Long Read: Internet Hamsters & “The Loneliness of Vladimir Putin”

Also Pussy Riot, kleptocrats, and ‘the Paris Hilton of Russia”. Fascinating, very readable reporting by Julia Ioffe, in TNR:

After the economic collapse and chaos of the 1990s, Putin and the Russians had entered a tacit social compact: The government would provide stability and wealth, and the people would stay out of the government’s business. And, for the most part, well into the 2000s, everyone abided by it. Polls steadily indicated that some 80 percent of Russians thought they could not influence the political process, nor did they seem to care to. The state meticulously cleared the underbrush of civil society, leaving Russians atomized and isolated from one another. Putin’s popularity, meanwhile, was stratospheric, and it was real. The television was his television, and everyone who didn’t like it congregated in the Internet ghetto and cracked jokes.

But in 2008, Putin’s two terms as president ran out and his handpicked successor, Dmitry Medvedev, replaced him. Medvedev talked about modernizing the economy, fighting corruption, and easing up on the government’s routine harassment of small businesses. By 2009, when I’d moved back to Moscow (my family had emigrated to the United States in 1990), there was even a kind of renaissance in the liberal media ghetto. Russian journalists I met and became friends with were less afraid. New media outlets were popping up, both online and off, including Dozhd TV. Dark things were still happening: The horrific death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in prison after he uncovered a massive government corruption scheme, the savage beating of journalist Oleg Kashin, the continued imprisonment of Khodorkovsky and many of his former colleagues. It was Russia, after all. But it felt like it was—slowly, gingerly—becoming a gentler, more modern country.

And then on September 24, 2011, at a convention of Putin’s ruling United Russia Party, Medvedev—looking very much like a man who’d spent the night crying—mounted the podium and nominated Vladimir Putin to run for president. I was in the press section up by the rafters, and I remember being almost as stunned as Andrei Kolesnikov, who traveled around with Putin for one of Russia’s biggest dailies. As I wrote at the time, Kolesnikov had not seen it coming and, despite his job—he was virtually Putin’s hagiographer—it was clearly not welcome news. “This,” he said faintly, “is for keeps.”

The Russian constitution had already been changed to lengthen the presidential term from four to six years, and people grasped immediately what Medvedev’s announcement meant. Looking down at the Twitter feed on my phone as the speechifying went on, I saw despair and bitterness beyond Internet snark, beyond jokes. Instead, everyone was doing the math: How old would they be in 2024 when Putin would, theoretically, leave office? People my age had already spent their twenties with the man, and another twelve would put them well into middle age. Others realized they’d be pensioners. It was a strange way to measure mortality.

But more than anything, it was insulting. “It said very clearly to everyone that the question of government in Russia is, at most, a question to be resolved between two people,” and, more likely, one, explained Gleb Pavlovsky, a political consultant who had helped Putin win his first presidential election, in 2000. “I didn’t think it would be done so stupidly and so provocatively. They spit in people’s faces.”

The protests came soon after that…

32 replies
  1. 1
    aimai says:

    Fascinating. Thanks for linking to this.

  2. 2
    Gin & Tonic says:

    They spit in people’s faces, and the people did nothing.

  3. 3
    Paul in KY says:

    Echoing aimai’s comment. I’m sure those 12 years will pass fast…

  4. 4
    Paul in KY says:

    @Gin & Tonic: Sorta like what happened over here back in 2000, and also with the Lying-Us-Into-Iraq crime.

    Russians have memories of their government doing terrible things to the people (within many of their lives). We don’t have that exciuse over here (at least all us white people).

  5. 5
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    The Russians have been fucked for centuries.

    If you look at the names of many of the old Soviet-era Nomenklatura, they were the same names as the old boyar families who fulfilled the same functions in Tsarist times.

    They’re still around, doing pretty much the same things. They’re the Russian 1%.

  6. 6
    Big R says:

    Cue the accusations that AL is engaging in copyright infringement.

  7. 7
    different-church-lady says:

    [looks up “internet hamster” on Urban Dictionary…]


  8. 8
    Shakezula says:

    More reasons the right wing swoons over Vlad the Imprisoner.

  9. 9
    kindness says:

    Just imagine if dubya and Darth had had another 12 years….

  10. 10
    c u n d gulag says:

    I was in Moscow in ’95 for two weeks, chaperoning a college trip. This was shortly after the city began to “Westernize,” with European and American businesses starting-up, and the dawning of “The New Age of the Russian Plutocrats.”

    I’m first generation, and so I’m fluent in Russian.

    I talked to the regular people, and asked them which system they preferred – the old Soviet system, or the new system?
    And almost all of the ones older than there early 30’s, said the Soviet one.
    When I asked why, they said, “Well, no one had anything, but everyone had the same amount of nothing. Now, most have nothing, and a few have a lot!”

    I wanted to say, “Welcome to ‘True Capitalism!'”

    Marx was right.
    Ok, Groucho too – but I’m talking about Karl.

  11. 11
    Violet says:

    Speaking of Russia, there’s been a school shooting in Moscow today.

