Feb 27th 2014

A new Russia roadmap - The near impossible battle to topple Putin

by Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. 

Johnson worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine and was chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is the author of five books.

Michael Johnson is based in Bordeaux. Besides English and French he is also fluent in Russian.

You can order Michael Johnson's most recent book, a bilingual book, French and English, with drawings by Johnson:

“Portraitures and caricatures:  Conductors, Pianist, Composers”

 here.

To the casual observer, the past three years in Russia have been particularly mystifying — bold protest marches, campaigns calling the Duma majority “crooks and thieves,” the imprisonment of some, but not all, leading dissidents, and gulag time for the outrageous Pussy Riot girls. Russia’s own Islamic jihadists even threatened to blow up Sochi during the Winter Olympics.

But President Vladimir Putin carries on, outwardly unperturbed.

Now, along comes the book we need, a kind of roadmap of what has been going on inside Russia while we were confused. Kicking the Kremlin: Russia’s New Dissidents and the Battle to Topple Putin reveals the strengths and the weaknesses of the current Kremlin team and explains, in conclusion, why Putin cannot be toppled. Yet.

Author Marc Bennetts, a British freelance reporter with 15 years experience covering Russia, brings to this story a readable journalistic flair and a sense of close contact with Russians that one does not get from reading the Washington Post or the New York Times. Bennetts is married to a Russian girl and is at ease with the language.

In his meticulously footnoted account, Bennetts reminds us that Kremlin cynicism was noticed by the rising Russian middle class around 2011 as obscure protesters’ anti-corruption message caught on. Lawyer Andrei Navalny’s catchphrase “crooks and thieves” to describe the pro-Putin United Russia party popped out almost by accident in a radio interview in the spring of 2011. “This is the party of crooks and thieves. It is the duty of every patriot — and yes, I am a patriot — to do all they can to destroy this party,” he said.

Navalny had struck a chord. Part of the slogan’s appeal was its underlying brazen humor. “Crooks” in Russian is zhuliki, which can mean petty thieves or con men. This was a “gloriously defiant and truthful” slogan that insulted and demythologized the leaders, Bennetts writes. “Suddenly, Putin and United Russia didn’t look so powerful or frightening, after all.”

Marches through Moscow, some authorized, some not, turned out hundreds of thousands of disaffected Russians at first. Organizers made full use of modern communications — Facebook, Twitter and email — to spread the word and attract followers.

Even the Pussy Riot girls had an impact, albeit only in the West. But that suited their aims. The girls wanted to “draw attention in the West to what’s going on in Putin’s Russia and they have succeeded,” the husband of one of the girls told Bennetts.

As Bennetts tells the story, a brutal crackdown on the dissidents came next, in 2012 and 2013, effectively snuffing out major protests, at least for the present. “No one in our country wants chaos,” Putin said in a television statement, with a nod to the Ukraine which was already restless. Yet this suppression was more a sign of Putin’s vulnerability than his strongarm successes. Bennetts calls it “a tacit admission that he felt threatened — however briefly — by the unprecedented protests…”

The beleaguered Navalny, who studied at Yale University and is now free on probation, remained outspoken during the Winter Olympics. But he despairs of rallying the torpid Russian populace to help him clean up fraud and corruption in high places. In one speech he expressed his frustration: “What’s happening in our country is like some old, feeble woman being mugged by a gang of evil teenagers as she walks down the road. But instead of helping her out, everyone just watches. Or Tweets about it.”

A thread running through Bennetts’ story is the recurring theme of intrusion by foreign devils, a Russian fear dating back to Genghis Khan, Napoleon, and Hitler. Navalny himself has been branded by Putinists as a foreign agent. As one prominent Russian told Bennetts: “American taxpayers spent money on his training at Yale (where he was a World Fellow in 2010) which prepares leaders of the so-called Third World. We all understand what kind of leaders they prepare there. They rate this type very highly and recommend that the State Department use him in the interests of the United States.”

The rising political tensions of 2011 prompted Putin to outdo himself in exploiting national xenophobia. In nationally televised comments, he said he believed then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had “given a signal” to opposition leaders, “and with the support of the U.S. State Department, they began active work”.

Duma lawmaker Yevgeni Fyodorov told Bennetts in an interview he believed that there are “agents of U.S. influence within the government.” Just as worrisome to him was the fact that there are NATO troops in what he still regards as “the Soviet republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.” Bennetts was stunned. “We had been talking for less than half an hour but my brain had already started to go numb,” he recalls.

“Fyodorov is the logical result,” Bennetts writes, “of the Kremlin-backed xenophobia poisoning Russian politics.” Bennetts left the interview having seen “the fanaticism and warped suspicions that led the Soviet Union to murder millions of its own citizens.”

