Minutes after the polls closed on March 2 in the westernmost Russian city of Kaliningrad--certifying a blowout victory by presidential candidate Dmitri Anatolyevich Medvedev, handpicked heir to Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin--the men of the hour made an appearance at a massive concert underway in Red Square. As broadcast by NTV, a television channel owned by Gazprom (where Medvedev chairs the board of directors), the scene looked like something out of Mission: Impossible. A low-placed camera tracked alongside Putin and Medvedev, dressed Kremlin Casual in a boxy leather jacket (Dima) and a parka (Volodya), as they strode, to a rock beat, across the convex cobblestone expanse of the square. The shot's director, perhaps taking another cue from Tom Cruise movies, had removed background extras or anything else the eye could use to calibrate the heroes' heights: Medvedev is 5'4" to Putin's 5'7". The action duo climbed onto the stage, and Medvedev--a professed headbanger who had had a box reserved at the Led Zeppelin reunion show in London on the day Putin named him his successor--got to live out a rock 'n' roll moment. He grabbed the mic and yelled "Privet, Rossiya! Privet, Moskva!" (the Russian equivalent of "Hello, Cleveland"). The square went wild. His fervor subsiding, the president-elect segued into an anodyne victory speech about the need to "fortify stability" and "improve quality of life." The crowd began chanting "Con-grats! Con-grats!"--an unusually impersonal choice of a mantra. Medvedev passed the microphone to his benefactor, and the chant immediately changed. "Pu-tin! Pu-tin! PU-TIN!!!" Medvedev politely smiled.
This episode is likely to repeat, in one form or another, throughout the first months and even years of Medvedev's rule. If it seems as if Russia has elected a man nobody knows anything about, it's because Russia, with a complacency easily mistakable for contentedness, didn't really elect Dmitri Medvedev at all. It reelected Vladimir Putin, in the way Tibetan monks pick the same Dalai Lama each time, regardless of the human form he's taken. The rubber-stamping of the Kremlin candidate illuminates a useful truth about Russian society: Putin's stifling regime and the country's oil-fueled prosperity are viewed not as unrelated phenomena but as cause and effect. Medvedev, even as he formally represents the end of that regime, is also its ultimate triumph.
Putin's historic achievement is the creation, in eight short years, of what the chief Kremlin ideologist Vladislav Surkov terms suverennaya demokratiya ("sovereign democracy") and what's been rechristened, in liberal circles, suvenirnaya demokratiya: "souvenir democracy." In brief, this system consists of a narrow executive silo--about 50 Putin insiders spread out among government agencies--through which all policy is funneled, and a collection of decorative Western-style institutions pivoting around it. The fat around Putin's lean machine includes a costly, tautological United Russia party structure, useless regional governments (since 2004, the president appoints governors directly), and an equally useless State Duma, the lower house of the parliament. Under the rules imposed just in time for last December's parliamentary election, voters now pick between parties, as opposed to individual delegates--and Putin's status as the head of United Russia happened to put his name at the top of every ballot. You thus voted not for parliamentary representation but for something called "Putin's Plan." A United Russia landslide ensued, helped along by epidemic poll fraud: The official ballot counts amusingly spike on every round number (70, 80, 90), a pattern possible only with furious rounding-up. By January of 2008, newspapers began dropping the name "United Russia" from articles. What Russia had was, once again, The Party.
In the absence of any real legislative work, United Russia delegates are often businessmen pursuing tiny goals--importers out to lower a specific tariff, radio-station owners with sights on a particular frequency--or absurd celebrities who have pledged loyalty to the party. A notorious photo of twentysomething gymnasts-cum-lawmakers Svetlana Khorkina and Alina Kabaeva depicts them cavorting in the chamber like bored schoolchildren in the back of a classroom. In the run-up to the December election, many seats were bought and sold for the attendant perks, which include an apartment in Moscow, immunity against criminal investigation, and five aide positions to fill as one wishes. At least two sources tag the price of a Duma seat at around $1 million, 50 percent of which is instantly recoupable: Those aide spots go at $100,000 a pop.
