Putin and nothingness. Ilya Shablinsky on the Russian president’s meeting with young people [Spektr.press]

9 March 2024

by Ilya Shablinsky

Source: Spektr.press

On 6 March, the Russian dictator took part in the conclusion to a rather strange event called “World Youth Festival.” Perhaps some recall similar convocations of young “leftists” and pro-Communist activists during the years of the Soviet Union’s existence. In those days they were called “international festivals of youth and students.” The multi-day gatherings—”youth forums” that allowed quiet international orgies that were later the stuff of legends—were supposed to compensate somehow for the country’s closedness. Because of that closedness, you couldn’t just decide to travel through the world so easily, without exit visas. For now Russia’s borders are open, though, and the Internet has made contact with someone at any point on the planet possible, so those “youth forums” themselves are a hopelessly dated genre.

The present regime in the Kremlin, though, once again called for a gathering of young activists loyal to it from all over the world. Those who have demonstrated admiration for the leader. Those who, for various reasons, have also proved ready to admire the “greatness” of the Russian army, which while incurring losses, for two years in a row has been methodically destroying Ukrainian cities along with any residents who haven’t managed to escape from them.

This sort of activist brings to mind a completely different era—young Chinese militants on the ideological front. As I recall, a collection of Mao Zedong quotations replaced a certain part of their brain. It turns out, this experiment is reproduceable. Moreover, the comparison does not even favor the “festival” participants.

You think this is over the top? Just listen to a forum participant who said she recently visited the destroyed and incinerated Mariupol, where she shot a film, and now she asked the dictator what films shaped him as a person. Specifically, “as a person with a great soul who values people.” By the way, the dictator couldn’t recall anything of that sort. Just forget about him, but what do we call the essence of the participant and her question? Infantilism? Or just plain idiocy?

Or take this: one marvelous lecturer from the Knowledge society thanked the dictator for “organizing a celebration not only for Russia but for the whole world.” Well, could that have been better put?

In short, during the course of his meeting with young people, Putin mainly received florid gratitude and spoke magnanimously on various issues of daily life. I don’t know what category the event fell under with his political strategists—possibly as election campaign interaction with young people. More than likely they intended the particularly warm intonation and even informality. But the essence, I think, lay elsewhere. It was this time that it became obvious, more distinctly than before, that the ideological content of what Putin is offering his flock, what his propaganda is trying to sell, is vanishingly small. In reality what remains is the thrill of naked violence, which, in essence, each person has to justify in their own way.

The defense of “traditional values”? This is something, in fact, that no one anywhere in the world (other than Moscow propagandists) has disputed for a long time now. Even more, they aren’t killing. In particular because notions of those values can vary a lot. And now—for the first time, apparently—the dictator, having once again brought up said values, has complacently admitted that “we aren’t conscious enough of what these are.” 

 In fact, he doesn’t need that either. At the right moment, this emptiness is filled by his propagandists, who bring up either the “LGBT movement,” or “notorious tolerance,” or something else unquestionably hostile.

The dictator spoke listlessly and just as complacently about the ongoing war, telling the young people, “We are having a conflict next door with our neighbors.” He didn’t even go into details as to why the war or what its goals are. Indeed, there are no such precise goals now. Since the failure of the initial plan, the slaughter has functioned automatically. The goals are defining themselves—depending on what they have been able to seize and when.

Actually, in front of the young audience the dictator did mention the goal of the imminent “unification of the Ukrainian and Russian peoples.”  He also misspoke, in any case, saying that this was a matter of spiritual unification.

Understandably, these words are unvarnished deception and hypocrisy. There was more truth in Putin’s other words, when he recalled the U.S. invasion of Iraq: “They let the genie out of the bottle!” That is, if they can do it, why can’t I? These words speak much more to his motivation.

But something else speaks about the qualities of Putin’s mind, too. He simply has not grasped that two U.S. presidents from two different parties, two very different people—Barack Obama and Donald Trump—recognized the Iraq invasion to be a mistake, a violation of international law, and the expenditures on that war to be totally unacceptable and unjustified.

This is something the Russian dictator has yet to get. He hears exactly what he wants to hear. And this time, in this audience, he happily listened to his young interlocutor, who thought it important that “the Russian army show the whole world Russia’s greatness.” Period.

It is, of course. Everyone has seen it.

And now it is completely obvious to Russian Security Council Deputy Chair Medvedev, who spoke before this same audience the night before, that Ukraine should cease to exist. That “Ukraine is Russia.” You get the feeling that his job is to express Putin’s unspoken thoughts. Which is quite possible.

In general it seems that the vagueness of this slaughter’s goals is good for the aggressor. Inasmuch as any useful idiot or raving fanatic, who by and large has no need whatsoever of propaganda, can fill this emptiness with whatever he cares about most, whatever his soul craves. For some useful idiots, this war is a “struggle against nazism” or a “yearning for a multipolar world.” Aha. But remember how, after meeting with Putin, one rather vindictive but honest activist expressed this goal: “Everything is going to be the way we like it, we’ll kill everyone, we’ll plunder everyone!” 

This is all quite precise, after all: not too much and not too little. 

The dictator had something to say about confrontation with the collective West, too. And once again he left the consumer lots of room for his own thoughts. To a gathering participant from Uganda, Putin cheerfully explained that the United States’ prosperity is founded on the exploitation of African peoples. I remember hearing this story 40 years ago at a lecture in “the political economy of socialism.” A little while after his conversation with the young man from Uganda, Putin told yet another interlocutor how the United States had created conditions at home that were maximally favorable to scientific-technical developments and artificial intelligence technology.

He demonstrated he was well informed.

But let’s forget all these geopolitical arguments for a moment. Let’s recall the main internal forces moving our present Russian dictator: self-admiration, self-satisfaction, and the most vulgar sort of vanity.

During this interaction with young adept,s these main factors were in evidence as never before. Here we see a readiness to demonstrate his limitless power. When asked whether he used the Sber Internet service, the dictator smiled warmly and pointed out—why did he need Sber when he could call Sber’s president at any time?  Here, too, was the desire to demonstrate the breadth of his historical knowledge. Recently he told an American journalist the history of Ukraine’s origins, but this time his thoughts shifted to Europe: it turns out that Russia played a significant role even in the formation of the state of Belgium.

That must have made an impression on those young people.

By the way, the Russian Empire’s role in Belgium’s creation was purely passive. By all accounts, Putin was told that Belgium’s first king was a representative of the Saxe-Coburg dynasty who was related to the Russian imperial house and for a long time served in the Russian army. That much the president did remember.

The self-satisfaction Putin exudes when sharing his knowledge is the self-satisfaction of a dilettante. But a dilettante used to being beyond criticism and real polemics.  

And so, the war is running its course, devouring hundreds and thousands of victims every day. The situation in the world and in Europe is gradually heating up. One gets the impression that it is gradually, very gradually dawning on European leaders what kind of evil they are dealing with. 

The Russian presidential administration goes about its business, whipping up propaganda events and pretexts for the dictator’s lacklustre speeches, which are getting emptier all the time and leave room only for one thing, an overt apologia for violence: we’re doing it because we want to. That’s it.

The dictator is in a good mood now. Just the moment for a meeting between the good grandpa and young people.  

 And it’s true, things are pretty good for grandpa. On the front in particular. Of course, there are thousands of people killed and crippled there; on the other hand, a few more villages have been seized. And most important, his chief opponent was recently killed in prison. The dictator has been appeased.

Translated by Marian Schwartz

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