Putin and the strongman’s weakness
Drones over the Kremlin may have pre-empted fireworks set to light up the sky in Moscow and a few other cities. The 9 May parade will likely be cancelled almost everywhere because of possible incidents. Yet, rather than his internal and external enemies, Putin should fear his supporters, who are increasingly active and brazen, starting with Yevgeny Prigozhin, the “cook”.
The war in Ukraine and Russia’s opposition to the Western world are not leading to the much desired apotheosis of Vladimir Putin’s “Russian world” ideology, which should sparkle next Tuesday, 9 May, Victory Day, the true moment of celebration of Russia’s post-Soviet identity.
With drones crashing on the Kremlin, fireworks will not likely light up the sky in Moscow and a few other cities since the Victory Parade has been cancelled almost everywhere, for fear of incidents.
The recent drone attack on the seat of power, according to spokesman Dmitry Peskov, left only smudges on windows on the top of the Kremlin's Armory Museum, a hallow place where the Monomakh's Cap – the Shapka Monomakha or Golden Cap given to Prince Vladimir of Kyiv in the early 12th century, the great-grandson of Vladimir the baptiser – is kept.
Having married a relative of the Byzantine emperor, Vladimir gave himself the title of “Monomakh" to claim the legacy of Constantinople handed over to the Russians, although in reality the Shapka is clearly later and in the Tatar style.
Next to the crown lies the Ulozheniye, the decree establishing the Patriarchate of Moscow, signed under duress by the Patriarch of Constantinople Jeremias II, which affirms that Moscow is the "Third Rome" called to save the whole world from the enemies of the true faith.
It is unclear if the Ukrainians were behind the drones, or the whole thing was staged by the Kremlin to accuse Kyiv and Washington, or, as some assume, it was some opponent of Putin who wanted to do away with the “glass tsar”.
As weird as the story is, it points to Putin’s weak point. In any case, he was not in the Kremlin at the time, probably holed up as always in some villa or bunker, fearful of his enemies, and even more scared of his friends.
Many still remember Mathias Rust, the 19-year-old West German who in 1987 managed to land on Red Square with a small Cessna, evading every Soviet radar and setting off the countdown for the end of Mikhail Gorbachev's reformist dream.
The exchange over the radio between Red Square security and police chief became a classic: “Planes on Red Square! Yes, and then maybe even tanks on Gorky Street . . .”.
The Soviet Union was oblivious to its own fragility, which would soon lead to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of its empire.
Increasingly, the fate of the USSR and that of the Russian Federation appear similar, as Russian forces get bogged down in Ukrainian fields, the way Soviet troops lost their way under Brezhnev in the mountains of Afghanistan.
Moscow's "friends", China and South Africa and other BRICS countries, plus Iran, Turkey and others are unable to prop up an economy increasingly burdened by sanctions, and the strains they are putting on the population, sowing discontent.
Nor do they fully support Russia politically and diplomatically, with ambiguous voting behaviour at the UN that increasingly isolate Russia from the rest of the world, and leave Putin in the humiliating position of an internationally wanted war criminal.
Even among Orthodox Churches, Patriarch Kirill is considered a heretic and unwelcome almost everywhere; where it not, for the outstretched hand of Pope Francis, he would no longer know what to do, having already invoked every heavenly army, starting with the Archangel Michael “the arch strategist" and Saint George "the victorious", to defend an increasingly metaphysical, and very little evangelical Holy Russia.
In Russia no one expects any popular uprising anytime soon, and bets are on the “eternal” tsar winning another “democratic” election in 2024, but in the homeland of the revolution, you never know.
Although few Russians support the leader for his persona or his successes, especially in view of the depressing news filtering out of the Ukrainian war, most follow out of conformism and a certain pride in being "against everyone", especially against the hated Americans, the unattainable utopia Russians can only dream of.
This is the more so since state repression against all forms of dissent has reached levels comparable only to those of Stalin, when people snitched on their relatives and neighbours like Pavlik Morozov, a Soviet youth who denounced his parents who ended up in the Gulag, becoming a role model for future generations.
