As that great philosopher Joseph Stalin once said, “There’s a man, there’s a problem. No man, no problem.”
Too bloody right, thinks Vlad Putin. Alexei Navalny, that hireling of the CIA, MI6 and George Soros, is definitely a problem. And one that Vlad has tried, so far unsuccessfully, to solve Stalin’s way. But you can’t get decent help these days. Today’s FSB nincompoops can’t even poison a man so he stays poisoned.
So what do you know, that underpoisoned rat produces a worldwide sensation with his film about Vlad’s Gelendjik palace, so far seen by 80 million people. Odd, that. What’s the big deal? A man has a right to get a little retirement bolthole to brighten up the twilight of his life.
And what’s this with hundreds of thousands braving Covid, frost and police truncheons to scream “Putin is a thief!” and “Putin out!”? Stalin, that sainted father to his people, would have spanked them with tanks and orders to fire at will. But Vlad can’t afford that sort of thing, not yet anyway. So what’s a chap to do?
Oh well, it’s hard to second-guess another man’s thoughts. So I’d better tell you my own, always the safer option.
To begin with, I was one of the 80 million viewers of the Navalny film. As I found out, Vlad’s estate is 39 times the size of Monaco, ruled by a prince. Could this make Vlad a prince 39 times over?
Now there’s a thought. If Vlad resigns, as the demonstrators demanded on Saturday, he could declare his bailiwick a sovereign principality, with himself as its hereditary monarch. Perhaps he could strike a deal with Navalny. You become president of Russia, I became prince of Gelendjik, no hard feelings. And especially no legal proceedings. Okay?
I’m impressed with Vlad’s palace – Albert of Monaco, eat your heart out. Yes, aesthetically Vlad’s retirement bolthole makes the sets of Bollywood films look like paragons of subtle refinement. But I love the eclecticism of the place.
If it’s true that a man’s house reflects his personality, then one has to admire the vast expanse of Vlad’s soul. Nice to see the sacred and profane dovetailing so seamlessly.
The sacred is served by a detached mock-Byzantine church for Vlad to offer genuflecting devotions to his recently acquired God. The profane is caressed by a pole-dancing room for Vlad to pay manual tribute to his favourite art genre. Pure Hegel, that, the unity and struggle of opposites. It’s all good, provided Vlad remains sufficiently compos mentis to match the right rituals with the right place.
As to the billion-pound cost of the cottage, that’s no reason to tar Vlad with the corruption brush. And stop trying to calculate how much and for how long a man on £99,000 a year has to save to end up with a billion quid. It’s not Vlad’s money, is it? His own billions are safely tucked away in numbered offshore accounts all over the world.
The palace money came from friends expressing their gratitude for Vlad’s sage leadership. A hundred or so do a whip-around, 10 mil each, pocket change really, and Joe’s your uncle, Nikita’s your aunt. Up goes the palace. Happiness all around.
However, as the weekend events showed, happiness isn’t really all around. Some 250,000 Russians came out to demand that Navalny get out of prison and Putin out of the Kremlin. That doesn’t seem like a lot in a country of 140 million, and neither are the sheer numbers unique: Moscow alone has been known to field over 100,000 protesters in the past.
But there’s the rub: this time Moscow wasn’t alone, far from it. Demonstrations took place in 112 cities, and if in the past Moscow accounted for 80-90 per cent of all protesters, on Saturday she only boasted a quarter, if that.
Moreover, the action was perfectly coordinated. Protesters carried all the same posters everywhere and shouted all the same demands, none strictly local. Such things don’t happen by themselves – coordination bespeaks coordinators.
Even far-away places now seem to have a core of 100-200 anti-Putin activists capable of organising mass action – and inspiring people to fight the police and the elements. That is a promising development, unprecedented during Putin’s reign.
The elements were inclement on Saturday. The temperature in Yakutsk dropped down to -50C, which still didn’t keep hundreds of protesters off the streets. Yekaterinburg had a balmy -30C, and the turnout was higher, upwards of 10,000.
