Vladimir Putin’s absence proves chaos will be his only successor

March 17, 2015
A mock funeral plate, depicting Russia's President Vladimir Putin as former German dictator Adolf Hitler, which is being used as part of a "Funeral of Putin" performance in a front of the Russian embassy in Kiev

A mock funeral plate, depicting Russia’s President Vladimir Putin as former German dictator Adolf Hitler, which is being used as part of a “Funeral of Putin” performance in a front of the Russian embassy in Kiev, March 15, 2015. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko

It was a coup, a stroke, a boy. That was the range of rumors published as analysis in both Russian and international media in the days after Russian President Vladimir Putin suddenly disappeared from TV screens: He’d been toppled, he’d died, his girlfriend had a baby. It was probably nothing, just a breather before Putin makes some obscurely worded announcement that will spell the next step in his ongoing crackdown. But this period of silence and rumor, which ended yesterday, has been instructive in a number of ways.

The first and most obvious should come as no surprise: We have no way of knowing what is happening inside the Kremlin. Putin’s disappearance and the resulting information vacuum show more clearly than anything that has happened before that there is only one way that information leaves the Kremlin: if it originates with Putin or his press secretary.

Second, there is also only one person in Russia who creates political news. This is why Putin’s absence was so eerie. It looked as though television news and, with it, time itself had come to a standstill. After a week of starvation news rations, Russian TV viewers were treated on the weekend to a film timed for the first anniversary of the annexation of Crimea. In it, Putin bragged of having planned the operation in advance – and personally – and that he had rattled every saber he could conjure. Life itself supplied two more news items: the death of nationalist writer Valentin Rasputin and a disastrous fire at Moscow’s historic Novodevichy Monastery. Between the similarity of the writer’s name to the president’s and the monastery’s magnificent dome in flames, things looked more and more ominous.

Third, in his absence Putin provided the clearest illustration yet of the concept of being accountable to no one. Dictators don’t need to call in sick, tired or in a bad mood. If the world has a hysterical fit because the man with the nuclear button is taking a weeklong nap, too bad for the world. This is precisely why the most likely explanation for Putin’s absence is that there is no explanation: Common colds are a lot more common than palace coups, but in Russia, their outward manifestations would be identical.

One more thing was conspicuously missing from Russian-language media, including the few outlets that function independently of the Kremlin: discussion of what would happen next if Putin had indeed died or been toppled. In fact, the more reputable media, which did not traffic in rumors about Putin’s supposed new offspring, found themselves with as little to say as the official media on the subject of everyone’s preoccupation. Herein lies the biggest lesson of this Putin-less week.

The Russian president has monopolized not only the decision-making process in Russia but also the very ability to make decisions. Such is the nature of his regime that the price of admission to the elites is the forfeiture of agency. For his part, Putin has refused to engage the very idea that there can be a time after Putin. Not only has he made it clear that he plans to be president for life, but he also has acted in accordance with the apparent belief that this life will last forever.

Putin has engineered a change to the Russian constitution increasing the presidential term from four to six years and has interpreted the document’s ambiguous text to mean that he can serve as many sets of two-consecutive terms as he wants, as long as he takes breaks in between. He became prime minister in 1999, president in 2000, took a breather term in the prime minister’s office between 2008 and 2012, and is now set to stay in office until 2024 before being required to take another break. It is ironic that he originally took office thanks to some undemocratic actions by his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, who rigged the system to place his hand-picked successor in the presidential chair but did not dream of extending his own term beyond the two-term mark.

Putin may have once looked like a younger and more modern alternative to Yeltsin, but he has worked to take Russia back to the Middle Ages. Not only has he merged the state and the church into one mechanism of persecution; not only has he mobilized the Russian population behind the idea of “traditional values,” but he also has restored a centuries-old concept of state power. Like a tyrant of old, he believes himself to be deathless. This is why Russia, which has such essential trappings of a modern power as nuclear weapons, does not have a succession plan, a contingency plan or, really, any plan at all. This is why the media have nothing to say on the issue of what happens next. No wonder the burning dome of the Novodevichy Monastery looks so sinister to Muscovites today.

But then, the last time Russia was ruled by someone with a similar self-concept was less than a century ago. When Joseph Stalin lay dying, Russian news also went black for a while. American pundits wondered: Would the hard-liners take over now (there was the belief that there was such a thing as “hard-liners” in the party in relationship to Stalin); did Stalin have a hand-picked successor? What actually happened in the years immediately following Stalin’s death was the discovery that there was no succession plan or procedure. There was a mess, a shuffle followed by a reshuffle and then another. In this limited respect, history is probably not a bad guide. We can assume that when Putin goes, there will be no one who knows what’s happening or is supposed to happen.

