Russia's leader appears to believe his own propagandaby Oliver Bullough / May 15, 2018 / Leave a comment
Published in June 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
When Europeans first mapped the world, there was a lot they didn’t know. Not wanting to admit their ignorance, they made stuff up. Some of their inventions were impressively ambitious. The fictional Mountains of Kong stretched from Mali to Sudan, and adorned maps of Africa for most of the 19th century. Lake Apalachy sat happily in South Carolina for more than 200 years, and was apparently even visited by one traveller, despite not existing. These inventions always had one thing in common: they said nothing about the place being described, and a lot about the person doing the describing. Mapmakers hate having to leave their maps blank.
This same reluctance to admit ignorance, and the same compulsion to fill blank spaces, helps to explain Vladimir Putin’s extraordinary ability to intrigue people right across the political spectrum. He is the great uncharted continent of geopolitics. He produces unpredictable weather systems that bring ruin on some and lavish money on others, yet we know almost nothing about his internal geography.
Some people decorate him with positive qualities. Seumas Milne, Jeremy Corbyn’s communications supremo, has shared a platform with the Russian president and consistently argued that he is demonised: “in Russian terms he is a centrist.” Others fill in the blank spaces with monsters: Boris Johnson, the Foreign Secretary, recently compared Putin hosting the World Cup to Hitler hosting the Olympics.
It’s not possible, of course, for the same person to be at once a centrist and a Nazi, but it’s hard to know which assessment is correct, at least partly because—although he’s dominated the world’s largest country for almost two decades—there is yet to be a great Putin book. No one has penetrated the inner reaches of Putin’s thoughts and subconscious to figure out what is causing the storms that have engulfed Ukraine, Syria and the US political system.
Putin himself is a gnomic figure who speaks for hours at a time in live television marathons, yet gives almost nothing away—apart from smirking self-satisfaction. His aides rose with him from the obscurity of St Petersburg’s local government to unimaginable wealth in the Kremlin, and long ago learned the art of not saying anything either. Media outlets that have probed behind this wall of silence have been taken over or shut down, while journalists have been killed, and independent politicians squeezed out. The map we have of Putin has become—if anything—blanker since he was elected president in the spring of 2000. At a time when Washington and Moscow are closer to war than they have been for decades, this blankness is not just worrying: it is dangerous.