Love in the Time of Cynicism

Shortly before I left Russia in March, I attended a reception in Spaso House, the U.S. ambassador’s stately residence in downtown Moscow. When a certain, not unknown Russian-American gentleman noticed me, he smiled dryly and exclaimed: “Ah, the anti-Putin blogger!” I wanted to turn to see who was behind me, but he clearly meant me.

Just the other day, the spokesman of an influential European trade association wrote me a lengthy e-mail, faulting me for a lack of objectivity. My personal frustration with Russia’s political situation has clouded my blog posts, he complained, and everything I now write about Vladimir Putin carries a negative connotation.

Maybe this would be a good time for a disclaimer: I neither love nor hate the Russian president. I originally started this blog to report on the anti-government demonstrations that began last winter. Inevitably, I’ve often ended up focusing on Putin, the target of the protests, studying his public appearances and picking apart his writings.

Maybe this would be a good time for a disclaimer:
I neither love nor hate the Russian president.

Many authors use columns, blogs or books to advance an agenda. That is their good right. Yet the purpose of my writing is not to bash Putin and support his opposition; it’s to make sense of what is happening in Russia. Of course I have a distinct point of view – I have never pretended otherwise – but what I offer in this blog is analysis based on observed fact, not a politically motivated polemic. I have nothing at stake in the outcome of the protest movement. As I am not Russian, it would be presumptuous and wrong if I did.

When the first protest against vote-rigging broke out immediately following the December parliamentary elections, I believed it was a one-off event. But after attending every subsequent opposition demonstration (as well as a pro-Putin rally) over the winter, I reached an altogether different conclusion.

Lucian Kim

Putin faces a challenging third term because civic consciousness has been awakened among young, educated city dwellers, especially in the capital. No doubt they are in a minority, but they are Russia’s most active, creative citizens. The “Putin majority,” on the other hand, is passive and apolitical, voting for him out of habit rather than conviction.

In my last blog post I wrote that Putin is not a loved president, but a default president, elected for lack of any serious alternative. Putin’s greatest problem in hanging onto power is that as the years grind on, his circle of admirers can only shrink – and the number of his enemies increase. Russian leaders seem particularly vulnerable to the law of diminishing political returns.

Putin’s circle of admirers can only shrink. Russian leaders seem particularly vulnerable to the law of diminishing political returns.

If there were empirical evidence that Putin has a broad political base – cheering supporters voluntarily flocking to rallies or celebrating his inauguration in the streets – my outlook for the Russian president would be less gloomy. Only high prices for Russian commodity exports will allow Putin to stop the protest mood from spreading to low-income citizens dependent on government largesse. Everything hinges on Putin’s ability to keep his one-word campaign promise: stability.

Putin maintains that whatever the disloyal denizens of Moscow may think, the Russian heartland is still behind him. That’s why his first trip after taking office last week was to Nizhny Tagil, the industrial Urals town that makes the T-90 tank. State television reported that the president flew in with Igor Kholmanskikh – the tank factory worker who had told Putin on a national call-in show in December that he and his comrades would deal with the Moscow protesters if the police was unable to.

On Thursday, Putin was shown on national TV surrounded by workers thanking him for keeping his word to visit the plant. Was the trip intended to show the country that the president wouldn’t forget about ordinary people, domestic industry and national defense? Or was it designed to reinforce Putin’s own belief that he is loved in the provinces? Who needs more convincing – the people or the president?

During my time as a correspondent covering Putin’s premiership, I found it fascinating to observe him as he went about his daily business of meeting corporate bosses, cabinet ministers and foreign leaders. From a journalistic perspective, it was a satisfying assignment. Putin was never boring and almost always made news.

Putin is a case study in the effects of power on the human mind.

Putin remains a figure of historical importance in the continuing drama of Russia’s post-communist transition. He is also a case study in the effects of power on the human mind.

When I was accused of being “anti-Putin” in Spaso House, I replied: “I’m not against Putin. I just believe that it’s dangerous if one man runs a country – any country – for more than 10 years. Even if he’s a saint, you can be sure that the people around him won’t be.”

My accuser didn’t disagree with me.

(Disclosure: At present, Lucian is mentally but not physically in Moscow.)

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