How far can the resistance to Vladimir Putin go?


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Aug 26, 2008
The Abyss

On the night of November 20th, two weeks before elections for the State Duma, Vladimir Putin set aside the cares of the Kremlin and went to the Olympic SportComplex for an ultimate-fighting match—a “no rules” heavyweight bout between a Cyclopean Russian named Feodor (the Last Emperor) Yemelianenko and a self-described anarchist from Olympia, Washington, named Jeff (the Snowman) Monson. The bout was broadcast nationally on Rossiya-2, one of the main state television channels.

Putin, wearing a blue suit and no tie, was at ringside. He has always been eager to project the macho posture of a muzhik, a real man. He has had himself photographed riding horses bare-chested, tracking tigers, shooting a whale with a crossbow, piloting a firefighting jet, swimming a Siberian river, steering a Formula One race car, befriending Jean-Claude Van Damme, and riding with a motorcycle gang. Once, on national television, he tried to bend a frying pan with his bare hands. He did not quite succeed, but the effort was appreciated. And now ultimate fighting: the beery crowd of twenty thousand—some prosperous, some less so—were his own, Putin’s people.

Yemelianenko and Monson were of a rough equivalence: heads shaved, two enormous sacks of rocks, though the Russian was distinguished by his unstained skin; Monson had tattoos from ankle to neck, including two in crowd-friendly Cyrillic—svoboda and solidarnost’. The gesture got him nowhere. Almost from the start, the Russian dominated the fight. Yemelianenko, with a deft and powerful kick, snapped a bone in Monson’s leg, causing the American to limp pitifully.

But, even as Yemelianenko took command, steadily reducing Monson to a swollen, bloody pulp—a source of pleasure to the crowd—it was hard to tell if Putin was enjoying himself. The camera flashed to him now and then. He barely betrayed a smile. His face, now smoothed with Botox and filler (it is said), is more enigmatic than ever. What was more, he had larger concerns. He knew that, no matter how hard his operatives tried to get out the vote in the provinces and massage the results, the Kremlin party, United Russia, was going to lose ground.

At the end of the bout—a unanimous decision for Yemelianenko—the Prime Minister climbed through the ropes to pay tribute to the loser and to congratulate his countryman. By this time, the American handlers were tenderly helping their warrior to the dressing room. Monson could no longer walk. His lips were as fat as bicycle tires.

Putin had a kind word for Monson (“a real man”) and paid Yemelianenko the ultimate compliment of Russian masculinity, calling him a “nastoyashii Russki bogatyr”—a genuine Russian hero. As Putin spoke, and as the national audience watched, many in the crowd started to jeer and whistle. This had never happened to Putin before, not once in two four-year terms as President, not in three-plus years as Prime Minister. And yet now, having announced his intention to reassume the Presidency in March, possibly for another twelve years, he was experiencing an unmistakable tide of derision.

When I first watched the YouTube video of the event—a video that went viral across Russia—I thought immediately of the May Day parade twenty-one years ago, when I stood in Red Square and watched as thousands of people suddenly stopped marching across the cobblestones, looked up at Mikhail Gorbachev and the rest of the Soviet leadership perched atop Lenin’s tomb, and shouted their rage. “Resign!” some cried. “Shame on you!” They unfurled banners reading “Down with the Empire and Red Fascism!” and “Communists: Have No Illusions. You Are Bankrupt.” They waved the flags of the runaway Baltic republics. They waved the red flags of the Soviet Union with the hammer and sickle cut out.

A Russian Orthodox priest hoisted a sign reading, “Mikhail Sergeyevich, Christ Has Risen!” With the help of a pair of binoculars, I had an excellent view of Gorbachev’s expression, and those of the other leaders, as they shuffled around in shock. There was no Botox yet in Moscow, and these men were visibly alarmed. After more than twenty minutes, when the rambunctious parade showed no signs of moving on, Gorbachev signalled to the leadership, and they slunk off the tomb and through a door back into the Kremlin.

During the late eighties and the nineties, state television was electric with argument, truth-telling, irony, hysteria, and scandal. Under Putin, TV news is exquisitely monitored and unwatchably bland. You can often say what you want in print, on the radio, and on the Web, but state television is, in the eyes of the Kremlin, what counts. The night of the bout, the bureaucrats who run Rossiya-2 knew their job; when they showed taped highlights later on, they washed out the sound of the jeering. One of the leaders of a Kremlin-organized pro-Putin youth group called Nashi declared that the ruckus at the arena was nothing other than the impatience of fans eager to get to the rest rooms. But on the viral video the dissatisfaction was clear. The leading opposition blogger and activist, Alexei Navalny, even headlined his fevered post “The End of an Epoch.”

It is not the end of an epoch. It would be hasty, in fact, to declare the event the beginning of the end. Any comparison to the May Day events of 1990, much less to Tahrir Square, last winter—an event discussed constantly in political circles in Moscow—discounts the fact that millions of Russians remain apolitical and atomized, and have learned to live with a system that provides few legal guarantees but does offer some economic advancement. Yet even before the Duma elections something was clear. Despite Putin’s high approval ratings—–sixty-something per cent, down from the mid-eighties, in 2007—the Russian people can no longer be portrayed as uniformly bovine and apathetic, anesthetized by stability.

United Russia is deeply resented for its sense of cynical entitlement and its colossally corrupt relations with the oil, gas, and timber industries. Viktor Shenderovich, who, before being blackballed under Putin, was a subversive political comedian on television, wrote on the Web site Daily Journal that the Prime Minister, who prides himself on his populism, had encountered at the Olympic arena not the disgruntled liberal intelligentsia but the narod, the people. “After these significant boos and the cry of ‘Get lost,’ the end for Putinism could be very near or very far,” he wrote. “It makes no sense to guess the timing. But it’s a fact that a point of no return has been passed.”


Continued here:
A lot of interesting stuff here. Ol' Putty seems to be continuing in a long line of incredible corruption.

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