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Kremlin Choreographs Politics To Make Putin Look Good, Author Says


You can learn a lot about 2014 by tracing the story of one man, Vladimir Putin. The Russian leader hosted the Winter Olympics proudly showing off a place that's near and dear to him, the Black Sea Resort of Sochi. But the feeling of global goodwill there disappeared so quickly. Putin infuriated the West by annexing Crimea then he stirred a deadly conflict in Eastern Ukraine.The West imposed sanctions, and there's been talk of a new Cold War. But at home, even with his economy tanking, Putin remains popular. Author and TV producer Peter Pomerantsev saw up close how the Kremlin shapes Putin's image. Pomerantsev was born in the USSR and after emigrating, returned to work in Russian television. Now based in London, he's written for The Atlantic and other publications, and he explained how Putin presents himself in Russian media.

PETER POMERANTSEV: Vladimir Putin can - via the power of television - can be all men to any audience, so one minute, he'll be the matcher guy, next minute he'll be sort of the caring guy, the next minute he'll be sort of businessman Putin. And I'll give you one little example...


POMERANTSEV: ...How Putin's image is used. So once every week, once every month - I can't remember - Putin sits down at a long table with all the governors of Russia, and he kind of stares them down and sort of lectures them as to what to do. And this is a scene straight out of gangster movies - remember how the five families meeting in "The Godfather" or Lucy Liu in the Tarantino film slick down the Yakuza heads? This is, you know, either instinctively or consciously sort of tapping into sort of the Russian adoration of the gangster.

GREENE: Well, you know, I think about the United States - I mean, we see images all the time of President Obama sitting down with his cabinet at a long table, and the White House certainly controls those images. They let the television crews in at a certain moment. They tell them where to go in the room. What is different about Russia?

POMERANTSEV: Well, firstly, Obama also did have to haste some real campaigning. Putin never had to do that site - he's only the television image. There is nothing else. He's never had to run a campaign in his life. And a lot of the hard work for TV producers who work, you know, literally from the Kremlin at the time is to create the rest of the political reality show. So, you know, when I was working there and I'd find myself in meetings where sort of senior producers would say, OK, we've been told who the opposition are for this year, it's - let's say this party, which has just been created by the Kremlin in order to be the right wing opposition - and they put them on TV in order to make Putin look like a moderate by contrast, so the whole politics is choreographed like a massive scripted reality show, all pushing towards the idea of making Putin look good. He doesn't have to appear every second - quite the opposite - he has to be almost semidivine, appearing at very, very specific moments.

GREENE: The Russian society, very literate, very educated, many people have lived through Soviet times where, you know, there was this propaganda portraying the USSR as this great superpower - I mean, by now aren't Russian television viewers skeptical about this stuff that they see?

POMERANTSEV: Well, first you - that skepticism is used - actually, it's cynicism. Russian viewers are incredibly cynical. You're quite right. They didn't really believe in communism during the late Soviet period. During the '90s, they'd very quickly became very disillusioned in the model of democratic capitalism that was offered to them, but that cynicism is used very cleverly by the Kremlin. So the Kremlin encourages it, you know, it'll sort of say, yeah, we're corrupt, you know - the Kremlin's corrupt, Putin's corrupt, people around are corrupt, but everyone in the world is corrupt. Everyone else is just as bad as we are. So if anything, they encourage that sort of cynicism. But just in a way that's suitable to them.

GREENE: A lot has been written that Putin and the Kremlin really needed a war and that's why we're seeing things play out, you know, in Crimea and then Eastern Ukraine. Is that a sign that there was some desperation growing that the Kremlin needed a war to kinda maintain Putin's popularity?

POMERANTSEV: Yeah, I mean, completely so 2010, 2011, Putin's approval ratings are down to 40 percent - really, really low - and they actually started with the military narrative way before Ukraine, so 2011, already, TV is nonstop about the West is out to get us then boom, a real opportunity for a war happened.

GREENE: You're talking about when Ukraine's President Yanukovych was basically pushed out. That was the moment of opportunity that Putin saw?

POMERANTSEV: That was a massive moment of opportunity to sort of completely change the political debates within Russia, which they left him with great glee. But, you know, every (unintelligible) will tell you that, you know, that's the dream, you create a PR project and then life starts to imitate PR. That's kind of what happened. But now it seems to sort of run into a dead-end 'cause if you're going to have a military narrative, you're going to have to constantly invent new wars.

GREENE: There's this instinct, I think, in places like the United States and elsewhere to say, you know, why haven't Russians cried out for democracy for Putin to go? Is it fair to ask that question or is there a moment when you just say, you know, this is a very educated country where people have made their own choices right now and decided to do something different, and an American-style system is not necessarily the perfect thing that people sort of crave?

POMERANTSEV: Well, what do you mean they've made their own choices? They - no, I mean, this is - there's no choice in Russian society. I mean, that's ridiculous. It's a completely closed society. It has this some simulacrum of choice, but there's absolutely no choice at all. Opposition parties have been banned, independent media have been banned, all business rivals have been put in prison. It's a society ruled at the end of the day through a mixer of old-school KGB fear and this kind of glitzy reality TV show PR mix. So that's kind of how Russia works. The idea that Russians have any sort of real political choices's absurd.

GREENE: That's Peter Pomerantsev. His new book is called "Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart Of The New Russia." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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