Russia’s embattled ruler meets his public.
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?")
Leaving aside the constant repetition of this trope, as well as that of the evil West (which "underestimates our nuclear rocket potential"), and evil America (which killed Qaddafi), and evil John McCain (who "has blood on his hands"), the one topic -- the "red thread," according to the host -- that Putin had to keep coming back to was Saturday's protests across Russia. He tried, as best as he could, to leave aside the issue after offering bland blanket statements about citizens' rights to express their views, as well as backhanded comments about the opposition, which, according to Putin, "will always say that elections were unfair. Always. It's a question of political culture."
But it kept coming back. For a while he tried to spin the protests. "There were different kinds of people there, and I was happy to see fresh, healthy, intelligent, energetic faces of people who were actively stating their position," he said. "If this is the result of the Putin regime, then I'm happy. I'm happy that these kinds of people are appearing." He said this twice, echoing the loyalist television celebrity Tina Kandelaki's statement that those who came out across the country were "Putin's generation," a crowd of middle-class democrats made possible by his policies. (A fine theory, if one disregards the frequency with which "Putin, resign!" rolled loudly through the crowds.)
Eventually, Putin did his best to try to dodge the issue. "For God's sake, if it's so interesting to you, then I'll discuss it," he said after the host gently steered him back to it. If it wasn't the host, it was the questioners themselves, who seemed less scripted than in previous years. And, if they weren't asking about the protests and the falsified elections, they were asking about the deafness and corruption of their local authorities. Putin offered some promises of reform: Direct election of governors -- eliminated in 2004 -- but only, as he put it, through "a presidential filter" (i.e., only those candidates vetted by the president -- him -- will be allowed to stand for election.) No new parliamentary elections -- which, of course, would be logistically impossible -- but webcams installed at polling stations at the next one.
Clearly, this was an uncomfortable new position for Putin. The live question-and-answer session, a marathon of good-tsar populism, is a longstanding tradition and is Putin's favorite format. For ten years, he has swanned through rehearsed, tee-ball questions from his adoring populace, using the occasion to graciously solve a crisis for an elderly veteran or punish an errant regional authority. He was used to being charming, confident, wry. He was Putin. This year, he approached this sublime state only when tossing figures and percentages around like confetti -- one Russian journalist called him a "random number generator." For the most part, he was less than fluent. He stumbled. He interrupted people with jittery, flat jokes. His spin sounded less like spin, and more like the excuses of a truant caught red-handed. He was, in short, nervous.
And yet, there was little Putin could do with his nervousness aside from channel it into insults (see: condoms) and paranoia (see: foreign funds). This is a telling response, and representative of the state's reaction to the post-election furor: some dubious concessions -- like removing the infamous Duma speaker Boris Gryzlov and promoting Kremlin ideologue-in-chief Vladislav Surkov out of his position -- but, on the whole, retrenchment and reliance on classic Kremlin tactics. On Tuesday, for instance, we saw the owner of the Kommersant publishing house (which publishes the most important Russian daily) fire one of his top executives and the editor of the political magazine Vlast over a photograph of a ballot on which someone had written, in red ink, "Putin, go fuck yourself!" Two other top editors resigned in protest.
The unmistakable feeling, watching all this, is that either the Kremlin knows nothing else, can think of nothing else, or is too panicked to find its thinking cap and slap it on. Asked if it was true that emergency meetings were convened in the Kremlin after the initial wave of protests, Putin said, dubiously, "I was not invited to these meetings, I don't know. I'll say honestly that I didn't notice any panic." He was, he added, busy. "I was at that time, speaking frankly, learning to play hockey," he said, referring to himself as "a cow on ice." "I wasn't really paying attention to what's going on there. And I haven't been there [in the Kremlin] for a while, frankly speaking."
Outside the Kremlin, however, Putin's insult-filled telethon had the unintended effect of galvanizing an opposition that had been showing signs of fracturing. During the Putin marathon on TV, RSVPs for the December 24 rally spiked on the Facebook page dedicated to it. Users barraged it with comments about how Putin's snide and anxious performance had pushed them over the edge.
And it's true that Putin had nothing but contempt for them. "Come to me, Bandar-logs," Russia's ruler told his perhaps befuddled viewers at one point in his bizarre show. Putin was comparing the newly energized opposition to the foolish, anarchic monkeys in "The Jungle Book." The ones who chant "We are great. We are free. We are wonderful." ("I've loved Kipling since childhood," crooned Putin.) Facebook did not take kindly to this. "What say you, Bandar-logs," one journalist quipped. "Shall we go prowling?"
ALEXEY DRUZHININ/AFP/Getty Images