Is Vladimir Putin's adolescent Russia ever going to grow up?

It's now 21 years since the end of the Soviet Union, but Russia's politics are still strikingly teenage in nature.

That year, autumn sneaked up and ended a hot summer. By the end of August, the evenings were already damp and dark.

In many countries, the age of 21 is considered a time when you understand at least a little of who you are, and what you would like to be. 21 years after the end of the Soviet Union, Russia still seems to lack a clear idea of what it wants to be when it grows up.

One enduring symbol of that uncertainty is an absence which has persisted since the damp end to the summer of 1991. Then, as the Communist Party’s grip on power was loosened for the last time, demonstrators tore down the statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the forerunner of the KGB. It was the ultimate insult to the secret police, for the monument had stood in Lubyanka Square in front of their headquarters.

The place where the statue stood remains empty. The country has not decided what it stands for. Russia is like the 21-year-old who has put away some childish things, but not abandoned adolescent uncertainty, or rashness.

The jailing of Pussy Riot is the most obvious recent example. Rashness persists in the Kremlin’s idea of news management, in spite of the highly-paid western PRs they have, for years now, hired to make themselves look good.

Should Pussy Riot have been sent down for playing up in the cathedral? Many western observers seem to think the punk protesters were hard done by. 

Whatever your opinion, it seems the Russian authorities made a mess of the way they handled it: show your mates how tough you are, and don’t worry until later about what anyone else things – almost a typical adolescent attitude. A lesser punishment would not have been nearly such big news.

The forerunners of this winter’s protests demanding fair elections were those led by the former world chess champion, Garry Kasparov, and a motley collection of other opponents of Vladimir Putin.

In the oil boom times of 2006-7, they struggled to attract even a couple of thousand demonstrators to their rallies in the heart of a city of millions.

Hugely outnumbering the protesters, riot police came by the busload. When not standing steely-faced behind their shields, they could be chatty – perhaps glad of the trip to the capital. "Do you get paid extra for working on a Saturday?" one asked me once on a sleety December afternoon.

"No," I replied.

"We do," he smirked, shoving his shield into the back of a van, his shift finished.

A senior member of the Presidential administration once asked me why western journalists bothered to cover such small demonstrations. I replied that it was not the demonstrations which were newsworthy, but the police response.

It was the same overreaction in the handling of the Pussy Riot trial. The lesson in how to turn a stunt into an international story would have dismayed any PR trying to make Russia look good.

As part of my research for a chapter in my new book, Reporting Conflict, on the role of PR agents in contemporary coverage of war, I sought out a former BBC colleague who had the insider’s knowledge. Angus Roxburgh was a former Moscow correspondent who later spent time advising President Putin’s administration on their international media image.                  

"They didn’t really understand it," he recalled. "We taught them what we could, but they came into it with strange ideas about how the western press worked. I think they felt that everybody else did do it, that all other governments had PR people working for them as well – but didn’t completely understand it."

They still don’t. The way that the Kremlin projects itself on the international stage frequently suggests an adolescent combination of "don’t know, don’t care".

President Medvedev may have left office mocked as his powerful mentor’s marionette, but  his presidency – even if Vladimir Putin remained in charge in reality – should be remembered for one important idea: "legal nihilism". More than once, Mr Medvedev identified this as the main problem facing his country – manifesting itself in massive corruption, and a total absence of principle in public life.

That’s why last winter’s protests were such a nightmare for the Kremlin. Here were people who believed in something – and it was not Russia’s leadership.   

Twenty one years into their new existence, at least part of the Russian electorate is growing up. The political elite still snarls like the punk youth they profess to despise.     

They will get away with it as long as people put up with it. "Russian armies can’t march into other countries while Russian shoppers carry on marching into Selfridges," David Cameron declared in 2008 when Russia went to war with Georgia.

Yet no one will do anything as long as British companies keep making money in Russia, or entertain the hope of doing so. Britain ended up looking impotent over the 2006 murder in London of Alexander Litvinenko; the west as a whole looked toothless over civilian casualties in Chechnya in the 1990s.

Change, if and when it comes, will have to come from inside Russia. Despite the coverage which the Pussy Riot case got outside the country, it did not inspire the same passions within – at least not on a wide scale.

Russians whose childhoods were the late Soviet period, and the bandit capitalism which followed, and who are now in their 30s, might be expected to be the revolutionary class. In some cases – those who are active in the protest movement - they are. In others, memories of the chaos of their early years makes them wary of radical change. Those with the education, skills, and contacts, seem often to have chosen to emigrate rather than demonstrate.   

21 years later, the events of 1991 still cast a shadow over Russia. The secret police remember losing the statue of their founder. In the shape of Mr Putin and others, they recovered their power, while remembering that it once vanished. That explains their reluctance to let any dissent – even a punk protest – go unpunished.

The anti-Soviet demonstrators of those years can reflect on their experience. The statue of Dzerzhinsky may not have returned – the strength of the security forces has. Their successors who marched against the presidential election result, and the imprisonment of punks, might look to Egypt for their lessons. The "Facebook revolution" has not brought a government of young activists.  

