With my little eye

Has Putin the KGB strongman become a national joke?
February 22, 2012

"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.

In Russia, poetry can make things happen. In February 2011—two months after the handsome young lawyer Alexei Navalny launched his game-changing anti-corruption website, Rospil.info—a writer, an actor and a theatre producer teamed up on a different kind of internet project, which they called Citizen Poet. Every week, Dmitri Bykov weaves a verse pastiche of a well-known poet out of some event in politics, which Mikhail Yefremov—a prodigious mimic with wickedly twinkling eyes—then delivers in fancy dress.

Citizen Poet was an immediate cultural sensation. The first clip was about the farcical second show-trial of Putin’s enemy, the former Yukos oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky. The second was a parody of the Romantic poet Mikhail Lermontov, in which “Vova” (Vladimir Putin) talked to “Dima” (Dmitri Medvedev) about the terrifying possibility of an Arab Spring in Moscow: “We are not in Tunis, not in Cairo/ We are in Russia, like mice in cheese/ and the Arab variant is not for Russia.” In August, after Putin was filmed in diving gear, retrieving two 6th-century BC amphorae from the Black Sea bed, Yefremov, reciting a parody of a poem by Osip Mandelstam, pulled a mini amphora out of a fishtank. Was it coincidence that the Kremlin press spokesman conceded soon afterwards that Putin’s archaeological diving feat had been staged?

Citizen Poet made it fashionable to laugh at Putin and Medvedev. The Moscow elite paid high prices to watch Bykov and Yefremov perform in theatres and clubs. While notching up millions of online hits as new clips appeared without fail every Monday morning, Citizen Poet toured the cities of Russia. “With his verse, Bykov has done incomparably more than any party leader to raise the political activism of Russians,” the opposition journalist Oleg Kashin marveled. For his part, Bykov, who says he never set out to be a political figure, is glad to have reminded his compatriots of the greatness of Russian literature, and saved them from “serious psychological problems,” by letting them know that they are not alone in finding the antics of Putin and Medvedev funny.

Kaa was a gift. The Monday after Putin’s phone-in, Yefremov appeared as Kipling, with a whip, a cigar, and a giant toy snake. Putin had become the Great Pu. Preening in his new skin (Putin appears to have had cosmetic enhancement in 2010, although Kremlin officials claim to have no knowledge of “any surgical interventions”), python Pu boasted that he looked like “an enormous condom pumped with Botox.”

“Do your arms and legs tremble?” Pu screamed at the treacherous banderlogi, cracking his whip. “They don’t tremble at all,” Bykov’s Bandar-log laughed in response: “We all have access to the computer [kompu], and you don’t frighten us [nas ne zapu].” At the end, Pu realises that, in fact, it is not the Bandar-log that he is talking to, but the man-cub Mowgli, the only creature in the jungle that he cannot subdue by hypnosis.

In comic rhyming couplets, Bykov had captured the mood that brought people onto the streets in December. Putin had summed up his political philosophy by quoting Kipling; on behalf of a great many other Russian citizens, Citizen Poet had replied in kind. As a Moscow schoolteacher I know said in an email: “the ice is broken even if Putin is re-elected in March… I didn’t think that anything mattered anymore in Russia, but now I know. Respect is the thing, and the authorities have shown people so little of it that they are doomed.” At the Sakharov Avenue protest on 24th December, as well as a multitude of homemade placards with condom jokes (“Putin—not to be reused,” etc ) demonstrators carried toy snakes, and witty slogans about banderlogi. The caption to a drawing of a human fist throttling a snake was, “You called us, Pu, and we came!”

