The Russian presidential election is a year away, but protests have already begun. Last week, images of Russians being carried and even dragged from Moscow’s Red Square spread throughout the Western media. Then came the crackdown—blocked access to web pages and social media showing the photos, and a criminal case against the protesters. Earlier this week, the square was nearly empty despite another planned action.
The protests demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev and objected to widespread corruption, but they also served as a rare moment of rebellion in a country that rarely dares defy its leader, President Vladimir Putin.
Putin’s recent ubiquity has brought great prominence to the practice of Putinology. This enterprise – the production of commentary and analysis about Putin and his motivations, based on necessarily partial, incomplete and sometimes entirely false information – has existed as a distinct intellectual industry for over a decade. It kicked into high gear after the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014, but in the past few months, as allegations of Russian meddling in the election of President Donald Trump have come to dominate the news, Putinology has outdone itself. At no time in history have more people with less knowledge, and greater outrage, opined on the subject of Russia’s president. You might say that the reports of Trump’s golden showers in a Moscow hotel room have consecrated a golden age – for Putinology.
And what does Putinology tell us? It turns out that it has produced seven distinct hypotheses about Putin. None of them is entirely wrong, but then none of them is entirely right (apart from No 7). Taken together, they tell us as much about ourselves as about Putin. They paint a portrait of an intellectual class – our own – on the brink of a nervous breakdown.
Has political parody in Russia turned Vladimir Putin into a national joke?
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.
Putin had a kind word for Monson (“a real man”) and paid Yemelianenko the ultimate compliment of Russian masculinity, calling him a “nastoyashii Russki bogatyr”—a genuine Russian hero. As Putin spoke, and as the national audience watched, many in the crowd started to jeer and whistle. This had never happened to Putin before, not once in two four-year terms as President, not in three-plus years as Prime Minister. And yet now, having announced his intention to reassume the Presidency in March, possibly for another twelve years, he was experiencing an unmistakable tide of derision.