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27 October 2021

A trip to the Caucasus mountains, what the pandemic revealed about power, and Putin’s fear

I can’t help but wonder how the Russian president, otherwise so enamoured with risk, can be so terrified of the virus.

By Bruno Maçães

It is past midnight and my car winds through the mountains of Krasnaya Polyana, heading for the Psekhako plateau and a mammoth hotel located 1,389 metres above sea level. It is here, surrounded by the ski pistes of Gazprom and Rosa Khutor, that guests from Russia and abroad will meet at the Valdai conference to debate the collapse of the old order. As usual, officials will fly from Moscow to speak. Vladimir Putin is scheduled to close the conclave.

The hotel has the feeling of a sanatorium, with its heated pools and medical clinic. Even the people seem to have stepped out of The Magic Mountain, the novel by Thomas Mann in which the German novelist reflects on the end of liberal bourgeois society. Fyodor Lukyanov, the editor of Russia in Global Affairs, reminds me of Settembrini, still committed to old Enlightenment ideas. Sergey Karaganov, head of the Council on Foreign and Defence Policy, is Naphta, more radical, albeit in the service of what Putin calls “healthy conservatism”. Visitors bring their doubts and dreams to the Caucasus mountains. Most come from China, Iran, Pakistan and India, but there are a few Europeans as well.

Limitless power

This year the dominant idea espoused by the leadership in Moscow seems to be the conviction that the pandemic validated and vindicated Russian ideas on geopolitics. It appears Russian strategic thinkers expect that geopolitics will be shaped by the pandemic forever. Even climate change is embraced as a scenario for catastrophes and, perversely, a renewed lesson in the tragic sense of life. The pandemic brought globalisation to its knees; some global dynamics may persist but they are secondary. It also illustrated a point often stressed by those close to the Kremlin: the difference between regimes is mostly superficial. Was it not the case that every government, no matter if it was democratic or autocratic, adopted roughly the same measures to contain the virus? The pandemic showed that there are no limits on state power; it is sometimes not needed, but it is always present. In Russia the pandemic has been nothing short of the fulfilment of an ancient prophecy.

Back to “normal”

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One night I walk into the discussion room and the first thing I hear is: “We have to return to Mongol values.” There may have been a time when Valdai was designed to be a window to the West, and many of the European guests date to those years. But today the conclave is very different. More and more guests come from China. We have become so used to discussing a possible strategic alliance between Russia and China that we miss the extent to which the countries are developing a common cultural and civilisational approach. It may be easier now for Russian and Chinese political thinkers to understand each other than the Western world.

Putin started his annual speech with two Chinese proverbs and proceeded to attack the “cultural shocks that are taking place in the United States and Western Europe”. For close to an hour he appealed to the ideal of a “normal” life – a life where men and women still exist, and “human milk” has not yet replaced “breast milk”. In his words, this is an ideal that Western democracies no longer recognise and one that only strong states such as Russia and China can hope to preserve.

A paranoid president

On the last day of the conclave we are driven to the Sirius science and art centre, where Putin will deliver his speech. Lukyanov, now sitting next to the president, has been in isolation for more than a week. The rest of us have been tested for Covid five or six times, and sit at a distance of perhaps one hundred metres from Putin. Are such precautions necessary? I can’t help but wonder how someone otherwise enamoured with risk can be so terrified of the virus. Russian insiders tell me Putin has retreated into dramatic isolation.

I know many people for whom being infected with the virus could only be the result of having made some kind of mistake. In this gamified pandemic, you might be willing to take risks, such as travelling or meeting people, but you would also take every precaution to reduce your exposure. It is an exercise of wits – something akin to big game hunting. Putin is a gambler, but a gambler addicted to method and control.

And there may be a final consideration. Putin is now at an advanced age and there is no clear succession plan. This creates the conditions for all kinds of febrile speculation were the president to behave as recklessly as Donald Trump or Boris Johnson. The measures to protect Putin from the virus may be an indispensable barrier against political instability.

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This article appears in the 27 Oct 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Our Fragile Future