Democracy Lab

Obama Is No Longer a Friend

Why Russia's dissidents have soured on the U.S. president.

On the morning of Sept. 4, Russian activists welcomed the G-20 Summit with a protest action that nearly blocked St. Petersburg's Nevsky Prospect highway. Scores of protestors linked with the artistic collective Voina ("War") marched out of the Museum of Authority, a private gallery that has since been officially closed by the authorities, and unrolled long, colorful paintings of G-20 leaders. Police were quick to arrest two Voina members, Igor Chepkasov and Marina Kuznetsova, and along the way seized a number of paintings, including one featuring two naked, alpha-male figures of Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Barack Obama comparing their, shall we say, male attributes.

Earlier that morning, hours before his arrest, Chepkasov, a bald man in black-framed glasses, introduced portraits of the G-20 participants to visitors at the gallery. All of the personalities in the pictures were designated by the word "ass." Chepkasov told me that he shared President Putin's fervent distaste for the "bloodthirsty" and "cynical" President Obama and his declared intention to bomb Syrian cities. For Chepkasov, there is no ideal leader or a particular side worth supporting today. "Obama changes his views on political repression in Russia like a windmill," the Voina activist told me.  "The only true slogan for us now is 'freedom or death.'"

As we spoke, the atmosphere outside heated up, and one of the visitors half-whispered, "Police cars just pulled in, and now they're blocking the exit!" Visitors looked distressed, as another young painter with long, black Gothic hair presented a portrait of Putin painted in excrement. "Dark times in Russia and in Syria," he commented. Minutes later, the opposition artists walked outside the gallery, which was now surrounded by police vehicles, and started toward the middle of the street. They almost managed to unroll their anti-Summit painting before a few policemen quickly tore it out of their hands.

As the protest continued, about 10 protestors came out to the streets with signs declaring "Obama -- Terrorist #1!" I couldn't help recalling the "F*** off Bush!" billboards I saw in Kiev in April, 2008, surrounding the U.S. president's motorcade.

"For me all the recent moves by President Obama seem shocking, as if he has decided to commit political suicide, just as Bush discredited himself in the past," Sergei Markov, a pro-Kremlin expert, said.

Russian oppositionists are torn between their own competing instincts. The dissidents once celebrated the Magnitsky Act, which banned the Russian officials responsible for the death of anti-corruption activist Sergei Magnitsky from entering the United States, and many of them cheered Obama's decision not to meet with Putin in Moscow this month. Some were looking forward to his visit in St. Petersburg as a chance to vocalize their support for him, the world's biggest promoter of the ideas of freedom and competition. But lately they've been finding themselve at odds with the man in the White House. Obama, for example, has made it clear that he considers National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden to be a criminal -- in stark contrast to many Russian activists, who think of him as a dissident. For some this was already enough to make them question the extent to which their views overlapped with the president's. But then Obama announced his decision to bomb Syria without waiting for United Nations approval. That was a turning point. Earlier this week, a Radio Echo of Moscow telephone survey showed that 63.3 percent of the radio's listeners wanted to strip Obama of his Nobel Peace Prize.

On Sept. 6, several Russian civil activists managed to meet with the U.S. president in St. Petersburg.  Former Soviet dissident and prominent human rights defender Boris Pustyntsev planned to ask Obama to publicly clarify that the U.S. version of the Foreign Agents Registration Act concerns only commercial organizations and lobbyists, unlike Russia's counterpart of the law, which also applies to non-commercial organizations. (Putin has cited the U.S. law to justify his own crackdown on Russian non-profit civil society groups, which sometimes receive funding from foreign sources; by highlighting the differences between the two laws, Pustyntsev aimed to undercut Putin's effor to legitimize his actions by referring to the U.S. precedent.) At the same time, though, Pustyntsev rejects Obama's politics in the Middle East.

"The consequence of military involvement in Syria will be dreadful," Pustyntsev told me. "I would urge President Obama to wait for the results of the UN investigation and real proof that Asad had used chemical weapons."

Given these recent events, most Russian opposition leaders have given up hoping that Obama will be able to change much inside Russia. Opposition activist Boris Nemtsov met with Obama in Moscow back in 2009, but this time around he didn't see any point to a meeting with the U.S. president.

"Obama is a Hollywood actor, a weak man with no balls," Nemtsov said, cutting to the point. "Nobody should ever expect him to help Russians seeking civil freedom."

