Every so often, U.S. President Donald Trump makes it clear he not only expects to beat impeachment and win re-election, he’d like to stay in the White House for about ever. Never mind the constitutional prohibition on more than two terms. In September, for instance, he posted on Twitter and Instagram a campaign placard for “Trump 2024.”
If the American president was not just trolling his opponents, and really does plan to hang around indefinitely, then he could take some pointers from Russian President Vladimir Putin, who celebrated 20 years in power with a press conference on Thursday. But Trump’s opponents might learn as well from young Russians who’ve grown up under Putin and are so desperate for change that half of them would like to leave their country altogether.
—Christopher Dickey, World News Editor
ST. PETERSBURG, Russia—A journalist from Komsomolskaya Pravda, throwing a marshmallow-soft question at Vladimir Putin at the president’s annual press conference on Thursday, asked if he believed he was a “historic” personality. Putin answered that the next generation would judge him. “Public opinion will be the best evaluation, but that is in the future,” he said.
No need to wait. Russia’s young people are fed up. Their comedy shows, their rap songs, their painting and their films make a mockery of state censorship and constantly troll Putin’s authoritarian style.
A leading Russian humorist, Maksim Galkin. recently joked that a whole generation born and brought up under this regime is sure that President Vladimir Putin is not an ordinary human: “They don’t know that there could be a different president. They think that the name of this position is called ‘putin,’ that only Putin can be a putin,” he said. “Imagine Putin came out to debates, for just once–himself against himself. We would put two podiums up for him so he could run from one to another to contradict himself.” Despite the odds, political humor is returning to Russian life.
Two decades ago President Boris Yeltsin passed the rule of Russia to former KGB operatives Vladimir Putin. In 2008, he traded places with his prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, then took back the presidency in 2012—but with a change to the constitution that stretched terms from four years to six years.
Every year of his presidency, Putin has answered questions at a big press conference in December, a tradition that many young Russians find boring or infuriating. “Our magician is about to give one more press conference,” said blogger Antiplaton. “He’s been saying the same thing for 20 years but obviously there are fewer and fewer naïve believers in this country with declining incomes.”
At his hours-long press conference on Thursday, Putin made news in Russia with a suggestion to change the constitutional rule limiting him from staying for more than two consecutive presidential terms. For now Putin has four more years to go of his current term.
Putin made news in the United States, meanwhile, by saying he doubts that Trump’s presidency is about to end. “It is unlikely that the majority of Republicans in the Senate would want to deprive of power a representative of their for some, in my view, made-up reasons.” Putin, speaking of Trump’s opponents, grimaced a bit as if he caught a whiff of some mad smell.
“This is a continuation of a political struggle,” said Putin, as if he’d been reading the Republicans’ talking points (or, some would say, dictating them). “One of the parties that lost the election, the Democratic Party, is trying to achieve results in a new way now, blaming Trump for collusion with Russia—then it turns out there was no collusion, and now they made up some ‘pressure on Ukraine.’” Then Putin, already heated up by his own speech, said with a tiny grin: “If they wanted to help, they should have given Ukraine money, given an opportunity to subsidize gas.” (The question of Russian natural gas supplied to and pipelined through Ukraine is a complex and contentious one.)
If Putin has his way with Russia’s constitution, we could be having these press conferences for another 11 more Decembers. And then, who knows?
“The only possible state ideology is patriotism,” Putin told Russians on Thursday. And by his lights patriotism, obviously, is Putinism.
Many young Russians don’t buy this cynical vision in a country that is being robbed by Putin’s closest allies. “You realize—it is more than obvious—that it is time to get away from this country,” Danila Poperechny, a popular blogger, told thousands of his spectators. “It is impossible to hear from all the TV screens our deputies screaming that in Europe and America they eat children alive—but that is where all their own children live.”
“I have wrinkles on my forehead because I live in Russia,” the 25-year-old blogger told his audience.
Russian bloggers despise Putin’s authoritarian ideology, censorship and the fresh examples of multi-billion-dollar corruption that the country learns about every few weeks.
Yuriy Dud, a 33-year-old Russian blogger followed by more than 6 million people on YouTube, asked what Poperechny thought of Putin’s face. “He has a strange appearance,” Poperechny said. “So strange with so much Botox, that many think that this is an over-corrected copy.”
Arguing with his critics, Putin often says that stability compensates for any mistake in his rule, and it is a fact that Russia shed blood in every decade of the 20th century: millions suffered during the war with Japan, in the World War I, during the October Revolution, the Red Terror, the Civil War, in World War II, during Josef Stalin’s purges, in the Perestroika crises and the collapse of the Soviet Union, then in two Chechen wars.
Putin’s allies praise their leader for bringing Russia up off its knees, but Putin’s critics disagree. They see the current ideology as fundamentally corrosive for the government and society.
More than half of young Russians say they would like to emigrate. People of all generations and professions protest against hundreds of political arrests across.
Is Putin a “historic” figure? Russia’s star rapper Oxxxymiron put things another way after the most recent arrests: ”We are witnesses of historical hell.”