Putin’s retreat — beginning at the gates of Moscow

President Medvedev recently sacked the longstanding Moscow mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, despite his closeness to Putin. This move, redolent of Soviet politics, won him no points and now the activities of the new mayor are threatening to affect Putin too. Regular changes of government are essential, explains Vladimir Pastukhov

Vladimir Pastukhov
1 December 2010

Perhaps without realizing it himself, Vladimir Putin has become the second victim of Sergei Sobyanin’s artless PR.

The first victim was Dmitry Medvedev, who lost, rather than won, points in the campaign organized by the state TV channels to discredit Yury Luzhkov. This has nothing to do with the attitude of people in Russia generally, and Muscovites in particular, towards Yury Luzhkov himself. The methods that were used against Luzhkov proved capable of discrediting any goals, even the most noble ones. They are a clear illustration of the fact that the shadow of Brezhnev’s ideologist, Mikhail Suslov, has settled in the Kremlin for good: the two different letters on the office door plate of the chief ideologist [Vladislav Surkov ed] make little difference to the content of Kremlin policy.


The new mayor Sergei Sobyanin rushes from one corner of the enormous city to another: wherever he looks, something seems to have broken down.

We have now witnessed the second phase of an aggressive PR campaign, whose aim is to imprint on people’s conscious (or rather subconscious) image of Sergei Sobyanin the idea of a great reformer and fighter against stagnation and corruption in the city. Every day viewers, listeners and readers are swamped with news items that are not unlike reports from the front line.

The new mayor rushes from one corner of the enormous city to another: wherever he looks, something seems to have broken down, gone out of date, or reached a dead end. The metro is in disrepair, the trams have stopped moving, the roads have collapsed, and there is no strategy or tactics. And worst of all, there is thievery everywhere! You start to ask yourself in horror how Moscow has survived all this time.

Until quite recently we were genuinely delighted with all of this and singing from the same hymn sheet as the state television channels. We were glad that the new “bourgeois” Moscow was so stable and prosperous. We were delighted with the wise administration, which had steered us through the bleak years and saved the city from inevitable destruction. We even quite liked their new buildings. We prayed for stability, and regarded any change as negative.  In the stormy sea of political vicissitudes Moscow’s unchanging Moscow administration was a rock of hope and a bastion of strength.

But the problem is that Moscow is not Singapore. It doesn’t exist in isolation: it’s surrounded by an enormous country, where so far nothing has changed.  In that context the new Moscow mayor’s frantic activity gives rise to some gloomy thoughts.

Whether you want to or not, you begin to understand the profound inner similarity between Luzhkov and Putin. It was no coincidence that Putin felt such an affinity for Luzhkov, and didn’t publicly spurn him when he was dismissed from office. Putin is the Luzhkov of our times on a national scale.

In the eyes of the people, there is no doubting his historic achievements in managing to establish a degree of stability. He is the guarantee that our daily lives will not change (at least for those who are more or less satisfied with their lives – and they are in the majority). We extol our well-fed country without noticing that everything in it is rotten. Suddenly Sobyanin comes on the scene with his irrepressible energy. The contrast is striking.

Without wishing to do so, Sobyanin is now discrediting Putin. His war with dishonest officials makes one think that if there is any place where officials are not being dismissed, it is only because there the local “boss” is still in place. Voluntarily or involuntarily, you start to think: the smart and talented Luzhkov fell asleep on the throne five to seven years ago, intoxicated with the fumes of his own infallibility, bound hand and foot by friendly and family ties with dozens of official, commercial and criminal groups, worn out by the constant battles and with his gaze focused on history. If he could reduce a powerful city like Moscow to this miserable state, then what might not be done under similar circumstances to the whole of Russia?

People must leave their posts at the right time. That’s how the world works. It applies equally to a university professor, the head doctor at a hospital, the mayor of a city or the president in the Kremlin.

Vladimir Pastukhov

There is a simple truth. People must leave their posts at the right time. That’s how the world works. It applies equally to a university professor, the head doctor at a hospital, the mayor of a city or the president in the Kremlin. How can there be any talk of a third term, if two and a half terms have proved sufficient to plunge the country into stagnation? There’s almost nothing for which Putin personally can be blamed. It’s just that there has to be an injection of new blood from time to time. If not, the country stares disaster in the face.

This is the conclusion that people will subconsciously draw when they observe the uproar of propaganda surrounding the activities of Moscow’s new mayor. Almost certainly not the result the Kremlin political PR strategists were hoping for, but a result nonetheless.

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Is this an opportunity for a realignment around a green democratic transformation?

Join us for a free live discussion on Thursday 22 October, 5pm UK time/12pm EDT.

Hear from:

Paolo Gerbaudo Sociologist and political theorist, director of the Centre for Digital Culture at King’s College London and author of ‘The Mask and the Flag: Populism and Global Protest’ and ‘The Digital Party: Political Organisation and Online Democracy’, and of the forthcoming ‘The Great Recoil: Politics After Populism and Pandemic’.

Chantal Mouffe Emeritus Professor of Political Theory at the University of Westminster in London. Her most recent books are ‘Agonistics. Thinking the World Politically’, ‘Podemos. In the Name of the People’ and ‘For a Left Populism’.

Spyros A. Sofos Researcher and research coordinator at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Lund University and author of ‘Nation and Identity in Contemporary Europe’, ‘Tormented by History’ and ‘Islam in Europe: Public Spaces and Civic Networks'.

Chair: Walid el Houri Researcher, journalist and filmmaker based between Berlin and Beirut. He is partnerships editor at openDemocracy and lead editor of its North Africa, West Asia project.

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