TThe sum of € 700 (£ 618) is not large in the context of Russian corruption, but it is a lot to spend on a toilet brush. Moreover, the sprawling presidential estates have many toilets, which must be cleaned to a standard delivered only by Italian designer brushes.
Details like that are what do Alexei Navalny’s recent film on the personal fortune of Vladimir Putin so powerful. The anti-corruption activist’s documentary has been viewed more than 100 million times. Thanks to aerial drone footage and digital reconstructions based on leaked architectural plans, ordinary Russians have had a guided tour of what Navalny describes, without exaggeration, as a modern Versailles. They see what has happened to money that would otherwise have been spent to ease the burden of economic stagnation and the pandemic.
Navalny received a three-and-a-half-year prison sentence on Tuesday, theoretically for violating the terms of probation related to a former fraud conviction. (Your actual prison time will be reduced to two years and eight months to account for the time already served under arrest). His defense had been that he could hardly have complied with previous court orders because he was in Berlin, in a coma, recovering from a brush with the deadly nerve agent novichok. Furthermore, the original conviction had been a politically motivated sham and the Kremlin ordered its poisoning.
I KNOW told the court he was being targeted to intimidate anyone else who might think of criticizing Putin. The judge was not persuaded by that version and preferred the prosecution’s assertion that he had spent time in Germany to evade justice. That verdict is not surprising. The official line of the government is that Navalny’s campaigns are one of espionage and terrorism; that he is a sower of chaos and a corrupter of young minds; that the novichok was administered by foreign agents.
That smear, sparked by the state propaganda machine, has shaped many Russian views, or at least successfully sowed confusion about the whole matter. But there have been large demonstrations across the country demanding Navalny’s release. (Some protesters have brandished toilet brushes, the standard plastic ones, painted with gold spray.)
This is not a national uprising, but such a widespread challenge to Putin is significant. The Kremlin, frightened by last year’s pro-democracy eruption in Belarus, is taking no chances. Riot police have dispersed the crowds with gratuitous force. Thousands of people have been arrested. But what alarms Putin most are protests in regions, including Siberian cities where January frosts would generally prevent people from gathering outdoors. Navalny’s popularity was thought to be limited to the more urban dissidents in Moscow and St. Petersburg.
It’s hard work, undermining Putin’s official cult as a mythical strongman. For millions, he is the one who restored national dignity after the humiliating loss of Soviet superpower status. It is the guarantor of stability after the chaos and rampant criminality that defined Russia in the 1990s.
Navalny’s films cleverly trace the current president’s own riches back to that decade of rampant corruption, when state power and mob culture merged. Putin is a product of that era. He went from a petty bureaucratic swindler in the St. Petersburg municipality, through Boris Yeltsin’s entourage, to the throne himself. He’s not the man who cleaned up the mess. He is the mess.
The origin of the KGB places Yeltsin’s successor in a different category than the first generation of oligarchs. Their theft of national resources was organized through privatization. Putin oversaw the expropriation of those stolen assets, but not for their redistribution to ordinary Russians. It was a hybrid victory of spy agency “covert operations” and mafia turf warfare. The private company clan was overthrown by siloviki – the security gang.
That does not make Putin’s nationalist rhetoric entirely disingenuous. He is serious when it comes to restoring Russia’s status in the world, spending more on military adventures abroad, sponsoring coups, and sabotaging democracy in other countries than on luxurious real estate for himself. Meddling abroad is the face of Putinism that Western governments notice and denounce. It is also something that many Russians can appreciate. The denunciation of the old adversaries of NATO shows that Putin’s method is working. It offers a dividend in national pride to offset the economic disappointment.
But that’s a broken business model. the siloviki He knows a lot about geostrategic shenanigans and cash diversion from oil and gas exports, but not so much about wealth creation and investment. As Catherine Belton explains in Putin’s People, the essential book on the Kremlin clique, the regime is a fusion of Cold War statecraft and post-Soviet gangsterism. The key players, with Putin as a figurehead, told themselves that they were saving Russia by ensuring control of its resources. The boundary between self-enrichment and national rebirth blurred and then disappeared.
That concept of embodied power has deep historical resonance for some Russians. Putin is the czar, his followers say: of course he has a palace! (Although he denies that the palace is his). But Navalny has struck a chord, especially for the generation that has grown up under two decades of unchanged leadership. They are not animated by nostalgia for superpowers and are more likely to see Putin as the godfather of all leeches who stick to anything that makes money in Russia, getting fat and giving nothing in return.
Navalny’s films also address that audience with humor. The labyrinthine schemes of the kleptocracy are conveyed with a particular brand of laconic Russian sarcasm. Opposition figures have called Putin’s gang common thieves before (and paid a high price for it), but Navalny is the first to have captured in such rich color the voracity of greed, lustful filth, sheer garbage. , familiar to all Russians from the arrogance of their local small-town bandits. It centers on the pettiness of the ruler who he described at court as “that little man in his bunker.”
Putin is not going anywhere. There are no signs of schism within the regime and there are no incentives to change reliable techniques to stay in power: stifle dissent, discredit enemies with state media, stitch elections. Many Russians shop the Kremlin line or are exhausted, steeped in the fatalistic culture that sees something immutable in the people’s obedience to a remote and self-serving elite.
Still, the Navalny case has sparked something. My Russian friends say it is too early to know exactly what, but they report a change. In part, it is the effect of a prolonged economic malaise. In part it is the sheer boredom of a generation whose prospects for life have been frozen in the stale air of Putin’s Russia. In part it’s the cunning way Navalny has tunnelled beneath the strongman’s cult, breaking into his gaudy palace and crawling under his skin.
Previous opponents have criticized Putin for abuse of power, but that’s just another way to make him look strong. Navalny does something subtly different that is more threatening for a gangster. It makes Putin look small.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism