Putin's tears: Why so sad, Vlad?
Vladimir Putin's triumph in the Russian election was hardly a surprise, but his tears during his
victory speech were more of a mystery. Here are the five lessons we can learn from the president's
1 The recent unprecedented street protests have terrified him
It's hard to think of another public occasion when Putin has been quite this emotional. There were
the tears, of course, but also several loud sniffs as he delivered his victory speech on a stage in Red
Square. You can hear his voice cracking up; the pauses before several words betray the feelings of a
man who is under severe strain.
In his address, Putin made clear that he believes nothing less than dark forces are plotting against
him. In the past, he has said that the west is behind the massive street protests that have shaken
Moscow and other Russian cities. "We really showed that no one can impose anything on us! No
one!" he shouted. He said that the ultimate goal of the demonstrators was to "destroy Russian
statehood and usurp power".
In fact, there is no evidence to support Putin's fantasy-claim that his opponents are western stooges.
Rather, the demonstrators are simply fed up with Putin's corrupt system and his revelation that he
had privately agreed with Dmitry Medvedev a long time ago to serve a third term in the Kremlin –
regardless of whether Russian voters wanted him there or not.
The demonstrators' demands are actually modest: a re-run of December's flawed poll; the freeing of
political prisoners; the sacking of Russia's discredited elections' chief. Their mood isn't
revolutionary. They merely want a genuinely plural political system and fair elections. The fact that
Putin doesn't understand this shows he has lost touch with reality, the perennial problem of leaders
everywhere who stay in power too long.
2 Kremlin spin-doctors have an explanation for everything
Within minutes of Vladimir blubbing in public his spokesman came up with an ingenious
explanation: it was the wind. The prime minister's lachrymose performance had nothing to do with
his agitated emotional state, Dmitry Peskov said, but was the result of an icy breeze whipping over
the Kremlin's historic cobbles. True, it was chilly in Moscow: temperatures were well below
freezing. But the explanation clearly stretches credulity, and was of the: "You know I'm lying, and I
know I'm lying, but – hey! – that's the game" variety.
Russia's leadership has a long history of coming up with convoluted explanations to obscure an
obvious truth. Sometimes, as with Putin's tears, this is funny. But on other occasions it is sinister.
Whenever human rights activists and journalists are gunned down in Russia, Putin typically blames
the Kremlin's enemies, arguing that the murders are carried out by his opponents in a deliberate
attempt to smear the Kremlin. This wonderful but dark inverted logic runs through much of official
3 Putin's recent facelift has not been a success
Speculation started last year that Putin had had some – ahem – work done in preparation for his
return to the presidency. Observers noticed that the bags and wrinkles under his eyes had
mysteriously vanished, and that his cheekbones had become strangely smooth. Last year the liberal
New Times magazine ran an article headlined: "What has happened with Putin's face?". Opposition
bloggers, meanwhile, began using the mocking hashtag #botox with reference to Putin. (Medvedev,
for his part, got #pathetic.)
Yesterday's closeup of Putin on stage surely confirms that the surgery rumours are true. His eyes
seem to have shrunk, as if someone from the set of Harry Potter had stunned him from close range
with a minor jinxing charm. But the old Putin looked much better, making one almost nostalgic for
the days when the craggier-looking Putin skied down volcanoes, grappled with Arctic polar bears,
and descended fearlessly to the bottom of a Siberian lake in a cramped submarine.
4 Political humour is back
Putin's weeping has inevitably spawned dozens of jokes and playful one-liners. Twitter has broiled
with mocking explanations for the PM's tears – sinusitis, onions, even an advanced squirting flower
planted by the KGB. Within minutes of his speech, Russians were satirically referencing Moscow
Does Not Believe in Tears, a popular 1980 Soviet film about three provincial girls who come to
Moscow. Opposition activists have used the film's title on flyers for Monday's mass protests in
Pushkin Square. Even US Senator John McCain has joined in, pinging the teasing tweet: Dear Vlad,
Surprise! Surprise! You won. The #Russian people are crying too!
This revival in humour is something recent. Although Russia has a rich tradition of political satire,
it has struggled to express itself in Putin's po-faced bureaucratic Russia. One of Putin's earliest acts
as president was to shut down the country's popular Spitting Image TV show, Kukly, (meaning
Puppets). Kukly had offended Putin by using an old joke from a story by the German writer ETA
Hoffman in which a fairy casts a spell on an ugly dwarf so that others find him irresistibly beautiful.
Other spoof videos in the run-up to Sunday's election have depicted Putin as Montgomery Burns,
the ageing miser from the Simpsons. Another satirises the poll as a 100-metre sprint. Putin, in the
middle of the field, runs off before everyone else, shoots his opponents in the foot, and then jogs
towards the tape. Vladimir Churov, Russia's election chief, helpfully brings the tape towards him.
5 The protests won't go away
Putin's teary speech will infuriate protesters, for whom he is a figure of loathing and contempt. He
described Sunday's poll as "clean" and "honest". This is despite widespread evidence of fraud
including carousel voting and the stuffing of ballot boxes. Putin has already ruled out re-running
December's flawed Duma poll and has said he's not interested in investigating violations. This is
one of the protesters' key demands. He may have won on Sunday without fraud – but the question is
meaningless in a political system tilted so massively in his favour.
Angry demonstrators have noted that Putin's tears are in stark contrast to his usually inscrutable,
and even callous-seeming, behaviour on other big public occasions. He failed to cry when children
were killed during the 2004 school massacre in Beslan, or when the Kursk submarine sank. So why
did he let the tears flow last night? One theory is that he had fallen victim to his own paranoia, and
genuinely believed his victory wasn't a foregone conclusion.
Another, more elegant, explanation is that despite his reputation as a KGB tough guy Putin can be
sentimental. It was Nabokov, in his Lectures on Literature, who pointed out that Lenin had a
sentimental as well as a cruel side.