The Practice and Pathos of Power: ruminations on Anna Arutunyan’s ‘The Putin Mystique’

PutinMystiqueAnna Arutunyan’s The Putin Mystique (Skyscraper, 2014) has appeared in a variety of languages before being released in English—a good call on a small publisher’s part to pick this title up—and is a fascinating exegesis of power in Russia. It is also a very Russian book. Indeed, about the only way it could be any more Russian would be if it were written on birch bark by a balalaika-strumming bear wearing a fur hat, drunk on vodka. What does this actually mean? For a start, the prose style weaves seamlessly between political reportage, literary and historical discursion and absurdity (she opens the book “I want the President of the Russian Federation to decree what I should think, what religion to profess, where to live, the number of children to bear, how to live, and when to die.” [p. 9]) in a way subtly distinct from the more clearly compartmentalized writing of the Anglo-Saxon non-fiction tradition. The product is a book that is as entertaining and readable as it is informative, very deserving of a place on every Russia-wonk’s shelves.

But more substantially, Arutunyan rightly draws our attention to the Siberian mammoth in the room: that leaders depend on the willingness of the led. Perhaps it is because of the very effectiveness of the Putin myth—or mystique—or perhaps it is also a product of a degree of implicit political correctness, but outsiders (including me) tend to want to exonerate the Russians for their regime. From her perch in Moscow, Arutunyan is able and willing instead to note, beyond the rigging of elections, construction of media freedoms and all the other external pressures, the degree to which Russians themselves constructed and elevated their new tsar.

After all, interestingly enough this is a book less about Putin and much, much more about how ordinary Russians react to him. Let conventional bios run through the scrappy Leningrad upbringing of the man, his eager dash towards the KGB, his mediocre career in East Germany, his rise in post-Soviet times as the ultimate bagman and loyal understudy. Arutunyan is more interested (and interesting) in chronicling the myths and miracles of his corona, like the halo of a Russian Orthodox saint. The laid-back and independent-minded journalists turned into simpering shadows by the very thought of his presence; the ordinary Russians who saw his intervention as the only hope of leveraging an inefficient, corrupt or (and?) uncaring administration into fulfilling its obligations; the star-struck Nashi groupies willing to rip off their t-shirts for the president.

As vignettes, these are all familiar to any Russia-watcher, and we get the usual cast: Pussy Riot and Khodorkovsky, a star-struck Putinista here, a downtrodden and disillusioned commoner there, and some cynical opportunists in between. What Arutunyan does so well is to pull them all together to illustrate a political narrative that is as much dictated from below as above. Of course, Putin relishes the pseudo-tsarist trappings of the mammoth press conferences, at which he can dispense patronage, settle scores and demonstrate his personal mastery of the state machine (remember the throwaway line about freeing Khodorkovsky?). Even more so, he actively participates in much of the myth-making, from wrestling wild animals and bare-chested photo ops through to ritual dressings down of underachieving officials. But imagine if Barack Obama tried to break a Congressional filibuster with some gangland obscenity and an arm-wrestling challenge? Or if, merciful God forbid, David Cameron thought the best response to the current floods in the UK was a press opportunity of himself in speedos rescuing kittens from the waters? Both would be rightly derided. Putin’s “mystique” is one with which the Russians must invest him. It can be shaped, burnished, deployed through spin-doctoring and similar political technologies, but it cannot be created.

What this means is that to understand the Russian political system, we need to understand Russians, and that means not just as economic units, political consumers or stats on a psephologist’s charts. It means that, actually, the Russians have been right all along in what otherwise always sounded like special pleading of a loamy, Slavic sentimental kind: to understand Russia, you need to understand the Russian soul. But, I’d suggest, the point is that this applies to every other culture, too. In the Anglo-Saxon world, there is all too often a certain glib Orientalism at work. How to explain a Putin, or a Berlusconi, or, for that matter, a Margaret Thatcher? However dressed up, the answers tend to focus on limitations, on under-development: of institutions, political culture, even implicitly of social maturity. Instead, as Arutunyan so useful reminds us, Russia is not that different from everywhere else: unique in its particular, conventional in that we all ultimately get the rulers we require. Indeed, we make them what they are. In she puts in, in her description of watching him at a 2012 rally in Luzhniki Stadium on Defenders of the Motherland Day:

“I noticed his familiar, bored countenance, how difficult it was for that aging bureaucrat, adept at wearing whatever role his people craved, to play the dictator, the role that seemed to disgust him most of all.” (p. 269)

And yet play it he did and does, with the “carefully-guarded rage… necessary to channel pagan energy from a crowd of 100,000 people.”  How long he will, remains to be seen. Arutunyan raises the parallel of James Frazer’s The Golden Bough and its discussion of the sacral kings of antiquity, feted when times are good, killed to appease the gods when times are bad. And I wonder if Putin, in his narrowing circle of cronies, feels a chill? For winter is coming.

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  1. Thanks for the review and will definitely add to my reading list. Her thesis reminded me of Anton Chekhov’s remark about the painful necessity of squeezing the slave out of all mankind. Given their history, I suspect that some Russians may have a greater predilection for living within a system where one is told what to do. But this is not just a Russian phenomenon. Many long-term inmates find the freedom of living outside of prison a frightening prospect. And there are plenty of bureaucrats/civil service workers who have long ago traded any independence for a steady paycheck.

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