Dubai on the Moscow River

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Writing in the Nov. 22 issue of The New York Review of Books, former Soviet dissident Sergei Kovalyov analyzed the reasons for President Vladimir Putin's remarkable popularity. A consistent critic of Putin's neo-Soviet policies, Kovalyov nevertheless recognized that Putin's skillful revival of certain Soviet myths gave the people what many of them craved -- a national narrative and a sense of continuity.

Kovalyov wrote the article before the worshiping of Putin reached its grotesque crescendo in the weeks preceding Sunday's State Duma elections. He might have changed his mind about continuity in Russia.

A friend of mine, a renowned food critic, visited Moscow this fall for the first time in five years. She was impressed with the world-class restaurants popping up all around the capital but also dismayed by the sense of disconnect that pervades the city. She said it reminded her of Dubai, a showcase of petrodollar glamour that grew up seemingly overnight smack in the middle of a desert society.

It is a remarkably apt comparison. Today's conspicuously wealthy, top-heavy Moscow is only vaguely, if at all, derived from Russia's recent history. Certainly none of those restaurants, boutiques, gated communities and "elite" apartment blocks represents a natural progression of seven decades of building communism or an attempt to build a Western-style democracy during the 1990s.

Russians I have talked to recently express disgust at the three-ring circus created around Putin, but also considerable surprise. Why is this pathetic spectacle required at all, they ask themselves, if the victory for United Russia is assured anyway and Putin can do whatever he wants?

But this is a crucial point. Putin's Russia -- this supposedly prosperous, sovereign democracy, respected military power and legitimate member of the Group of Eight -- is, in fact, a mirage. Whatever prosperity there is, it has been bought by petrodollars. It may have happened on Putin's watch, but not due to some mythical plan of his. Putin has not created a diversified, enduring economic system over the past eight years. Russia's new wealth has just sprung out of the ground, and it is measured on a superficial level -- by the incredible amount of imported expensive gadgets and other consumer goods that Russians have been buying up with a frenzy.

Putin's support is equally ephemeral. It is based on nothing more solid than the wholesale swearing of allegiance by government employees, a sycophantic chorus of politicians and official artists and KamAZ-size loads of voter petitions begging him to remain a national leader.

Putin has not created a national idea. Nostalgia for the Communist Party, represented by United Russia, may do the trick for the bureaucrats, but not for the nation. Russian society still casts about in search of a suitable national identity, reaching for uglier forms of nationalism in the process.

A very telling episode took place this summer, after a British police investigation into the murder of former Federal Security Service officer Alexander Litvinenko in London traced the poison to Moscow. Putin responded to the legitimate request to extradite the suspect in the case, Andrei Lugovoi, by lashing out against Britain, all but threatening to put the puny little island in its place.

Britain only shrugged in response. The longevity of the British political system is the envy of the world. The same institutions -- which include its legal system -- have endured for centuries.

Over the past century, Britain and other outside observers have seen a dozen similar Putins rise to the pantheon of world-historical geniuses one day only to be cast upon the dust heap of history the next. The wheels of British justice will continue to turn and, with patience, there is a pretty good chance that Lugovoi and those who sent him on his deadly mission will yet stand trial in London.

Alexei Bayer, a native Muscovite, is a New York-based economist.