22 comments

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The title of this story: “Vladimir Putin’s absence proves chaos will be his only successor”

Shouldn’t the story have contained the following subtitles:

1. “Saddam Hussein’s absence proved chaos was his only successor” ?

2. “Muammar Gaddafi’s absence proved chaos was his only successor” ?

That would improve the author’s case. The Russians should learn from the bad mistakes of others.

Posted by nose2066 | Report as abusive

Masha Gessen is a CIA agent

Posted by Max_Flin | Report as abusive

Another Vodka article of Russian journalist that failed to nail a decent job in RT.

Posted by Macedonian | Report as abusive

Whoever succeeds him will have a bigger and stronger Russia to rule with.

Posted by Macedonian | Report as abusive

“Whoever succeeds him will have a bigger and stronger Russia to rule with.”

LOL. Russia has an economy not quite the size of Italy. If the price of oil stays low, Russia is a banana republic with nuclear weapons but no bananas.

Posted by evilhippo | Report as abusive

“It is Vladimir the eight that will bring glory to Russia” that is what the Baba Vanga the clairvoyant predicted.

Posted by Macedonian | Report as abusive

Vladimir Putin and his puppet Assad will each eventually again show that those who live by the knife shall die by the knife. Knives are patient and persistent, much more than mere humans.

Excellent article and observations by one who understands both Russians and the “real” world.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

I will succeeded him.. and set them all free…

Posted by rikfre | Report as abusive

Putin is a CIA agent. He was being debriefed at an aircraft hangar in Kabul.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

If, after Putin, Chaos in Russia, why is NATO working on a repeat of Operation Barbarossa instead of waiting?

Posted by Suchindranath | Report as abusive

That’s a ridiculous article. Not because of the facts but how they are analyzed.
Talking about propaganda on the Russian TV and at the same time giving a perfect example of anti Russian propaganda. It is inconceivable to allow such a photo on the reputable news resource.

Posted by ikka2015 | Report as abusive

Putin puts jews in hysterics, especially when they don’t know where he is (under their bed?).

Posted by waggg | Report as abusive

Placing the dirty photo (which contains a swear word instead of the President’s name) in her public article, Masha Gessen deserves no less insulting slap in the face, though she must be respectful to Vladimir Putin for she has something for a living due to his name.

Posted by VVS | Report as abusive

This is a great picture of Putin. It is the one that will be remembered around the world. It has already gone viral and more are coming. Good stuff.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

Macedonian swoons: “It is Vladimir the eight that will bring glory to Russia.”

Yes Glory. All you people produce any more are orphans and herpes. Half of Russia does not even have working toilets. Glorious.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

This story goes to show how both the administration and the easily sold-out media outlets including the one reading from, are obsessed currently with regime change in Russia as Putin obviously got well under-the-skin of US administration by highlighting the recent US-fiascos at both Syria and Ukraine. While the administration refuses to learn any lesson, media shamelessly goes about publishing this type of nonsensical stories.

Wish Reuters’ journalism can return to a mature state than this type of crowd and lobby pleasing.

Posted by Mottjr | Report as abusive

I’m guessing Masha Gessen is a Jew.

Posted by summarex | Report as abusive

Balding Deathless Putin; brilliant!

[looking more and more like Lenin]

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-apps/im rs.php?src=http://img.washingtonpost.com  /blogs/worldviews/files/2013/03/lenin.j pg&w=1484

Posted by CharlesRKiss | Report as abusive

http://40.media.tumblr.com/9c2221ac54049 49e4f97ef6b24db35cd/tumblr_nlbidvLYjD1sb 7ht4o1_540.jpg

Posted by CharlesRKiss | Report as abusive

Large egos are deftly manipulated for early demise. Putin appears to have been “sobered up” a bit. Indegestion or figurative heart attack?

Posted by ThomasShaf | Report as abusive

Masha get a breather……..

Posted by Jingan | Report as abusive

As an American, I’ve been trying to get this guitar to Vladimir Putin, since we share similar, flawed beliefs. This is the Original Argument: http://youtu.be/IV1TgXcpJik

Posted by HenryD.Gaskins | Report as abusive