In one of Putin’s “Conversations with the Nation,” he issued a disguised threat. Speaking of “people who possess Russian passports and act in the interests of foreign governments,” he said, it was “useless or impossible” to have a dialogue with them. “I’ll tell you what there is to say: ‘Come to me Bandar-logs.’” To most educated Russians, big fans of Rudyard Kipling, the allusion was unmistakable. Kipling’s python Kaa, from the Mowgli stories, swallowed Bandar-log monkeys whole. “I’ve always liked Kipling,“ Putin said, grinning.

To all evidence, the old external-enemy tactic was working. An opinion poll in 2012 suggested that around two-thirds of Russians believed the West could be behind the wave protests.

Bennetts’ recounting of the cynical trading of places at the top between Putin and his prime minister, Dmitri Medvedev, clarifies how the switch was concocted and sold to the electorate. Following Putin’s two terms as president from 2000 to 2008, he “seemed to have Russia locked down,” Bennetts writes. “But he was about to be faced with a dilemma, the solution to which would both define his long rule and sow the seeds for increasing dissent.” Putin had to decide whether to stay or go. In the end, he decided to do both, ensuring that an entire generation of Russians will have known no leadership other than Putin’s.

Medvedev and Putin had worked together in the municipal government of St. Petersburg in the 1990s, Medvedev as a part-time associate. Bennetts quotes visitors to Putin’s offices at the time as noticing Medvedev sitting “at a tiny desk in the lobby, frequently mistaken as Putin’s secretary.” Later when their Kremlin power-sharing arrangement was put into practice, images of the two friends were everywhere — “the stern but wise Putin and the jovial, almost childlike Medvedev.” In 2011, the presidential term was extended from four years to six. Thus Putin has every expectation of remaining in power until the next presidential elections in 2018.

And yet the protests of 2011-2012 faltered and Putin saw an opportunity to go after his enemies. The harmless Pussy Riot girls were thrown in jail, Navalny tried, convicted, and now faces a possible ten years in a labor camp and NGOs were under pressure as suspected foreign agents.

Bennetts writes that Putin’s message of stability has prevailed for so long because so many Russians have first-hand experience with the dangers of rapid political or social change. “Ordinary people may be angry about corruption but they are unprepared for the massive sacrifices that overthrowing Putin would entail.”

The next four years may be a time of toil and trouble for Putin. Already polls show that three-quarters of the Russian electorate do not want him to try for a fourth term of office. And Kremlin-controlled television is becoming a figure of fun. In 2009, some 79 percent of viewers believed what they saw and heard there. Last year that figure had plunged to just over half the population..

Bennetts quotes a pensioner in Kirov as telling him she believed that Putin’s aim was only “to do all he can to make us strong.” She knew this to be true because she had heard it on state-controlled TV. Then she added: “Of course if the TV is lying, then so am I.” Bennetts said she then laughed nervously, the notion apparently having occurred to her for the first time



First posted on The American Spectator. Posted here with their and the author’s kind permission. For The American Spectator, please click here.




 


This article is brought to you by the author who owns the copyright to the text.

Should you want to support the author’s creative work you can use the PayPal “Donate” button below.

Your donation is a transaction between you and the author. The proceeds go directly to the author’s PayPal account in full less PayPal’s commission.

Facts & Arts neither receives information about you, nor of your donation, nor does Facts & Arts receive a commission.

Facts & Arts does not pay the author, nor takes paid by the author, for the posting of the author's material on Facts & Arts. Facts & Arts finances its operations by selling advertising space.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Apr 29th 2019
A century ago, unspeakable horrors took place on every continent that were known only to the victims and the perpetrators. Not so today. As a result of advances in communications – from the telegraph and radio to satellite television and the internet – the pain and loss of global tragedies are brought home to us in real time.   Because of this expanding consciousness, the post-World War II era has witnessed the rise of visionary leaders and the birth of countless organizations dedicated to alleviating suffering and elevating the causes of peace, human rights, and tolerance among peoples. Individually and collectively, they have championed the rights of peoples in far-flung corners of the world, some of which had been previously unknown to those who became their advocates. These same leaders and groups have also fought for civil rights and for economic, social, political, and environmental justice in their own countries. 
Apr 23rd 2019

 

“Cursed be that mortal inter-indebtedness which will not do away with ledgers. I would be free as air; and I’m down in the whole world’s books. I am so rich… and yet I owe for the flesh in the tongue I brag with” (Moby Dick, chapter cviii). 

