If you missed Vladimir Putin’s annual “anything goes” press conference this year, congratulations. His annual marathon face-off with Russia’s press corps and selected international journalists was held on the 14th of December, and though in past years I have paid it the scant attention it deserves, this year I decided to take the plunge and watch an hour or two of the more than four hours that Vlad consecrated to the maintenance of his image, a lavish but businesslike homage to himself.
What can I say? Love was in the air?
I could say it was clear just how much more intelligent than Donald Trump he is, but that’s like saying he knows how to put on his own socks and shoes. The fact is that it’s hard to sum up this sprawling public relations orgy in one or two sentences. In some ways, it was kind of sweet: all these people, respectful and restrained, addressing the man whom they know to be the virtual dictator of their nation, willing to let him present himself as the duly-elected president of the Russian Federation. Charming and sinister at the same time. The Emperor’s New Clothes, maybe–if a Glock were being held to the collective temple of the populace as the nude king paraded through the streets.
Vlad spent much of the time spouting numbing statistics about the wonderful performance of the economy and how, gosh darn it, every single year Russians just seemed to be happier and more prosperous, in spite of obstacles introduced by international interests whose only goal was to destroy Russia. The kind of stuff we might hear from someone like Trump, in other words.
Other highlights included the expected question, from an American journalist, about Russian interference in our 2016 election. After a magnificent poker-faced denial of any involvement in such a scheme, he went on to evince confusion and dismay about America’s fixation on the issue. It shows disrespect to the president, he said. The people making these charges were undermining their own nation, he said.
More entertaining still were discussions of how well the Russian government works. One woman asked about the risks of fraud at the Russian Central Bank. Putin dismissed these concerns, saying that the bank operates independently of government, and is subject to oversight by “various government agencies.” There have been no violations, he said. “I get reports from time to time.”
I found this particular crude pretense richly entertaining.
For my money, the most awkward—and meaningful–questions came from a young bearded man who seemed willing to flirt with danger. Since you are running for president again, he said, can you tell us what party you represent? Putin replied that he was representing himself. Hopefully, he said, other groups will support me.
But the questioner didn’t leave it alone. He followed up, asking Putin his opinion about why there was not more serious opposition to him, and wasn’t it a little boring for him to run and win without breaking a sweat. Putin seemed just mildly irritated by this. He replied that he was not responsible for his opponents’ views or their popularity, and that his easy victories were simply demonstrations of the validity and popularity of his policies.
What struck me about this exchange, and the entire presser, was how sad Putin actually is. Though he is fabulously wealthy, and has essentially unquestioned control of the Russian state, yet he realizes he cannot achieve his greatest desire—a stable Russian government for the long haul–without sacrificing all of that. Without yielding up his dictatorial power and risking his office in bona fide elections, he cannot create for Russia a lasting system of modern government, with peaceful transfer of power—something that will function long after he is gone. As long as he clings to his office like a drunk clutching his pint of whiskey, the best he can hope for is a hand-picked successor who will be strong enough to hold the reins of power and continue Putin’s brand of oligarchic nationalism. He must know that it is just a matter of time before the Russian people demand something better. He is like a doomed emperor facing extinction, leaving behind a country with an uncertain future.
It is hard not to believe that somewhere in the recesses of his extraordinarily devious, black little heart he is not just resenting the United States, but is wildly envious of it. Though we have grave problems as a nation, we do have what he does not, and what he can never offer his people: a time-tested framework of representative government, one that provides a blueprint for an edifice of justice and freedom that its citizens agree is worth the effort to continue building.