Besides corrupting older institutions, the party feeds superfluous newer ones like Nashi--a politicized "youth movement" with its own network of mildly brainwashing camps (and a sprawling website that disseminates newsflashes like "Garry Kasparov's SUV ran over a young fan"). It may sound sinister, and its name, meaning "Ours," is terribly unfortunate--Nashist sounds like both "Nazi" and "fascist"--but, in truth, Nashi is a deeply dopey fund-waster. A quick conversation with a participant in any of Nashi's many rallies (for "Putin's Plan," against Kosovo's independence) will invariably reveal that the students have been bused in under threat of a failing grade or harder community service. The morning after Medvedev's victory, on Pushkin Square, I joined a group of about 60 young Nashi men and women with government-issue flags huddled, under freezing rain, in front of an outdoor stage. A government-approved rapper, swaying in his best approximation of Jay-Z, delivered an upbeat refrain: U menya vsyo okei, u menya vsyo okei--"I'm just fine, I'm just fine"--periodically throwing in a misplaced shout-out to "South Bronx." The wet crowd looked utterly miserable. More than a few boys clutched beer bottles. A violet-eared militia officer was the only one bobbing his head to the beat: At least he was getting paid to be there.
The final leg of Sovereign Democracy is in what used to be the private sector. A de facto nationalization of Russia's most flush industries--oil and gas--provides the cushion that keeps the bureaucratic deadweight afloat. Both functionaries and dissidents, struggling to put this socioeconomic model into first-world terms, like to say that the new Russia is being run like a corporation. To an extent, it is a corporation, and that corporation is Gazprom--currently headed by Dmitri Medvedev. The government is unhealthily symbiotic with the gas concern, which provides at least 8 percent of the country's GDP, serves as an unsubtle diplomatic chip, and, dissidents allege, helps the principals funnel vast fortunes abroad. Per Medvedev, Gazprom should be worth $1 trillion by 2017, which will make it the world's largest company. The rest of its directors' board teems with government officials and Putin and Medvedev's fellow St. Petersburg mayor's office alums. It could, in a pinch, make a decent shadow cabinet. In the late 1990s, a jokey draft of a "Gazprom-State Unity Bill," circulated in the Russian Parliament hallways, stated that, "in case of Prime Minister's incapacitation, his duties shall be carried out by the Chairman of the Gazprom Board of Directors, and vice versa." Less than a decade later, it's no longer a joke.
Journalists Mikhail Zygar and Valery Panyushkin, in their new book Gazprom: The New Russian Weapon, make a clever case for the gas giant as a kind of parasite country piggybacking on Russia. It has its own banking system (Gazprombank, which doesn't deal in rubles), airline (Gazpromavia), and armed forces. Media, too: Gazprom controls Izvestia, a national daily, and NTV, which it won in a government-assisted takeover that marked the first of Putin's patented legal-on-paper power moves. On the day after the elections, the new NTV (whose "N" still stands for nezavisimoe, or "independent") followed up a sunny report on Medvedev with the news that, "two hours ago, Gazprom cut gas deliveries to Ukraine by 25 percent," achieving a spectacular conflict-of-interest hat trick: Not only was Gazprom the corporate parent of the network, but the new president-elect chaired the Gazprom board and curated the administration's Ukraine policy. Most of modern Russian life unfolds in this maddening hall of mirrors, with the same few dozen names alternately popping up in their "public" and "private" capacities.
The centralized purse informs the low-energy, neo-Soviet attitudes currently permeating every trade from publishing, where political appointees and oil heiresses rule the mastheads, to the restaurant business, wherein Kremlin favorites erect and maintain gaudy, money-losing food palaces. Coupled with economic hardships, this bureaucratic cronyism would undoubtedly fuel dissent, and perhaps even a popular revolt on par with Ukraine's "Orange Revolution." With oil prices where they are, wages rising across the board, and the new middle class getting its first taste of bank credit, however, all it breeds is utter indifference to the very concept of democracy.
Unlike Gorbachev's perestroika, the key word of the Brezhnev era--zastoi, or stagnation--never gained currency in English, but it describes late-Putinist Russia fairly well. Economically booming, politically resurgent, today's Russia is also culturally stagnant in the widest sense. Its only identifiable passion is to be taken seriously abroad. The depth of the Russian humiliation cannot be overstated. When a man named Vitaly Kaloyev, whose wife and child died in a Swiss plane crash, went to Switzerland and knifed the culpable air-traffic controller to death, he came back a national hero. A group of Nashi members met his flight with signs reading "You're A Real Man," and the North Ossetia Region honored Kaloev as its Man of the Year. He was soon offered a high government post.
The Western press likes to kid itself that Putin's regime is crushing a potent revolt. "They always wanted us to give the opposition viewpoint," chuckles a former reporter for The New York Times' Moscow bureau. "Where's the opposition? More opposition! We were like, 'It's really not about the opposition here.'" A tyrant suppressing the people's will is a more familiar and dynamic narrative than the people's will simply petering out. "The denizens of the Kremlin," claims Anne Applebaum in Slate, "still seem to fear Western-inspired popular discontent." Andrew Meier in The New York Times Magazine writes that "there remains one genuine opposition force, the Other Russia."
