For now, no one other than Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and their impressively inscrutable translators knows for sure what happened in the gilded Hall of Mirrors at Finland’s Presidential Palace during the recent US-Russia summit. Yet from the moment that the two presidents emerged to address the waiting press corps, their statements and actions have created the sense that, rather than leaving the hall of mirrors themselves, they have dragged the rest of us into it with them. And as with any visit to a hall of mirrors, the experience of doubling and distortion can be confusing, disorienting and, at times, a little frightening.
The date of the Russian presidential election last month was chosen to coincide with the anniversary of the day Russia claimed Crimea, 18 March 2014. In the main streets of Sevastopol, loudspeakers blasted old Soviet songs. ‘Russia, better with you,’ the posters said. A young woman who sold me a sim card told me that the city had come up with the idea of giving a medal to people who had voted both in the referendum on joining Russia – which wasn’t recognised by Ukraine or most other countries – and in this election. ‘They say it’s to mobilise our moral spirit, so it will mobilise the moral spirit of pensioners. And because everything in this country is bullshit, they haven’t made enough medals,’ she said. ‘Will you get one?’ I asked. ‘Well, maybe,’ she said. ‘If I vote.’
Will Vladimir Putin order direct military intervention in Ukraine? Russia already enables a free flow of Russian volunteers and mercenaries to fight against government forces in eastern Ukraine. It is supplying the rebels with weapons, vehicles and ammunition. It is shelling and rocketing Ukrainian territory daily, and promotes the portrayal of the Kiev government as cruel, illegitimate fascists in Russian-language media. The key leaders of the rebels, like Igor Strelkov, Alexander Borodai, Igor Bezler, Nikolai Kozitsyn and Vladimir Antyufeyev, are Russian citizens or Russian nationalists from ex-Soviet territories under Russian control.
The games the Kremlin is playing in the Ukrainian theatre of almost-war are an extrapolation of the techniques it uses in Russia. Postmodern authoritarianism – or whatever you want to call the 21st-century system the Kremlin has developed with its puppet politicians and simulated ideologies and pretend conflicts and real killing and corporate KGBism – is going on tour.
When the Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovich, was a young hoodlum on the make in late 1960s Soviet Donetsk – or so the story goes – he made his first money through the following ruse: he would lurk in a cubicle in a public toilet in winter. When a man came into the cubicle next door, he would wait for the opportune moment, then lean over, grab the man’s expensive fur hat and make a run for it: the victim, caught with his pants down, mid-crap, was in no state to give chase. Whether the story’s entirely true or not – Yanukovich was definitely a hoodlum and served two terms in prison, for robbery and assault, in 1967 and 1970 – it captures something of his operating methods.
Earlier this month the bestselling crime writer Boris Akunin announced that as Russia was becoming a police state with political prisoners, any form of co-operation with the state by cultural and artistic figures was tantamount to collaboration. There has been much agonising since: what about if you work at a state newswire agency? Or at the Bolshoi? It’s an old debate in Russia: there are still fights about whether Shostakovich was collaborating with Stalin or subverting the system from inside. But the challenge is harder now the Kremlin has learnt to speak the language of democratic capitalism, and goes out of its way to own opposition narratives. I once did some consultancy for a hotbed of Russian liberal journalism: Snob.
‘Keep punk bands out of this zone,’ said a banner in Amsterdam during the Russian president's visit last week. ‘Putin might be offended.’ Thousands of LGBT demonstrators with rainbow flags lowered to half-mast shouted ‘Putin go homo’ as they protested against the Kremlin’s latest move to ban ‘homosexual propoganda’ (which might include the rainbow flag). A few days earlier in Germany Putin had been rushed by topless Femen activists with the words ‘Fuck you dictator’ scrawled on their breasts: a statement, Femen said, against the Kremlin’s ‘patriarchal authoritarianism’. Putin must have been delighted.
I was at a conference in Moscow for international journalists to meet members of Russian political parties when the news came through of Boris Berezovsky’s death. ‘It’s the end of an era,’ said the editor of Open Democracy Russia. The standard account, especially on Russian state news, is that Berezovsky’s era ended long ago: he personified the ‘wild’ 1990s, the antithesis to the ‘stable’ Putin era. But look closer and you see that the Putin era is not the antithesis but the apotheosis of the tactics, patterns and attitudes that Berezovsky put in place.
Moscow, the myth of the city says, is the Third Rome. And Vladimir Putin has often been compared to the emperor Augustus. Putin, like Augustus, came to fix a cracked superpower, where rule was fracturing between warring regional governors, where democracy was manipulated by powerful oligarchs. Putin, like Augustus, centralised power, tamed the oligarchs, and shifted the political model from a corrupt democracy to a more effective form of quasi-monarchical rule. And, like Augustus, Putin retained the facade of democracy (parliament, elections) with none of its political power. Much of Mary Beard’s account of Augustan Rome in the latest LRB could apply just as well to Putin’s Russia:
The Kremlin is trying some typically shadowy, sly moves to quell the Russian protest movement, but in Alexey Navalny the opposition may have a tactician who can outplay Putin at his own game. After an unexpected 50,000 demonstrators turned out in Moscow on 10 December to protest against electoral fraud, Mikhail Prokhorov, a flamboyant oligarch, said he supported the protests and would run for president in March. Prokhorov, who owns the New Jersey Nets and Snob magazine, and was arrested a few years ago at a French ski resort on suspicion of pimping (though later released without charge), will be an easy target for Putin’s anti-oligarch rhetoric. It seems a classic Kremlin ruse: push forward an opposition candidate so absurd it only strengthens Putin.
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.
Russians love living in London: Berezovsky and Abramovich fight it out in a London court room, the Lebedevs buy the Standard and the Independent, minted Sashas and Pashas fill up the public schools, Russian hipsters spliff on London Fields, Russian shoppers throng Selfridges, Russian middle-class professionals walk their tots in Primrose Hill. London is known as ‘Londongrad’ or ‘Moscow on the Thames’; Russian media call it ‘Russia’s premier city abroad’ and even talk about ‘misty Albion’. Skinny bohemians and fat bureaucrats sip overpriced bitter at ‘Olde Englande’ theme pubs in Perm and Ekaterinburg; there’s a boy band called ‘Chelsea’ and Russia’s best alternative rocker has a song called ‘I dreamt of the sky above London’. Tell a certain kind of Russian you’re from the US or Germany and they’ll shrug; say you’re from London and they’ll sigh wistfully the way some Americans once did about Paris.
For quite a while now the Kremlin has been preoccupied with creating and managing a loyal ‘opposition’ to itself. Credit for the idea seems to go to Vladislav Surkov, the president’s first deputy chief of staff under both Putin and Dmitry Medvedev. In 2006 Surkov met with Sergei Mironov, the leader of a small centre-left party and chairman of the Federation Council, Russia’s upper house. Surkov spoke of the need for a two-party system: ‘Society needs “the second leg” to shift on to, when the first one gets stiff.’ The second leg took the form of A Just Russia, created from the merger of several smaller parties to attract the votes of ‘the left with strong nationalist inclinations’. United Russia was to remain the dominant leg, of course.