The loneliness of Vladimir Putin

He crushed his opposition and has nothing to show for it but a country that's falling apart.

Vladimir Putin arrives for a speech at the congress of Russia's ruling party in Moscow in 2011. Photo: Getty

This article first appeared on newrepublic.com

On 19 December, Maria Baronova met me on the steps of the Nikulinsky courthouse, a squat Soviet-era building lost in a construction zone somewhere in Moscow’s eternal sprawl. Against the once-white building and dull pewter sky, Baronova was the sole splash of color, her puffy magenta jacket open to the cold afternoon.

It was an important day for the lanky, blonde 29-year-old; for six months, she had been coming to the courthouse daily to stand trial along with eleven others for their roles in protests on the eve of Vladimir Putin’s third inauguration. Sixteen more were awaiting trial, and together they were known as the Bolotnaya prisoners, for the name of the square where a peaceful protest on 6 May, 2012, had turned violent. For the crime of yelling, or in Putin-era legalese, “inciting mass riots,” Baronova was facing two years in jail.

Today, however, it was rumored that, in honor of the twentieth anniversary of the signing of the modern Russian constitution, Putin would free more than a thousand prisoners – including political prisoners, most famously two jailed members of the punk protest group Pussy Riot – and give some opposition defendants, such as Baronova, amnesty.

Baronova hadn’t exactly dressed up for the occasion. A motley scarf was tangled around her neck and through her uncombed hair. She clutched a small bottle of Listerine, periodically tipping it back to gargle, then swallow. Last night, she had been at the company holiday party for Dozhd (“Rain”), the last independent Russian TV channel, where Baronova is now a science correspondent. It is the only work that she, a chemist and once a well-paid sales manager at a chemical-supplies company, could get after becoming a defendant in such a public, politicised trial.

“I’m hungoooover,” she moaned to the bailiffs as we handed our bags and passports over for inspection inside the courthouse.

The two bailiffs crooned sympathetically.

“Nausea?”

“Yucky taste in your mouth?”

Baronova nodded miserably as the two men laughed almost lovingly and commiserated.

As we walked up the stairs to the courtroom, Baronova showed me the text message she had sent to one of the bailiffs from the party at five in the morning, informing him that she was in an “inadequate” state and could he please call and wake her up lest she miss her own amnesty hearing? At ten that morning, he had dutifully obliged. “It’s not Stockholm syndrome,” she explained, “but you come here every day, and you really do get used to them.”

We spent an hour waiting to get into the courtroom, maybe two. Baronova checked her Twitter for news from Putin’s press conference, now in its second hour: Had he said anything about amnesty yet? She signed a book brought over by a trilling woman in yellow who said she felt “only positive energy today! Only positive energy!”

Baronova had a good lawyer, a sharp-witted, young attorney named Sergei Badamshin. But the same couldn’t be said of most of the opposition defendants: The woman with the positive energy, it turned out, was one of their attorneys. They bickered with each other and had bizarre theories of defence. (If a police officer exceeds his authority, for instance, then he ceases being a police officer.) Baronova had long ago decided that it wouldn’t be the prosecutor who would sink the protesters; it would be their own defence team. “When I realised that, that made me really depressed,” she told me. Around then, she started to have dark thoughts. She has a seven-year-old son, whom authorities were constantly threatening to take away from her. In October, Baronova was hospitalised with stress-induced gastric ulcers.

Yet the two-year sentence Baronova was contemplating was actually on the light side. Some of the other protesters were facing up to eight years for charges of “using force against representatives of the state”. One young father was facing this sentence for throwing a lemon. It hit the Kevlar vest of a special forces officer who claimed that contact with the lemon had caused him “intolerable pain”. One defendant had already pleaded guilty and had been sentenced to indefinite confinement in a psychiatric institution. No cops had been charged with excessive use of force, of which there had been plenty involving objects far more menacing than lemons. In fact, some had been rewarded for their suffering with free apartments in the center of Moscow. The point was clear: Baronova and the others had been strung out as cautionary tales for the rest of the opposition.

