstrously popular Putin put his name on the ballot as United Russia’s front-runner — without actually running or even joining the party. The bait-and-switch, here-take-some-of-my-mojo maneuver worked: United Russia roared into the Duma with over 64 percent of the vote, and the last vestiges of the democratic opposition were definitively locked out of Parliament. In 2008, Putin gave the party another boost, agreeing to head the party, but not joining it, an act that implies a sort of distaste for the thing. In fact, some of his utterances about the party have been less than flattering. The party, he said then, needed to “become more open for discussion and must be de-bureaucratized completely.” He also added that the party should be purged of “casual people pursuing exclusively their own material gains.”

That hasn’t worked out too well: It took blogger and political activist Alexey Navalny no time or effort to create a powerful, catchy meme — “United Russia, Party of Crooks and Thieves.”

When he agreed to head the party, Putin said he was forming an alliance of “likeminded” individuals linked by their “love of Russia,” rhetoric that sounds much like today’s. He was concerned, he said, about “the spiritual unity of the people,” a trope that in Russian politics means: We’ll take care of it. This meant the same thing in Soviet times, when everyone was also dragged out to vote for a pre-determined candidate. How did they get numbers in the high ’90s when there were only a few million Communist Party members? They formed a people’s front of Party members and non-Party members alike. Back then, it was called the Bloc of Communists and Those Without a Party. According to a 1967 book called 50 Years of October: the Triumph of Marxism-Leninsm, the concept “expresses the inviolability of the moral and political unity of Soviet society.” In practice it meant, you all have to vote anyway.

Back then, however, there was an ideological underpinning, however frayed, to explain why we trust the Communist Party: “The experience of many years of struggle, the experience of the three Russian revolutions and communist construction workers convinced that the Communists have no other interests except the interests of the people.” The current ruling party has branched out, developing interests other than the interests of the people. These include, but are not limited to, real estate, business, and cars. And the attempt to gather votes with this Popular People’s Front is like going fishing with a grenade.

Putin’s Puppets [FP]

The Royal Wedding, Moscow Style

Friday, April 29th, 2011

About two score Muscovites gathered to watch the wedding of Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, and William, Duke of Cambridge, Earl of Strathearn, and Baron Carrickfergus, in the sun-flooded bar of the Strelka Institute, a design school and hipster hangout in a wing of what used to be the Red October Chocolate Factory. Half of them were British expats, dressed in their lacy Sunday best. If they couldn’t be home to watch the historic event, this place was perhaps as good as they could get in Moscow: dominating the view from Strelka, just across the water, is the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, the garish Easter cake of white marble and gold domes where Nicholas II and his family were canonized in August, 2000. Nicholas, once Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias (and now Saint Nicholas the Passion-Bearer), was the first cousin of King George V, who was also a cousin of Kaiser Wilhelm II (and great-great-grandfather to Prince William), and cousin to Tsarina Alexandra Fedorovna (née Princess Alix of Hesse), who was also the cousin of Nicholas. (The three sovereign cousins looked more like twins and, perhaps ironically, perhaps predictably, were not all on the same side in the First World War.) William is basically family here.

This was not, however, on the minds of the Brits who came to celebrate. They had received an invitation from Natalie Horsting, the petite British chef who runs Strelka’s kitchen. Missing home, Horsting whipped up an English menu—roast rib of beef and tiered dessert stands of tea sandwiches, scones, and clotted cream—and invited fellow expatriates to celebrate. “The food is brilliant,” said Martyn Andrews. He was from Liverpool, and draped in a Union Jack.

Kate Partridge, of London, was there to watch “a bit of our heritage and our history unfolding, really, and we can watch it even though we’re two thousand miles away from home.”

“I’d watch it even if I was on the moon,” Andrews said.

The two were waving the flags provided by Horsting, seemingly devoid of the conflicted feelings of some of their more egalitarian-minded countrymen. (“For the last thirty years, the monarchy has gotten such bad press,” Andrews complained.) Perhaps fittingly, Andrews and Partridge both work for Russia Today, an English-language cable channel founded by the Kremlin in 2005 to improve its image abroad.

Behind them sat a group of five young women, classmates from the Moscow Architectural Institute. They sat peeking over the high-backed wooden booth, the festive, edgy bows in their hair bobbing as they watched the wedding on the big screen and gossiped, expertly, among themselves.

“What kind of wave is that?” said Anna Khodina, imitating Kate’s gestures, which she thought overly floppy. “She’s supposed to wave like this.” Khodina did the classic stiff-wristed parade wave.

“Maybe it’s a protest,” said Alice Starobina. “Like her car.”

“What does it mean that he’s putting on his gloves?”

“It means, that’s it. He’s holstered.”

“Don’t they have noisemakers?”

“Yeah, sure, they tie cans to the back of the carriage.”

Laughter.

“Wait, where are they going? They have to kiss now.”

“No, they kiss in the palace. In front of the public.”

“Didn’t they say her dress was Alexander McQueen?” said Khodina. “Isn’t it by the creative director of Alexander McQueen?”

“I think it’s some secret royal atelier.”

“She looks good in this role, a convincing Duchess.”

“Oh my god, what’s on their heads?” (This, on seeing the cavalry ride off with their tassled helmets.)

The girls, who want to found their own design studio (Palip Bureau), bemoaned the lack of such national traditions in Russia. “We use to have all this here, but it was cut off in 1914,” says Natasha Ermolenko, by which she meant 1917. Now, when the children of heads of state get married, they do so in strict secrecy. “I don’t even know what Putin’s second daughter looks like.” No one at the table seemed to know what the first one looked like, either.

It was hard to pinpoint what the women liked so much about the royal wedding. Mostly, it came down to the fact that it wasn’t a Russian wedding, which involves touring all the historical monuments of Moscow in one long and drunken photo session, and, at the reception, screaming “Bitter! Bitter!” to make the newlyweds kiss, and counting loudly, in unison, the seconds they keep their lips locked. “If you compare the Russian wedding style to the English wedding style, I think the English style wins,” said Starobina. “Russian weddings are a bit, how shall I say it, are a bit tasteless. They’re very loud, raucous, and this is, well, very traditional.”

Meanwhile, on the pedestrian bridge linking Strelka to the Cathedral, Moscow wedding season had clearly begun. Wedding parties swilling champagne from clear plastic cups roamed the bridge, as the brides posed for pictures by the monument. I counted six.

The Royal Wedding, Moscow Style [TNY]