It’s not only geography that matters, but also demography. Anti-Putin protests used to feature mostly old codgers with a durable anti-Soviet chip on the shoulder. This time around, about two thirds of the protesters were young, in the 18 to 35 bracket – Putin’s children fancying parricide.
The police treated the protests with customary brutality, yanking people out of the crowd and busting their heads with truncheons. Photographs of such unlawful treatments of lawful protests have filled the net, with blood flowing freely. One middle-aged woman had the temerity to ask the cops why they were beating up a youngster. The reply came in the shape of a mighty kick that put her in a coma.
But, in another new development, this time some of the violence was reciprocated. Fights were breaking out, and one photograph shows two young lads playing footie with a policeman’s helmet (his head wasn’t in it). The police still had the upper hand in violence, but they no longer had the monopoly on it.
What’s going to happen now to all the players, Navalny, Putin and the people? Here I have to leave reportage for speculation, which is a notoriously soft ground to tread on. However, some things are reasonably clear.
Navalny certainly has a talent for what some may describe as inspiring the masses and others as rabble-rousing. He has become the focal point of dissent, and the only political figure seen as a plausible challenger to Vlad.
He is trying to unify various factions in what may become a sustained protest movement, to which end Navalny is uttering plenty of liberal phrases. But his heart lies elsewhere.
Navalny’s problem is with Putin’s epic corruption, not his declared political sentiments. While Putin’s may indeed be only declared and Navalny’s deeply felt, the sentiments are similar: Russian nationalism, empire building, suspicion (if not hatred) of the West and so forth.
Hence one hopes that Navalny will only act as a battering ram breaching the wall surrounding the kleptofascist regime, not as its one-for-one replacement. But such hopes are often forlorn.
Navalny may not get the chance to challenge Putin in earnest. Vlad has shown that he doesn’t mind turning Navalny into a martyr, and he may still feel Navalny is more dangerous alive than dead. After all, another plausible challenger, Boris Nemtsov, was shot dead 100 yards from the Kremlin six years ago, and no mass opposition has rallied around his body.
Hence I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of Navalny suffering a sudden heart attack in prison. Or else being released and then run over by a runaway driver in an unlicensed car. Such things do happen.
However, there are signs of Putin preparing an orderly retreat from power. Rumours of his deteriorating health, if not fatal illness, abound in Russia, and Vlad’s energy conspicuously falls short of that of the youthful protesters.
Two months ago he pushed through the Duma a constitutional amendment guaranteeing lifelong legal immunity for former presidents, which is to say himself. That he needed such an amendment was taken by many as a sign of impending retirement plans. The palace itself is another such sign: Vlad doesn’t really need it while still in power.
Then again, there exists the Stalin option of unrestrained terror. Vlad may indeed ratchet up oppression, but I don’t think the River Moskva is likely to foam with much blood: Vlad is no Stalin, and, more important, today’s Russians are no Soviets.
They may share Vlad’s resentment of the West, and they may buy the imperial myth of Russian spirituality trumping Western materialism. The Russians may even accept some thievery on their rulers’ part. As any reader of Gogol, Chekhov, Tolstoy and such great historians as Karamzin, Soloviov and Kliuchevsky will confirm, that’s nothing new.
What is new, however, is wide and instant availability of data in an Internet age. And the official data show that at least 20 million Russians live below the poverty line of £170 a month – the actual number may be twice as high.
Against that backdrop the palaces of the ruling gangsters, even more modest ones than Putin’s purloined fiefdom, may arouse justifiable and exploitable resentment. If what we are seeing is indeed an inchoate protest movement, rather than isolated outbursts, then it can’t be short of suitably incendiary messages.
The ruling junta, on the other hand, isn’t short of truncheons, bullets and prison cells. History shows that these sometimes triumph over messages, and sometimes they don’t. I wouldn’t want to venture a guess which way it’ll go this time.
However, if you insisted, I’d suggest that Putin’s political days are numbered. But whether or not his kleptofascist regime will be replaced by something better is a different story altogether. I refer those interested to Russia’s entire history.