Magazine article The Spectator

Stop Flattering Putin

Magazine article The Spectator

Stop Flattering Putin

Article excerpt


Russia's Duma election was not an irrelevant farce. It marked an important stage in the continuing struggle between President Putin and the enlightened few who are striving, with talent, energy and courage, to create democracy and a civil society in this country. Though the political events in the preceding weeks sometimes looked like impenetrably intricate clan wars within 'the elite', they exposed this struggle in all its simplicity.

Beguiling imagery covers the surface of the city. This month's big prize at the Shangri-La Casino on Pushkin Square is a 'prezidentsky kortezh', a familiar sight for Muscovites. Get lucky and you win two Mercedes-Benz saloons and a boxy jeep, complete with blacked-out windows and blue lights for cutting through traffic. For most of the year, members of the Russian parliament entering the Duma building have been watched from up close by the lynx eyes of a BMW on a poster covering the condemned Moskva hotel on the opposite side of the street. Now, Putin is watching. As soon as the state Duma election campaigns began this autumn, the slinky headlamps disappeared from the face of the soon-to-be demolished Moskva, to be replaced by a vast advertisement for United Russia, the majority party whose political platform consists solely of loyalty to the Kremlin. In place of the sleek foreign car, that wordlessly eloquent image of the material seductions of the politics of graft, appeared the words of Putin, equally rich in coded significance. 'Together we must make Russia united, strong. . . ,' said the President, reminding parliamentarians of the price of power in an increasingly authoritarian Russia.

The word 'unity', relayed so resonantly around the land before Sunday's vote, has sinister undertones in this political environment. One election poster in the Metro (where advertising tended to be more populist, xenophobic and crypto-totalitarian than on the highways) featured a map of the Russian Federation, superimposed with the heads of great figures from the national past. Victims of the Soviet system and their persecutors united in unconsenting support for the President's favoured party: Lenin, Stalin and Felix Dzerzhinsky, founders of the police state and the Gulag, appeared with the dissidents Solzhenitsyn, Sakharov and Iosif Brodsky. The Russian past is unified; all plurality, dissension and conflict erased.

The most potent electioneering image for the 'party of power', as United Russia calls itself, was not an official campaign poster but a stark image of national disunity. A photograph released in mid-November showed Mikhail Khodorkovsky, head shaved, staring through the bars of a cage into a CCTV camera at the closed hearing that denied him bail. Accompanying the picture was a warning from the deputy prosecutor, who spoke as though Khodorkovsky had already been convicted. 'Those who are not yet jailed must think hard about what they are doing,' he said. Russia's new rich may not have had to think hard about this public political blackmail by a member of the judiciary, but they thought fast. The day after the publication of this graphic indication of the consequences of powerful dissent, the President appeared before the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs. In regard to state-business relations, Putin declared, there will be no going back to the past. The tycoons greeted this remark with 'stormy applause', as the editors of Communist party proceedings used to say. As several commentators have since pointed out, Putin failed to specify which past he had in mind. Did he mean the Soviet era of nomenklatura criminality in the name of the communist state, or the Yeltsin era of criminality in the name of capitalism? No one mentioned Khodorkovsky. After the meeting, many businessmen vocally distanced themselves from the President's humiliated enemy, and lined up to pledge commitment to United Russia. Many others kept quiet.

Meanwhile, in the conversational life of Moscow one of the noisier themes has been the nature of Khodorkovsky's intentions. …

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