Apologies for the tabloid headline. Many people are blogging about the extensive Steven Lee Myers piece which came out in the International Herald Tribune today titled “Putin keeps them guessing on his successor” (the piece is also scheduled for this Sunday’s NYT magazine). Among the many interesting points raised, Myers reports on the black campaigns to smear the reputations of two opposition candidates, including Aleksandr V. Donskoi, the mayor of Arkhangelsk, who has even had to fight off rumors about “gypsy hypnosis” and his sexuality.
On the day in November when I first met Donskoi in Moscow, intrigued by the audacity of his decision to run for president of all Russia, investigators raided his office up in Arkhangelsk. As we spoke, his wife, Marina, and an aide answered insistent phone calls from home and relayed progress reports. “I realize all the responsibilities,” Donskoi, a supermarket tycoon, told me. “I understand there could be difficulties, including physical threats. It’s already taking place.” A month later he was back visiting Moscow and called a sparsely attended news conference to denounce an intensifying campaign against him. He denied having falsified his diploma and went on to explain, among other things, his interest in “gypsy hypnosis.” Marina Donskaya interrupted him, having lost patience with the pressure. “He’s not gay!” she shouted, referring to slurs that had been appearing in the Ark-hangelsk press. “He impregnated me.” By February, prosecutors had opened three cases against him. Donskoi, only 36 years old, unknown outside of Arkhangelsk and perhaps better off for it, would stand little chance in a real campaign to be the leader of a country as sprawling, complex and deeply troubled as Rus-sia. That’s not the point. The point is that Putin’s Russia does not dare to hold an open competition for the highest office in the land – one where even a long shot like Donskoi could at least make a case for himself. That, more than anything else Putin has done, is the biggest threat to democracy.