A wave of applause rose through the lobby as the prisoners were paraded into the courtroom and, in modern Russian legal tradition, locked into a giant metal cage. A Rottweiler lay on the floor, legs splayed, and panting loudly. The rest of us piled into the courtroom and listened to the barely audible proceedings.

As Baronova waited to learn whether she had in fact received amnesty, Putin would free the two members of Pussy Riot still in jail as well as oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, whose decade-long imprisonment had transformed him from the country’s chief robber baron to its most famous prisoner of conscience. But the news hadn’t made its way inside the courtroom yet, where many of the Bolotnaya protesters, who were no cause célèbre abroad, wouldn’t be so lucky. During the Bolotnaya rally, the cops had grabbed Denis Lutskevich, then a 20-year-old former marine, tearing off his shirt as he tried to get away. There is a famous picture of him from that day, shirtless in khaki shorts, his back a canvas of red welts. One of the cops claimed Lutskevich had tried to pull his helmet off, and for this, he was facing eight years in jail, plus an additional five for participating in mass riots.

Now, because Putin had said he would not amnesty those who had hurt his troops, Lutskevich would stay in the cage.

Sitting in the courtroom just in front of me, a tall brunette sat weeping quietly and looking at the prisoners. She was Stella Anton, Lutskevich’s mother. Every day, she came to the courthouse to see her only child. “I can usually keep it together,” she told me. “But I just imagined him also getting amnesty today and walking out of here, and it was like a wave hit me.”

She wiped her face as if to calm herself and asked what I was writing about.

"Russia ahead of the Olympics,” I said.

She scoffed and mashed a tissue in one manicured hand. “Good,” she almost growled. “They should know what kind of country they’re going to.”

 

On 5 December, 2011, I was working as a reporter in Moscow, when I heard there was going to be a protest demanding fair elections in Chistye Prudy, one of Moscow’s beautiful old boulevards. I wasn’t going to go: I had a story to file, it was raining, and I didn’t think more than a couple hundred glasnost-era activists would show up – that was as much of a protest as you could expect in Putin’s Russia.

But some gut feeling told me I should go, just in case. When I got out of the metro, I was totally unprepared to see some 5,000 people, most of them young, packed into Chistye Prudy. Anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny and other opposition leaders were delivering fiery speeches. People lined the sidewalks and clung to the boulevard’s wrought-iron fences, shouting, “Russia without Putin!” and “Putin is a thief!” It was one of the most exhilarating moments I’d ever experienced. Muscovites cared about their political future more than anyone, including themselves, expected.

After the economic collapse and chaos of the 1990s, Putin and the Russians had entered a tacit social compact: The government would provide stability and wealth, and the people would stay out of the government’s business. And, for the most part, well into the 2000s, everyone abided by it. Polls steadily indicated that some 80 per cent of Russians thought they could not influence the political process, nor did they seem to care to. The state meticulously cleared the underbrush of civil society, leaving Russians atomised and isolated from one another. Putin’s popularity, meanwhile, was stratospheric, and it was real. The television was his television, and everyone who didn’t like it congregated in the Internet ghetto and cracked jokes.

But in 2008, Putin’s two terms as president ran out and his handpicked successor, Dmitry Medvedev, replaced him. Medvedev talked about modernising the economy, fighting corruption, and easing up on the government’s routine harassment of small businesses. By 2009, when I’d moved back to Moscow (my family had emigrated to the United States in 1990), there was even a kind of renaissance in the liberal media ghetto. Russian journalists I met and became friends with were less afraid. New media outlets were popping up, both online and off, including Dozhd TV. Dark things were still happening: The horrific death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in prison after he uncovered a massive government corruption scheme, the savage beating of journalist Oleg Kashin, the continued imprisonment of Khodorkovsky and many of his former colleagues. It was Russia, after all. But it felt like it was – slowly, gingerly – becoming a gentler, more modern country.

And then on 24 September, 2011, at a convention of Putin’s ruling United Russia Party, Medvedev – looking very much like a man who’d spent the night crying – mounted the podium and nominated Vladimir Putin to run for president. I was in the press section up by the rafters, and I remember being almost as stunned as Andrei Kolesnikov, who traveled around with Putin for one of Russia’s biggest dailies. As I wrote at the time, Kolesnikov had not seen it coming and, despite his job – he was virtually Putin’s hagiographer – it was clearly not welcome news. “This,” he said faintly, “is for keeps.”

The Russian constitution had already been changed to lengthen the presidential term from four to six years, and people grasped immediately what Medvedev’s announcement meant. Looking down at the Twitter feed on my phone as the speechifying went on, I saw despair and bitterness beyond internet snark, beyond jokes. Instead, everyone was doing the math: How old would they be in 2024 when Putin would, theoretically, leave office? People my age had already spent their twenties with the man, and another twelve would put them well into middle age. Others realised they’d be pensioners. It was a strange way to measure mortality.

But more than anything, it was insulting. “It said very clearly to everyone that the question of government in Russia is, at most, a question to be resolved between two people,” and, more likely, one, explained Gleb Pavlovsky, a political consultant who had helped Putin win his first presidential election, in 2000. “I didn’t think it would be done so stupidly and so provocatively. They spit in people’s faces.”

The protests came soon after that. On December 10, five days after the protest in Chistye Prudy, 50,000 came out to Bolotnaya Square, in the shadow of the Kremlin walls, most of them educated, middle-class urbanites. They wore white ribbons as a sign of protest and stood around chatting and stamping in the cold, like they were at a giant winter barbecue. Despite fears of police violence, not one shot was fired and no one was arrested. Satellite protests sprung up in dozens of cities.

For days, the Kremlin was silent. When Putin finally spoke, he talked of listening to the dissatisfied but also accused them of shadowy foreign connections. He joked that he mistook the white ribbons for condoms. After that, on 24 December, about 100,000 people came out to the next protest in Moscow, and they flew blown-up condoms as balloons.

One day during that chaotic winter, I called up Yuri Kotler, a fairly high-ranking United Russia member. I was writing a column for Foreign Policy, and I asked him how people in the Kremlin felt about the protests. He asked me if I had a pet. I replied that, yes, I had a cat. “Well, imagine if your cat came to you and started talking,” Kotler explained. “First of all, it’s a cat, and it’s talking. Second, all these years, the government fed it, gave it water, petted it, and now it’s talking and demanding something. It’s a shock. We have to get used to it.”

That winter, people began forming all kinds of social and political groups, online and off. When the presidential election rolled around in March 2012, the opposition may not have run a candidate, but tens of thousands of people who had once thought politics to be a dirty business best left to others volunteered their weekends for the tedious work of election-monitoring. The Kremlin largely ignored the talking cat, but it did toss it a few scraps, loosening up the electoral system and reintroducing gubernatorial and mayoral elections. As several of us foreign correspondents fanned out across the country ahead of the elections, we discovered that Putin was not all that popular anymore. (“He must be the most passively supported leader in the world,” a colleague said, noting that there were no viable alternatives to Putin.) Despite getting nearly two-thirds of the vote nationally, Putin got only 47 per cent in Moscow.

Tears in his eyes: Putin speaks at a rally at the Manezhnaya Square just outside the Kremlin in Moscow. Photo: Getty

On 6 May, 2012, the eve of his third inauguration, Putin went to dedicate a shrine that would pray for his health around the clock. In the meantime, some 70,000 protesters marched peacefully down to Bolotnaya again, Maria Baronova and Denis Lutskevich among them. The last time I had walked this route with protesters in February, I had tweeted, “Putin’s fucked, y’all,” and the same thought crossed my mind as I looked at all the happy faces around me.

