The stage illusion laid bare


From hunting tigers to faking demonstrations, reality is a rare ingredient in the Kremlin kitchen. After years of controlling the visual narrative, however, there are signs that Russia’s ‘TV tsar’ might just be losing his touch. Peter Pomerantsev reviews ‘Fragile Empire’ by Ben Judah. 

Peter Pomerantsev
8 July 2013

In 2008, at the apex of Putinism, the state TV channel RTR produced a prime-time series called ‘Name of Russia’, where the country voted which historical figures were the nation’s greatest; who were Russia’s role models, idols and fathers. ‘It’s a pity we can’t vote for any of our living leaders’ said one of hosts, the governor of Krasnodar, in an obsequious reference to Putin.


Yale University Press 2013

When the online voting started, Stalin was the outright winner. As this would have been a PR disaster, there was some (alleged) rigging by the producers to fix the final results and get Stalin down to third and the 13th century saint Alexander Nevsky parachuted in as winner.  Most of the top 12 in ‘Name of Russia’ were political leaders. They fell into two categories. First came the beloved despots: Stalin, Lenin, Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great. The trope that Russians crave a ‘strong hand’, a trope Putin propaganda feeds into, was confirmed: there seems something distinctly masochistic in choosing mass murderers as national heroes, several of whom literally killed their own children. But there was a second category of leader in the top ten: Stolypin, Alexander II, Nicholas II…all victims of assassins acting in the name of ‘the people’.

Russian’s relationship with its leaders is perched on a bloody duality: from adoration of the (abusive) father to sudden parricide, love to hate. Reading Ben Judah’s ‘Fragile Empire’, How Russia Fell in and out of Love with Vladimir Putin’, the best one-stop account of the Putin era, you can trace the journey of Russia’s relationships with Putin from love-icon to, for an increasing number, object of derision.

‘The news is the incense with which we bless the actions of the President’ one of the spin doctors behind Putin’s rise tells Judah early in the book. Putin’s power is constructed around a ‘videocracy’ (and the threat of arrest), a TV tsar modeled as a pastiche of every type of Russian hero and ruler: the warrior hunting tigers in the woods; the Ivan the Terrible sorting out the baron-oligarchs; the Peter the Great presiding over the creation of state-corporations floating their IPOs on the LSE; the ‘effective manager’ who, like Stalin, would drag the country to the next plateau of development. New school text books put Putin firmly in the tradition of strong, autocratic Russian leaders


A Russian magazine last week declared Putin the country's 'most eligible bachelor', and devoted a double page spread to his admirers. The praise flowed uneasily. 'I like Putin for his brain, his eloquence and his masculinity,' said TV host Anfisa Chekova.'The one problem is he lies too well' 

But just as there was a cut-and-paste, post-modern collage element to Putin’s image-building, so there was always an ironic note to his adoration. In 2011 I went to a party in one of Moscow’s more glamorous clubs: ‘Rai’ (Heaven). The party was called ‘I want a Prime Minister’ (Putin was PM at the time).  Strippers twirled round poles mouthing words of love to Putin, the city’s rich and beautiful drank toasts to his name and wore Putin face masks. The event wasn’t meant as satire to undermine Putin, its tone was more complex. ‘We will venerate you’ the party-goers seemed to be saying, ‘but at the same time we understand that we live in a sophisticated, 21st century where this sort of adoration is absurd, and just as you are playing at being a good leader we are only playing at being your loyal subjects while we both get on with the real business of making money…though of course we know we will be put in prison if we ever stand up to you and that makes our grimaces all the wilder’. In a similar vein a pop single was released called ‘I want a Man like Putin’; students at the prestigious Moscow State University published a nudie calendar in Putin’s honour with sexy students saying:

‘You put out the forest fires, but I’m still burning’…

‘How about a third time’ (a pun on sexual desire and Putin’s ambition to become President for a third term).

Was this subversive? Sycophantic? It was both and neither, an expression of the twisted power strategies of 21st century Russia, a reflection of Putin’s own camp masquerade of ruler imagery. If Moscow has a favourite artist in the 21st century, it's Jeff Koons. Its favorite photographer David Lachappelle.


Love icon or object of satire?  The 2011 'I want a prime minister!' party had elements of both

As Judah travels out of Moscow and deeper into Putin’s rule, he reveals the hologram-like nature of the videocracy. One trip takes him to Nizhny Tagil. A factory town in the Urals, Tagil featured in a 2011 TV show, where Putin spoke to people across the nation in a live video conference. Standing in overalls in front of a tank, workers from Tagil promised Putin that if protests against him continued they would 'come to Moscow and defend our stability'. But when Judah arrives in Tagil he finds the ‘workers’ were actually PR men and managers, who in a piece of political amateur dramatics dressed up in (suspiciously well-ironed) overalls.

Rooted in such ethereal foundations, Putin’s image could always mutate, become scrambled and warped. In the Far East, Judah investigates the case of ‘the Partisans’, youths who have been killing corrupt cops and who are seen as Robin Hood figures for the murders. Locals tell Judah Putin is wrecking Russia, his corrupt bureaucrats bleeding it dry. By making himself the face of the resurgent new Russia, Putin becomes the face of all of its corruption too — in a country where, Judah writes, ‘34 % of the nation always feel like killing corrupt officials, whilst a further 38% percent sometimes feel like killing them’.  And as he tries to act out parodies of Russia’s beloved autocrats a cultural logic dictates Putin has to inherit the roles of the deposed rulers too: ‘the ghost of Nicholas II pursues Putin’, writes Judah.


Fragment from Putin's 2011 video conference with factory workers in the Uralvagonzavod tank factory. The 'workers' were in fact PR men and managers. Photo: kremlin.ru

Earlier this year a poll by the Levada Center showed that Russians now consider Brezhnev the greatest 20th century Russian leader. Brezhnev had been absent from the top ratings in the 2008 show, and the new poll is at least partly the result of Kremlin propaganda to trumpet the Brezhnev era on schools and TV, with Putin’s ‘stability’ frequently compared to Brezhnev’s rule. The Kremlin is actively promoting the idea of a long-lasting, ageing ruler and endless stagnation as an ideal rather than a slow, grey disaster. Putin appears to be trying to find a way out of the historical choice between Stalin and Nicholas II. In the poll Brezhnev received just one percentage point more that Lenin, with Stalin and Nicholas II close behind. It feels like a narrow escape route.

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