By Alan Yuhas
A beloved cartoon of the 1970s returned to Russia in 2005, featuring the Wolf chasing the Hare. Alternately acrobatic and bumbling, cunning and foolish, the Wolf—much like the antics of Tom and Jerry or Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner—never catches the Hare, though his misadventures have brought him fame. Another episode aired on October 7th, 2006, which happened to be the fifty-fourth birthday of Russia’s then president, Vladimir Putin. Anna Politkovskaya, the outspoken journalist against corruption in the Putin government and Chechnya, was shot that day in Moscow. The coincidence of cartoon, birthday, and murder has a strange and sinister Dostoevskian quality, and indeed, something important rests in the concordance of details.
Like most convenient myths, the story of Putin’s prosperous stability collapses on inspection. Pop culture provides sign posts pointing back to a time of political decrepitude. Though Nu, pogodi! glows with bright colors and cheery themes, it has been dredged up from an era full of petty corruption and cultural classics. While the cartoon itself might not be intentionally subversive, its resurrection marks one of many indicators that Russia has stagnated under Putin, just as it did with Leonid Brezhnev. The recycled culture parallels the reprocessed politics and neither can disguise Russia’s decay.
Nu, pogodi! (Well, Just You Wait!) was a hallmark of Brezhnev’s reign in Soviet history, airing from 1969-1986. The economy slowed to a crawl after 1973, corruption seeped into daily life, and aging men dominated the party, protected by the KGB—which held renewed influence through the 70s and early 80s. Though living standards rose, the shoddiness and unoriginality of Brezhnev’s housing programs are so legendary that the plot of a Soviet classic, The Irony of Fate (1975), hinges on them; it airs every New Years Eve. Mikhail Gorbachev declared it the “era of stagnation,” and the name stuck. But curiously, cultural relics of Brezhnev’s era have recently returned to public consciousness.
When Nu, pogodi! aired in 2006, Russia was heralded as one of the BRIC nations, rising from the ashes of the 90s under Putin’s steady hand. A generation who grew up with the cartoon could share its new incarnation with their children or grandchildren, together comforted by a simpler world where a predetermined happy end always awaits the little guy. Outside of the animated world, the biggest players reaped enormous profits. Apathetically looking the other way—to your TV, for instance—was considered the tacit price of stability. The IMF puts Russia’s GDP at a growth of almost 73 percent from 2000 to 2007, and while the standard of living generally improved, progress was relative to the chaos of the previous decade. Putin’s popularity long rooted itself in this contrast. But the rapid re-assimilation of wealth and power cast a misleading glow. Putin’s legacy has become one of stagnation masked by dramatic prosperity for a small group of insiders—a contemporary mirror of Brezhnev’s era. The global financial crisis rocked Russia’s oil-dependent economy, and scandals like the Three Whales fiasco made endemic corruption banal. Attempts at revitalization have crawled (like the Skolkovo project) or threaten to destroy swaths of the environment (like the Khimki forest).
The dominant method of governance under Putin has resembled an oligarch model—one of cliques and ‘tandem rule,’ in which favored friends receive great power and wealth, and disfavor leads to expulsion. The trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev, owners of now defunct oil giant YUKOS, parallels an event under Brezhnev. The men were arrested in 2003 on charges of tax evasion and fraud, shortly after Khodorkovsky confronted Putin about government corruption during a televised interview. Most of YUKOS was sold to the government. From prison, Khodorkovsky has since become a highly political figure, recently writing, “Learn to break out of the customary servile behavior and stop telling yourself, ‘I can’t change anything.’ You can!”
But their arrest loudly declared limits on criticism against the government. The arrests mirror those of Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel in 1966—two writers whose work ridiculed the Communist Party. The sentencing of Khodorkovsky and Lebedev, just like those of Sinyavsky and Daniel, occurred roughly three years after a rise to power, and both cases represent a stifling of dissenting voices. Each case marks a shift away from a period of ‘thaw’ and relative transparency, from Krushchev and Yeltsin, respectively. While Brezhnev had the writers sentenced five years for ‘anti-Soviet activity,’ Khodorkovsky and Lebedev were recently re-sentenced for a total of 14 years (having begun in 2005).
TV has not been spared. The popular and sharply satirical Kukly (Puppets) ended when its host channel was taken over by state-controlled Gazprom in 2002—shortly after a skit in which Putin, as a biblical deity represented by stormy clouds, bestows laws upon bureaucrats, who proceed to corrupt everything, with Putin complicit. A writer for the show, Viktor Shenderovich, wrote that “If the Soviet empire ever had a serious ideology, then today everything boils down to snatching up and consuming more.”
