Winston Churchill’s famous description of Russia pointed out her enigmatic nature. The great man had a point: Russia is indeed full of mysteries. Some of them, however, are relatively easy to solve, such as why Russian sports shops sold 500,000 baseball bats last year, but only three baseballs and one baseball glove. Even allowing that this great sporting nation may play the game to a different set of rules, the disparity is puzzling – but not very.
Other mysteries may present more of an intellectual challenge, but the presidential election forthcoming on 4 March isn’t one of them. Col. Putin will win, and one has to compliment him on a ground-breaking electoral strategy aimed at negating some of the bad publicity the good colonel has received over the last 12 years.
The task wasn’t easy, for some of the publicity was so bad it would scupper even a Mugabe campaign. Just take the dossier published by Marina Salie, who in 1992 headed the Petersburg Council commission investigating Putin’s business machinations when he was still a lowly deputy mayor. Among other choice bits, the documents showed that Putin had signed deals to export $100 million worth of raw materials in exchange of food. The raw materials dutifully left Russia. No food came back in return – this at a time of rationing in Petersburg.
Onwards and upwards: Putin’s current 12-year record as national leader is signposted by such milestones as the second (genocidal) Chechen war, the gassing of dozens of hostages together with their kidnappers at a Moscow theatre, 40-odd opposition journalists and politicians ‘whacked’ (to use Putin’s own jargon) in dark alleys, a spot of nuclear terrorism in the centre of London, free press suppressed, terrorist regimes armed, palaces built all over Russia, shady links with dubious ‘exporters’, dozens of cronies elevated to riches, stroppy billionaires sent to concentration camps – just tell me where to stop.
So what kind of strategy would have steered Putin to his present leadership in the polls (55 percent, with the nearest rival at eight percent, all of them together at 28)? The kind that could stand our own politicians in good stead: ‘Putin is the lesser evil!’ Yes, he might have done all those unpleasant things. Yes, he may be one of the richest men in the world (something claimed by the political scientist Belakovsky in an interview to Die Welt). Yes, his use of a figurehead ‘president’ Medvedev to keep his own chair warm for a few years was cynical. But, if not Putin, WHO THEN?
Surely not Gennady Zyuganov, the communist leader? Those chaps had their innings for 74 years, and you know what happened. And not ‘Mad Vlad’ Zhirinovsky, the music-hall fascist who wants Russian soldiers to ‘wash their boots in the Indian Ocean’? Mikhail Prokhorov, an ‘oligarch’ envied and therefore loathed for his billions? No, absolutely not. Putin, scream all government-controlled TV channels (which is to say all TV channels), may not be an angel. But at least he is a strong leader, a career KGB officer who won’t take any nonsense from the West. HE IS THE LESSER EVIL.
It has to be said that even Russians who have lived in the West for decades struggle to counter this eminently realistic strategy. For example, in an article written for a Russian on-line magazine, Vladimir Bukovsky, who used to be tortured in KGB psychiatric wards by Putin’s colleagues, came out in favour of Prokhorov, all six-foot-eight of him. Prokhorov, according to Bukovsky, has two irrefutable assets going for him. First, if elected, he promised to donate 17 of his 18 billion dollars to charity, keeping just a miserly one billion for his day-to-day expenses (Mitt Romney, ring your office). Second, he has never been directly implicated in murder. So fine, he may have been arrested by the dastardly French for running a prostitution ring, but wasn’t he eventually released without charge? What more do you need? If this isn’t the stuff of which landslides are made, I don’t know what is.
And the real democratic opposition? It doesn’t exist. Oh sure, there are a few websites filled with longings for the kind of politics Russia has never had, and some of the writers have a genuine literary talent. What they don’t have is any clue of how any other system can possibly function in Russia. Russia, they claim on rather feeble evidence, is ready for democracy, no matter what the naysayers are naysaying. Everybody is ready for democracy – just look at Lybia and Iraq. It’s never too late for freedom.
And how do we define freedom? Here semantics comes in handy. The old Russian word for freedom is volia, which is a cognate of ‘will’. True enough, freedom to a Russian is tantamount to a licence to do as he will – not to have his person and property protected by just laws. That sort of thing is too legalistic for Russians, too unspiritual – too Western for words. Let the Brits have their laws; the Russians have souls instead. Characteristically, Nikolai Lossky’s standard text The History of Russian Philosophy devotes 57 pages to the metaphysical thinker Soloviov and only two to all the Russian philosophers of law combined. And things haven’t changed much since the tsars: in a recent poll 80 percent of Russians stated that a strong leader is much more important than any set of laws.
Given such a political climate, a winning electoral strategy writes itself. The odd picture of Putin’s muscular naked torso, a few more of him holding a rifle, riding a steed, displaying his prowess at martial arts or sporting a military uniform, and Boris is your uncle. And specific promises? Why, if elected, Col. Putin will invest $750 billion into rebuilding Russia’s military power. So Russia will become as great as it was under Stalin, especially considering the rate at which the West is disarming.
The good colonel can’t lose and he probably won’t even have to cheat. For IF NOT PUTIN, WHO ELSE? No one. And few people will shed a tear for a country in which there’s no alternative to a KGB thug, who’s proud to be one. ‘There’s no such thing as ex-KGB,’ Putin once declared. ‘This is for life.’ Quite.