Apr 20th 2019
Economists speak in numbers only, clinging to statistical data and quantitative models. We do so in the hope of looking objective. But this is counter-productive – “data” cannot tell us everything. Other social sciences such as sociology and anthropology use a broader range of methods, and consequently have a broader perspective on society. If we take our societal role of adviser on economic matters seriously, we will need to open up and adopt the insights that these other disciplines bring us about how the economy works.Politics and economics are inextricably intertwined, as Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Karl Marx knew all too well. Somehow this has been forgotten. This does not mean economists need to get political or choose sides. But it does mean that we ignore politics at our own peril – by blindsiding ourselves or dismissing it as “external stuff”, we hamper our understanding of the very system we study.
Apr 16th 2019
Although it is not likely that many visitors who pass by the Giacometti sculptures on their way to Las Meninas will ponder it, the contrast between these works underscores the single greatest transformation in the history of western art, from a regime in which artists tailored their works to the aims of individual patrons, to one in which artists choose their techniques and motifs according to their own concerns, and only then present the products to an anonymous competitive market
Apr 4th 2019
On March eleventh, the world lost someone who was very special, who made a mark and touched people with his voice, as a singer, a humorist and writer..........I had the great good fortune to know him and spend time with him, playing music, talking with him – he was a man of immense culture, fluent in Hebrew, German, English, and Romanian. He loved New York City and Vienna and we would often swap apartments so that he could stay in New York while I lived at his place in Vienna.
Apr 1st 2019
The ongoing controversy over admissions to American universities has overlooked the one of the most telling aspects of the scandal—that it took place with the connivance and active participation of administrative bureaucracies able to act with impunity in the pursuit of their interests. Neither the professoriate, often the target of opprobrium from the left and the right, nor the student body, also the target of criticism from both sides of the political spectrum, bore any of the responsibility.  Current debates over “what ails” U.S. colleges and universities consistently ignore the single most important dynamic of all institutions—their structure of power. I suggest that the way in which power is allocated within American universities is strikingly similar to that of Soviet-type regimes. Presidents, chancellors, provosts, deans, and their bureaucratic apparatuses preside over vast real-estate and financial holdings, engage in the economic equivalent of central planning, have inordinate influence over personnel, and are structured hierarchically, thereby forming an enormously powerful “new class” like that described by the renowned Yugoslav dissident, Milovan Djilas, in the mid-1950s. 
Mar 22nd 2019
When you think of religion, you probably think of a god who rewards the good and punishes the wicked. But the idea of morally concerned gods is by no means universal. Social scientists have long known that small-scale traditional societies – the kind missionaries used to dismiss as “pagan” – envisaged a spirit world that cared little about the morality of human behaviour. Their concern was less about whether humans behaved nicely towards one another and more about whether they carried out their obligations to the spirits and displayed suitable deference to them. Nevertheless, the world religions we know today, and their myriad variants, either demand belief in all-seeing punitive deities or at least postulate some kind of broader mechanism – such as karma – for rewarding the virtuous and punishing the wicked. In recent years, researchers have debated how and why these moralising religions came into being.
Mar 19th 2019
European food and ingredients have become staple food choices for the British. The use of ingredients such as garlic, peppers, avocados, Parmesan cheese and all those other European ingredients that are now taken for granted are relatively new and were still rare in the 1990s. When I was growing up in rural Devon in the 1970s, olive oil was only really readily available in chemists as a cure for earache – now it is found in most food cupboards. And wine drinking has permeated through all social classes.
Mar 12th 2019
The Guggenheim’s strange and wonderful exhibition of Hilma af Klint’s groundbreaking, yet largely unknown body of abstract art is an important event – one that challenges us to not only rethink the early history of twentieth century abstract art, but to recognize her vision of art and reality as unique, authentic, and deliciously puzzling. 
Feb 25th 2019
Looking at the world today, it's clear that the consequences of this imperial legacy are still with us. If anything has changed it is that we are now beyond just viewing the former "natives" as far-away oddities. They are now living within our borders, having come to find the opportunities they were denied at home. So when I hear the reactions in the West to the influx of South Asians going to the UK, or North Africans going to France, or Central Americans migrating to the US, I can only say "Guys, these are the fruits of your conquest – your chickens coming home to roost."
Feb 25th 2019
Extracts: "The new novel Sérotonine by Michel Houellebecq, the bad boy of French literature, is a saga of depression and death told with such irony and wit that readers seem to love it despite the unsettling themes. Maybe it’s just me but I found myself laughing out loud.......True to form, the French don’t agree on Houellebecq – or anything else, for that matter. The impact of his new novel has divided the readers into opposite love-hate camps with hardly any middle ground. Houellebecq cannot leave you indifferent, notes a literary friend of mine"........Picture: Michel Houellebecq, by the reviewer Michael Johnson. 
Feb 19th 2019