“It’s hard knowing that I have to write a poem tonight and that on Monday hundreds of thousands of people will be looking for it online,” Bykov said when I met up with him in Moscow one Friday evening in late January. His joviality and love of Russian culture are characteristic of the Moscow protest movement. Last year, Bykov declined an invitation to attend Putin’s annual meeting with writers. “I don’t want to look into his eyes,” he laughed. “If you look into Putin’s eyes, he makes you one of his clan; then if you criticise him, you become a traitor. It is much less dangerous just to be his enemy.” While we talked in a smoky café—Bykov alternating sips of absinthe with a drink called Adrenaline Rush—the detective writer Boris Akunin called to discuss their new political movement, The League of Voters, and Voice of America (a US equivalent of the BBC World Service) called to ask for a comment on the nationalists with whom the liberal protestors had controversially joined forces.“I never meant to get into politics,” Bykov said, as he hung up, “I’m no kind of hero, I’m just a Hobbit; but now is a time when we all have to be heroes.”


Two of the more surprising heroes of the protest movement, which was first regarded as an exclusively middle-class phenomenon, appeared on YouTube a few days later. The veteran paratroopers Mikhail Visitsky and Stanislav Baranov performed a catchy rock song they had composed for Putin. They had been at the December protests, and wanted to show the world that it was not only “pampered liberals” who were angry about falsified election results, and the prospect of 12 more years of Putin. Wearing telnyashki, the blue-and-white striped vests of the Russian armed forces, and green berets, the tattooed, shaven-headed veterans sang:

“You are an ordinary bureaucrat/ not a tsar or a god/ to you a human being/ is a thick banderlog./ I look at you, at your portrait,/ You’re lying to us./ I am tired of looking/ at my country’s shame,/ the poverty of the villages/ next to your castles…/ our peaceful demand,/ is ‘tyrant, get out!’/ We are free paratroopers,/ And with us is the motherland.”

As though he were a tsar or a divinely anointed saviour, Putin’s portrait has been ubiquitous since his sudden ascent to power in 2000. I lived in Moscow throughout his first two presidential terms, and remember the racks of Putin likenesses that suddenly appeared in all the bookshops. As the pollster Yuri Levada put it, Putin’s face was the mirror in which people saw the reflection of their hopes and desires. At the same time, the Putin cult was always knowingly excessive, openly kitsch. In a futuristic shopping mall at the turn-off to the Rublyov Highway, where members of Moscow’s wealthy elite live in fortified estates, I once saw a lifesize marble bust of Putin as a Roman emperor, crowned with laurels. In 2003 the distillery Cristall launched a vodka called “Putinka.” In 2008, the coffee-table book Vladimir Putin: The Best Work of 33 Photographers offered 24,000 photographs of the leader, and 72 hours of DVD footage. A glossy “economic” magazine was given the name VVP, playing on the fact that Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin’s initials coincide with the Russian acronym for Gross Domestic Product, Valovoi vnutrennyi produkt. Putin is one autocrat who can truly say, “l’état c’est moi.” The cover of every issue of VVP shows Putin’s face, crested by the golden two-headed eagle and the Russian tricolour. Framing glossy features on Putin’s miraculous salvation of the Russian economy are advertisements for Italian menswear, and the “complete range of defence-related products,” offered by the state arms manufacturer. VVP’s advisory council includes the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, and the warlord president of the Chechen republic, Ramzan Kadyrov.

“It has become grotesque, a self-parody,” the writer Vladimir Sorokin remarked recently of Putin’s regime, “and as soon as political power turns into parody in Russia, it does not have long to live.” The Putin cult, which trembled on the edge of self-parody from the start, has fed Putin’s own narcissism. Since his topless Siberian photoshoot in 2007, the world has watched him acting out costume fantasies of ever more fanciful machismo. At the beginning, Putin appeared before the nation in wooing mode, as Mother Russia’s humble suitor and would-be saviour and protector. I remember an eerie documentary portrait by Sergei Miroshnichenko that was shown on TV during his first presidential campaign in early 2000. Putin had been acting president since Boris Yeltsin’s sudden resignation on New Year’s Eve. Putin was filmed arriving with an armful of red roses at the St Petersburg apartment of his schoolteacher, Vera Gurevich. He embraced the doting old woman, and they drank champagne; she gave him a jar of her homemade pickles, and clucked over the calluses on his hands from the hours he spent at martial arts. Putin gazed back at her with coy, boyish eyes.

