Ten years ago, on the 9th August 1999, a young, little-known ex-KGB major was appointed Prime Minister by the ailing Boris Yeltsin. Who could have foreseen what was in store for that “short, balding and generally unnoticeable” spy from Leningrad and the country that once in his grip, would never be let go.
Vlast’ magazine claims to have somewhat foreseen the whole process. In spring of 1999, the magazine ordered an opinion poll to find out what Russian citizens thought an ideal president should be like. With most of the population lacking in real-life examples, the poll instead asked Russians which film characters they would vote for - if they had the chance - in the presidential elections. The results were somewhat unexpected at the time, but, according to Vlast', rather telling for what was soon to come.
Based on “Ten Years under Putin” by Dmitri Kamyshev in this week’s “Vlast'” magazine.
The film characters that proved the most popular choice for president shared one common trait – they were all authoritarian strongmen with a penchant for violence. Peter the Great as played by Nikolai Simonov came in first, closely followed by three members of the security services: Marshal Zhukov, celebrated Red Army officer; Gleb Zheglov – the ruthless “bad cop” in a 1979 detective series known for his disrespect to the law and belief in the ends justifying the means; and Shtirlitz, the ideal NKVD (Stalinist secret police, later to become the KGB) officer in a televised series. Although one could suppose that the actors in these roles may have influenced their popularity (Vladimir Vysotsky played Gleb Zheglov, for example), as a choice for president it is fairly clear that they are all rather lacking in democratic management skills.
Opinion poll analysts concluded that Russians wanted an aggressive, rather than attentive president, and that they believed that only such a leader would be able to restore order in the country. This is fairly interesting, though far from astounding in retrospect. What is more curious is that according to Vlast’, one day after they published these results, Boris Yeltsin sacked Prime Minister Evgeny Primakov and, contrary to all expectations, three months later appointed Vladimir Putin to his post. Whether or not the opinion poll played any roll in this is anyone’s guess, but, again according to Vlast’, an advisor in the presidential administration earlier this year claimed that at the time such a poll had indeed been discussed within the government.
Two weeks before Putin’s surefooted victory in the subsequent presidential elections, Vlast’ magazine returned to the results of the opinion poll. It noted that from the outset Putin’s KGB roots allowed parallels to be drawn with NKVD officer Shtirlitz. What’s more, he had begun to take on qualities of the other characters named at the top of the poll. Marshal Zhukov’s military victories were mirrored in Putin’s (apparently) successful war in Chechnya. His similarities with Zheglov were clear by his legendary declaration “if we catch them in the toilet, we’ll flush them down the toilet” [referring to terrorists in the Caucasus], which sounded particularly like Zheglov: “a thief should sit behind bars”. His recognition of the necessity of Russian cooperation with NATO harked back to Peter the Great’s “window to the West”.
Continuing the Peter the Great line, Vlast’magazine ended with a prognosis of Putin’s path in the future: “Peter the Great also forced the people to love everything German, created a Navy and the city of St. Petersburg, cut the beards off the boyars and the heads off the riflemen, undertook successful (against Sweden) and not-so-successful (the Persian campaign) wars and started a collection of rare freaks.”
Ten years into the Putin era, Vlast' magazine thinks that the Peter the Great parallel did indeed come true. Many famous and not so famous Russians have had firsthand experience of the second President of the Russian Federation’s love for everything German. Support for the Navy, just as for the Army as a whole, has been a main priority of the state, whilst St. Petersburg has become the authorities’ favourite city and source of cadres. Almost all boyars (regional governors and oligarchs) have had their beards cut off, whilst some lone riflemen (critics of the regime) have even lost their heads. The war in Georgia turned out to be simultaneously successful (according to the Kremlin) and unsuccessful (according to independent experts). The only thing that Putin did not acquire was a collection of rare freaks, although several experts with experience of working with the government and parliament may not necessarily agree.