One of the first thing the Putinoids did when they got into power just over a decade ago was kill the satirical TV show Kukli (‘Dolls’), the Russian version of Spitting Image. After years of unchecked power they have become their own spitting image, easy targets for the satire of protesters demonstrating against the rigged Duma election. Putin himself, already ridiculed for his macho preening and such PR stunts as ‘accidentally’ discovering archaeological remains on a diving trip broadcast on TV, is now known as Mr Botox. His recent facial enhancement treatment has made him look like a rubber doll.
To counteract the protesters on the streets, the Kremlin has been bussing in loyal youth groups from the provinces. Interview clips with some of these have become viral hits as they desperately try to recall the soundbites they have been taught by Kremlin commissars. What comes out are absurdist snatches of Kremlin ideology, the Putin manifesto put through a Dadaist shredder. ‘United Russia have done so much for the economy,’ one wide-eyed girl says, ‘like…’ She pauses, blinks, can’t think what to say. You can hear a friend whispering advice off camera. The girl’s face brightens and she says: ‘Like clothes! We’ve started to dress much better!’ A tall young man tells the camera there are three main things United Russia have improved. They’ve got rid of corrupt bureaucrats (never mind that they are the party of corrupt bureaucrats), raised the birth rate and… He slaps his forehead. ‘Oh, I’ve forgotten the third thing!’
The vote rigging has been almost slapstick too. On Saturday I was at the recount-the-vote demo in London, organised by Alexey Kovalyov, a journalist. He was an observer at the ex-pat vote in London, where United Russia got 10 per cent of the vote. In other Western capitals with a significant Russian population the most they got was 20 per cent. But when Kovalyov checked the final figures for votes from abroad he found that United Russia had more than 50 per cent. According to the official data, ‘there had been mass turn out of Russians in a town called Ochamchira, a bombed-out and nearly deserted place in Abkhazia,’ Kovalyov told me. ‘12,000 Russians voted for United Russia in Ochamchira, but Ochamachira only has 4000 residents. There were also many votes cast in Guinea-Bissau, which suddenly spawned a sizeable Russian ex-pat community overnight.’ Kovalyov expected a few dozen protesters to turn up at the demo in London: instead there were several hundred of us. ‘Putin’s vote was 146 per cent fair,’ one banner said.
In Russia, letters are circulating, apparently sent by those involved in the vote rigging to their masters:
We voted for your candidate 12 times. You think you won without our help, you mother? So why don’t you pay us those measly fucking 6400 rubles? [about £130] I’m sure you have a car, a house, a place in the Canary Islands. Why can’t you pay what you owe to a poor student?
United Russia is known as the ‘party of meanies and swindlers’, a phrase coined by Alexey Navalny. A suicidally brave anti-corruption activist, Navalny is the darling of Russian liberals, as well as of borderline skinhead nationalists. It’s a powerful, broad base, and it means Navalny could develop into a major political player. Under Putin and Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin puppetmaster, a cheap postmodernism has been in vogue. It’s been fashionable to be endlessly ironic and never say anything directly. Navalny is the opposite: he believes in facts, names those who profit from corruption (at great personal risk), and believes zealously in his values. And suddenly that’s become very hip.
In the political arena, Navalny’s stroke of genius has been to make the pseudo-elections, designed by the Kremlin as a form of puppet-theatre, real. In the past the opposition has always refused to vote, so as not to legitimise the puppet show, but that meant the Kremlin could cook up any figures they wanted. Navalny went for a different approach: ‘vote for anyone but United Russia, even though the other parties may be dolls created by the Kremlin at least your vote will have weight’. It worked. The Kremlin is deeply shaken. The protests have been so widespread the Surkov-controlled channels had to put them on the news – though in a typically Surkovian move no mention was made of the anti-Putin chants or that the demonstrations were aimed at United Russia, making them look like general protests against an amorphous system. There’s another absurd consequence to Navalny’s strategy: while people are demanding their votes be recounted, the pseudo-opposition parties they voted for are generally keeping quiet as they are still loyal to the Kremlin.
So what comes next? How to make the puppet-theatre really real? Political analysts are talking about the possibility for one of the pseudo-opposition leaders suddenly having the balls to become a real opposition leader: Mikhail Prokhorov is the latest candidate. This is known as the Petrushka effect, after the puppet that comes to life in Stravinsky’s ballet. In this scenario, the rebellious political Petrushka doll will do battle with the rubbery Putin-puppet Mr Botox. Locked up for a decade in the cellar of Putinism, Russia’s Spitting Image dolls have burst out of their imprisonment. The Kremlin puppet-masters are suddenly not so powerful. The Kukli are free. Run, puppet, run!