The insane August 2000: the fall of the myth of the leadership and the country.


The traumatic shock to the public consciousness caused by August events made the press expect the consequences of these events with its breath held. A strong emotional reaction not by the Russian citizens alone, but by most citizens of the former USSR, came as a surprise for the Russian authorities.

As the newspaper Izvestia wrote, “quite unexpectedly, it turned out that there is such a thing as the Russian society.” The authorities who had the time to get out of the habit of heeding such subtleties during “Yeltsin’s stagnation” had to react somehow. Under the pressure of public opinion, an incredible thing happened: foreign rescuers were summoned for help (“which would have been quite out of the question earlier: let the Komsomolets submarine and the Novorossiisk vessel sink,” – the newspaper Izvestia remarked.). The president visited the Vidyayevo naval base, where he met with relatives of the dead sailors, even if this visit was hopelessly late. And even generals who told journalists during the rescue operation that our technology is the world’s best handed in their resignations (which were not accepted by the president).

To cut it short, according to Stalinist laws, Izvestia wrote, Putin “obeyed the common people”. However, the newspaper reminded the reader of Judo philosophy: “a sakura tree branch may bend under the weight of snow, but then it will come up sharply… Putin is at the crossroads: he may turn to the past with its secrecy and disregard of ordinary people, or may continue talking to them as an equal, as he did in Vidyayevo.”

However, for Leonid Radzikovsky, an observer of the newspaper Segodnya, there can be no question of what path the president will follow, all the more so since the disaster turned out to be nothing more than a personal psychological trial for him: he lost nothing in political terms. According to the latest pollsters’ data, the Kursk disaster did not affect the president’s rating in any way: approximately 65% of the Russian population support him. A slight reduction of the number of Putin’s supporters can be found in Moscow, still, almost a half of respondents support him all the same. Yuri Levada, director of the National Center for Study of Public Opinion, classifies this result as strange: “In my opinion, population has not yet realized the scale of the events.” Besides, as Levada suggests, a storm of criticism by the media might also have played its role – it is a well-known fact that journalists’ accusations often cause a result contrary to the expected one. In his article, Radzikhovsky proves that there is truth in the proverb that says that every people has the leadership it deserves. “There is still no society in Russia which can and does make any demands to the authorities,” the Segodnya observer states. “People in Russia are silent, as they have been over the past thousand years.” Russians have not the slightest idea of the president being only an official hired to serve his electorate. “People are fatalistic – the God had given, the God has taken.” And as long as there are such people in Russia, its rulers will be despotic which, in Radzikhovsky’s opinion, is normal for the majority, since 60-70% of the electorate continue to support the president: “He is their president. He stays with people.”

The weekly Vek calls Putin “a hostage to popular expectations and hopes for a normal future.” Putin is not just another leader for the country: “For millions of voters he is the only hope, the only alternative to chaos and destruction of Russia.” People are afraid of being deceived, this is why they perceived the president’s silence so painfully. However, apart from all this, as Vek holds, the issue of a “political hostage” has one more aspect in Russia. “Putin, led to the throne by the political system of the past, cannot fail to stay a hostage to certain interrelations, agreements, and facts inherited by him.” Putin’s attempt to step aside from the past system: a new policy in relation to oligarchs, the construction of a new command chain, etc. – could have been successful, but for extraordinary circumstances of the “cruel August of 2000.” It became clear that it is no longer possible to be a double hostage: a one to people’s expectations and to demands of the political elite. The president faced the necessity of making a choice between the two, and the choice, as Vek holds, has been done. This is proved by the words about the owners of villas on the Mediterranean and in Spain who have for ten years, as Putin put it, destroyed the army and the state and are now gathering money for the families of those killed in the Kursk. An open dislike for those “who symbolize the recent political process” expressed in Putin’s interview, for “those who bet on instability expecting it to make the leadership call for their talents as disciples and public relation experts” means, in Vek’s opinion, that the line has been crossed. The president “made all citizens understand what he thinks of the “elite”, having appealed to people over the heads of “mediators”.

