Russia’s Zombie Election
The news would have you believe that the Russian Federation is set to have its presidential election on March 18, 2018. And the news would be correct—if it went ahead and wrote it as “election.” At this point, taking the democratic process too seriously would be off-brand for Vladimir Putin, even as his so-called rivals go through the motions of registering to run against him. It would make him seem too eager, while his actual power today lies in his ability to appear blasé and disinterested, and occasionally mildly amused, in the face of elections and the mechanisms that drive them.
Putin has ruled Russia since the year 2000—since *NSYNC was a thing and you could get away with crimping your hair unironically. Even when Putin was technically not president—from 2008 to 2012 the job was outsourced to Dmitry Medvedev, whose eyes have grown ever more basset hound–like for being tied to the Russian throne over the years—he was still ruling Russia.
There are now full-fledged adults in Russia who have known nothing but Putin’s rule. Throughout his tenure, Putin has turned most of the Russian media into his private PR machine, cleverly managed to take credit for the oil boom while enriching his friends and making sure Russia wound up as the world’s most unequal major economy, snatched up Crimea and started a bloody conflict in parts of east Ukraine, engaged in revanchist tactics against the West in order to boost his support at home, and otherwise demonstrated his uncanny ability to be part cartoon villain, part study in how the slow death of the Soviet empire produced in some of its citizens such painful bitterness that they would cover all those lands in a second darkness just to feel safe and strong again.
We shouldn’t even be framing this as an election; it’s more like a protracted episode of Tales from the Crypt.
For many years, Putin remained a kind of consensus figure in Russia—an enormous country that doesn’t exactly lend itself to transparent, efficient governance. Russia has never had a stable democratic system, and while it is a nation on paper, it is run much more like an empire. One can therefore make the argument that after the chaos that gripped the country in the 1990s, a strongman leader such as Putin was the best Russia could hope for—which is a bit like telling an impoverished single woman that she’ll be better off with an abusive but financially solvent husband, or so I’ve come to believe.
Protests have erupted and continue to erupt in Russia over the years, but Putin has slogged on. Even Russia’s recent economic downturn didn’t much phase him. It has nothing to do with him being a superhero—or, as much of the U.S. press would have it, a Bond villain. The majority of the Russian population is too tired and too busy surviving the day-to-day to effectively resist authoritarianism on their home turf. Russians have been tired since the end of the USSR, when they thought they had thrown off the yoke of authoritarianism, only to have Americans laugh in their faces and claim the victory as their own.
Putin is also tired. Presiding over years of corruption and mismanagement while strenuously distracting his populace with dog-and-pony shows—such as the 2014 Olympics, for example, or the elaborate and never-ending telethons, in which the president is asked by his citizens to build a kindergarten or clean up a festering dump, requests that would be directed at local officials in a system of governance that actually worked—has turned him into a calcified, moribund version of himself. In a pointed show of apathy, Putin surprised exactly no one when he didn’t even show up late last year when he was being officially nominated to run in the 2018 election. We shouldn’t even be framing this as an election; it’s more like a protracted episode of Tales from the Crypt.
Alexey Navalny, Russia’s most prominent genuine opposition candidate, has been barred from running against Putin—which many take to be a sign of Putin being afraid of the man. Yet this decision was likely not made directly by Putin—who prefers to rule by signal on such matters—but Russia’s army of middle managers, the bureaucrats who fear nothing more than the tsar’s displeasure, and are not willing to take risks. Putin probably recognizes Navalny’s sheer charisma as a threat, but Navalny couldn’t win even if admitted as a candidate. Fair and free elections demand working institutions and at least a nominal commitment to pluralism, and Russia has neither.
This is why the 2018 presidential election in Russia is really just an “election.” It’s a bit like a marriage that has run its course—both parties are keeping up appearances, but the smiles are stretched too tight, the atmosphere is so heavy that everyone around wants to shrug it off.
Passivity erodes the Russian power vertical’s significance, while signaling to the Kremlin that, should things get really dire, loyalty to dear leader will turn out to be a rapidly fading mirage.
Forward-thinking dissident Russians rightly suggest that “I’m not participating in this shit” is the only appropriate response for voters who actually want to be heard. Low turnout is a worry for the Kremlin, and rightfully so. Part of the problem is the fact that support for Putin is largely passive these days. Trained well by the horrors of Russian history, the bloody twentieth century especially, Russians are quick to tell pollsters exactly what the government wants to hear—in fact, many people do so without thinking—which is part of the reason why Putin’s popularity remains high on paper. But passivity also erodes the Russian power vertical’s significance, while signaling to the Kremlin that, should things get really dire (with the economy, for example, or with another military adventure), loyalty to dear leader will turn out to be a rapidly fading mirage.
No ordinary person loyal to the current Russian government would die for the sake of Putin and his wealthy allies, should it come down to it. In many ways, this suits Putin just fine. But this lack of passion also hints at greater ennui—the slow corrosion of a system made inherently unstable by the fact that its foundation is a single, watery-eyed, clever but not brilliant man.
In light of that, humor—as opposed to hand-wringing—is the best response to what’s happening in Russia today. One of Putin’s first blatant acts of censorship was a state takeover of the NTV channel, which famously made fun of him on a satirical show featuring hilariously ugly dolls, an affront to his carefully constructed public persona. Today, the state seeks to co-opt humor, and while Russian state television will savage anyone from NATO to rape victims, political satire remains taboo for television, even as it flourishes on the internet. For better or worse, political satire punctures through lies and propaganda in a way that dry facts frequently do not.
These are dour and uninspiring times. Yes, the gears of power in Russia will turn exactly as expected. Yes, Putin will be re-elected. But in the face of glacial apathy, predictability, and boredom, it’s necessary to make fun of the spectacle of officials scrambling to ensure a high turn-out.
Take it from me: Whenever I feel sick with hopelessness, I remember the old joke about how many Russian election officials it takes to screw in a lightbulb (correct answer: exactly 146 percent of all central elections committee members), and instantly feel my blood pressure go down to normal. While no one in the world can beat Putin at his own game right now, the hope is that we just might outlast him.