He turned 60 on Sunday – an event I wish went unnoticed. But it did not – to the contrary. The occasion evoked adoration reminiscent of nothing so much as the late Soviet era.
Supporters staged tributes worthy of a tribune, ranging from floating a giant inflatable birthday cake down the Moscow River, to a VIP concert in St. Petersburg, to a portrait of Putin planted on one of the highest peaks in Russia’s North Caucasus. The head of the Russian Orthodox Church hailed Putin as a “real patriot.” It was reported that one in five Russian women said they would be happy to marry him. And Russia’s Young Guard re-enacted some of his most prominent macho stunts, including scuba diving, flying a fighter jet, and playing hockey.
For his part, Putin deigned to give reporters an unprecedented look at what he insisted was his modest lifestyle. He told his television viewers that he was guided by “the rightness of what I am doing,” and reminded them that he had the support of the “overwhelming majority” of the Russian people. There were, to be sure, scattered protests, and some activists were detained by the authorities for staging “Let’s Send Grandpa into Retirement” actions near Red Square. But in the main this was a day to adulate and celebrate this latest in the long line of Russian autocrats.
I cannot vouch for the accuracy of the reporting by Paul Johnson, the conservative British writer and historian. It’s clear in any case that he reviles Putin – which is why he compares him to … Stalin. Like Stalin, Putin does apparently require some 250,000 security officials to protect him. But, unlike Stalin, Putin has a taste for the good life. According to Johnson, “Putin has for his own use a collection of 20 palaces, apartments, dachas and country houses, each fully fitted with security devices and staffed at all times…. His villa on the Black Sea, which is valued at about $1 billion, has every conceivable expensive device. He also has a yacht valued at around $50 million, as well as dozens of aircraft, including an Ilyushin jet that has an estimated $18 million in cabin fittings.” (Forbes, 10/22.)
It’s all rather revolting – metaphorically, but not yet literally. For all the recent public protests, and for all the premonitions of Putin’s fall from power, his political demise would seem other than imminent. His day of reckoning will come. And, unlike autocrats of old, he has no choice but to be cautious, careful not to trigger political unrest. But in the meantime, Putin sits pretty at sixty.