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The Botox Czar: An Interview with Nina Khrushcheva

Tomorrow Vladimir Putin will most likely waltz back into the presidency with some 60% of the vote, but his tough guy image as the “father of the nation,” is lost forever, says Nina Khrushcheva, a professor of International Affairs at the New School and the author of Imaging Nabokov.  We spoke with Dr. Khrushcheva today to talk about how the elections are being handled, how public perceptions of Putin have changed, and why she’s cautious about the possibilities for change in Russia’s near future.

RA: It’s not in Putin’s interests for there to be any blatant vote rigging this weekend.  It’s also not in his interests to face the possibility, however unlikely, of a second round.  How do you see the election being handled?

NK:  It seems to me that they are trying to have it both ways – on the one hand, they are opening the process up to observers, which in Russia can mean a lot of things (ie broken cameras, misfunctioning ballot boxes, etc.),  but at the same time, they really need to keep up at least the impression that these elections are fair or fairly close.  Putin also needs to keep an image that he is still is very much supported by the country, and I think in the last few days he has been very vocal about this.  Polls that have been conducted still suggest that about 66% of the Russian population supports him.  So they will need to walk a tight line to acknowledge that his popularity is not what it was, but at the same time, not acknowledge too much, because he does need to continue, as well as for his own vanity, as “the father of the nation.”

How will this election be handled differently from the last parliamentary elections, when the vote rigging was so open and blatant?

During the last elections, Putin didn’t pay attention to any of the warning signs that were already there.  Perhaps he ignored his advisors, was given bad advice, or was too vain, but what they did was simply go forward and manage the election like they always did.  And this vanity is his major handicap:  he does not only have to win, he has to prove to himself and prove to everybody that he is also beloved by the country.  If he weren’t so pushy for the perception of his own greatness, probably things would not have gotten so bad for his reputation.  So this time they are trying to do it differently, with the incorporation of observers, allowing for cameras and such.  I’m sure he will win the elections, and that it’s very unlikely there would be a second round because for many voters outside of Moscow, he is the only person they know, but basically these elections represent the beginning of the real end of Putin’s reign.

One of the main arguments we are hearing from the Kremlin side is “If not Putin, who else?”  Why hasn’t any alternative leader emerged, and do you see any surprises coming from the likes of Mironov, Prokhorov, or even the Communists?

I haven’t seen any surprises thus far, but I find very interesting how divided opinions are over Prokhorov.  There are people I respect enormously who tell me he is brilliant, and there are others whom I equally respect who tell me he is an idiot.  I find it very interesting, because the truth is somewhere in the middle, but people, whatever they want to believe, becomes more important than what the reality is.  Because we don’t like Putin, we are willing believe that Prokhorov is great, and those who are willing to admit that.

That has historically been a very Russian thing for centuries.  There is very rarely a choice, and the system is not designed to offer a choice.  One of the problems that Putin pushed to certain extremes, was that he didn’t allow anybody to grow in his stead.  The political system has been so stiflying that no one has emerged.  So Russia is always at this same crossroads of not knowing who comes next.  No czar ever, apart from Gorbachev, allows for the opposition to appear, because power is absolute, power is non-transferrable, and power is for life, and whether you have managed democracy, non-managed democracy, communism, or monarchy, it’s always the same formula.

Do you see the protest movement lasting?  With Putin locked in for another term, how will the opposition measure success or define its goals?

Well it is always very difficult to predict the future.  I think the protest movement will last, but slightly die down in response to Putin’s election victory.  It is still very important that TV still belongs to the state, and that will continue to prop him up for some years.  The protests will not be as grandiose as they once were, not in terms of numbers, but in terms of their absolutely convincing argument – the leaders of the protesters have proved to the population that yet again there is alternative.  Yet, I think they will continue in smaller numbers and then in larger numbers later on.  I don’t believe that Putin can ever regain that image as “father of the nation.”  That image is lost:  once the emperor’s clothes are removed, they can never be put back on, that’s just not going to happen.

And again, damn those who predict the future, but I think ultimately he will be ousted by his own people.  It might happen a violent way, in a convincing way, in a go-to-the-Olympic-Committee way, I don’t really know how or what kinds of incentives would be given to him, but ultimately, for the good of the people who sit atop Russia’s economic, financial, and political structures, the continuation of Putin is not going to be good for them, and that will be how he is removed.

When did people stop being afraid of Vladimir Putin?

