MOSCOW – Russians had not really seen Vladimir Putin since his ruling United Russia party was walloped, at least by Russian standards, in the Dec. 4 parliamentary elections. Since then, Moscow, and the rest of the country, had been rocked by anti-government -- and anti-Putin -- protests. Tens of thousands of previously politically inactive people pinned white ribbons to their coats and came out across Russia to contest the elections, expressing their displeasure at being treated like idiots by the Kremlin for the past decade. Up until Thursday, the Kremlin's reaction to this outpouring implied either panic, denial, or both. Putin remained well out of sight. He spoke through his spokesman in vague, contradictory statements, and, once, in a meeting of his People's Front, blamed the protests on U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, claiming she had sent Russians a certain "signal."
This self-imposed almost-silence ended today, in a four-and-half-hour telethon that marked Putin's first real public appearance since his glitsy thermidorian system started to unravel at the edges, and in it Putin made sure to address the outrage that drew more crowds to the streets than Russia has seen since 1993. Soothing words were not what he offered. "To be perfectly honest," he said, "when I saw something on some people's chests, I'll be honest -- it's not quite appropriate -- but in any case, I thought that this was part of an anti-AIDS campaign, that these were, pardon me, condoms."
Yes, that's right: in case Russians hadn't been offended by years of brazen maneuvers and bland television tailor-made for the lobotomized; in case they hadn't been insulted by the glib switcheroo of Sept.24, when Putin and his handpicked successor as president, Dmitri Medvedev, announced they would simply swap positions; in case the crudely falsified elections and the baton-happy police hadn't angered enough people; Putin compared their symbol of peaceful protest, those white ribbons neatly pinned on lapels, to an unwrapped and doubled-up condom. On live TV.
The Russian Internet, not surprisingly, was quick to fire back. First to circulate was a diaphanous condom in the shape of a folded ribbon; then came Putin standing stuffily in front of a Kremlin nightscape, an unraveled condom photoshopped onto his coat. ("Happy holidays, friends!" the postcard said.) Another web parody offered a prediction: a deficit of condoms in the city on the eve of Dec. 24, the day of the next scheduled protest. Sergei Parkhomenko, a journalist and one of the organizers of the upcoming demonstration, even proposed a new slogan for the rally: "You're the gondon." In Russian, gondon is slang for condom -- or asshole.
Putin hardly stopped with his condom remark. Over nearly five hours in a TV studio taking questions from his public as part of an annual ritual, he often returned to his favorite theme: Western conspiracies to weaken Russia, to "push it to the side," or, as he characterized the wave of protests now unfolding around him, "a well-tuned scheme to destabilize societies" that "doesn't come out of nowhere" -- like Ukraine's Orange Revolution. As for the protesters, Russia's once and would-be future president pointed out that "there are, of course, people who have the passport of a citizen of the Russian Federation, but act in the interests of a foreign government using foreign money. We have to try to find common ground with them, too, even though it's often pointless or impossible." And then there were the mere mercenaries in those peaceful protesting crowds. Putin said he knew that there were college students who received money to come to Saturday's 50,000-person protest -- "fine, let them earn a little money" -- even though the only college students reported to have received money were those populating the pro-Kremlin rallies of the last weeks. (I met one such young man, 23-year-old Mikhail, a member of the pro-Kremlin Nashi group who came with his opposition-minded friends to the anti-Kremlin protest on Bolotnaya Square. He told me had been paid to show up and talk people out of their anti-Putin sentiments. His logic explained Putin's, to some extent. "I get paid for my time," Mikhail told me, when I asked why he thought his friends were lying when they said they didn't get money from the U.S. State Department. "Why shouldn't they?")