Would that it did. To call the Other Russia, a coalition of anti-Kremlin forces, disorganized or rudderless is to hugely understate matters. It is a leftover stew of political views--combining literally everyone who isn't a Putinist or a communist in one of history's least organic alliances. Given any measure of power, it would fracture in seconds.
March's transfer-of-power show was especially noteworthy for how little passion it stirred in those opposed to the regime. The only protest anyone talked about involved a few Moscow philosophy students staging a faux orgy at a natural history museum. I spent the final hours of the presidential election in the closest place Moscow had to an opposition HQ that night: a party at Mayak Café where every notable Other Russian in the city was present. Mikhail Kasyanov, the former prime minister, chatted with Vladimir Ryzhkov, the former Duma speaker. (Both had wanted to run against Medvedev and were barred on sadistic technicalities.) Former TV star Viktor Shenderovich, now blacklisted from all but one of the networks for mocking Putin, cracked jokes about FSB agents infiltrating the party. The atmosphere was that of an iconic Khruschev-era Soviet kitchen: smoke-swathed intelligentsia giggling about how screwed they are. A woman moved through the crowd distributing plastic bags that said "I'm taking no part in this farce," made famous hours ago by Garry Kasparov, who toted one to a photo op. For a gathering with at least two viable candidates in attendance, notably absent was anything resembling a plan, a platform, a blueprint for moving on.
"I had a shot," Kasyanov told me. "I had a shot, and this is exactly why Putin gave the order to create the bureaucratic details that resulted in my removal." And, yet, Shenderovich, standing a few feet away, placed Kasyanov's chances in a hypothetical squeaky-clean contest at 10 percent. The same goes for Kasparov, a noble but ultimately irrelevant figure. Outside Moscow's Garden Ring, the idea of a Jewish-Armenian presidential candidate is sadly laughable. Most agree that the last person capable of inspiring (and financing) a nationwide liberal movement was oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, jailed since 2003 for attempting just that.
Dropping out--taking "no part in this farce"--is, in the eyes of most Russian intellectuals, the only honorable option. In the late 1980s, exiled Soviet writer Sergei Dovlatov noted that dissidents lacked an original vocabulary--all good and noble words had already been used by communists. The current generation of liberals, then, is stuck with a vocabulary of justice, liberty, hope, etc. coopted by communists and dissidents. Idealism of any kind is perceived as embarrassing.
Instead, there's a new language of cynicism. In the past few years, Russian has acquired an extraordinary number of energetic slang terms for various subspecies of fraud: raspil (embezzlement), otkat (kickback), otzhim (government-assisted hostile takeover). Every street rally, every public opinion is assumed to be zakazano and proplacheno--"ordered" and "paid up." The most fashionable pose is that of a conspiracy theorist: Belief in a shadowy world government, be it KGB, CIA, or Jews, is mainstream and commonplace. This thinking, of course, has the side benefit of excusing the thinker of any responsibility.
The blankly soft-spoken Medvedev is both the chief benefactor of nationwide apathy and its perfect embodiment. Although the new president's lack of leadership experience is well-documented and total--he's never held an elected office before being entrusted with the highest one--Medvedev isn't a dreary Chekhovian pencil-pusher. He is a shrewd corporate lawyer and, at 42, a Russian of a new generation: He came of age studying not the "triumphant march of Marxism" but sophisticated financial instruments. The problem is that his and his peers' command of the market vernacular seems to be mostly aimed at gaming the system. In the early '90s, while working in the St. Petersburg mayor's office--the cauldron from which Putin and his team emerged--Medvedev was reportedly the first to devise a quasi-legal way for the municipal government to buy into a profitable venture (in that case, a chain of shady gambling parlors): not through investment but through rent forgiveness. It was a somewhat elegant and utterly cynical move, and it set Dmitri on the upward trajectory that brought him to Moscow before the decade's end. One can easily see the radioactive traces of that St. Petersburg epiphany in Gazprom's dealings with its international customers, in which the price of gas seems to rise and fall in direct dependence on the client country's tolerance of the Kremlin. Medvedev's policy is likely to grow directly out of Putin's the way Putin's grew out of Yeltsin's: a progressively more streamlined, centralized, and internationally palatable variation on kleptocracy.