The documentary then showed Putin in his Kremlin office in the depths of night. The leader at work in the citadel while the nation slumbers was a favourite trope of Stalin’s propagandists. It had new piquancy in early 2000, when Russia was still traumatised by the mysterious bombings of September 1999—blamed by the government on Chechen rebels, but widely viewed as a false-flag attack staged by the Russian security services as a pretext for war—which destroyed four apartment blocks in Moscow, Buynaksk and Volgodonsk, killing hundreds of people in their sleep. In Miroshnichenko’s documentary, victims’ funerals—old women crossing themselves as a cortège passed—were juxtaposed with footage of Putin’s motorcade driving out of the Kremlin through Moscow’s nighttime streets. The soundtrack was celesta music, evoking the supernatural.

How things have changed. In Moscow this winter, the crowded bookshop on Tverskaya Street that used to sell Putin portraits was filled with the works of the protest leaders: Boris Akunin, the journalist Leonid Parfyonov, and the novelist Lyudmila Ulitskaya. Alexei Navalny’s blue eyes stared out from the cover of Esquire. “On Crooks and Thieves,” the headline read, alluding to his nickname for Russia’s ruling politicians. A new edition of the prison memoir of the Soviet dissident, Vladimir Bukovsky, was on prominent display. False imprisonment is now a resonant theme; the pressure group Russia Behind Bars is an active contributor to the protests. There were copies of Snob, Russia’s version of Vanity Fair, sponsored by the presidential candidate and billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, whose editor, Masha Gessen, will publish in March a book on Putin’s past, The Man Without a Face. In the window was the book and DVD set of Citizen Poet, with Yefremov on its cover, grinning anarchically in a crumpled top hat, dressed as the absurdist writer Daniil Kharms. There was no sight of Putin.

Street protest has become cool; being a kremlyad, as the cynical cultural stooges of the Kremlin are nicknamed, is out of fashion. Even the society lionesses—celebrity beauties who grace the covers of glamour magazines—are in on the act: the party-going gossip columnist Bozhena Rynska blogs about fair elections; Ksenia Sobchak (daughter of Putin’s old boss, the former mayor of St Petersburg, Anatoly Sobchak) does the round of TV talk shows, defending democracy. Civility, dignity, honesty, love and kindness are Moscow’s new buzzwords. “The Jew walks arm-in-arm with the anti-semite,” as Citizen Poet put it in “Wow! What a Campaign!” the clip that appeared after the protest march to Bolotnaya Square in early February. This diverse opposition movement has so far opposed Putinism’s Byzantine-KGB-style blend of intrigue, provocation, and hypocrisy with sincerity, transparency, and solidarity. “This is an uprising of gentleness and goodness against lawlessness, stupidity and shame,” the poet Olga Sedakova wrote in the liberal newspaper Novaya Gazeta. “We want a country that we are not ashamed of. And we know what is shameful and what is not. You have never known that,” she continued ad hominem, “as you show off your amphorae and your biceps.”

Throughout the winter’s protests, there has been a mood of carnival. When the temperature dropped to -22C on 4th February, the frost only added to the festivity: “splendid Russian weather,” everyone said: “aren’t we Russians tough?” On the stage that day, the chess genius Garry Kasparov smiled from under his fur hat, as the radical young leftist Sergei Udaltsov, recently released from prison, told the crowd that he was no American stooge, and that the “shit” he had hurled at the US Embassy when Nato bombed Kosovo in 1999 had reached the fifth floor. The frail Irina Yasina, former director of Khodorkovsky’s philanthropic foundation Open Russia, spoke from her wheelchair. “Take care of the motherland,” the singer Yuri Shevchuk shouted to the crowd as he closed the rally with a guitar song that seemed to come from the depths of his soul. Then he invoked St Paul’s teaching on love.