No uprising will show Putin's weakness, but mockery will. His rapidly diminishing credibility, which is turning him into a pathetic figure not only in the way he is portrayed in Western propaganda, but also inside the country.
His most famous opponent, Alexey Navalny, owes much of his popularity not only to the courage of going home after being poisoned, and accepting internment in a concentration camp, but also for not having lost his fortitude and jovial spirit even in extreme conditions, while his persecutor grows bitter and drowns in increasingly bombastic and empty rhetoric.
From his solitary confinement regime, Navalny still manages to get his views out into social media, like someone comfortably lying on his couch at home, showing how increasingly grotesque his torturers’ cruelty is.
He recently twitted about the paradox of "Putin's torture". Every evening in his SHIZO, or punishment cell, he is forced to listen to the president's speeches broadcast at very high volume, from loudspeakers in all the corridors.
“A long time ago,” he writes, “I read in some spy detective story about how they tortured prisoners by putting Mao Zedong's poems on at high volume.
“Apparently, someone in our prison system had also read this book.
“After we published a story about the Federal Penitentiary Service stealing money to buy vegetables for prisoners, the administration of my colony unleashed their version of the Plagues of Egypt on me.”
“Frankly, it's all a bit too loud and makes it hard for me to read,” but at least “prison officials have acknowledged by their actions that listening to Putin's speeches is a punishment”, which they too must endure.
“When I ask them cheerfully which speech they like better, they keep silent, as anything they say will get on the DVR and become known to the bosses, but the looks on their faces and the way they roll their eyes is a reward in itself.”
Navalny is not alone. The words of other opponents arrested and locked up with endless sentences strike at the very heart of Putin’s system of power – people like Vladimir Kara-Murza, Ilya Jashin, and many others are certain that "the night will end” and Russia will be free and a true democracy.
That said, even more than external and internal opponents, Putin must be worried about his supporters, who are increasingly active and brazen, starting with Prigozhin, the "cook", whose popularity is really starting to cast a shadow over the boss.
The Wagner Group, which is outside the Kremlin’s control, is all over the place in Ukraine, Africa and around the world, criticising more and more harshly the generals that Putin is forced to dump, despite the reputation of "butcher" or "exterminator" they earned in Syria or the Caucasus.
Chechen President Kadyrov is another one, exasperated by Russia’s untrained, poorly equipped soldiers, forcibly mobilised, without any fighting experience, powerless against dogged Ukrainian troops, led by a comedian-cum-president who, thanks to Putin's initiatives, has become an international hero.
Not even Putin’s many ideologues are able any more to extol the “tsar”, even though they appear on the same propaganda platforms with the same frequency as the boss’s boorish generals, trying to play the sopranos for “traditional moral values".
Recently, the philosopher-oligarch Konstantin Malofeev tried to shore up support for Putin by bringing together in many cities in the Urals, like Kazan in Tatarstan and Saransk in Mordovia, members of the Universal Russian People's Council, a cultural-political institute set up in the 1990s, by Patriarch Kirill, then a metropolitan, to give a socially relevant face to the "religious revival" of the early post-Soviet times.
According to several observers, rather than supporting the Kremlin's policies, Malofeev's initiative seems geared towards promoting his own political project, expressing more effectively and radically the “right” values, compared to the Kremlin’s contradictory moves.
His version of the "Council" is openly xenophobic, singling out non-Russian peoples and religions, including Islam, as the real enemy to be fought, and putting aside any "internationalist" rhetoric of universal convergence of "friendly" peoples, like the Orthodox-Soviet synthesis of Putin's ideology.
Amid fears of Russia’s possible break-up, it is no accident that the extreme nationalism of Malofeev’s rallies resonates in the ethnically most exposed regions of the empire, against Tatars and other Eurasian groups, to be kept under control and ideological pressure.
Malofeev owns a TV network called Tsargrad, "imperial city" (the Russian name for Constantinople), which evokes even more the dreams for the restoration of the Third Rome, perhaps by replacing the losing tsar with more imposing figure like Konstantin Malofeev himself, whose beard and corpulence resemble those of the ancient Bogatyrs, the heroes of ancient Russian lore who defeated all the evil barbarians, camped just outside the gates along the sacred borders of Kievan Rus'.