At a glance, Putin would appear the complete opposite of Brezhnev. He is the self-stylized superhero of Russian politics, an athlete, musician, and adventurer, whereas the premier smoked, drank, and ate his way to obesity and old age. But like the prime minister, Brezhnev had few inhibitions about self-promotion; he awarded himself with all manner of medals and awards, including the Order of Victory (for Red Army generals who changed the course of entire campaigns)—an award so ill deserved that it was posthumously revoked. From a Western perspective, such flagrant self-promotion often appears comic—and not dissimilar from the staged exploits of Putin, who has subdued tigers and discovered artifacts for the cameras. Various publicity events in the past year have taken Russian politics to circus levels. Such outlandish, frequently staged productions have made many Russians deeply cynical towards government and—until recently—apathetic.
Putin has proven very capable as a shapeshifter and opportunist. Confronted by a two-term limit, Putin selected Medvedev to succeed him. The comparatively liberal Medvedev has been largely pro-West, presided over the ‘Reset,’ and launched an (evidently futile) anti-corruption campaign, for which he has fired several prominent leaders. The attempt to rebrand Putin’s United Russia through Medvedev, however, can be seen through another animated icon of Brezhnev’s time.
Cheburashka resembles a bear cub, though neither the zookeeper nor Gena the singing crocodile can say what he is. His eponymous stop-motion series ran for four years under Brezhnev and is considered a classic, with charming songs, lessons about teamwork, and a mischievous old woman. Cheburashka has been the symbol of the Russian Olympic team since 2004, with a different color for each set of games, and he has become a sensation in Japan, spawning a joint Russo-Japanese film. The little creature has become, in short, a cultural ambassador to the world. While Russia prepares Cheburashka to be symbol of the national team at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Putin and Medvedev have played badminton, skied, and gone fishing.
Tensions regarding stagnation are not new—though they have exploded into mass protests in the past week. In an ironically prescient video-blog last November, Medvedev warned, “Stagnation is equally damaging to both the ruling party and opposition forces … if the ruling party never has to worry about losing an election anywhere, then it too degrades and ‘bronzes over.’” Earlier that month he ratified legislation to extend the presidential term from four years to six. He has steadfastly supported Putin’s announcement to run again, even while Putin has been publicly booed.
A threshold broke during parliamentary elections this month. United Russia won a slim majority—but suffered unprecedented losses, even with rampant election fraud behind them. With camera phones and the internet, normal Russians throughout the country have disseminated evidence of fraud. Aleksei Simonov, a director, has noted that “there are two Russias: one—on television where information is controlled, the other—on the internet, more free.” Attempts to discredit independent observer Golos have been ignored. Protesters have surged with increasing force into the streets of Moscow and St. Petersburg, and spread to other major cities. Initial clashes with police have subsided and the protests have grown. Even state-controlled TV has acknowledged their existence after a few days, and Putin has both accused Hilary Clinton of instigation and had a press secretary state that he is an “independent politician. … not affiliated with United Russia.” The feeling that young people resemble their leaders and are “deeply cynical and pragmatic … a generation of kleptocrats and parasites,” as Boris Nemtsov puts it, has given way to dignified protests of people “bursting at the seams with anger and frustration,” in the words of Mikhail Yefremov, the actor of the satirical program Citizen Poet.
Putin’s September announcement began a torrent of dissatisfied speech and predictions of stagnation while his administration became a Brezhnev-style gerontocracy. But apathy is apparently transforming into peaceful protests and a brazenly corrupt government is reeling with confusion. Putin’s 12 years of power already resemble Brezhnev’s stagnant era, with all the same political, economic, and cultural signs. Whether Putin can devise new masks or actually reform, or whether he will continue to recycle long-abused rhetoric and tricks, remains to be seen. His ‘inventive’ and secretive politics look a lot like 70s politics, and fewer Russians will suffer through them much longer. Gorbachev assumed power a few years after Brezhnev and dismantled the former’s legacy with liberalizing reforms, leading to massive upheavals and the end of the Soviet Union. Resignations, rising opposition, and clamoring protests suggest that Putin’s status quo, like Brezhnev’s before him, is untenable, and that Russia faces a turbulent, but not necessarily dark, future.
The Wolf will chase the Hare forever, whether Nu, pogodi! airs or not, but Putin cannot maintain power forever. Should he return to the presidency, he will have matched Brezhnev’s 18 years, and his Russia looks to be headed towards the same fate, too—greater corruption, emigration, and dramatic implosion. Putin has been resuscitating old politics, but they have not yet lasted as long as Brezhnev’s, and neither the FSB nor state-controlled TV can completely quell a population’s seething frustration. He plotted the swap and announced his triumphant return—Putin thought he had Russia finally in his grasp. But it has slipped away, quick as a hare.
Alan Yuhas is an editorial assistant at the World Policy Journal.
[Photo courtesy of Nicolás Arteaga]