A Rich Tradition of Toadyism

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About 10 years ago, as I was tuning in to various Russian radio stations, I first started hearing the name of a mysterious Vladimir Vladimirovich. Initially I thought the broadcasters must be referring to the poet Mayakovsky, who committed suicide in 1930, but I quickly realized that they were talking unctuously about Putin, a former KGB lieutenant colonel who was appointed pretty much out of nowhere in August 1999 by President Boris Yeltsin to be the prime minister.

I was struck by the way the radio, television, newspapers, politicians and even prominent people from the world of culture from the very beginning referred to this youngish, low-ranking former intelligence officer not by his position or even by his surname, but in such an ingratiating way, devoid of self-respect and any remnants of dignity. It seemed a prime example of total toadyism. But as the years went by, the glorification of Putin grew even greater, becoming almost universal and almost obligatory.

Maybe this is to some extent a Russian tradition. Well before the Bolshevik Revolution, there was a fair amount of toadyism as well. Remember Anton Chekhov's short story "The Death of a Government Clerk," in which a clerk accidentally sneezed on the neck of an important official sitting in front of him. The clerk apologized profusely, and the official magnanimously forgave him, but the clerk still felt guilty and frightened. He went home and died of distress.

But before 1917, even the tsars did not enjoy the adoration and adulation that Putin receives. After the Revolution, and especially after Josef Stalin replaced Vladimir Lenin, the personality cult around the vozhd, or great national leader, exceeded anything that Adolf Hitler or Benito Mussolini enjoyed, suggesting that the Russian mentality had changed and sycophancy had become a pattern of thought and even a way of life.

Indeed, Russia today is full of Putin's portraits and busts and slogans praising the great Vladimir Vladimirovich. (Even the economic crisis has barely touched his popularity ratings.) This is comparable to the contrived personality cult of Leonid Brezhnev, who ruled from 1964 to 1982.

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Under Stalin, people resorted to exaggerated eulogies of the Great Leader out of fear for their lives. Over 20 million people died in the gulag, and if you didn't praise Stalin you were almost asking to join the list of his victims. But under Putin, many people often demean themselves in order to keep their jobs, to get a promotion or to get access to the country's vast wealth. When he was asked why he was encouraging such uncivilized behavior, Putin implied that the majority of Russians are not terribly cultured or sophisticated, similar to what Stalin told German novelist and playwright Leon Feuchtwanger.

But there is plenty of evidence that Russia's cultured and quite sophisticated elite are no different than their predecessors were in 1937 in terms of their grotesque flattery of Putin. In its Dec. 22 issue, Kommersant Vlast published a rating of the top 25 most-sycophantic phrases from Russian public figures in 2008 in praise of Putin. Here is a sampling of some of the more colorful quotes on the list:

•St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matviyenko: "Your democracy knows no bounds."

•State Duma Deputy and Kremlin spin doctor Sergei Markov: "In order to attain the level of Putin, [President Dmitry] Medvedev will have at the very least to carry out the same sort of heroic deeds that Putin accomplished during his eight years of rule." (I wonder exactly which "heroic deeds" Markov had in mind?)

•Celebrity film director Nikita Mikhalkov: "I thank God for Putin."

•Vladimir Yevtushenkov, a leading oligarch and shareholder in Sistema, put it more simply: "Putin is a giant!"

•Danil Granin, a Russian writer best known as the author of stories about Soviet intelligentsia: "Vladimir Vladimirovich! It's very good that you were born!"

Former Patriarch Alexy II outdid all of these members of the Russian beau monde in terms of flattery, but in light of his recent passing, I will refrain here from any quotations.

People abroad are amazed by Putin's periodic three-hour "impromptu press conferences" in the spirit and style of Fidel Castro, but in Russia it is widely known that they are carefully rehearsed. Even implicitly critical questions are unacceptable in any circumstances. I quote a provincial reporter about the preparations for such an event: The selection process to decide which journalists would be allowed to attend "took about a fortnight and was conducted in the most painstaking fashion. They took only morally stable citizens of tidy appearance. ... They turned down both unacknowledged poets and people who like wearing the whole year round the same old pair of jeans with blisters on the knees. ... But on the eve of the president's arrival, even the morally stable and neatly dressed people had an extremely strict briefing session: They were not to leave their designated spots, they had to move around only as an organized group, they must keep their voices down and refrain from using any [mobile] phones."

After reading and listening to the Russian media for the past few years, I have decided it is a waste of time and given it up. Now I'm reading good literature instead, including works by that other Vladimir Vladimirovich -- Mayakovsky.

Oleg Gordievsky is a former KGB agent in Britain. After being exposed in 1985 and placed under house arrest in Moscow, he escaped to London. Gordievsky is the author of four books and recipient of the Order of St. Michael and St. George and is an honorary doctor of the University of Buckingham.