But this time, the police had all but cut off the entrance to Bolotnaya Square. Protesters tried to push through, and, in the resulting funnel, police truncheons sliced through the air, and helmeted special forces cops – “cosmonauts,” as they came to be called – stormed into the crowd in wedge formation, randomly, brutally plucking people from the crowd and dragging them off into paddy wagons. Bottles and flares flew; tear gas seeped through the air. I caught a chunk of cement to the leg, though some of my Russian journalist friends fared worse. Nearby, a smattering of plainclothes cops and cosmonauts stood calmly pointing their camcorders at the chaos. The state had come prepared.

Putin’s fist came down hard after that. On 11 June, the homes of Navalny and other opposition leaders were searched. (That morning, Maria Baronova got a call from her terrified nanny, saying that detectives from the state’s Investigative Committee had climbed onto the apartment’s balcony and turned on an electric saw.) Then came the arrests. The CEO of VKontakte, Russia’s version of Facebook, which had played a key part in organising the protests, was summoned for questioning and was forced to temporarily flee the country in the spring of 2013. Non-loyal media outlets began to close, and others struggled, citing solvency issues that were not totally accidental. Two of Dozhd’s biggest advertisers, owned by the same oligarch, tore up their contracts with the channel within ten minutes of each other. By the time I left Moscow in September, there were still a few opposition rallies, but they felt timid and flat. The old Russian fear that had so miraculously vanished that winter came creeping back.

This past December, I went back to Moscow to see what had become of the protest movement and the opposition leaders I had written about during those first heady days. Two Decembers later, Putin was firmly in charge, and Bolotnaya Square was empty. But the future was not quite as clear as it seemed: The opposition was in disarray, and Putin had won his battle against them. And yet, his position seemed even shakier than before.

 

I met up with the “Kermlins” at a hole-in-the-wall Georgian restaurant hidden among the clubs and hipster hangouts that now occupy the red-brick carcass of the old Red October chocolate factory. When I’d first interviewed the duo back in December 2010, they had refused to tell me their real names or show me their faces, not even off the record. At that point, they were just beginning to generate excitement with their Twitter account @KermlinRussia, the handle of a Stephen Colbert–like entity called the “Persident of Ruissia,” who savagely mocked the government for its many lies, thefts, and absurdities. “The Russian state doesn’t have to beat you with a stick,” they tweeted once, adopting the tone of a benevolent ruler addressing his subjects. “We can fuck you up with a carrot, too.”

The Kermlins had launched the handle in June 2010, after then-President Medvedev, who was infamous for his simpleton’s love of high-tech gadgets, traveled to the Silicon Valley offices of Twitter and set up an account, @KremlinRussia. By January, the Kermlins’ antic alternative had more than 50,000 followers, and Medvedev was forced to change his handle to @MedvedevRussia to avoid confusion. Over the next three years, the Kermlins’ fan base exploded to more than 700,000 followers. The Kermlins became celebrities among the outspoken ranks of “internet hamsters,” the denizens of the web ghetto who then became the core of the protests. Last spring, they finally unmasked themselves in a glamorous spread in Russian GQ.

The Kermlins, whom I had privately got to know even before they’d outted themselves, are really a 29-year-old econ nerd named Arseny Bobrovsky and his partner, Katya Romanovskaya, a fiercely intelligent 38-year-old beauty with a black bob. Dispensing with their anonymity has cut two ways for them. Katya, who in her non-hamster life works in corporate PR, found it to be a boon. Now, when she calls a journalist to place a story, she is Katya Kermlin, and journalists trip over themselves to accommodate her.

For Arseny, it has been a less happy journey. After the GQ story, it emerged that his boutique PR firm had worked for some rather unsavory government clients who had been trying to get the internet under control. Liberal hamster society piled on, expressing their dismay that their hero was tainted. Arseny was disappointed by their naïveté but let his company founder. Rehabilitated, he has become a well-regarded economics columnist for Russian Forbes. That doesn’t pay nearly enough, but, over dinner, Arseny expressed reluctance over finding a day job.

“I have this hang-up that I’m so cool and a huge number of people read my columns,” he said shyly. “And I’m going to work as a media manager at some shitty company –”

This article first appeared on newrepublic.com