So what does this unexpected outpouring of cheerful collective energy on the streets of Russian cities mean for Putin’s system of power? Since Ukraine’s Orange revolution, mass protests have been Putin’s nightmare scenario. This winter’s demonstrations, in which Alexei Navalny’s internet activism has played such a crucial role, are a response to the spiralling corruption that has made Russia’s rulers rich beyond measure, but which they no longer have any power to conceal or control. Under Putin, Russia has functioned as what the political scientist Richard Sakwa calls a “dual state,” in which a formal constitutional order exists in tension with the informal relations and factional conflicts that characterise the administrative regime. In calling for honest elections, the opposition has called the regime’s bluff. For Putinism’s inherent feudalism has hollowed out the institutions of democracy and law, leaving only a flimsy façade, the parody of a modern state.

In the past few years, ever more lurid details about the fantastic sums of money stolen by corrupt officials from the state budget, and siphoned out of state corporations, have leaked into the public sphere. This is money that is not being spent on hospitals, roads, and schools—and it shows. With its natural resources, Russia should be one of the richest countries in the world; outside Moscow, it still looks like one of the poorest. Paradoxically, it is now easier to report on the “financial streams” of Putin and his clan in Moscow than it is in London, where so much Russian money is spent. The journalist Yulia Latynina regularly writes about Putin’s palaces and yachts, naming the friends from his St Petersburg past—now billionaires—who, she alleges, look after his financial affairs. This winter, the Kremlin was said to have ordered state bureaucrats not to flash their money around in their favoured ski resort of Courchevel over Russian Orthodox Christmas. A reporter from the newspaper Kommersant found them all there regardless, dancing on nightclub tables, furtively shopping at Hermès in full-length sable coats and sunglasses.

Putin’s ideologues are casting around for a new narrative to protect the status quo. They continue to present him as the saviour of the nation. Dull articles about the need for reform of this or that sector of the economy are published under his name in daily newspapers. Putin recently confided to a group of young lawyers that he finds many election campaigns disgusting, explaining that it is respect for clan elders in Chechnya that brings in 100 per cent votes for the ruling party. His propaganda machine has fallen back on Cold War levels of anti-American rhetoric. The wild 1990s, in which vulnerable people who had relied on the protection of the Soviet state were left to suffer, are now routinely portrayed as an American occupation, from which Putin came to save Russia, rather than as the consequence of the total collapse of the communist system. The opposition protests have accordingly been characterised as an “Orange plague,” in reference to Ukraine’s Orange revolution of 2004, when Moscow’s plans for its near-abroad were foiled by US-backed street demonstrations.

To lead the rhetorical counter-attack, a former theatre director and self-styled “politologist” named Sergei Kurginyan has emerged from among the usual kremlyadi and anti-western “patriots.” On 4th February, Kurginyan staged an “anti-Orange” rally at Poklonnaya Hill on the edge of Moscow, near a park where the victories over Napoleon and Hitler are commemorated. Kurginyan appears fond of conspiracy theories. His ideology is a potent cocktail of red revanchism, Russian messianism, and anti-Americanism. Kurginyan sees Stalin (under whose regime his grandfather was shot in 1938) as an embodiment of Russia’s tragic greatness. The greatest catastrophe in Russian history, for Kurginyan, was the break-up of the USSR. Ominously, Kurginyan’s ideas are believed to have inspired the August Putsch of 1991, in which a group of Kremlin hardliners tried to oust Mikhail Gorbachev and establish a dictatorship. When Kurginyan speaks, whether on TV or at a public rally, his eyes seem to stare and his body to convulse.

Kurginyan’s rallies have been reported as pro-Putin, but though people in the crowd wave Putin flags, Kurginyan has said that his campaign is not pro-Putin, just anti-Orange. In his speeches he hardly mentions Putin. While Putin stooped to thanking the crowd at Kurginyan’s rally, Kurginyan said that Putin will not get his vote. As one Moscow journalist commented, Putin is no longer a patriotic icon. In the eyes of Kurginyan and his like, he is only worth supporting as a bulwark of autocracy against the democratic “Orangeism” that the US State Department is supposedly fomenting as part of its plan to break up and occupy Russia (with the possible use of aerial bombardment), in order to steal its oil and gas to pay off the American deficit. Russia “will never support America’s game in Syria” and will continue to arm Bashir Assad, Kurginyan declared in late January. In his eyes, and in Putin’s, it is the very same game that is being played out on the streets of Moscow.

