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My dinner with Putin

Putin expressed exasperation with the west and repeated the slights, hurts and pains of the past dec

On the evening of 11 November 2011, Vladimir Putin arrived at Le Cheval Blanc restaurant at the Novyi Vek ("New Age") equestrian centre in the smart Rublyovka district of Moscow. The occasion was a meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club and, for three hours, Putin engaged in a question-and-answer session with a small group of international experts.

The equestrian centre is a former collective farm (kolkhoz) fallen on hard times. It has been transformed into a symbol – if not of the new Russia, then of the opulent lifestyle of the "New Russians".

President Dmitry Medvedev keeps six of his pedigree horses at the centre. Inside, the atmosphere is of an English country house, with a log fire and oak beams. Putin arrived late, tanned and relaxed and not wearing a tie. He was in good spirits and confident, asserting Russia's positions on a variety of issues, from its energy supply to missile defence.

Putin expressed exasperation with the west and repeated the slights, hurts and pains of the past decade. He noted that “it is no secret" (although it came as news to most of us in the room) that not only are Russia's eastern and western oil pipeline networks being joined up but that the gas networks would also soon be connected for the first time.

He conceded that it was tough to bargain with the Chinese but, once a deal was done, they proved reliable partners, with the implication that the same did not apply to those in the west. Rehearsing Dostoevsky's cri de coeur about Russia walking as a slave in the west but as master in the east, Putin said: "We are being squeezed out of the European market, so we are turning to Asia."

On the idea of the Eurasian Union – the proposed political and economic grouping of Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and other states – Putin asked why integration was encouraged elsewhere in the world but, when it was taking place in the post-Soviet space, it was denounced as Russian neo-imperialism.

It is unlikely that the Eurasian Union will be a game-changer and it may be little more than an election gimmick but it does signal a new phase in the development of relations in the region. Russia is advancing a more active integrationist agenda, distinct from the old desire to build relations with the European Union and the US. A new power, Putin implied, is rising in the east, not opposed to the west but no longer oriented to it. Russia would emerge as a European power in Asia, not a Eurasian power in Europe.

On the political front, Putin reassured us that "the screws will not be tightened" but that there would be little to stop the regime if it wished to tighten them. A system has been created in which the institutions of the state are trumped by the informal networks of power, concentrated on Putin personally.

Leningrad cowboy

Asked what new ideas he would bring to the presidency, he said: "Putin is one person and he will not divide. There are certain basic things that cannot change."

At the same time, he said that while a genuine multiparty system needed to be built in Russia, the party fragmentation of the past could not be repeated. Referring to his experience in "Leningrad" (as he called the city now known as St Petersburg) in the early democratic years after the end of the Soviet Union, he said that "even the simplest decisions could not be taken".

He insisted that he and Medvedev had not lied when, for four years, they had insisted that "we would see" about the succession. "We are not concerned . . . to preserve our personal power but to create an efficient and sustainable system," he said. Whether this system can be democratic is uncertain.

Putin's planned return to the presidency for a third term is the defining event of the era. If he wins on 4 March, as seems inevitable, his views will shape the country for at least a decade.

In truth, his "return" is a misnomer, because he never went away. This has thrown a harsh light on the political system that has developed over the past decade. Rather than elections shaping the composition of parliament and the presidency, the administrative system decides everything on behalf of the people.

Elections have become plebiscitary, ratifying decisions already made outside the electoral process. Rather than a set of independent institutions carrying political weight, the power of one man dominates. It is this infantilisation of the people that has been challenged in the protest marches provoked by the flawed parliamentary elections of 4 December 2011.

The main challenge now facing Putin is to recognise and take account of the civic spirit that has been awakened in Russia, while ensuring that the institutions of the constitutional state apply to all equally – including him.

Richard Sakwa is professor of Russian and European politics at the University of Kent

This article first appeared in the 05 March 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The last Tsar

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood