Vladimir Putin: master satirist
by Sam Kriss
Sensible types rejoice. Over at the Independent, Owen Jones has written against the old line that the first casualty of war is the truth: in the Ukrainian crisis, the first casualty has been irony. Russian intervention is illegitimate, but at the same time Western condemnation is hypocritical given our track record in Palestine, Bahrain, and Egypt. Owen Jones is a useful chap, because he marks very precisely the limit of generally acceptable left-wing thought. He keeps a solitary vigil at the frontier of reason, hands in his pockets, maybe whistling a comforting little tune to himself as he scans the horizon for incoming threats, eyes tracking back and forth in his big soft party balloon of a head. Stand with Owen Jones and you can have it all: Labour party membership, a weekly column in a national newspaper, regular appearances on the BBC and Channel 4; your book will adorn middle-class shelves all along the belt of radicalism that stretches across north London from Ealing to Islington. Take one step out beyond his lonely border-post and you’re in the wilderness. Famines, purges, gulags. Monsters winding their heavy bodies between the weather-beaten columns of ruined cities. Rust seeping into the nuclear cores of a shoal of beached submarines. Mute staggering mobs doomed to track vast circles in the desert for eternity. Madness.
It’s the duty of every sensible radical to see exactly where the boundaries of acceptable thought lie and then power straight through them, even if only to sketch out a critique of the hinterlands beyond. (It’s a sad fact that since the Romantic period the practice of architectural criticism has almost completely eclipsed geological or topological criticism – we shouldn’t just live in landscapes; we should interpret and change them.) More to the point, though, Owen Jones is wrong. The current standoff in Crimea doesn’t mark the death of irony, but its resurgence. War always involves the exercise of a certain sarcastic brutality. In 1945, the ancient Japanese capital of Kyoto was only saved from atomic destruction because US Secretary of War had spent an enjoyable honeymoon there – seventy thousand people had to die horribly in Nagasaki as punishment for their Sōfuku-ji lacking the refined charms of the Temple of the Golden Pavilion. The armistice that ended the First World War famously came into force on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, but this meant that thousands of soldiers on both sides died in the hours between midnight and 10:59 am, bravely sacrificing their lives so that schoolchildren in future generations would have an easy fact for their history essays. War itself is fundamentally ironic; its central truth is that you should want to kill someone before even deciding if you personally dislike them or not, and everything else is a mode of appearance that tries to cloud this fact in contradictions.
What makes the events in Crimea interesting is that they’re being satirised as they occur, and not by outside observers but by the primary participants. In the war of ironies being waged between Russia and the Western bloc, there’s only one clear winner. Vladimir Putin is a consummate ironist, a master of satire in the deep cold Russian tradition of Gogol and Bulgakov. Obama and Cameron and Merkel don’t stand a chance.
The really remarkable thing about Putin is how eagerly everyone in the West appears to swallow his tough-guy persona. It fits our image of Russia, and it fits the image Russia wants to project. The closest we’ll come to a hermeneutic approach to the Putin-spectacle is to chortlingly point out that for all his draconian homophobic policies, Vladimir Putin is totally gay. Tigers: flaming. Riding a horse, shirtless, in the mountains: a Village People tribute act. Aside from being a dubious essentialisation of sexual difference, it misses the point entirely. Putin isn’t a muscular he-man; he’s an apparatchik, a KGB dork. He famously had a long career in intelligence, but working for the Soviet secret services wasn’t all murdering dissidents with poison-tipped umbrellas or applying the spirit of détente to James Bond’s dick. Putin’s sole foreign assignment was in Dresden, where by all accounts his job mostly consisted of writing endless reports for his superiors in Moscow while the local Stasi did all the legwork. Putin is a nerd, and his excesses are all classic loser fantasies: learning judo, shooting large animals, flying fighter jets, bedding gymnasts, invading sovereign states, being the tough guy – all have their place in the sociopathic pantheon of nerdy wish-fulfilment. When it comes to nerds I’ll defer to the wisdom of the American right-wing radio host and lunatic Alex Jones: Nerds are the one of the most dangerous groups in this country, because they end up running things, but they still hate everybody, because they weren’t the jocks in high school, so they play little dirty games on everybody. They use their brains to hurt people. And I’m aware of them. OK? I see you, you little rats! As ever, Alex Jones is completely correct; there’s definite malice in the intrusive new reign of the Silicon Valley dorkocrats. But at the same time, nerds are attuned to the cruel ironies of the world in a way that high-school jocks like Alex Jones and self-righteous stoner fratboys like Barack Obama will never understand. They might be vicious, but at least they have a sense of humour.
