Last month I put up a blog post suggesting that Mr Putin was not Superman - something that attracted several furious comments at the time. Now, perhaps, I have to re-examine the evidence, especially in the light of a new comic strip that has just appeared.
"Super Putin" - the online comic strip - is set in Moscow, "one year before the end of the world" - a euphemism for the Russian Presidential election that is set to take place in the inauspicious 2012 said to be cursed by the Mayan calendar. Increasingly, Muscovite elites are losing hope in a move by Medvedev or a decision by Putin to retire. The past few weeks have seen a lot of the sheen come off the regime's "virtual politics" for the intelligentsia as Putin's domination of the system has become stark. "The choice in 2012 is all Putin's, and Medvedev's only hope is to convince Putin that the tandem works, as a courtier might," grumbled a leading Russian journalist.
With the chattering classes rife with speculation on what Putin will choose to do, the online comic "Super Putin" has caused a storm on the Russian blogosphere. The strip was created by 25 year old PR professional Sergei Kalenik, who says he did it pro-bono to "stir Russia's political scene". Liberal bloggers have certainly been stirred - Some have even suggested it may even have been commissioned by the Kremlin as a PR stunt. In particular, they don't like the portrayal of Medvedev as a "gnome raised by bears" (his superpowers involve being able to change into a bear) and a mere side-kick to Super Putin, and the treatment of civil society activists. The comic shows Super Putin being surrounded by protestors campaigning against the elite's flagrant use of blue-bucket sirens to zip through traffic, attempting to stop Putin saving the people from a terrorist attack with calls to free Khodorkhovsky, elect governors and bring back the crushed NTV station. Yet the comic dances on the edge of irony, never quite letting you know if it is flattering Putin or ridiculing him.
The irony, is that for all his Super Putin posturing the Russian premier is a "weak authoritarian," who has seen corruption soar through his rule, not mounted any deep economic reforms for almost a decade, and allowed deep factions to run through the elite around the figures that appear as side-kicks in the comic - Mr. Medvedev, the former KGB agent and hydrocarbons 'Tsar' Mr. Sechin. The result is a sluggish economy despite stunningly high-oil prices, inefficient squabbling between the loyalists of the top leaders and a sense of strategic drift in Moscow, as massive capital flight mounts as investors and Russian plutocrats cash-out.
In the 1990s Russia faked democracy, in the 2000s Russia faked effective authoritarianism - the irony is that despite his photo-shoots, Putin has been faking leadership when it comes to battling corruption, economic reform or imposing the "tyranny of law," he promised over a decade ago to the Russian people.
Either way, the comic strip is thoroughly entertaining, and has been translated into English, French, German and Polish. Three million people have apparently already had a look.
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