Later on Sept. 4, I spoke to people at a bus station on Nevsky Prospect, the site of that morning's artistic protest. Several women stood there, astonishment on their faces, as long streams of police vehicle and official motorcades carrying summit officials passed by. Two middle-aged ladies admitted to me that they were worried about the tensions caused by the "personal conflict" between Putin and Obama. One of them, a heavyset woman in a pearl necklace, offered her view: "Once again, I'm afraid of nuclear war," she told me. Such worries may be exaggerated, but they say a lot about the changing Russian views of Obama and his country.

OLGA MALTSEVA/AFP/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

Putin Walks Alone

Why the American president's cancellation of their pending summit meeting is just a blip on Vladimir Putin's radar.

MOSCOW — This morning, Russian president Vladimir Putin attended the funeral of his life-long friend and martial arts coach Anatoly Rakhlin, who died in St. Petersburg at the age of 75. A charismatic and strong character, Rakhlin met 11-year-old Putin back in the early 60s at "Trud" sport school. He trained the future president in sambo, a Soviet military hand-to-hand fighting technique, and in judo for 13 years.

Seeking solitude after the funeral, the president took a walk on Vatutina Street, an unusual gesture for the Russia's president, who never walks alone. Later, news agencies ran photographs of a sad-looking Putin on the streets of his former hometown, reminiscing about his teenage years.

Despite Putin's habitual tardiness, or even his frequent absences, from his martial arts classes, Rakhlin's tutelage enabled him to grow into a great fighter. In an interview many years ago, Rakhlin told me that he and Putin's German teacher convinced Putin's parents that their son was not an ordinary student, but a talented one.

"People close to us, of more senior age, sort of protect us from death," says Sergei Markov, a political analyst faithful to Putin. Asked to comment on what is likely to be going through the president's head today, he continues, "When they pass away, we think of our own destiny."

How, by contrast, is President Obama's decision to cancel his trip to Moscow weighing on Putin's mind? Most Moscow analysts agree that the Russian president is not greatly worried. News of the cancellation never made top headlines in the Russian mainstream media. A story like that would be out of place in the context of the television narrative of Putin as a strong, proud man fighting for Russia's sovereignty.

"Channel One and Rossiya Channel have the biggest number of viewers -- their managers must have decided not to explain to Russians that Obama's move was actually Russia's defeat," radio journalist Sergei Darenko told me.

Kremlin insiders say that in this presidential term, Putin is much more focused on his image at home than on how he's seen in the West. His priorities lie in the Russian public's perception of his legacy and of what he wants to achieve for the country. "Obama is not as important as the situation at home and economic issues," says Yevgeny Gontmakher, deputy director of INSOR, a think tank advising the Kremlin.

While President Obama recently accused Putin of having a Cold War mentality, the unfortunate truth is that it's not a tenable position.

"Our modernization of the army has failed, while America's defense ministry budget is equivalent to Russia's entire national budget. Putin knows better than anybody else that there is no room in the Kremlin for any Cold War ideas," says military expert Aleksander Golts.

As Putin walked and reminisced, many of the world's news outlets analyzed the beginnings of a new cold spell between Russia and the United States. The media accused Russia of helping wanted U.S. whistleblower Edward Snowden and of avoiding compromise with the United States on Syria, Iran, and other current issues.

In an effort to understand Putin's thought process, I've been reading tweets by Alexey Pushkov, head of the Parliament's international affairs committee. In a recent tweet, Pushkov explains the Kremlin's take on the tension with Washington: "Russia is a country with a 1,000-year- long history of victories. Obedience contradicts its national psychology, and strikes at the very heart of the nation."

Was Putin supposed to let Snowden go to U.S. prison? No. According to Pushkov's logic, Russia does not submit to anyone's demands. Putin himself postponed the pending delivery of S-300 air defense systems to Syria, Markov says. Russia views its position as vindicated by the increasing radicalization of Syrian rebels. "Now Washington should compromise," Markov told me. "Hundreds are dying in Syria every week. So it's time for the U.S. to admit that it made a mistake by supporting the Islamists there and make a peace agreement with Assad."

Many things happened while Putin walked along the streets he knew so well as a child. Far East cities suffered from floods. Police arrested hundreds of illegal migrants all over Russia. Homosexuals all around the world called for a boycott of next year's Sochi Olympics. And Russian neo-Nazis hunted and tortured gay men.

Putin walked on. He needed a moment to grieve for an old friend.

Michael Klimentyev/AFP/Getty Images