Mr. Putin’s One Man Show

As the year drew to a close, an entertainment was organized for the Russian population. It was known as “Putin Answers Questions from Citizens”. Out of the multitudes desperate to talk to the president, 51 fortunate souls, carefully selected and 100 per cent loyal, made it through to him. Disloyal citizens do not get to play the game of “phone the president”.

On the morning of the historic day, as the faithful subjects were preparing to dial the sacred number, a Canadian acquaintance asked me whether I too intended to phone the president. But why should I do that? Where I live the power is turned on, thank goodness, the heating works, and the roof over my head does not leak. If I were living in a small town with icicles hanging from the radiators and the electricity turned off, I would certainly be calling our beloved president.

Calling the Kremlin is like playing the lottery. The game is set up like the promotional contests run by radio stations. The prize goes to the person who calls at just the right time and asks just the right question. Of the tens of thousands of people who call in to complain about their lives, one gets through, and the government takes urgent action to address his grievances. A few lucky ones really do get help after each show, and the show is held on a regular basis.

It’s not hard to figure out why people call the president. What’s harder to fathom is why the Kremlin bothers to put on the annual Putin show. Radio stations run promotional contests in their continual battle for listeners. The Kremlin has no competitors. Putin’s official popularity rating is already over 86 percent, and when the next election rolls around it will no doubt top 100 percent.

The Putin show is the product of tradition and uncertainty. Tradition demands that the autocrat associate with the people, even if neither party particularly enjoys it. But what is the source of the autocrat’s uncertainty that leads to this yearly flirtation with the people?

Not long ago I had occasion to appear on an “interactive” television show. Viewers were invited to call the studio and weigh in on the following question: What does the Constitution guarantee for you — your safety, your civil rights, or nothing at all? By the end of the program 3 percent of callers said the Constitution guarantees their safety, 2 percent said it guarantees their civil rights, while a whopping 95 percent said it guarantees absolutely nothing.

You’d think this would be proof of the people’s total alienation from power. But if you were to ask those same people if they agree with the principles laid out in the Constitution or if they support the current order, their responses would have been entirely different. I’m certain that a majority of Russians would answer both those questions affirmatively, even though they understand perfectly well that the current order is unfair, that most of the population in practice have no rights whatsoever, and so on.

The same illogic applies to Putin’s job approval numbers. A majority of Russians do not support his domestic or foreign policy, as borne out by the same polls usually cited to prove the president’s overwhelming popularity. But when asked if they support the president, people answer yes.

This isn’t really a paradox. In essence the question of supporting the current regime comes down to whether you’re prepared to go on living in this country. It has been made abundantly clear that no other regime is possible. Love it or leave it. And most people go along because they have nowhere else to go.

The people recognize autocracy as the natural order of things, and the president as the real boss. His power is just as natural as Siberian frosts and Moscow slush. In these circumstances, however, the identity of the ruler loses all significance. Consequently, if President Putin is replaced tomorrow by someone else, and state policy does a 180-degree about-turn, the obedient majority of the population will support it just the same. The social and political base for the government’s course is dangerously narrow, and the order that has been established with such difficulty is fraught with new instability.

Not long ago Dmitry Furman wrote that the population of Russia was divided into a passive majority that accepted the rules of the game even though these rules meant that it inevitably lost, and a more dynamic majority that was perhaps capable of winning, but which did not accept the rules. Nevertheless it is precisely this minority – more educated, younger, employed in more dynamic sectors and living in large cities, that is the motor of change. These people are experiencing increasing levels of irritation. Furman compared this situation with the lead-up to 1917 and to Gorbachev’s perestroika. Meanwhile, Furman maintained, society had completed a full cycle. In the early twentieth century, the active majority had been on the left. Late in the century it had been on the right, and now it was again moving leftward.

Still, there is no reason to rush to the conclusion that a second edition of 1917 in Russia is in the offing – especially since changes do not by any means always turn out to be revolutionary.

In the 18th century it was said that the Russian state amounted to an autocracy held in check by palace revolutions. As recent history has shown, you can pull off a political revolution in today’s Russia without hitting the tsar over the head with a snuffbox. You can simply force him to name a successor.

The people only notice palace revolutions when a new face appears on their coins and a new portrait is hung on their walls. For the favorites at court, however, they can be catastrophic.

The regime must strengthen its course. Its decisions must be made irreversible. But how? Unfortunately, the current generation of Kremlin favorites has come up with nothing better than a live call-in show.

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