Some events are harder to dismiss as a “game.” The story of the whistle-blowing Moscow lawyer Sergei Magnitsky is an example, and one that is straining the Russian state to breaking point.

In 2007, Magnitsky allegedly uncovered a gigantic scam in which government officials had reclaimed $230m in tax, using seals and documents stolen in raids on the offices of Magnitsky’s employer Hermitage Capital, the UK-based investment fund. (Hermitage’s American founder, William Browder, who had alleged corruption in the Russian state-controlled companies in which he invested, had suddenly been denied entry to Russia in 2005.) When Magnitsky reported the fraud to the authorities, he was arrested and incarcerated for a year in Butyrka prison in vile conditions, denied medical attention and communication with his wife and children.

In his prison diary Magnitsky recorded the extreme pressure the guards used to try to force him to withdraw his allegations, and falsely to accuse his employers at Hermitage. He resisted. Acutely ill with pancreatitis, Magnitsky was beaten with rubber truncheons and left to die on the floor of a cell on 16th November 2009. He was 37 years old. President Medvedev’s own Human Rights Council found in July 2011 that “there are grounds to suspect that Magnitsky’s death was the result of a beating” and that the charges against him had been fraudulent. Two former prison doctors were charged, but activists are concerned that officials were not. Soon after the Human Rights Council reported its findings, police investigators reopened the case against Magnitsky in one of the few examples in legal history of a dead man being put on trial.

In the same month, the US imposed visa bans on dozens of Russian officials allegedly implicated in his death, a group popularly referred to in Russia as the “Magnitsky List” although the names are not public. In December 2011, the European Parliament recommended that member states of the European Union adopt travel bans on about 60 Russian officials, also unnamed, and freeze their assets, if the Russian authorities failed to prosecute those responsible. The Russian government has said that these are unfair actions by foreign governments and show no respect for legal process; it imposed a visa ban on some US officials in return.

Thanks to Browder’s well-resourced efforts to bring Magnitsky’s killers to justice, Magnitsky’s story has had a profound impact on foreign perceptions of Russia. Gideon Rachman of the Financial Times describes how Browder challenged Igor Shuvalov, Russia’s silken deputy prime minister, over the Magnitsky case at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January.

Magnitsky’s posthumous role in Russian politics grows bigger by the day. Those supporting a return of Putin to the presidency are using the international outcry as a new tool to help their cause. They claim to discern foreign conspiracy in the pressure for prosecutions, and hold that Browder is masterminding a revolution from the London offices of Hermitage Capital.

In August 2011, the month after the US travel bans came into force, Sergei Kurginyan was given a new show on Channel 1 of state TV, and devoted the first episode to Magnitsky. Kurginyan describes the dead lawyer as a small cog in the wheels of a huge international conspiracy, masterminded by the “capitalist shark” Browder. Foreign governments’ lists of supposedly implicated bureaucrats, he says, are a tool for blackmailing Russian officials into refraining from using force against protesters, for fear of losing access to the money they keep in the west. The result, according to Kurginyan, will be the break-up of Russia and its occupation by the US.

Has Putin really given Russians back their pride, and made his country stable? Are his blue eyes enough to hold together the political system he has created? No plastic surgeon can undo the damage that Facebook has done to his image. Now that he has lost his power to hypnotise, will the Great Pu get crushed in his own coils?

What matters is not when, but how the self-destroying Putin system reaches its end. Russia has a frightening history. During the euphoria of this winter’s street protests, one of my Moscow friends wrote on her Facebook wall: “right now, it feels as though the political prisoners are going to be freed, the exiles are coming back, and Putin is going to disappear.” “Why are you optimistic?” a sage Russian historian commented on her thread: “No one is coming back. Putin is not going anywhere. These people will fight to the last. It’s time to start fearing for your husbands and your sons.”