Russia: Reading Genius into Putin's Blunders

One of the more striking things about Vladimir Putin, aside from his affinity for displays of machismo, is the degree of nuanced multidimensional-chess-like strategic planning attributed to him and his team by both opponents and supporters.

Take the Pussy Riot case. One of the common tropes is that Putin lost face and international prestige during the trial, perhaps bowing to pressure from the Orthodox Church to the detriment of his own reputation. Several well known opposition intellectuals have advanced a different theory, however, explaining the harsh verdict and resulting public outcry as a singular coup for Putin.

Vladimir Putin at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting Davos, 28 January 2009, photo by Remy Steinegger, CC BY-SA 2.0.

In his blog, Other Russia leader Eduard Limonov speculated that prosecuting Pussy Riot and concentrating public attention on the case actually allowed Putin to further fracture the opposition movement. According to him [ru]:

[Pussy Riot] принесли исключительно вред, — разделили общество, взвинтили страсти, отвлекли гражданское общество от борьбы с властью, разделили его и вовлекли две разделенные части в борьбу друг с другом. […] Светское общество может и консолидировалось, но традиционный народ попроще опять оттолкнули истерикой […] В конечном итоге выиграла все-таки власть.

[Pussy Riot] exclusively caused harm — divided society, incited passions, distracted civil society from the fight with the government, split it in two, and got the two sides to fight each other. […] The secular part of society was perhaps consolidated, but we repelled the traditional, simpler people once again with hysteria […] In the end, the government won.

Vladimir Milov, leader of DemVybor, another opposition party, aired a similar opinion [ru] in his blog:

Чем жестче власть обращается с Pussy [Riot], тем сильнее визжит и беснуется интеллигенция и “креативный класс”, проклинает церковь, обзывает последними словами всех православных подряд. […] Тем больше поводов для власти сказать засомневавшимся избирателям: видите, ребята, на смену нам хотят прийти безбожники, ненавидящие православие, у которых главные герои и кумиры – срамные девки, сплясавшие в храме. […] Рядовой избиратель посмотрит на такое и скажет: ой, нет, не надо нам таких икон и действующих лиц, лучше уж мы по старому. Кто бы ни был инициатором этой “идеальной провокации” в храме, власть ее эксплуатирует в свою пользу на 150% […] заставляет соперника делать невыгодные для него шаги.

The harsher the government treats Pussy [Riot], the more the intelligentsia and the “creative class” scream and rage, cursing the Church, using unpleasant epithets for all of the Orthodox. […] All the more reason for the government to tell the doubting voters: see, guys, those who want to replace us are godless haters of Orthodox Christianity. Their main heroes and idols are shameless girls, who danced in the temple. […] The average voter will look at this and say, “Oh, no, we do not need such icons and characters. Better to stick with what we've got.” No matter who thought up this “ideal provocation” in the temple, the government exploits 150% of it in its favor […], and causes its opponent to take unfavorable steps.

Lyudmila Alexeeva, the head of the Moscow Helsinki Group (who recently picked up blogging again after a year long hiatus), also seems to think [ru] that the show trial was meant to distract:

У меня стойкое впечатление, что история с «Пусси Райот» вызвала огромный отклик в самых разных СМИ не только потому, что многие (и я в том числе) были действительно возмущены преследованием этих девушек, но на общественное возмущение наложилось и сознательное раздувание ажиотажа вокруг этого дела сверху. Для чего? Для того, чтобы мы поменьше думали о судьбе арестованных участников митинга 6 мая. А ведь этот готовящийся судебный процесс будет неизмерим по масштабам с судилищем над девочками из «Пусси Райот».

I have a strong impression that the “Pussy Riot” story provoked a huge response in a variety of media, not only because many people (myself included) were angred by the persecution of the girls, but together with public outrage there was a deliberate fanning of the hype which came from up high. What for? In order to get us to think less about the fate of the arrested protesters from the May 6 protest. This coming trial will be immeasurable in scope compared to the judgment of the girls from “Pussy Riot.”

Masha Gessen at the Personal Democracy Forum, New York City, 12 June 2012, photo by Sandira, CC BY-SA 2.0.

In a similar vein, journalists argue whether or not Putin's recent conversation with Masha Gessen, the former editor of a geographic journal and an LGBT activist, was all part of some masterful public relations campaign. Gessen refused to cover Putin’s flight with the cranes, and was later fired by the journal owner, presumably for this offense. Later Putin invited her to a private meeting, which Gessen later described in a newspaper article [ru]. That piece, while ostensibly anti-Putin, also managed in part to portray him in a positive light as a statesman that cares about ecology, seeks compromise, and is not afraid to seem a little foolish.

Journalist Alexander Timofeevsky believes that Gessen's article was provoked intentionally. Because she is so predictable, he argues, Gessen could be relied upon to react as she did, walking straight into a trap [ru]:

[Она] наорала по телефону на Путина, потом пришла на встречу походкою альфа-самца, потом написала про это текст, очевидно, прямой и честный, словом, проследовала по направлению, проложенному ей Администрацией: ать-два. […] Они ждали этого текста. И дождались его.

[She] yelled at Putin over the phone, came to the meeting strutting like an alpha-male, and then wrote up the story in what is obviously a straight-laced and honest account. In a word, she walked the line drawn for her by the Administration: hup, two! […] They were waiting for this text. And it did not disappoint them.

Whether or not Vladimir Putin and his staff are indeed masterminds remains a mystery. Perhaps it is pleasant to think that the actions of the Russian government — as inept as they often seem — are all part of some larger, capable plan. Though many may disagree with that plan, this grand vision clearly holds allure even for Putin's most outspoken critics.

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