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Putin’s Crazy Days

Bluster about borders, a mobilization mess, a pathetic pep rally.
October 5, 2022
Putin’s Crazy Days
(Composite / GettyImages / Midjourney)

Every time you think the madness in Vladimir Putin’s Russia has reached its peak, it goes up another notch or two (or ten). The end of September and the start of October saw a dramatic escalation of insanity. First, Putin went on TV to declare that four occupied Ukrainian regions would immediately and irrevocably become a part of Russia after “referenda” conducted quite literally at gunpoint—and to deliver an anti-Western rant that dramatically illustrated the horseshoe theory of politics by rattling off a list of Western crimes that included everything from colonialism and the slave trade to the bombing of Hiroshima to same-sex marriage (“Parent No. 1 and Parent No. 2”) and multiple genders. Then, Putin’s mad dream of Novorossiya triumphant crashed in less than 24 hours when one of its cities, Lyman, was recaptured by Ukrainian troops—and Ukrainian forces continued their forward march to reclaim the lands Putin had just proclaimed to be Russian forever. Meanwhile, the mobilization effort meant to shore up Russian forces in Ukraine continues to be a disaster, with reports of elderly and sick men being called up—as well as female reservists who are single mothers with young children—and with claims that as many as 1.5 million uniforms and equipment packs have gone missing. And since the announcement of mobilization on September 21, as many as 700,000 people have left Russia.

Every detail that emerges seems to add to the surrealism of this murderous farce. Take, for instance, Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov acknowledging that the borders of the new regions to be absorbed into Russia (the Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson provinces) were still undetermined—which raises the bizarre possibility that Russia itself at the moment does not have clearly defined, internationally recognized borders. Or, better yet, take Peskov’s promise that Russia would “continue to consult the population of those regions” to determine where the borders would be drawn. (But wasn’t that population supposedly consulted in last month’s insta-votes? Never mind.) Or the official announcement that Russian troops were vacating Lyman to move to a “more advantageous position.” (I refer you once again to Evgeny Schwartz’s brilliant 1944 satirical parable The Dragon, in which a dragon’s human minions inform the populace on the beast’s losing battle against a knight: “Lord Dragon has released one of his heads from service for health reasons and moved it to the reserves.”)

For even more surrealism, consider the grand spectacle in Red Square to celebrate the supposed homecoming of the four prodigal regions—with raucous cheers and applause apparently dubbed in for television, or perhaps achieved, as Novaya Gazeta reporter Nadezhda Isayeva suggests, by selectively training the microphones on a section of the square occupied by pro-Kremlin youth groups.

Dissident pundits described the celebration as a “Satanic ball on Red Square,” a likely reference to Mikhail Bulgakov’s beloved 1930s novel The Master and Margarita with its scene of “Satan’s ball”—though that affair, at least, was in far better taste. As if scripted by a satirist of Bulgakov’s stature, it culminated in a shrieking speech by actor Ivan Okhlobystin declaring a “holy war” on the West and recalling “the ancient Russian interjection goida, which means a call to immediate action”:

How badly we need such battle cries today! Goida, brothers and sisters! Be afraid, old world governed by lunatics, perverts, and satanists! Be afraid, we are coming! Goida!

As it happens, goida was not just any “ancient Russian interjection”: It was the call of the sixteenth-century oprichniki, Ivan the Terrible’s punitive force (his “personal Gestapo”). The word was also revived in Vladimir Sorokin’s scarily prescient 2006 novel Day of the Oprichnik, a dystopia that envisions a future Russia that has reverted to quasi-medieval, sadism-drenched religious autocracy, where the oprichniki ride (and kill, torture, and rape) again with goida as their battle cry.

The Red Square crowd, at least according to Isayeva and other independent sources, wasn’t particularly impressed. The reporting team for the anti-Putin Meduza website quotes people grumbling in the line to get into the square: “What do they need so many people for? Do they really think people come here because their heart is in it?” (Apart from professional pro-Kremlin “activists,” the crowd was made up of government employees and university students bused in as extras for the grand spectacle.) One man said he’ll take a selfie in the square and leave so that his superiors will know he was there; another complained he couldn’t leave early because his boss is in attendance.

This doesn’t mean the people in the square were against the war, of course. But the dominant mood, it seems, was either cynicism (“Of course we’ll never know the truth,” one man told Meduza) or apathy (“You aren’t supposed to have strong convictions here”).

That’s the crowd; what about Putin’s higher-level minions? “I carefully watched not only the members of the presidential administration but the deputies and officials in Putin’s government and the so-called senators,” Igor Yakovenko, the former general secretary of the Journalists’ Union of Russia, told Ukraine’s Channel 24. “I watched their faces, and body language says a lot. Some of them donned the mask of enthusiasm for Putin’s words, but you could see fear showing through this mask. Some were openly bored or asleep; some refrained from applause. . . . I think a substantial part of the president’s administration as well as some of the deputies and officials realize where all this is headed.” Specifically, Yakovenko clarified, in the direction of criminal prosecution—presumably after the Putin regime is defeated.

Few observers are as yet predicting how that defeat will happen. But there seems to be a growing consensus among both independent Russian pundits and their Western counterparts that the present situation is unsustainable for Putin’s regime. As Francis Fukuyama put it:

The signs of trouble are certainly there, including the fact that two close and powerful Putin allies, Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov and private military contractor Yevgeny Prigozhin have unleashed volleys of anger and contempt at Russian military brass—with no criticism openly targeting Putin himself, but no complimentary words about him, either. The same is true of professional propagandists such as Vladimir Solovyov and Margarita Simonyan.

Has Putin painted himself into a position in which, as opposition activist Gennady Gudkov suggested recently on Ukrainian television, any move he makes will be a losing move for him? Could this no-win situation push him to use a tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine, as Kadyrov has suggested? It is worth noting that, for all his bluster about defending newly “Russian” territories by any means necessary—with the obvious implication that this includes nuclear weapons—Putin has made no specific threats again Ukrainian troops. Those troops are now taking control of land that Russia’s upside-down reality treats as Russian. At least so far, Russia’s present nightmare seems far more likely to end in a painful awakening from Putinism than in a nuclear nightmare for the rest of the world.

Cathy Young

Cathy Young is a writer at The Bulwark, a columnist for Newsday, and a contributing editor to Reason. Twitter: @CathyYoung63.