Alone in a bulletproof vest

How Vladimir Putin decided he could speak only to God

Alone in a bulletproof vest
Vladimir Putin at a Christmas service in the Kremlin’s Cathedral of the Annunciation, 7 January. Photo: EPA-EFE / MIKHAEL KLIMENTYEV / SPUTNIK / KREMLIN POOL

Putin’s public appearances are becoming more ridiculous and at the same time more frightening. Press conferences (while they were still around) with reporters sitting three bus stations away from the interviewee, endlessly long tables, a New Year’s address with stony soldiers in the background — evil tongues say the video was edited and that the president actually stood there alone. There are fewer and fewer events involving the leader: maybe, as science fiction would suggest, he is already in space and speaking to his subjects from there?

The apogee of this behaviour happened on Christmas. Alone in an empty cathedral with an expression that is more befitting of a funeral and certainly out of place on a holiday. Keeping up appearances is no longer possible — or Putin does not think it is necessary.

However, he did not always behave this way. He did not always drink from his own special cup at international events (into which he was allowed, as hard as it is now to believe), or turn himself into a parody of The Autumn of the Patriarch and One Hundred Years of Solitude with the emptiness around him. Nor was the word “bunker” in our political vocabulary — except when referring to Hitler, with whom, incidentally, it used to be quite permissible to compare Stalin.

It is possible, of course, to say that he went mad, that he is off his rocker, and so on. This does seem to be the case, but it is too vague an explanation as it provides us with a statement, but not with an understanding.

Whereas it is crucial to understand the man — it is because of his “dark will” that all hell has broken loose. And he continues making decisions that kill hundreds of thousands of people and break the lives of millions of survivors.

There are two reasons for this bizarre behaviour. The first one, obviously, is fear.

KGB agents are, as a rule, cowards. It does not take much courage to boot kick a bound man or practise other ghastly feats that the KGB is known for. Of course, there are all kinds of people among them. Putin practiced judo, for instance — I think that requires a certain courage, since his sparring partners were not always set up. But that was a long time ago, and now he seems to have regressed a lot in that respect.

Leaders of any country have security — one should not underestimate the dangers posed by radicals or the criminally insane. But nobody else behaves like Putin. I am not even comparing him to Zelensky, who is beyond all comparison, but with ordinary leaders in times of peace.

I have had the chance to be present at the meeting several Russians had with President Obama during his visit to Moscow. Sure, we had to go through a metal detector, but we were not frisked and could even keep our mobile phones. I have also seen Obama’s motorcade in Washington — a car in the front, a car in the back, and policemen closing off the road only about 30 seconds before it passes through. Alas, the times when kings and presidents would stop at a red light are gone, but nobody reaches the point of insanity, except for Russia’s leader.

One evening, before 2014 and the annexation of Crimea, I was driving along a major avenue in Moscow. Suddenly, cars with flashing lights appeared: “Stop immediately! Take to the right!”. After 15 minutes of waiting, a huge motorcade zoomed past at incredible speed — it could only have been Putin (all other officials had simpler motorcades; not as scanty as that bum Obama’s, but about five times shorter than that of the Leader). They drove past, and after another 15 minutes, we were allowed to continue on our way. After about 10 minutes, there come the flashing lights again, the command to stop, 15 more minutes of waiting, and another huge motorcade. Typical!

Putin’s security measures are superfluous and irrational. They can only exist if he not just simply goes along with them, but likes and encourages them.

He lives in constant fear for his life. He is afraid of getting infected, of being shot even by his own guards, and I bet he even sleeps in a bulletproof vest. Putin is probably telling himself that these security measures are necessary because everything will perish without him — in whose hands can he leave the country? This fear, however, is something Putin needs to explain to himself.

The reason for this behaviour, I think, is that he understands or feels that he is doing evil. That he is killing people, ruining his country, condemning fellow citizens to poverty; that if anyone loves him it is those who have only seen him on television and are incapable of analysing current events. However, even reports from Kremlin-affiliated sociologists make it clear that there are fewer and fewer of such adulators.

Meanwhile, those whose status gives them a chance of being in one room with him have nothing at all to love him for. Many of them, understanding the actual state of affairs and the consequences of his decisions for themselves and their families, simply hate him. They will never take action against him, but he is afraid nonetheless. He even cancelled the New Year’s reception. At the Christmas service, he listened to a priest who quarantined for two weeks and is probably also a security service officer — not a soul around, as if the president were in solitary confinement. Not a fate to be envious of.

There is, however, another reason for this visible loneliness.

He seems to have come to believe that he has some sort of divine essence, making the only worthy interlocutor for him not even Mahatma Gandhi, but the Lord himself.

From the height on which Vladimir Putin sees himself, there is probably no observable difference between global leaders that have built a front against him, his noble boyars — formally, the highest dignitaries of the Empire, but in reality, insignificant cowards who are afraid to glance at him the wrong way, — and the ordinary citizens of his country whom he has rendered powerless to change anything. None of them deserves to speak to him, God’s equal.

If this man, who is scared of every noise and believes in his own divinity, were an ordinary retired officer, he would only be a problem for his family. But he is a problem for the whole of humanity.

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