January in Russia: masters of hybrid borefare4 min read
January editorial. Vladimir Putin’s end-of-year press conferences are legendary for both their patience-testing duration and absence of noteworthy moments. This year, the Russian president, who spent much of the last six months in semi-hibernation to avoid contracting the coronavirus, was left with no choice but to perform his seasonal address remotely.
The Russian President did invite a select group of favoured journalists to attend the event in person at his Novo-Ogaryovo residence on the outskirts of Moscow, though not before they passed through an additional level of security measures including an elaborate network of disinfection tunnels specially designed to keep Covid-19 out. For the majority, however, a live-streamed video broadcast would have to suffice.
Echoing the initially optimistic but later slightly grating enthusiasm of educational establishments around the world, the transition to a hybrid format promised to offer all the usual features of previous end-of-year addresses, but with a whole host of bonus features. No longer would questions be limited to those from the studio audience, but the remote set-up promised to make the experience an interactive one for anyone in Russia with a stable internet connection and a favourable opinion of the government.
As he took to the stage, it was clear from the outset that Putin and his media team had quickly become masters of this new breed of hybrid borefare. There would be no interruptions by eager ‘Zoombombers’ or blunders of the kind that saw UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson stuck on mute while delivering a speech to the House of Commons. Instead, the four and a half hour epic production proceeded largely without a hitch.
Putin trotted out well-rehearsed cinematic tropes to explain the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the Russian population (not great, not terrible), alleged interference in the US elections (got nothin’ to do with me), and the FSB’s involvement in the recent Navalny poisoning (if we wanted to kill him, he’d be dead already). Towards the end, an ‘Icelandic journalist’ with highly dubious credentials, who was delighted at the unique opportunity to question a world leader so directly, reassured the Russian president that people in the West do love him really.
But perhaps the most intriguing plot twist of this year’s conference was the surprise appearance of the country’s biggest rock star, Sergey Shnurov. Shnurov’s band Leningrad are so well loved by everyone in Russia from its oligarchs to its hipsters that I’m sure no one would have objected if he had burst into song when given the microphone just over an hour into the event.
Unfortunately, ‘Shnur’, as he’s affectionately known, was not there to perform any of his legendary punk hits about sex, drinking and general survival amid the chaos of a Russia in transition. Instead, he was there in his most recent incarnation as a journalist for television channel RTVI. ‘Will you now be offering asylum to Trump, like you did to Edward Snowden?’ he asked, on behalf of his employers, before using the opportunity to pose a personal question to Putin about something even more provocative than Leningrad’s famously obscene lyrics: ‘How can Russians describe the current state of affairs in the country, without resorting to the use of obscenities?’
Shnurov’s apparent possession of a free pass to speak uncomfortable truths to power has elicited comparisons to the classical Russian figure of a ‘holy fool’. But while his first question may have caused a wry smile to break out on the Russian leader’s face as he imagined the Trump family relocating from New York to Rostov-on-Don, the second surely packed more of a punch. ‘What a shame that Shnurov turned out to be weak. It’s sad,’ tweeted Vladimir Soloviev, presenter of the TV show Moscow. Kremlin. Putin and one of the Russian President’s most ardent supporters and propagandists. But while Soloviev has a history of putting extreme views out there to gauge public opinion and tailor his message to discredit anti-government dissenters, few can deny the harsh realities of life for ordinary people in modern-day Russia.
So as Putin thanked Shnurov for sticking to polite language when asking his question, it’s not hard to imagine that a few less wholesome phrases sprung into the Russian president’s mind as he mentally crossed the Leningrad frontman’s name off next year’s guest list.