Last Friday (June 12), President Vladimir Putin made a rare public appearance at the Poklonnaya Gora memorial park in Moscow and delivered a short speech at the ceremonial raising of the national flag on the occasion of Russia Day. No public celebrations were held because of the novel coronavirus pandemic, which continues to spread across the country, with nearly 9,000 new infections daily. Nonetheless, this “plateau” has been declared safe enough to stage a second and far grander show: the military parade rescheduled for June 24, after the postponement from the traditional May 9 (Victory Day). The expected boost to patriotic pride from this upcoming showcase is supposed to ensure the success of a third and, in political terms, the most important triumph of Putin’s current policy agenda: the public vote on the set of constitutional amendments, which he proposed at the start of the year. In an unintended way, these three events symbolize three inherent features of Putin’s rule: lawlessness, militarism and corruption.
Russia Day is a relatively new holiday; it marks the adoption, in 1990, of the declaration of sovereignty by the parliament of the Russian Federation, which was still a constituent republic of the Soviet Union at the time and whose republican government, as yet, had no intention of leaving (Znak.ru, June 12). The main intention of the new elite gathering around Boris Yeltsin then was to assert the primacy of their decisions and newly set laws over the attempts of the federal center, led by President Mikhail Gorbachev, to preserve the integrity of the crumbling Soviet state (Rosbalt, June 9). That historical legislative confusion oddly reflects the contemporary restrictive quarantine health measures enforced by Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin, without any legal instructions from the federal center (Novaya Gazeta, June 12). Muscovites were confused and angered by the constantly revised and never properly explained rules on self-isolation and essential activities—until those were suddenly lifted on Tuesday (Moscow Echo, June 10). It is clear that Sobyanin had to curtail his legally dubious initiatives on countering the COVID-19 pandemic following an order from the Kremlin, proving yet again that political expediency consistently trumps legal and health concerns in today’s Russia (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, June 9).
The parade, which this year will be staged on the day Joseph Stalin held a Victory Parade in 1945, has long become a demonstration of Russia’s purportedly superior military might rather than a remembrance of the tragic victory of 75 years ago. The key message in 2020 is that the military buildup will progress no matter the economic recession, even if defense experts warn of the inevitable sequestration of expenditures (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, June 2). To make a symbolic point, the strategic nuclear submarine Knyaz Vladimir, the fourth in the new Borei-class, was included in the combat order of the Northern Fleet, itself recently upgraded to the status of a military district (Interfax, June 12). The symbolism was, however, rather devalued by the collapse of an old railway bridge in the Russian High North, resulting in the complete interruption of transport connections to Murmansk Oblast, where officials have had to declare an emergency situation (Newsru.com, June 12). The top brass tries to play its usual show of force both ways: asserting full readiness to project power in every direction while, simultaneously, indicating awareness of the need to curtail ambitions. Thus, the strategic Kavkaz 2020 exercises this summer are to be designed in a “less aggressive” format (Izvestia, June 7).
The vote on the incoherent and barely comprehensible set of amendments to the constitution serves one pivotal purpose: to legalize one tiny proposal that will allow Putin to stand again in the 2024 presidential elections by “annulling” his previous terms. Suspecting that the populace and the elites are growing tired of his autocratic rule, Putin has set the goal of securing clear majority support for his amendments, despite the obvious risks of staging a plebiscite at a high point of the pandemic (Moscow Echo, June 12). His goal departs rather far from the public mood: opinion polls show that only 45 percent of voters will definitely participate, and only 44 percent of those have expressed the intention to vote “Yes” (Levada.ru, June 2). New options for absentee and electronic voting will make it possible to manipulate and falsify the results without any monitoring, so the deepening disapproval is set to remain unregistered (Novaya Gazeta, June 8). The inevitable result is a further delegitimization of the ruling regime and a profound corruption of the constitution.
Nonetheless, modern Russian society is increasingly exhibiting another feature, one not celebrated with any pompous events, but which grows despite all of the state’s propaganda and repression—defiance. One indicator of its rise is an opinion poll that asks, without any further prompts, whom the respondent believes to be an inspiring role model: in two key age groups (25–39 and 40–54), Putin ends up even with Alexei Navalny, a leader of the opposition and a resolute fighter against corruption (Levada.ru, June 11). The poll fits with a stream of sociological research showing accumulating anger, caused partly by anxiety about the uncontained epidemic and partly by resentment against the enforced quarantines, but focused directly on the Kremlin (The Insider, June 5). Unlike in several previous explosions of protests, this anger is not concentrated in Moscow; it has spread across the country because, in most regions, COVID-19 cases are on the rise, while social support measures have been meager. As such, Putin’s preoccupation with revising the constitution are broadly recognized as self-serving (Znak.ru, June 12).
The Kremlin leader is visibly worried about his own protection from the virus, but he is in a hurry to mobilize what “patriotic” feelings there still are in order to push through his political agenda, clearly worried that by the end of the year the situation will become much worse. An odd irony exists in that rush to legitimize an indefinite extension of his reign even as many Russians are concluding that he is no longer fit to rule. And though cities across the country are not seeing crowds protesting against inequality or police brutality, Russian society has, nevertheless, awakened to the injustice and arrogance of this autocratic regime. Putin’s three carefully staged and thoroughly simulated triumphs may ultimately, and inadvertently, turn this awakening into action. The Russian president exists in his own sanitized bubble and has apparently lost his political instinct for telling the people what they want to hear; instead, he has been instructing them to rejoice over his longevity. Though progressing from tedious to preposterous, Putin still imagines himself to be indispensable.