To the one, no, I did not pay attention to that bit with Elton John, because … er … ah … well, you know? It’s Elton freakin’ John and Vladimir freakin’ Putin, why would I?
This is my comeuppance:
Enter Elton John. The singer attended a political conference in Kiev last week, met with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, and talked LGBT rights with him. He seemed to be positioning himself as a sort of global LGBT ambassador. Over the weekend, John told the BBC that he would like to meet with the Russian president and discuss the issue with him as well.
In the Kremlin, John’s proposal could be taken literally. The Russian leadership believes in a worldwide gay conspiracy, even a backroom global gay government that is trying to take over the world. Back in December 2013, when the Russian parliament was discussing the protests in Ukraine, the chairman of the foreign relations committee, Alexei Pushkov (who will be accompanying Putin to the UN), warned that if Ukraine moves toward the West, it will become part of “the sphere of influence of gay culture” — as directly opposed to the Russian sphere of influence. Reporting on John’s speech in Kiev last week, Russia’s highest-circulation daily stated that John “invited Ukraine to join the gay community.” So the same newspaper could imagine that if Putin had, indeed, picked up the phone to call John, he would have secured a direct line to the gay rulers of the world — and he could communicate to them that he was a reasonable man who shouldn’t be criticized quite so harshly.
To wit, Masha Gessen continues:
If John would get that message to the gay power establishment, then Putin could have his reset and the conversation in New York would focus on Syria. After a few weeks of obfuscating what it’s doing in Syria, Russia is saying that it is trying to protect what remains of the Syrian state, because if it fails then things will get even worse. The metamessage here is, Russia is reasonable and rational while the West, with its sanctions, is hysterical and unfair.
Why is Putin coming to the UN, and why is he working so hard to re-frame the conversation? The sanctions have made an impact on Russia and its politicians, and Putin may be hoping that they will be lifted or relaxed. But more likely, re-establishing himself as an equal partner in a conversation with the United States is an end in itself. He needs it for his domestic audience, which has not seen a demonstration of Russia’s international stature in a while. He also needs it for himself: while he doesn’t care what the West thinks of Russian politics, he personally does not enjoy being shunned. This is the man who worked tirelessly, personally to host a big party in Sochi (and then almost nobody came): he likes to hang out with the big guys and throw his weight around.
This is tragic comedy at its finest, combining two of the most delicious critiques we might invoke. To the one, the world’s most notorious closet homosexual, Vladimir Putin, needs a shot of self-esteem, and there are forty-three cheeky chortles, at least, that we might enjoy about Gessen’s suggestion that, “Really, he should have called John”.
Still, though, the other critique, this reset for the Russian domestic audience; whence comes that? We might look back two weeks or so, when Andrei Kolesnikov and Andrew S. Weiss posted, for the same Reuters blog, a consideration of Mr. Putin and his Kremlin clique that opened with a foreboding sentence: “Russia’s three-year electoral cycle has gotten started with a bang”:
One of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s closest KGB cronies from his St. Petersburg days and a co-founder of the exclusive Ozero dacha housing cooperative was recently dumped from his cushy post as head of the state railway monopoly. This raised yet more speculation that Putin feels he needs to reshuffle his inner circle. The next day, Putin staged another of his trademark photo ops — piloting a mini-sub off the coast of Crimea. The Kremlin propaganda machine continues in overdrive, celebrating the destruction of banned (and allegedly toxic) foodstuffs smuggled in from the West.
Putin’s resort to theatrics clearly indicates he is gearing up to run for re-election in 2018. The annexation of Crimea and surge in Russian patriotism have pushed his approval rating to levels no Western leader can hope to replicate. The only place they can really go is down. Yet despite having no serious domestic political opponents, Putin’s path to re-election may prove complicated.
And here Americans were groaning about the two-year presidential cycle.
That’s our Puti-Toots!
Image notes: Top ― Source text by Masha Gessen. Middle ― Detail of Reuters.com screenshot. Bottom ― Iconic closet homosexual Vladimir Putin, circa 2010.
Gessen, Masha. “Vladimir Putin wants his seat back at the world’s table. How far will he go to get it?” Reuters. 17 September 2015.
Kolesnikov, Andrei and Andrew S. Weiss. “Why do Vladimir Putin and his Kremlin cronies look so nervous?” Reuters. 8 September 2015.