At the same time, many assessed the president’s “demarche” as an attempt to distract the public attention from the failures by the authorities to the deeds of oligarchs, by pointing out to people who should be held responsible for the disaster which befell the country. As Olga Romanova remarked in Vedomosti, “this is a uniquely successful PR action: the president’s experts who failed actually found the head of the main scoundrel to offer people.” The president spoke so sincerely, so confidently, and strictly that everyone understood: the evil will be punished, the good will celebrate, the army and the Navy will be restored, “we will succeed and everything will be fine”.

It seems like, Vedomosti writes, there had been no four-day silence, no Sochi holiday: “We seem to have had a nightmare. The Kremlin PR experts can celebrate their victory. Our people are surprisingly trustful and kind, they like to seek for enemies and have a very short memory.” Of course, Romanova remarks, Russian oligarchs (and the whole of our so-called elite) are seriously ill: “They have the bends. They became rich and powerful too fast, and this is truly hard.” However, the president can be also diagnosed as such, since he also was too fast to come to power. Still, Romanova, holds, Putin “can be cured, if he is treated not by Gleb Pavlovsky.”

It is worthwhile saying that the main ideologist and imagemaker of the president, judging by his interview to the Segodnya newspaper, keeps the presence of mind in the new political situation. In his interview, Pavlovsky confidently stated that “a season factor is now at work in Russia – a traditional August information crisis during which the political agenda is renewed.”

Naturally, all the main political characters strive not to stay aside: “At present, a group of political hysterical subjects who wish to remind people of themselves have come to the foreground.” However, it is not worthwhile paying too much attention to them. Of course, Putin’s enemies will try to check: “whether he has become weak enough to dethrone him”. Their hopes, in the opinion of the Kremlin ideologist, will never come true: “Information services of the president and of the Defense Ministry did not do their best, this is evident. But this will hardly affect Putin himself.” Thus, a decline in the popularity rating is hardly likely. If Putin came for a long term in office, “only and idiot”, as Pavlovsky put it, can count on his always being at the top of popularity. “The president will act, the rating will fluctuate.” Still, as the director of the Effective Policies Foundation holds, no significant political cataclysms in public conscience can be expected (the interview was published three days before a fire in Ostankino and subsequent cutting off of all central TV channels.)

The main lesson to be learned from the recent events by all Putin’s supporters, in Pavlovsky’s opinion, is that the country should get rid of the myth about a hero savior (a new version of a messiah) as soon as it possibly can. Pavlovsky dismisses public aspiration to consider the central leadership sacred as unnecessary: “Putin does not position himself as a hero. He positions himself as a non-party specialist hired by the country to restore the efficiency of state, political, and military institutes.” And the sooner the country realizes (and the leadership explains to it) that it needs not a hero savior, but a non-party specialist, the better for it: “since it has many unpopular decisions to perceive,” Pavlovsky warns.

When answering the president’s bitter words in regards to destroyers of the country and the army, Nezavisimaya Gazeta remarks that Putin made a serious mistake during the tragic events in the Barents Sea, due to his political inexperience, the newspaper emphasizes: “An experienced politician would have reacted immediately, in his place.” This happened through the default of the president’s retinue, first and foremost, which had to explain the situation to its patron and suggest “faultless decisions” to him. It failed: “there were no such advisers.”

Now it is important to make right conclusions from the events, that is manage to turn a defeat into a triumph. The newspaper suggests a very expressive solution to the commander-in-chief. Nezavisimaya Gazeta turns to history and reminds Putin of the decision by Winston Churchill (who headed the British Cabinet in 1940 when it turned out that Britain was not ready for a battle with Germany) to nationalize all aviation plants in the country in order to organize mass production of destroyers. “Of course, there is a need in large-scale decisions. And there must be the will and character of Sir Winston. I am sure that there will be popular support for the president.” The article is called: “We expect extraordinary actions from you, mister president”. And there is little doubt that extraordinary actions demand clever advisers.

Dmitry Bykov, a well-known journalist, assesses the president’s opportunity of making not only extraordinary, but at least significant decisions with a great deal of skepticism. Bykov is sure that the mistakes made by Putin (“The Babitsky case, for one thing. The Gusinsky case, for another. The Kursk tragedy is a tragic, a critical mistake.”) are absolutely natural.

