The longer Vladimir Putin spends in power (it’s over 10 years now as either president or prime minister) the more smug he seems to get. The words of harsh criticism become more and more assured and vicious, and that trademark half-smile of his seems ever more sinister.
This year he’s been featured on state television singing, painting and topless horse-riding. Putin told a famous Russian painter that a sword in a painting finished years ago was too short and “only good for slicing sausage” (the artist agreed to change it). While Barack Obama was meeting President Dmitry Medvedev (the man who, on paper at least, runs the country) during the US leader’s first official visit to Moscow, Putin caused a distraction. He took himself off in an all-black outfit and shades to visit some Russian Hell’s Angels, and told them he could do massive wheelies. All of this, of course, features at length on Russian television.
Even the Russians have begun to notice that something is a bit odd. In a survey last week, 23 per cent said they thought there was a Putin personality cult, with another 26 per cent saying the ground for such a cult is being laid (three years ago, the figures were just 10 per cent and 21 per cent respectively).
The signs have been there for a while, though. A couple of years ago, I was doing an interview with a friend of mine, one of Moscow’s most innovative theatre directors. In the article, I made a throwaway remark about a photograph on the director’s desk, where he was receiving an award from Putin. He appeared to tower over the president, yet when I looked at the man in the flesh, he was not a tall man at all. Photographs like this, not taken from careful angles by Kremlin photographers, I wrote, made you realise just how short Putin was.
Later, when I showed the director the article, he wasn’t happy.”I loved the piece, but why did you have to put in that I’m taller than Putin?” he asked me. “If anyone from ‘up there’ reads it, I’ll be in trouble.”
It didn’t seem like a good sign. A sharp, creative mind, known for his biting, remorseless satire; this man was horrified that someone had observed that he was taller than Putin.
And with good reason. A while later, I met with Mikhail Zlatkovsky, one of Russia’s most respected cartoonists. Putin, with his vicious rhetoric, cold stare and penchant for taking his top off, is a cartoonist’s dream. But you won’t find any cartoons of him in the Russian press. Zlatkovsky had done a few just after Putin had been elected in 2000, but his editor came back from a Kremlin reception one evening with a message.
“Don’t draw Putin anymore,” he was told. “The lad’s too sensitive.” But while Putin’s sensitivity to caricatures was there right from the beginning, the elaborate choreographed stunts of his own making have only really gathered steam in the past couple of years. Russians famously like a strong leader, but they are not fools and Putin should perhaps concentrate a touch more on policy and a bit less on photoshoots.