Among the many shows I was strictly forbidden to watch as a child was the notoriously raunchy-for-network TV sitcom Married with Children. Russians might recognize this show by its localized incarnation, Счастливы вместе(Happy Together) on the TNT network. For those too young to remember, the show revolved around the dysfunctional Bundy family, with the hapless father Al at the center. Along with The Simpsons, the show pushed back against the unrealistic, family-friendly sitcoms which had thereto dominated American TV.
One of the show’s recurring gags was Al Bundy constantly mentioning the fact that he once scored four touchdowns in a single football game back in high school. This was the crowning achievement of his life, and he loved shoehorning that bit of local sports trivia into many a conversation. Bundy became a trope- a dissatisfied middle-age man who holds on to one glorious moment in his past. It’s amusing, but somewhat tragic.
There’s another middle-aged bald man who likes living on his past glory, none other than Russian president Vladimir Putin. In his case, that past glory was stabilizing the country after the “Wild 90’s.” I know Russian liberals and other opposition-minded people out there will pillory me for this, but I have always given the man credit where it was due. He did manage to stop the bleeding and the patient did recover for several years. Then again, the country had nowhere to go at that point; anyone who was not a fat, dancing drunkard had a pretty good shot at improving Russia’s lot. It just so happens that the man was Vladimir Putin.
Unfortunately, after he stopped the bleeding, Putin left the patient unattended. He wasn’t so much concerned with actual recovery as he was securing power for himself and his friends. Local power brokers would be allowed to rule their roosts with impunity so long as they pledged their loyalty. The media had to be under the control of his supporters. Again, someone had to do something about the Yeltsin-era oligarchs and gangsters, but what was needed was far more than what Putin had in mind. After snatching power away from them, he should have prepared the road to the future by building up democratic institutions in Russia, strengthening the rule of law. In short, he should have planned for a Russia without him at the helm. Instead what we got is a managed “reality show” as Peter Pomerantsev has called it, where Putin’s official “opposition” is nothing but a sham. Via all manner of restrictions, threats, intimidation, and media pressure, the system has eliminated any threat of political opposition outside of the approved parties.
This is why the actual opposition ended up coalescing around a simple blogger; they simply couldn’t find a better leader. Do I really need to point out the severe danger of eliminating any potential pool of actual leadership for Russia? So much has been invested into the image of Putin, the only man capable of leading Russia, that it couldn’t be transferred to Medvedev. Neither Zyuganov nor Zhirinovsky can take over for Putin. He made the slogan “If not Putin, then who” a self-fulfilling prophesy.
Now here we are in 2015, as Putin’s desire to hold onto power has led him to provoke an actual confrontation with the West as the economy goes down in flames. Still, his supporters bid us to, “remember the 90’s.” The 90’s! Already the economy is showing similarities with the 90’s, yet we’re still supposed to fall back on Putin’s accomplishments in his first term. Will they still be talking about the 90’s when nearly all those conditions are present again? Will they talk about the 90’s if it actually gets worse than the 90’s? Are Yeltsin’s 90’s so much worse than Putin’s future 90’s? Indeed, I imagine a scene of utter destitution three years down the road, and some hack will be yammering on about the horrible 90’s. One day these people will look even more ridiculous than they do now.
You know Richard M. Nixon created the EPA and ended the Vietnam War, right? Of course he also illegally expanded that war and later on it was discovered that he had been abusing his powers in a myriad of ways. The point here is that leaders cannot keep falling back on one accomplishment, especially one which was due to many other factors. Putin’s success after the 90’s is essentially his four touchdowns in one game, or since Putin probably doesn’t know too much about American football- four ippons in one tournament.
Problem is, though, that the clock keeps ticking, and the years keep marching further and further way from 2000. Tell someone in 2025 that it was worse more than a quarter of a century ago and their response will be a sarcastic, “Really?” If it gets to the point where those 90’s conditions do come back, or if conditions get worse, people throwing out that line are going to have a problem. A government needs to either continue providing concrete gains and progress, or it needs to move out of the way to let others take a shot. In most industrialized countries, there’s a mechanism for accomplishing this. Russia lacks this, and thus we are forced to continually hear about Vladimir Bundy’s four touchdowns in one high school game back in the early 2000’s again and again. Well that and weird musings about bears eating berries in the forest and how the global economy’s “inevitable” growth will somehow save Russia in two years. Damn. Married with Children was more uplifting than this!