The term “smiling depression” – appearing happy to others while internally suffering depressive symptoms – has become increasingly popular. Articles on the topic have crept up in the popular literature, and the number of Google searches for the condition has increased dramatically this year. Some may question, however, whether this is actually a real, pathological condition. While smiling depression is not a technical term that psychologists use, it is certainly possible to be depressed and manage to successfully mask the symptoms. The closest technical term for this condition is “atypical depression”. In fact, a significant proportion of people who experience a low mood and a loss of pleasure in activities manage to hide their condition in this way. And these people might be particularly vulnerable to suicide.
Feb 19th 2019
Outstanding, experienced journalist Michael Johnson, whose articles, often accompanied by his striking portraits, has now brought his love of music and of pen, ink, gouache and watercolor to create a study of remarkable insight, strong opinions and beauty in this gorgeous book. Written in both French and English the brief descriptions of musicians he has met, studied, interviewed are accompanied by distinctive portraits that, as his title suggests, some may be caricatures. I argue that the author/artist has created insightful studies of the human face engaged in the pursuit of music. The only caricature is his own self-deprecating, slyly wry self-portrait that opens the book—and it is worth the book’s purchase on its own. 
Feb 15th 2019
Only 9% of the overall population in the UK are privately educated, but they occupy an especially high proportion when it comes to positions of public influence: a third of MPs and top business executives, half of cabinet members and newspaper editors, three-quarters of judges....
Feb 12th 2019
There is a fascinating chapter toward the end of Alexis de Toqueville’s Democracy in America titled “What Kind of Despotism Do Democratic Nations Have to Fear?” in which the author attempted something truly extraordinary – to describe a social condition which humankind had never before encountered. We find him trying to put his finger on something which does not yet exist, but which – in his extraordinary political imagination – he was able to foresee with startling clarity.............. we must recognize that Facebook, Google, and Amazon are the new leviathans. In serving users only those posts with which they will agree,  
Feb 8th 2019
Few modern cities can boast that a herd of Longhorn cattle has been driven along its main streets. But San Antonio can: each February, in a tribute to the past, the city plays host to a cattle drive.
Feb 5th 2019
Extract: "Most drugs are made to target “bulk” cancer cells, but not the root cause: the cancer stem cell. Cancer stem cells, also known as “tumour-initiating cells”, are the only cells in the tumour that can make a new tumour. New therapies that specifically target and eradicate these cancer stem cells are needed to prevent tumours growing and spreading, but for that there needs to be more clarity around the target. Our new research may have discovered such a target. We have identified and isolated cells within different cancerous growths which we call the “cell of origin”. Our experiments on cancer cells derived from a human breast tumour found that stem cells – representing 0.2% of the cancer cell population – have special characteristics."
Jan 31st 2019
For most people, teeth cleaning may just be a normal part of your daily routine. But what if the way you clean your teeth today, might affect your chances of getting Alzheimer’s disease in years to come? There is an increasing body of evidence to indicate that gum (periodontal) disease could be a plausible risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease. Some studies even suggest your risk doubles when gum disease persists for ten or more years. Indeed, a new US study published in Science Advances details how a type of bacteria called Porphyromonas gingivalis – or P. gingivalis – which is associated with gum disease, has been found in the brains of patients with Alzheimer’s disease. Tests on mice also showed how the bug spread from their mouth to brain where it destroyed nerve cells.
Jan 28th 2019
Piano design has become so “radically standardized” since the middle of the 20th century that players and audiences are robbed of any choice today, claims a new book the piano’s past, present and future.  This book fearlessly confronts the big questions: Should we even call today’s top-selling acoustic models the “modern piano”, considering that they are all based on a 140- year-old design? Will the 21st century mark a turning point in piano building?
Jan 10th 2019
Extracts from the article: "Last November, Michael Bloomberg made what may well be the largest private donation to higher education in modern times: $1.8 billion to enable his alma mater, Johns Hopkins University, to provide scholarships for eligible students unable to afford the school’s tuition. Bloomberg is grateful to Johns Hopkins, he explains, because the opportunity to study there, on a scholarship, “opened up doors that otherwise would have been closed, and allowed me to live the American dream.” In the year after he graduated, he donated $5 to the school, all he could afford. Thanks to the success of Bloomberg L.P., the international financial-information company he founded in 1981, he has now given a total of $3.3 billion......And yet I cannot applaud Bloomberg’s donation to a university that already had an endowment of $3.8 billion and charges undergraduate students $53,740 per year to attend. My preference is for Hank Rowan, who back in 1992 gave $100 million to Glassboro State College, a public university in New Jersey that at the time had an endowment of $787,000 and annual fees of about $9,000. Rowan himself was a graduate of MIT, one of the world’s finest universities, but gratitude was not his motivation for donating. He wanted to make the biggest difference he could, and believed that one makes a bigger difference by strengthening the weak links in the higher education system than by giving even more to those who already have a lot."