I know it may sound frivolous, but in politics, nothing is frivolous when it comes to public perceptions.  For me it goes back to Putin’s Botox moment really sealed the deal back in 2010, when this older man showed up all shiny, clearly deeply vain, in a non-strongman persona kind of way.  He became, all of a sudden, not as absolute as we thought he was.  And of course his friend, Silvio Berlusconi, who is well known for his many numerous botox and facelifts, but whatever is seen as macho in Italy or Sardinia doesn’t work for the muhzhik sensibility of Siberia.  Putin really surrendered to the kind of vanity that Russians don’t appreciate.  And in a sense, as propaganda tells us all the time, these kinds of psychological influences are not measurable, but they are there.  So there we see Putin there all shiny, all of a sudden we feel that’s not the guy we can trust.  Because the guy you can trust doesn’t need a facelift, he is proud of what he is.

This shift in perception was also evident following the incident at the Seliger camp.  At the time it was a huge story in Moscow, when Putin showed up at the camp and made his way up one of those climbing walls, and he couldn’t climb down himself. So for the people watching, if he can’t climb down the climbing wall, what kind of  strong leader was he supposed to be?  It became an opening to the rethinking the whole strongman persona.  He was seen as a bit of a prima donna, an Elizabeth Taylor type, and you can’t be that, you can’t expect respect or fear – which is always a big deal for a Russian leader.

When we last spoke a few years ago, you talked about Putin’s main appeal to the people was this idea that the nation could be “great” with him in power, even if there was a sacrifice at the individual level.  Now, it would seem, many of the disenchanted urban, educated class are asking for something more than a great nation, and are frequently returning to the word “dignity.”  Has some sort of cultural transformation occurred in Russia, or are we only seeing the expression of minority?

It could be a real tectonic shift, and I would like to believe that we are finally moving from the greatness of the state to the freedom and dignity of an individual, but I am afraid to say so.  Time will tell of course, but what I found slightly disconcerting is that recent polls asking Russians what priorities the presidency should address, and the #1 concern is still law and order, usually in reference to fighting corruption.  But in Russia, law and order is not the same as in the United States, as you know.  In the U.S., law leads to order, but in Russia, order leads to law, so that is very suspect formula.

I don’t recall what the second priority was, but still, ranked #3 in the poll was to make Russia a great state.  One of the problems that Putin has is that he failed the great state in a sense that many people question its basic fairness.  What kind of great state do we have when we are killed by our police yet the police face no accountability for their actions?  Or what kind of great state is this when I have to sleep with my professor for my education or whatnot.

When the protests went out for the first time on the 5th of December right after the parliamentary elections, what were they looking for?  They were looking for a recount of the votes; they were denouncing the rigged elections.  I was there at the time, and my question was, wait a minute, the elections were also rigged in 1996, in 2000, in 2004, and in 2008, so where were we before?  Why, all of a sudden, are we so upset?  So the question was not about freedom; the elections were illegitimate to start with.  It’s just the technicalities that we keep looking at.  So I am not sure that we are willing to give up the great nation, it’s just that we want better technicalities.  And maybe then that would go and become a larger push for Jeffersonian democracy, but so far, that argument is not even there.

So have the protests focused on the wrong message?

Well it all goes back to the desire to have the great state, and to have that state give you rights, rather than the other way around.  We want the police to be accountable, we want the elections to be accountable.  We had this opportunity under Yeltsin, we squandered it under Yeltsin, and completely relinquished it under Putin.  And now, I don’t see it, with the slogans and how it plays it out, I am not sure that now it is there to say. Because I still don’t see most Russians willing to accept responsibility.

Whichever way it starts, the protests are a good thing, even if it is a lifestyle.  This middle-class lifestyle that they were able to acquire under Putin, is an interesting development.  People who can choose mochachino want to have a choice in their president.  But I just hope it goes deeper than mocchachino.  You can choose mochachino, you can choose someone like Navalny, but are you ready to take greater responsibility for society.

All these things should not be about blaming and complaining about how bad it is what he has done to us.  We were the ones who were singing his praises.  We were the ones who loved him to death.  No wonder he turned out like he did, and that kind of personality does not go away.  In a sense, we should take responsibility for what he has become, because we were the ones who allowed him to go down that path.

I still don’t see Russians looking at themselves and saying “oh my god, I am part of this.”  It’s always, “oh my god, what has he done to us.”  That’s why I am cautious, because how after the secret speech of 1956 denouncing the cult of personality, talking about all the crimes that had been committed, how can more than 50% of us still worship Stalin?  So what I am saying is that there could be change, but history has shown, time and again, that social consciousness is wasted precisely because ultimately individual freedoms end up not being about the great nation.

If we expect our leaders to own up to us, we must first own up to our own country.  It’s a long process, and it’s a big country, and I am glad we are taking the first steps toward recognizing Putin for what he is, but we aren’t out of the swamp yet.  But we have to start somewhere, and I just hope that it goes deep enough.