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Vlad Putin and the loneliness of the long distance president

Vladimir Putin unexpectedly pulled out of last weekend’s G8 summit in the USA, sending Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in his place. He gave as his reason the need to finish work setting up his new cabinet, but eminent Moscow journalist and music critic Artemy Troitsky has another explanation for the president’s change of plan.

When the newly installed Russian president suddenly decided not to go to Camp David for the G8 summit, experts and analysts, both in Russia and the West, were ready with all kinds of explanations for this move, what message it was supposed to convey to the assembled world leaders and what political convolutions were behind it. All rubbish – or at best a sprig of parsley to garnish the main reason.  This is a purely personal one: if you are Vladimir Putin, or anyone else for that matter, it is very uncongenial and unpleasant to find yourself in the company of people who universally dislike you, and where behind the cold handshakes and strained smiles you sense a general mood of ‘we’d be better off without you, mate’.   Relations used to be a bit warmer, and Putin always had Berlusconi as a crony in the ‘semi-outcast’ fraction of the G8…but now it’s a complete washout. It wouldn’t be so bad if they hated you, but were also scared of you and thought you were a cool operator – but as a bogeyman you are a zero now.

'Relations used to be a bit warmer, and Putin always had Berlusconi as a crony in the ‘semi-outcast’ fraction of the G8…but now it’s a complete washout.'

You have bored everyone to death with your fancy dress military parades and attempts at blackmail with your hand hovering over the oil and gas taps – the only threat you still pose is the tendency of your planes and sputniks to fall out of the air onto unsuspecting parts of the planet. Not forgetting the doubtful legitimacy of your election, the noisy and personally focussed protest movement and the girl band members you sent to prison to demonstrate ‘stability’.  All the boxes of a ‘loser leader’ ticked.

Vladimir Putin's decision to send PM Medvedev to the Camp David G8 summit was interpreted by many as a snub to the American hosts. Might increasing international isolation have played a greater role? Picture: government.ru

So OK, outside Russia no one, apart from a handful of lost souls, needs Putin. This may not be the best news for him, especially bearing in mind his offshore oil and gas plans, but it’s not critical. But it looks as though things aren’t that much better at home – and here I’m not even talking about the wide-ranging opposition to his rule. In terms of internal politics, we can see through another decision, one even more jaw-dropping than his refusal to meet the G8. In this case, it is true, all the analysts have worked it out: the appointment of Aleksandr Tkachov, a former mechanical engineer, as his special envoy to Abkhazia is less a question of pandering to public opinion than a demonstration of his terminal mistrust of his own, ‘putinist’ elite.

'Vladimir Vladimirovich’s self appointment as president was the act of a petty tyrant and marked the beginning of the slow but sure suicide of the post-Yeltsin regime.'

I’d just like to point out that this step is a much bolder one than, say, Brezhnev co-opting his former driver Chernenko first onto the Central Committee, and then into the Politburo of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party: the party leader had known Chernenko for many years and was evidently fond of him, whereas Putin in effect appointed the first person who was able to impress him with his apparent ‘selfless loyalty’. Note that he only found one such faithful servant in the whole of Russia... Which is not surprising: Vladimir Vladimirovich’s self appointment as president was the act of a petty tyrant and marked the beginning of the slow but sure suicide of the post-Yeltsin regime. It wasn’t enough that middle class hopes of Russia joining the 21st century were dashed; the ambitions of the more dynamic members of the ruling elite and the technocrats were also smashed. Medvedev, of course, was a good boy, but the look in his eyes on 24th September… it’s clear to everyone that the famous ‘job swap’ was carried out by Putin for his own benefit and that of his immediate circle, and to the detriment of just about everyone else. And when at his swearing in Vladimir Vladimirovich made his way along the red carpet, with the beneficiaries of the Russian state lined up to flatter him with their smiles, in the sound of the applause could be heard the same old phrase: ‘we’d be better off without you, mate’.  Outside on the streets at the same time, the same message was being carried in more laconic form through squares and along boulevards around the Kremlin, dodging police truncheons as it went - ‘Russia without Putin’.   

'As for his own family, both his daughters live incognito and abroad, and his wife Lyudmila has been seen in his company twice in the last two years'

So who is left of the ‘national leader’s’ gang – a ‘best friend’, friends? I don’t particularly know about such things, but it looks as though the ranks have thinned: connections with oil baron Timchenko  have to be curtailed and hushed up; rumour has it that the appetites of judo expert Rotenberg became so great that he has fallen out of favour; there are disagreements on issues of political economics with ex finance minister Kudrin, and Putin’s goddaughter Ksenya Sobchak, again according to rumour, has crossed to the other side of the barricades. As for his own family, both his daughters live incognito and abroad, and his wife Lyudmila has been seen in his company twice in the last two years (I won’t go into the rumours)…

'Vlad, our country will never be THAT stable. So maybe it’s YOU we’d be better off without, mate!'

‘Russia without Putin’, ‘Putin and Emptiness’… this picture of total desolation has echoes of Marquez, or even Shakespearean tragedy!  Not that the diminutive figure of Putin deserves such comparisons. But he has deserved his loneliness, and deserved it fully. It is a manmade loneliness, like the streets and avenues of Moscow during the rehearsal of the president’s drive to his swearing-in, cleared of people as though by a neutron bomb.  An ideal Russia, in Putin’s paranoid logic, would be a Russia without its people. You would leave the tame strongmen, to look after the country’s natural resources; the well fed priests to edify and entertain the strongmen, and thousands of inarticulate slaves (from North Korea, say), to pump the natural resources.  And anyone who doesn’t like it can bugger off…    

Vlad, our country will never be THAT stable. So maybe it’s YOU we’d be better off without, mate!  

About the author

Artemy Troitsky is a celebrated Russian activist, cultural critic, university lecturer and journalist. In the eighties, Troitsky played a significant role in the anti-Soviet cultural revolution of the Soviet youth. Troitsky is author of “Back in the U. S. S. R.: True Story of Rock in Russia” (British edition 1987) and “Tusovka: Who's Who in New Soviet Rock Culture” (British edition 1990).


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