Has Putin the KGB strongman become a national joke?by Rachel Polonsky / February 22, 2012 / Leave a comment
Published in March 2012 issue of Prospect Magazine
“Putin is one autocrat who can truly say, ‘l’état c’est moi.”
Vladimir Putin thinks of his cold blue eyes as weapons. “They consume you,” Angus Roxburgh confides at the beginning of his new book, Strongman: Vladimir Putin and the Struggle for Russia; his “is a glowering, piercing, highly unsettling look.” In the strangest and most telling response of his four-hour TV phone-in on 15th December, Putin revealed just how much he believes in the power of his own gaze. When asked about the mass protests against his regime that month, he likened himself to Kaa, the vain, cunning old python in Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book. Kaa is always hungry, and uses his “most evil eyes” to hypnotise his prey. “There are citizens of the Russian Federation who have Russian passports, but who act in the interests of foreign states, with foreign money,” Putin said, branding his critics traitors to the motherland. “You know what I say to them, I say, ‘Come to me, Bandar-log.’ Since childhood, I have loved Kipling.” Momentarily baffled, the studio audience missed a beat before breaking into sycophantic applause.
A great many Russians share Putin’s love of Kipling. Not least the liberal intelligentsia, whom Putin despises as Bandar-log (banderlogi in Russian), Kipling’s Monkey-People with no leader, who “boast and chatter and pretend they are a great people about to do great affairs.” The Bandar-log “fear Kaa alone.” Putin, who says that he does not use the internet, seemed unaware that much of the fear that he generated in his first decade in power has evaporated in the past year. Provoked by allegedly falsified results in the December Duma elections, tens of thousands of Russians took to the streets to protest against Putin’s decision to stand for a third presidential term in the election of 4th March. (He purported to stand aside in 2008 in taking the role of Prime Minister.) If he had been more connected with Russia’s fast-growing online culture, he would have known that by comparing the protestors’ white ribbons to condoms (as he did in the same phone-in), and metaphorically inviting his opponents to come to him to be hypnotised, suffocated and consumed, he was only offering himself up to the ridicule of the satirists who have played such a large role in the nation’s sudden political change of mood.