The votes are in and it looks like Russia, and the world, is stuck with at least six more years of Vladimir Putin.With another six-year term more than likely, that would bring Putin’s total time as Russia’s undisputed leader to 24 years, rivalling the reigns of Stalin and Ivan the Terrible.
Winning over 63 per cent of the vote, Putin’s victory was never in doubt, just as it was never in doubt that the whole process would be fixed in his favour. With real opponents barred from taking part for a variety of technicalities, Putin faced four nobodies and won handily. There were also widespread reports of ballot-box stuffing and “carousel voting” — the same people voting multiple times at different polling stations.
“We have won in honest and fair combat,” a tearful Putin told supporters after the vote, despite rather substantial evidence to the contrary.
Putin’s corruption and cruelty over the last 12 years are not that surprising: invest all the powers of the state in one man and he cannot help but be a tyrant. Absolute power, as the saying goes, corrupts absolutely, but it also leads to absurdity.
When Putin first rose from obscurity to lead the Russian state in 2000, much of his appeal was based on a certain tough-guy machismo. Most photo-ops of the time featured the new president in a karate outfit, chopping his way to a brighter future for Russia. Since then, the personality cult around the former KGB colonel has only grown.
For a 2010 trip to the arctic, Putin’s handler’s thought it would be a great idea to have the leader speak next to a polar bear. So they found a polar bear, kept it captive for more than a week, then sedated it just so Putin could put an electronic collar on the animal and give a speech next to its slumbering form.
In announcing his re-election bid, Putin scuba-dived into the Black Sea and came back out with two ancient Greek urns he just so happened to have found on the seafloor. After widespread mockery, the government subsequently admitted the obvious: the entire event had been stage-managed and the urns planted there beforehand.
Putin has even skied down a volcano because, presumably, that’s what tough guys do. And if the real Putin’s feats weren’t impressive enough, supporters have even created a SuperPutin comic series in which the fictional Vladimir fights terrorists and stops various bomb plots.
Such flights of fancy are hardly isolated to the Kremlin. They can be found wherever a leader continues to rule past his expiry date.
Saddam Hussein liked to gold-plate pretty much everything he owned (not unlike Donald Trump) and even had a Qur’an written entirely in his own blood. Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi always travelled with his seven, hand-chosen “virgin bodyguards” and had a mysterious Ukrainian nurse on-hand. The Libyan leader also chose to live in a bedouin tent that he claimed was bulletproof, even trying to set it in front of the United Nations in New York. (He was denied his request.)
Perhaps the zaniest of all world leaders was the recently departed Kim Jong-il, whose birth, according to North Korean propaganda, was greeted by a double rainbow and a new star in the sky. The Dear Leader once tried to solve his country’s hunger problem by importing giant rabbits for food; he ate the first batch of rabbits himself before a full breeding program could get underway, unfortunately. Kim even claimed to have invented a new food, the name of which roughly translated to “double bread with meat” — the strange new delicacy rather suspiciously resembled a standard hamburger.
Obviously, such examples are not that funny to the people who suffer under authoritarian regimes. After all, that a leader can get away with such craziness is a sign of their arbitrary and unfettered power. In Putin’s case, such eccentricities are now increasingly becoming a national joke in Russia, and while he looks set to rule uninterrupted for another six or 12 years, his greatest enemy may well be his own absurdity.
Graphic: Brianna Whitmore/The Sheaf