Magazine article The New Yorker

THE PUTIN TOOTHPICK; MOSCOW POSTCARD Series: 3/5

Magazine article The New Yorker

THE PUTIN TOOTHPICK; MOSCOW POSTCARD Series: 3/5

Article excerpt

Among the many signs that the democratic impulse in Russia is beating a gloomy retreat these days is the appearance in restaurants and cafes of the "Putin toothpick."

This requires a word of explanation, perhaps. On March 14th, Russians will go to the polls to choose a President, and they will almost certainly reelect Vladimir Putin with the biggest landslide since the days of the Supreme Soviet and single-candidate elections. The polls show Putin running (with little evident exertion) between seventy and eighty per cent; none of his Lilliputian competitors have cracked five. Putin is so popular, so vaunted for his image of strength and stability, that the atmosphere of national reverence combines elements of the Soviet and the erotic. Later this month, in time for Putin's reelection, a female trio called Singing Together will release the album "A Man Like Putin"; the title track is a pop fantasy about a dream boyfriend--"full of strength and free of drink, who wouldn't hurt me or desert me." The song was such a hit that a city in Siberia ordered singing toys--monkeys, raccoons--that play it.

Enter the Putin toothpick. Last week, on Russian television, Yekaterina Chizhova, a representative of a St. Petersburg company called Prosperiti, went on the air, swooning, "Finally, we have a President we can be proud of." Comrade Chizhova then discussed her product: "flosstiks" that come in packets, with the President's portrait emblazoned on the front. Prosperiti also makes the same product available under the portrait of Koni, Putin's black Lab, who, as all Russians know, gave birth on the eve of last December's parliamentary elections (a sweep for the pro-Putin slates). Koni's picture is accompanied by the slogan "Our Koni Is a Mother Hero" (the official title granted to highly fertile women by a Soviet state anxious to raise the country's birth rate).

The Yeltsin years were rife with lingering features of the Soviet experience, but not this kind of glorification. Putin's portraits have become indispensable decorations in government offices. Books about him have begun to resemble the lives of the saints rather than critical biography. Legislators, athletes, artists, and movie stars routinely appear on state television with words of unctuous praise for him. There is not the slightest indication that Putin is displeased with the adulation. When he was asked how he felt about the portraits of him hanging in the offices of Russia's countless state bureaucrats, Putin shrugged and said that he saw nothing wrong with it: a President is a state symbol, like the flag or the anthem. …

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