Today everyone scolds Putin, Bykov remarks, but “Putin is only a mutant dreamed out by us: acceptable for everyone on the outside and empty inside.” The role of a national leader was imposed on Putin, as it was once imposed on Gorbachev: “It can be said that there is no Putin as there was no Gorbachev.” Gorbachev, Bykov states, was “though out by the liberal intelligentsia” which made him carry out much more radical reforms than the general secretary of the CSPU supposed. “Putin was thought out by the middle class dreaming about its own hero.” The Western liberalism and the Western statehood cannot be set as an example for Putin: “Where there is care for people, there is no heroism, and heroism is what is required from our army and Navy in the conditions of poverty.” A miracle must have been worked to save the Kursk: “Armies are built, wars are won, and people are saved only by an extraordinary tension of all forces which is possible only in closed communities, in the conditions of terror, of fear by some and blind, exulted faith by others… An empire is needed to work miracles…”

However, if we strive to restore the empire, we must forget about freedom. “And if there is freedom, we must say good-bye to the dream of a triumph in Chechnya and of a miracle in the Barents Sea. Then we must build a professional army, must make a human life the highest value, and guarantee heroism with the help of good wages which we are incapable of at the moment, as it turned out.”

“Ten days which destroyed the myth of the state power” is called an article in Novayaa Gazeta where categorical disagreement with those who state that the president’s reputation sunk together with the Kursk is expressed. “This is not true,” the newspaper writes. “Only a propaganda myth about Putin has sunk. There have never been a reputation.” A reputation is what is earned by concrete actions over years. All that Putin had was ratings believed only because “Yeltsin’s successor” had no reputation: neither good, nor bad. All actions by the incumbent president were programmed “by Yeltsin and the Kremlin Family when they selected an heir, by imagemakers who either put the president on a destroyer or on a sub, by officials who wrote various scripts of bureaucratic shifts, by the General Staff which reported it disastrous plan of the Chechen campaign to Yeltsin in early autumn 1999.” Thus, when the Kursk disaster broke out, Putin, in the opinion of Novaya Gazeta, for the first time faced the necessity of taking an independent step. “And he made the only thing he was capable of – he tried to escape participation in the events, responsibility before people.” As a result, the president has a reputation now: “It is hard not only to rule a country, but even to manage a small enterprise with such a reputation.” However, as the newspaper points out, this is not the most surprising fact. It is mostly surprising that people seem to be astonished. They found out that the authorities lied. And was there a time, the newspaper asks, when the authorities told the truth? The truth about the situation in Chechnya, about the casualties, about the deaths of civilians has been closed for the Russian citizens from the very beginning of the “operation to establish the Constitutional order”. This is why the behavior of the leadership in the Kursk tragedy can cause horror, indignation, but not astonishment: “The leadership behaved as they have always done. They used their usual methods.” The reason for their disregard of interests and needs of population is that the Kremlin authorities are sure of their impunity. However, the newspaper states that a certain change in society has been caused by the Kursk tragedy: “The leadership no longer causes dislike or even protest of society. It causes abomination… Society has run out of patience.” At the same time, stating that the new disaster “aroused civil conscience in millions of people”, Novaya Gazeta only proclaims the beginning of a new stage in the life of the Russian society without any explanation of what enabled it to make such a conclusion and what differences make it possible to tell the new stage from the previous ones.

“The main negative consequence of the past week lies deeper than the “loss of trust to the leadership by people” much spoken of by the media,” the weekly Vek states. Not only political myths of recent years fell, but the entire system of basic human values was called into question, which is much more dangerous. Society felt betrayed and deceived. “The whole country could not rescue 118 people, who at once became a symbol of a terrible disaster… Citizens say to themselves: “iron machines and ranks are more important for them than we”. In such a situation, Vek points out, all habitual notions: family relations and traditions, duty, patriotism, lose their value. “Society comes closer to disintegration”. However, these changes can hardly be called revolutionary. It is clear now that the Kursk disaster will not cause even a serious political crisis in the country, to say nothing of mass protest demonstrations.

Thus it can be stated that the “electorate” surprised political analysts twice during the Kursk disaster: first they actively reacted to the rescue operation, to the behavior of the authorities, to the comments by the military, etc. And then, when observers already believed that “people woke up” and serious political consequences can be expected Russians demonstrated the stability of their sympathies having preserved the president’s rating on the same level.