The lesson for them all, and for those of us outside Russia, is that in a time of legal nihilism, political tension, and economic uncertainty (Russia has never prospered in times of low oil prices) nothing can be counted on to last. As Reuters reported recently, President Putin’s long-standing popularity is on the slide.

Mr Putin’s recent role as saviour of the Siberian cranes is the latest of his hard man stunts which have been widely reported in Russia, sniggered at in the west, and satirized by the more subversive of his compatriots (on this occasion, by showing the former KGB man photoshopped atop a shark). 

As Russian politics move into adulthood, it may be the people who came up with the last one who eventually have the last laugh.

James Rodgers is Lecturer in Journalism at City University, London. He is the author of Reporting Conflict (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), and for many years worked in Russia as a journalist for both Reuters Television and the BBC.

 

Opposition activists protest against the alleged mass electoral fraud in December 2011. Photograph: Getty Images
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What Donald Trump could learn from Ronald Reagan

Reagan’s candidacy was built on more than his celebrity. Trump not only lacks experience as an elected official, he isn’t part of any organised political movement.

“No one remembers who came in second.” That wisdom, frequently dispensed by the US presidential candidate Donald Trump, came back to haunt him this week. Trump’s loss in the Iowa Republican caucuses to the Texas senator Ted Cruz, barely beating Senator Marco Rubio of Florida for second place, was the first crack in a campaign that has defied all expectations.

It has been a campaign built on Trump’s celebrity. Over the past eight months, his broad name recognition, larger-than-life personality and media savvy have produced a theatrical candidacy that has transfixed even those he repels. The question now is whether that celebrity will be enough – whether a man so obsessed with being “Number One” can bounce back from defeat.

Iowa isn’t everything, after all. It didn’t back the eventual Republican nominee in 2008 or 2012. Nor, for that matter, in 1980, when another “celebrity” candidate was in the mix. That was the year Iowa picked George H W Bush over Ronald Reagan – the former actor whom seasoned journalists dismissed as much for his right-wing views as for his “B-movie” repertoire. But Reagan regrouped, romped to victory in the New Hampshire primary and rode a wave of popular support all the way to the White House.

Trump might hope to replicate that success and has made a point of pushing the Reagan analogy more generally. Yet it is a comparison that exposes Trump’s weaknesses and his strengths.

Both men were once Democrats who came later in life to the Republican Party, projecting toughness, certainty and unabashed patriotism. Trump has even adopted Reagan’s 1980 campaign promise to “make America great again”. Like Reagan, he has shown he can appeal to evangelicals despite question marks over his religious conviction and divorces. In his ability to deflect criticism, too, Trump has shown himself as adept as Reagan – if by defiance rather than by charm – and redefined what it means to be “Teflon” in the age of Twitter.

That defiance, however, points to a huge difference in tone between Reagan’s candidacy and Trump’s. Reagan’s vision was a positive, optimistic one, even as he castigated “big government” and the perceived decline of US power. Reagan’s America was meant to be “a city upon a hill” offering a shining example of liberty to the world – in rhetoric at least. Trump’s vision is of an America closed off from the world. His rhetoric invokes fear as often as it does freedom.

On a personal level, Reagan avoided the vituperative attacks that have been the hallmark of Trump’s campaign, even as he took on the then“establishment” of the Republican Party – a moderate, urban, east coast elite. In his first run for the nomination, in 1976, Reagan even challenged an incumbent Republican president, Gerald Ford, and came close to defeating him. But he mounted the challenge on policy grounds, advocating the so-called “Eleventh Commandment”: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” Trump, as the TV debates between the Republican presidential candidates made clear, does not subscribe to the same precept.

More importantly, Reagan in 1976 and 1980 was the leader of a resurgent conservative movement, with deep wells of political experience. He had been president of the Screen Actors Guild in the late 1940s, waging a campaign to root out communist infiltrators. He had gone on to work for General Electric in the 1950s as a TV pitchman and after-dinner speaker, honing a business message that resonated beyond the “rubber chicken circuit”.

In 1964 he grabbed headlines with a televised speech on behalf of the Republican presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater – a bright spot in Goldwater’s otherwise ignominious campaign. Two years later he was elected governor of California – serving for eight years as chief executive of the nation’s most populous state. He built a conservative record on welfare reform, law and order, and business regulation that he pushed on to the federal agenda when he ran for president.

All this is to say that Reagan’s candidacy was built on more than his celebrity. By contrast, Trump not only lacks experience as an elected official, he isn’t part of any organised political movement – which enhanced his “outsider” status, perhaps, but not his ground game. So far, he has run on opportunism, tapping in to popular frustration, channelled through a media megaphone.

In Iowa, this wasn’t enough. To win the nomination he will have to do much more to build his organisation. He will be hoping that in the primaries to come, voters do remember who came in second. 

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war