MOSCOW — Late on Thursday night, Sept. 29, after a week of snickers and open mockery, a decision was made: The president -- that is, Dmitry Medvedev -- would go on television and explain himself. Why had he, an acting president, with another seven months left in his term, gone up to the podium at the United Russia convention five days earlier and said, "It would be the right thing to do for the convention to uphold the candidacy of Vladimir Putin for the presidency." Medvedev, never a figure of strength and masculinity in a country obsessed by such things, seemed like he had been dragged through the mud and humiliated -- especially when Putin took his turn at the podium and announced that the decision had been made years ago. That one phrase seemed to negate Medvedev's three-and-a-half years in office. Medvedev looked like a broken man: His face was bloated, his eyes ringed with fatigue or misery -- despite the near-constant smiles. At times during his speech, it seemed like he might cry.
Seeing a man down -- a man long suspected of being a dauphin, a seat-warmer for Putin -- public opinion pounced. "Well, at least it's Putin, and not Putin," snarked KermlinRussia, the popular parody of Medvedev's Twitter account, highlighting the now uncontestable fact that Putin and Medvedev were and had always been the same person. (A few days later, Kermlin followed up with this zinger: "This is an unconscionable act toward journalists, who had spent four years training themselves not to call Putin president.") Citizen Poet, the satirical project of poet Dmitry Bykov and actor Mikhail Efremov, cast Medvedev as a hapless, childish Hamlet and Putin as the ghost of his father. The apparition appears and answers Hamlet/Medvedev's indecision -- "To be, or not to be?" -- with a simple, "You won't be."
When Medvedev fired Alexei Kudrin, the finance minister known to be extremely close to -- and thus protected by -- Putin, his rant about presidential authority convinced no one, not even Kudrin, who responded to the president's request for his resignation that he would consult the prime minister. That is, Vladimir Putin. The blogosphere did not let that one pass, either. A new joke began to make the rounds: "I'll consult the prime minster," says Kudrin. "No, I'll consult the prime minister," says Medvedev. (In my version, they race each other down the hallway to his office.)
It was not a good week. And so the presidential spinmeisters made the decision to put their man on television, to let him explain himself -- an unheard-of proposition in Russian politics.