What was impossible yesterday is often considered perfectly normal today. If nobody could have imagined giant anti-government demonstrations in central Moscow a year ago, they’ve now already started to feel routine. The protest movement’s rally on the weekend to mark the end of summer barely seemed newsworthy.
With every day that Vladimir Putin hangs onto power, the weirdness threshold will continue to rise. The deeper Putin falls in love with himself, the more erratic his behavior will become. It’s not his fault. It’s the inevitable, mind-bending effect of unchecked power.
Putin has been known for some time as Russia’s greatest conservationist, appearing on state television shooting a tranquilizer gun at an Amur tiger and attaching a satellite tracking collar to a polar bear.
But when Putin decided to show young Siberian cranes raised in captivity their migration route earlier this month, things started getting weirder than usual. The president donned a white jumpsuit and took to the air in a motorized hang glider. The image evoked more mirth than awe, and everybody ended up forgetting about the poor cranes.
Putin’s latest wildlife stunt also cost journalist Masha Gessen her job as the editor of Vokrug Sveta (Around the World) when she refused to send a reporter to cover the event for her magazine. Given her well-known antipathy for Putin as the author of the book The Man Without a Face, Gessen’s removal resembled a political reprisal. After all, Vokrug Sveta is affiliated with the Russian Geographic Society, which Putin happens to chair.
But the strangest twist was yet to come.
Last week, Gessen published the surreal epilogue to her firing on the website of liberal city magazine Bolshoi Gorod (Big City). (Click here for the original Russian, or here for the sanitized English version, with no drinking, vulgar language or mention of Kafka’s grave.) It turns out that when Putin learned of Gessen’s dismissal, he felt so bad that he picked up the phone and personally invited her to a chat in the Kremlin.
Apparently the meeting was not intended for public consumption. There is no mention of it on the Kremlin website, which normally provides an exhaustive record of Putin’s encounters with world leaders, factory workers and beluga whales. Gessen’s account, confirmed by Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, reveals the advanced stage of Putin’s megalomania.
“I like kitties and puppies and little animals,” Putin said at the start of the meeting. When Putin asked Gessen why she had refused to cover the crane story, she explained that his conservation promotion efforts always end up being about him and not the wildlife: the Amur tiger he tranquilized had been taken from a zoo; the polar bear he tagged had been heavily sedated days before his arrival.
Amazingly, Putin readily admitted that the events had been staged. The main thing was to draw the public’s attention, he told Gessen. It was the same with ancient amphorae he miraculously produced during a dive to the depths of the Black Sea last summer. Of course he wasn’t under the impression that he had actually found them by chance! It was all about increasing people’s awareness about their own history, Putin explained.
Putin’s confession raises all sorts of questions. If all these great feats were actually set up, then what else was fake? His annual live call-in show? The huge pro-Putin rally in Luzhniki Stadium last February? Maybe an election or two?
Putin is like the magician who bungles a trick and then asks his audience defiantly: “What? You really thought I was cutting the lady in half?”
In Gessen’s account, we have Russia’s most powerful man winking at one of his fiercest critics. Putin’s whole reason for the meeting was to convince her to take back her job. She refused.
Yet Putin’s devotion to endangered species is undiminished.
On Saturday, as Gessen and others took part in the latest opposition rally, Putin met Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko, banned from entering the European Union for beating and jailing his opponents.
In Russia, he has a sanctuary.
(Disclosure: At present, Lucian is mentally but not physically in Moscow.)