BERLIN – As he turned 62 Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin is more popular in Russia than ever before — or at least Russia’s notoriously unreliable pollsters say so. That means love and devotion for the country’s sole remaining decision-maker must take the most bizarre forms ever.
Tuesday’s gifts and dedications to the president included:
• A legislative proposal to celebrate Oct. 7 as “Polite People’s Day.” “Polite People” is a Russian term for the unmarked soldiers who annexed Crimea in March and were later revealed as crack Russian airborne troops. The Kremlin has acknowledged but not endorsed the proposal.
• A representation of the Russian and Chechen flags by 100,000 people in Grozny, the capital of Chechnya. The former breakaway republic’s fiercely pro-Putin leader Ramzan Kadyrov posted pictures of the extravaganza on Instagram, claiming the two flags’ combined length added up to “2,000 thousand meters.” It wasn’t really five times the distance to the moon, though: Kadyrov just added a few extra zeroes in his fervor. One suspects that’s what happens with Chechnya’s requests for subsidies from Moscow, too.
• A 13-meter book by a group of political scientists presenting, in graphical form, Putin’s 550 achievements as president. The makers of the artifact want it included in the Guinness Book of Records.
• An art exhibition by the members of a Facebook group calling itself the Putin Supporters’ Network, presenting Putin’s exploits as Hercules’ 12 labors. In the somewhat hastily produced amateur paintings, Putin cuts off the heads of a Lernaean Hydra that represent Western countries and Japan, strangles a terrorist who would have been Hercules’ Nemean Lion, and cleans out stables of corruption.
• A sale of Putin-themed streetwear at Moscow’s poshest department store opposite the Kremlin. Bloomberg News reports eager buyers for hoodies imprinted with an image of Putin in impenetrable dark glasses, James Bond-style.
It is difficult and perhaps unnecessary to distinguish between sincere love and hysterical sycophancy, primarily because Putin himself doesn’t care. His 62nd year, probably the most important and eventful in his career so far, has proved that he would just as willingly be feared as loved.
Nothing else would explain his many public lies about Russia’s involvement in the Ukraine crisis, his contemptuous treatment of his few remaining opponents, his endorsement of dozens of illiberal laws passed by the docile parliament, his open support of billionaire cronies at the expense of ordinary Russians. There is no practical difference between fear and love: Either emotion makes sure he is not dismissed or discounted, and that means that he himself owes no respect to those who show them.
Perhaps that is why, for the first time as Russia’s ruler, Putin has taken the day off and flown by helicopter to an undisclosed location in the Siberian taiga forest, more than 300 km from the nearest habitation. He has taken phone calls from the few fellow leaders who cared to congratulate him, but the bizarre gifts will be old news by the time he ends his hermitage, and he is not likely to be briefed about them.
Or perhaps he is just tired of people. Trees, by contrast, are always sincerely, respectfully silent.
Leonid Bershidsky (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Berlin-based contributor to Bloomberg View.
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