What makes the president-elect an almost exotic figure in Putin's inner circle is his lack of what Russians call "shoulder boards under the jacket." In other words, he isn't KGB. Medvedev's mien is as far as it gets from the brusque demeanor of his thwarted rival, First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov (another St. Petersburg native and Putin's KGB buddy). Putin, who delights in keeping everyone guessing, originally appeared to be grooming Ivanov for the presidency, then Medvedev, then Ivanov again. Whenever royal favor seemed to flag, Ivanov would reportedly go berserk. Medvedev, by contrast, took every slight with a smile, and prevailed. He was clearly appalled but didn't make a peep when Putin stuck Boris Kovalchuk, a 29-year-old son of a friend, into his National Priority Projects department. He didn't wince when his campaign ads turned out to be two-shots of him and Putin under the slogan "We Will Win Together." He doesn't resort to gutter language in private and radiates vague good humor in public. ("I frankly wonder how he fell in with those guys," confesses Marat Guelman, a political consultant who worked on Putin's 2000 campaign and informally advised Medvedev on Ukraine policy.) He sets gaydars pinging, a rarity in a culture that hilariously believes its most flamboyant pop singers to be straight. The suspicion is hardly allayed by the presence of Medvedev's Ab Fab-esque wife Svetlana (whom he claims to have dated since the age of 14) and nicely dovetails with the popular theory that the job went to the guy with the most to hide.
Putin himself, of course, is not going anywhere--Medvedev's central campaign promise was to make him prime minister. Should the new president attempt to flex his executive muscle, the seeds of the clash between the kingmaker and the king are right there in the open. "The president is the guarantor of the Constitution," proclaimed Putin at his final press conference, "but the highest executive power in the country is the Russian government, led by the prime minister." Compare it to a pre-election interview with Medvedev in the Itogi weekly: "Our country was, and will stay, a presidential republic ... if Russia turns into a parliamentary republic, it will vanish. This is a deep personal conviction of mine." And later: "I don't think you're paying enough attention. There's no two, three or five centers [of power]. Russia is governed by the president." By the meek Medvedev standards, this is almost an outburst--especially considering that the campaign placed the interview in Itogi as a paid advertisement; one imagines there was ample opportunity to finesse the tone post factum.
These hints of--could it be?--a spine hearten some observers immeasurably, because Medvedev is perceived to be hiding a liberal soul. According to Guelman, the president-elect belongs to a Kremlin faction "afraid that the world will start viewing Russia like China, a thing unto itself." His kind, or so it is believed, invest their money in U.S. banks and businesses, send their children to top European colleges, and favor Russia joining the WTO. They see no gain in the isolationist utopia of the kind trumpeted by some of Putin's other confidantes, with the country as a "black box with an oil pipe sticking out." "Medvedev will either make liberalization of Russia his main task, or remain a purely decorative figure," says Guelman. "He can't possibly have any other function. This is the only thing he's good for."
It follows that the one way Medvedev can return a measure of vigor to Russian public life is by doing something truly radical: his job. If there were to be a visible standoff between Medvedev and Putin on even a trifling rights issue, Medvedev is guaranteed to suddenly find himself passionately championed by the same crowd that sniffed at voting for him. This is, after all, what happened to Boris Yeltsin, hardly a dissident. For now, Kremlinologists are well-advised to keep an eye on Medvedev's law-school friends: Anton Ivanov, Nikolai Vinichenko, Aleksandr Konovalov. If these people start popping up in major cabinet posts, displacing Putin's men, Medvedev's got more juice than expected.
So far, Medvedev's been a depressingly good boy, but to the victor goes the set dressing. The heady imperial imagery he now wields has palpable power of its own. As Muscovites like to repeat, Medvedev "will wake up every day and see the President's face in the mirror." Now that he's got the gig, he may also hear the echoes of that Red Square chant--"Pu-tin! Pu-tin! Pu-tin!"--pulsing in his head, and dream of a similar reception for himself. The ramifications of that choice go well beyond politics. Just like Putin's every facial tic was once examined for hints to the extent of his severity, Medvedev's most workaday initiatives (like his recent order to curtail surprise inspections on small businesses) are being parsed for signs of thaw, coded signals as to what's allowed. Kremlinology, an imprecise science Putin's black-box presidency has resurrected, is not just for Western think tanks anymore: The Russian eyes are trained on Medvedev, too. It's a testament to his predecessor's continuing grip, however, that the very people who unquestioningly ushered this slight stranger into power are now looking to find a glimmer of liberal hope in his smallest gestures.
Michael Idov is a contributing editor at New York magazine and the editor-in-chief of RUSSIA! magazine.
By Michael Idov