Putin brought this out in his press conference on the 4th of March. Over sixty-six minutes, he made a series of outstanding claims. The armed men who had surrounded Ukrainian bases in Crimea and were demanding the surrender of those inside were clearly spontaneous local militia. Their uniforms, which looked suspiciously like those of the Russian military but lacked any insignia, were probably bought from army surplus shops. At the same time he vigorously defended Russia’s right to intervene in defence of the Russian-speaking population of Ukraine, even though that was definitely not what was happening. He had authorisation to intervene from the regional government in Crimea and from Victor Yanukovych, who was still the legitimate president of Ukraine despite being a powerless, corrupt, murderous, pathetic little worm. (This was a particular flourish; it’s not hard to imagine the lickspittle Yanukovych weeping into his pillow in Rostov-on-Don between stern-faced press appearances. He’s stuck now; Putin can do what he wants with him.) He even laughingly fessed up to the endemic corruption in Russian politics – it’s hard to see American leaders doing the same, despite the billions flowing into election funds from corporate lobbyists. If there’s one weakness in Putin’s performance, it’s that he was slightly too eager to explain the joke, comparing his incursion into Crimea with NATO intervention in Kosovo and Libya. Putin knows that most of what he’s saying isn’t true, and he knows that you know that too. Unlike Colin Powell showing made-up images of imaginary Iraqi bioweapons labs to the UN, Putin isn’t trying to make you believe him. The point is that he can say it; his talk of Crimean self-determination and human rights and the threat of ethnic cleansing is a self-conscious satire of the language of humanitarian intervention. Western states have reacted with such opprobrium not because of any geopolitical threat but because the sanctity of the Just War is being mocked. Lead is the parody of gold, coitus is the parody of crime, Crimea is the parody of imperial war. Parody is always a disruption of existing categories. The Russians have no insignia, no accountability – and, worst of all, they haven’t even had the decency to kill anyone yet.
Western condemnation has admittedly taken a lacklustre form. This might be because its chief instigator is US Secretary of State John Kerry, a great honking dullard with a face as dull and as oblong as a pencil eraser, a flouncy New England boarding-school cretin who somehow lost an election to George W Bush but still managed to wedge himself into a position of power through an unholy combination of dim-witted persistence and the $750m in his family coffers. In response to Putin’s press conference, the State Department published a listicle of ’10 false claims about Ukraine.’ If there’s one thing that could make Putin’s call for a return to traditional values sound appealing it’s this: for all the many sins of past societies, the dominant literary paradigms tended to be poetry or prose fiction, rather than BuzzFeed. Numbered lists might convey information in an exciting viral-ready format, and it might even be factually correct in the most banal of senses, but only rarely can they expose the cold truth of the world. The discourse they impose is one of bland attachment to existing conditions: here are some experiences, in gif form, that you will relate to if you have curly hair, or a Jewish boyfriend, or were born in the 1990s. The point of great art is to induce a sense of vertiginous estrangement. Vladimir Putin takes his place in a long line of expert ironists – along with the God of the Old Testament, Hamilcar Barca, Maximilien Robespierre, General Butt Naked, and the Google ‘I’m feeling lucky’ function – that do precisely that.