    A teenager described as a model student shot a teacher and a police officer dead and took more than 20 of his schoolmates hostage in a Moscow classroom on Monday, days before Russia hosts the Winter Olympics under tight security.

    The suspect was disarmed and detained about an hour after the shootings after talking to his father, the owner of the two rifles with which he forced his way into the school in northern Moscow at midday.

    And hey look, Russians are just like us!

    She said the punishment for legal gun owners whose negligence enabled others to get their hands on weapons was “infinitesimal”.

  12. 12
    Anne Laurie says:

    @different-church-lady: Very different meaning in Russia, if you read the article.

  13. 13
    jenn says:

    Thanks for the link!

  14. 14
    different-church-lady says:

    @Anne Laurie: Well, I should hope so, since I completely made that up.

  15. 15
    Violet says:

    Can someone tell John that no one can comment on his thread above because he used the word “cas1no” in it. That commercial is awesome.

  16. 16
    different-church-lady says:

    @Violet: You know perfectly well you can’t tell Cole anything.

  17. 17
    Lee says:

    When Medvedev took office, everywhere I read he was just going to be a placeholder until Putin got back in office.

    I find it amazing that the Russian’s thought otherwise.

  18. 18
    OzarkHillbilly says:

    Those lucky Russians. They think they’ve got it bad they should try living under the jackbooted heel of Obama.

  19. 19
    Violet says:

    @different-church-lady: Well, I know I can’t tell John anything. Maybe someone out there can. Does his mother read Balloon-Juice?

  20. 20
    TooManyJens says:

    @Violet: I thought maybe the ad just left everyone speechless.

    I tweeted at John about the problem. Here’s hoping he sees it.

  21. 21
    different-church-lady says:

    @Violet: His mother is probably the first person to realize nobody could tell him anything.

  22. 22
    srv says:

    @Lee: I don’t recall anyone in the West saying it would be anyone other than Putin when election year rolled around.

    And in 20 years, al-Sisi will be overthrown in Egypt as Mubarak crony.

    Americans have a lot of illusions, but at least Capt. Obvious lives here.

  23. 23
    catclub says:

    “and I remember being almost as stunned [that Putin would run for president again] as Andrei Kolesnikov, who traveled around with Putin for one of Russia’s biggest dailies”

    They say that typically, the US folks have no idea what the politics and culture of Pakistan or wherever,
    while the pakistanis are fluent in English and have a pretty good idea of ours, and which buttons to push. But on this, I thought everyone knew that he was just going to alternate between President and Prime Minister forever. And whichever one he was in would have all the power that year.

  24. 24
    Violet says:

    @TooManyJens: Thread’s gone now. Maybe he’s re-working it. That commercial was epic.

  25. 25
  26. 26
    moops says:

    It would appear to be a failed test

  27. 27
    sharl says:

    I was curious by the phrase “one of Putin’s scariest chums” that had no name associated with it [full paragraph blockquoted below,* for context.]

    Apparently that “chum” is Igor Sechin, is the Executive Chairman of the big petroleum conglomerate Rosneft. From that Wikipedia description, he apparently is widely perceived as one seriously nasty piece of work, as Julia Ioffe said in her article.

    *…Putin recently took aim at a sacred Russian tradition: the company Christmas party. In early December, he made a public statement that, when he was in the KGB, he and the guys chipped in for their holiday celebrations. Responding to the dog whistle, government corporations immediately started announcing that they were canceling their lavish Christmas parties, some of which had budgets of nearly $2 million. (Rosneft, the state oil concern formed from what was taken from Khodorkovsky and now run by one of Putin’s scariest chums, had their Christmas party anyway, with famous, expensive Russian pop stars performing as planned. They got around the unofficial fatwa by calling it a “charity event.”)

  28. 28
    Peter says:

    There’s something about Russia. There always has been. Going back to the days of the Tsars and even further it’s always a land of instability and brutality. It’s like the land itself, cold and dark as it is, has seeped into the soul of the nation.

    I don’t know if things will ever get better there, or how.

  29. 29
    EthylEster says:

    @catclub: yes, i definitely recall hearing on the radio some journalist discussing what his handpicked successor, Dmitry Medvedev, would be doing after one term: being succeeded by Putin. So I don’t see why anyone was/is surprised.

  30. 30
    RaflW says:

    Perhaps Putin’s global legacy will be to so totally overspend and corrupt the Olympics that it might, somehow, become an “amature” sporting event again?


    Anyway, the hotels and athlete villages aren’t even ready yet. Enjoy your stay at the gulag Hilton!

  31. 31

    I wonder what we will do, if another Bush becomes the Republican candidate in 2016. I wonder what we will do, if he wins?

  32. 32
    Fred says:

    X-KGB head becomes corrupt dictator. Quite a surprise. Imagine if USA had a X-CIA head in the White House for twelve years running and then somehow his sociopathic son got appointed by his daddy’s appointed court. And then…
    But of course America would never stand for that. And of course all the reps of that party would be voted out so they could never pervert the constitution again.

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