The Postmodern Theatre: Russia, the Elections and Putin

by Binoy Kampmark Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: 15.12.2011

The protest pedigree of the Putin-generation Russian is a small one. With a police state mentality well and truly in position, taking to the streets is bound to land the individual a period of true, heartfelt police inhospitality.

It remains to be seen whether the latest protests over the parliamentary results in Russia will translate into anything broader. At this point, the anger that is bubbling against the victory of the United Russia party looks impressive. Protests are planned in 75 cities across the huge state, though other large protests that were planned have not materialised. Is there a hint, perhaps, of an 'Arab spring' in Russia to thaw the winter of discontent? Angered voices such as the Soviet Union's last leader Mikhail Gorbachev's lost their currency a long time ago, and calling for another election will not necessarily change the course. That said the message itself, packaged, re-run and strung through the country, with a good dose of anger, may itself stimulate something beyond the usual flash in the pan nature of Russian political promise.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's remarks about electoral impropriety are disingenuous and Vladimir V. Putin is entitled to feel peeved. But his party did not do well. By his cosmic standards of invincibility, a 53 percent vote is a poor one, a sock to the jaw, a reminder that political fortunes can rarely be controlled. The pundit train is getting a boost, and speculation outside Russia is starting to grow. Daniel Treisman, a professor of political science at University of California, Los Angeles does at least begin his piece on the CNN site (Dec 7) with a refrain. 'Identifying the moment when a political regime begins to decompose is as difficult as dating the onset of a recession.'

The opposition is a fractious bunch who have, in the past, shown that they are more capable as noisy nuisances than effective power brokers. 'This is how parliamentary elections work in Russia,' suggests former political reporter Valery Panyushkin. 'Mr. Putin's party, United Russia, faces off against collaborating parties - which would never dare criticize him. Ad the real opposition parties are banned' (NYT, Dec 8). In this particular round, the Communists managed to gather a 20 percent sampling of the vote; the Just Russia Party hummed along with 13 percent and Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democrats (liberal and democratic in all but name) managed to nab 12 percent.

Economies of plunder depend on a constant supply of booty. Oil and gas were happily available to keep the economy growing from 2000 to 2008, but the global financial crisis has hit the country hard, drying up the supply that the Putin-Medvedev alliance has consistently promised the Russian populace. The government has had to partake in large spending programs that have prevented the rot sinking deeper, though the apparatchiks in Moscow are not juju men capable of miraculous feats.

Nor are those political creatures in the Kremlin efficient. Petro-chemical autocracy stakes its existence on economic benefits distributed on a true materialist credo. Greed is good as long as it rewards. And everything else is theatre, and a postmodernist one at that, if one is to take the observation of the novelist Eduard Limonov at face value. Behind Putin's system lie such figures as Vladislav Surkov, a figure who has, it has been argued by such authors as Peter Pomerantsev in the London Review of Books, 'privatised the Russian political system'. Surkov is the sort of individual who reflects and makes the system he delves into - the magician who is very much the deception he wishes to abide by.

Pomerantsev describes the Putin state aptly, showing how subtle the heavy hand of autocracy can be. 'In contemporary Russia, unlike the old USSR or present-day North Korea, the stage is constantly changing: the country is a dictatorship in the morning, a democracy at lunch, an oligarchy by suppertime, while backstage, oil companies are expropriated, journalists killed, billions siphoned away.'

Such a scene comes at a high cost to governor and subject. Surkov's puppeteer antics will have a used-by date attached to them. The public relations machine might be ingenious, but Putin's formula of repression depends on consent. Given the voting patterns at the latest parliamentary elections, even taking into account the electoral fraud that is alleged to have taken place, this show is bound to change.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email:

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