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Vladimir Putin's New Cult of Personality

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The cult of personality surrounding Vladimir Putin cultivated through shirtless photo opportunities and bolstered by foreign wars.
The cult of personality surrounding Vladimir Putin cultivated through shirtless photo opportunities and bolstered by foreign wars.
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As readers of my analytical essays over the years will surely know, I have been a persistent defender of Vladimir Putin against the calumny, against his characterization as a "thug," as an authoritarian who is inimical to our values, that has been his lot in Western media ever since his "coming out' against the U.S. global hegemony in his speech to the Munich Security Conference of 2007.

I have been a determined critic of the Constitutional Amendments put to the electorate in a Referendum on July 1 because of the single amendment turning back the clock on his time in the presidency to zero so as to enable his running for office again in 2024 and 2030. This I have seen as a violation of his commitment to rule of law and democratic principles of alternation in power through the polling booths. I also have said that Putin himself has been the biggest loser in this whole affair because he has deprived the country and himself of orderly succession when he eventually passes from the scene.

Now I turn your attention to another unpleasant fact that is an inescapable feature of this latest segment of Vladimir Putin's long stay in power: the rise of a personality cult that is as ugly as any in the country's past.

Going back to the last presidential elections in March 2018, I remarked that Putin's decision not to participate in televised debates with his opponents was more than offset by his dominating the airwaves in his capacity as head of state, meaning daily news coverage of his receiving high foreign guests or opening major new infrastructure facilities, and the like. I said then that this was justifiable, given that Putin is the most consequential world leader of our times who seems to be on the job 24/24 seven days a week.

What we were seeing now in the run-up to the Referendum vote was something very different: Putin appeared almost daily on prime-time television to deliver addresses to the nation that were arguably of minor importance and served only the purpose of keeping his face before the audience the whole day long, given the repeat broadcasts of moments from any of these addresses on the daily news programs.

The development of a personality cult is best typified by a Sunday evening broadcast that came on line more than a year ago but is being heavily promoted now each week by video spots that begin already on the flagship news shows of Saturday: "Moscow, the Kremlin, Putin" on state television channel Rossiya. To put it kindly, in breathless faux excitement this delivers the kind of trivia about a VIP that you would expect from People magazine. The fawning, adulatory coverage of Putin's stepping out of his limousine and going through his paces each day is intensified by the presenter, the young and obviously very ambitious journalist Pavel Zarubin. That Putin can tolerate having this slime-ball at his side all day does not speak at all well for the President's present state of mind.

Indeed, one would have to be blind to miss the changes in Putin's behavior since the start of the year, to miss the evidence that he is less in control of his entourage and the rival factions vying for influence over policy, more a captive of his supporters than ever before. The result is a pandering sort of populism that appeals to the lowest common denominator in the general population. When I say this is off-putting to Thinking Russia, I have in mind not the young, brash and me-me-too professional classes of Moscow and Petersburg who all have one foot in the West, but true patriots who have served their country well, are of a certain age and remember all too well what is a "cult of personality." Moreover, I speak here not abstractly, but with the faces of my friends and acquaintances in Russia before me with whom I exchange thoughts on current politics from week to week.

This is not to say that Mr. Putin and his government are failing the population. Not at all. There is every sign that Russia is managing the COVID-19 crisis very well. As of present, anyone contracting the virus can receive free of charge from hospitals and clinics two newly manufactured and commercialized made in Russia drugs which treat the disease either very early to curb replication of the virus before it does damage or late, to combat the dangerous and often fatal complications which COVID-19 gives rise to.

Here in Western Europe we are virtually lacking any relevant medicines, pending the conclusion of a deal with the American company Gilead to make Remdesevir available, and that drug is, the Russians tell us, much less impactful on the virus than their latest treatments. As for the vaccine, the Russians say they remain serious contenders to be the first out with millions of doses before the end of the year. And they continue to build super-modern hospital facilities to deal with COVID and other infectious diseases should there be a second wave ahead. In Western Europe, foresight has so far not underwritten funding for such preventive actions.

And so the Putin regime chugs along, doing worthy things for the people. But that makes the ugly signs of a personality cult none the less regrettable.

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Gilbert Doctorow, a graduate of Harvard College with a PhD from Columbia, is an independent political analyst based in Brussels. He chose this third career of  "public intellectual" after finishing up a 25-year career as corporate (more...)

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