Though the protest movement has achieved less than nothing politically it has completely changed the contours of the debate in Russia and has broken the Kremlin’s monopoly on discourse. The first to shoulder the blame for the matrix’s breakdown were its authors, the political technologist-viziers. Surkov himself was demoted and then fired in May 2013. In a humiliating, televized scene Surkov sat in front of Putin as the president told him off for failing to deliver results. Surkov squealed, verbally prostrated himself: “of course you are quite right in all your evaluations and I would never dare to question them,” he said. Putin looked at him with disdain. There was a deep irony in the scene: Surkov and the political technologists had created this genre of ritual televized humiliations where Putin played tsar and his ministers whipping boys, indeed they had created the Putin we know. The puppet master was being put on trial by his own puppets, hauled into his own scenery where he was humiliated by his own creations. Observing the Kremlin’s behaviour in Putin’s third term, one has the sense that the directors have left the building and the puppets have taken over in a hyperactive frenzy. To counteract Navalny’s attempt to become a hero to nationalists, the Kremlin has been trying to whip up a twenty-first century rehash of the tsarist formula of autocracy-orthodoxy-nationalism: the religious fanatics carefully cultivated by Surkov to play a side-role in the puppet show of managed democracy now patrol the streets of Moscow, vigilantes defending the city from “satanic enemies in the pay of the West”; the skinheads secretly funded from the Kremlin are now crawling from out of their cellars to work in government.
Meanwhile, the Ostankino channels are pushing propaganda to the point of almost Brechtian exaggeration. The other day, I saw a programme with Leontiev on NTV. He looked haggard and bloodshot, ranting without any shred of evidence but with wild-eyed belief about how Britain’s MI6 were responsible for the deaths of anti-Putin defectors in London: “They are trying to set us up” said Leontiev, to a background soundtrack straight out of a B-movie horror flick. Worried that Navalny’s campaign against corruption would win him fans, the Ostankino channels now show fly-on-the-wall busts of ministers and parliamentarians. The search for enemies on the inside, witch-hunts for secret cells has begun. A paranoid Duma, for so long choreographed with such care to create the illusion of debate, has plunged into a caricature cabaret of feudal obsequiousness, typing up patriotic laws faster than the printer can print them, each MP desperate not to be the next one busted on TV, denouncing fellow Duma deputies who sided with the opposition as traitors, seeing CIA plots under every bed. The definitive law of the new age is the ban on American families adopting Russian orphans: a response to Washington’s decision to publicly name corrupt Russian bureaucrats banned from entering or investing in the United States. The orphans law wasn’t cooked up by sophisticated political technologists, it was pushed through by Putin himself, consciously opting to use children as a political weapon. “You think we’re mad,” the monstrous, armed, rich puppets seem to be saying, “we’ll show you mad. You think we’re bad? We’ll show you bad…”