Vladimir Putin just held a long sitdown with Nashi, answering questions from the teens at the youth group’s annual Seliger summer camp. You can read a rather flippant account at my Twitter feed. It was filled with the usual adoration (“What are your favorite TV shows?”; “You look young and look good and protect not just your family but the country – I want my husband to look good and be a protector”). Putin was loving it, sitting on the edge of a stage in casual beige.
But there were a few good questions. At least two of the participants tried to get Putin to give way on whether he would run for president. The first asked in an interesting way – will you attend Seliger next year and, if so, in what capacity? Putin answered equally sneakily: “Is it interesting for you to see me here? To listen to me answer your questions? Does it matter in what capacity? That’s your answer.” Same thing the second time around – he continued the line that there was no real divide between him and President Dmitry Medvedev, but that disagreements we’re normal. We’ve heard this before.
He made some interesting statements on the People’s Front, telling people to stop seeing “a double game” in it. Yes it was created to “widen the support” of United Russia, he said. “And what’s wrong with that?”
He had some choice words for America. One participant asked about the effects of a debt default. Putin cut her off to inform the young woman (they are in the middle of the forest, after all) that the crisis had been averted. “Thank God.” But, he went on to speculate, there are some analysts who say maybe the US wanted a default. Maybe that would weaken the dollar, which would help US exports, which would help America’s economic situation. Conspiracy everywhere.
But not when it comes to the moon. One kid, given the chance to ask a question to the most powerful man in his country, asked if it was true that the Americans really landed on the moon. “I think it is,” Putin replied. And went into an unprompted defense against the popular conspiracy theory here that the CIA blew up the World Trade Center as part of a massive plot. That was nice to hear. It was an echo of the good ol’ days of US-Russia relations, when Putin was the first to call then president George W. Bush in the wake of the September 11 attack.
We got some thoughts on totalitarianism. Putin launched into a big spiel about how the fall of the Soviet Union was a “real catastrophe.” This is also something we’ve heard before. But it’s always something that resonated with Russia’s older people, who lost the stable lives that the USSR provided. This is a new audience, one, most likely, born after the collapse (the 20th anniversary of which will begin to be marked globally this month). In a separate question, he waxed poetic on totalitarianism. He acknowledged that the mass deaths in the GULAG under Stalin’s reign were “horrible.” “But what’s more important is that totalitarianism kills freedom and creative life.” And that leads to inefficiencies in the economy, in society, in politics, he said. We don’t want a repeat of that, he added.
Questions on international relations were minimal. One young woman asked about Libya, and Putin put NATO’s fight there in the same group as Iraq and Afghanistan, saying he couldn’t see what the end would look like. Much more interesting were his thoughts on Belarus, a country Russia has been seeking to become closer to for years. A Belarussian participant got up and asked if unity between the two countries was possible. Putin smiled and said it was “possible and desirable.” The Belarussian people, he said, must want it and if they want it they must speak up.
And then … there’s the Twitter. Someone from Ufa said, “We know Dmitry Anatolievich likes Twitter. Are you for Twitter or LiveJournal (Russia’s leading blogging platform)?” “I’m for the Internationale,” he said, referring to a Soviet-era joke. He laughed nervously. Time to look modern – so he went on about how the Internet was “very important” for Russia. “We have the biggest territory in the world and, we can openly say, communication is badly developed – the roads, the airports.” The Internet can help solve problems remotely, he implied.
Then up came a kid from Tomsk, wearing oversized blue sunglasses. He asked Putin if he would open a Twitter – Putin mumbled what amounted to a yes. But by the time he got to the end of his answer (blue glasses guy had also asked him about the development of sports), he seemed a bit shyer. And the Twitter, the guy asked again? “You’ll come up to me later and tell me if I should do this or not.” This is a man who was pictured during last year’s fires with a cellphone that looked like it came from 1987. And who made a career out of privacy and secrecy. Putin on Twitter? Don’t hold your breath.
All in all it was very jovial – Putin was clearly enjoying himself, he feels at ease in front of an adoring crowd. He quoted Russian bard Vladimir Vyssotsky and writer Maxim Gorky. He laughed with the kids, and spoke to them kindly.
But, in the end, it’s just another piece of the theatre that has passed for Russia’s election season. Russia watchers are beginning to thirst for something a bit more real.