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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Putin's Deceptive Adoration

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Josef Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev are riding in a train when the engine suddenly stalls. Stalin has the engineer shot. The train doesn't move. Khrushchev posthumously rehabilitates the engineer, but the train still doesn't move. Brezhnev then draws the curtains and says: "Good. We're moving."

This Soviet-era joke reveals the enduring surrealism of Russian society. You can easily imagine everyone on the train falling in with the charade, checking the schedule to see when the next station is due, commenting on the passing scenery and praising the special nature of Soviet motion.

When I was growing up, the founder of the Soviet state was presented to us as Grandpa Lenin -- a kind, gentle and all-knowing sage. Yet, Lenin was just 47 years old when he seized power in November 1917 and died before his 54th birthday.

Compare him to another Vladimir -- Putin -- who, curiously enough, became Russian president at the same age. When Putin turned 55 in October, the main theme of the celebrations was his image as a man of action. He seems proud of his muscular torso and, like Mussolini, has been known to bare it before the camera. None of that kind, gentle Grandpa-Putin stuff for the current president.

With prominent Russians -- ranging from State Duma deputies of various political hues to athletes and artists -- calling on Putin to stay in power, constitutionally or not, there is a good chance that hale and healthy Putin could rule Russia for the next three decades. This is certainly what his critics dread.

In fact, there is little reason to doubt that he will leave office in the same way as the overwhelming majority of his predecessors -- in a casket. There is no effective opposition to his one-man rule and no popular discontent capable of spilling onto the streets, a la Tbilisi or Kiev. Property and cash flows have been divvied up among the elites, who see Putin as guarantor of stability, continuity and the preservation of their property. He is protecting the elite from outsiders who would love to have a turn at the feeding trough. In addition, Putin is trying to prevent one overly greedy clique from grabbing too much wealth, thus protecting the elite from infighting among themselves.

In Russia, there can be plenty of continuity, drift and stagnation. A Stalin or a Brezhnev could rule forever. But what seems in short supply is certainty, and, like Khrushchev, any ruler may get the boot in a blink of an eye.

I have often wondered why so many prominent Russians have been willing to sing patently insincere, Soviet-style hosannas to Putin. In Stalin's times, you did so because you feared for your own life and for the safety of your loved ones. Even under Stalin's successors, expressions of loyalty could be forgiven because the party routinely stripped the unreliable of their positions, privileges and even livelihoods.

But not today. These are wealthy, self-assured people. They have large fortunes salted away abroad. Their children, almost without exception, have studied in the West and often live there. In a worst-case scenario, they too could emigrate and enjoy safe, comfortable lives. Nor are self-abasing public oaths of fealty de rigueur in Putin's Russia -- at least not yet. Still, they can't help themselves.

Putin might revel in these expressions of love and admiration. I hope for his sake he doesn't take them too seriously. This is Russia, after all. Tomorrow, without drawing a breath, the same chorus might shift their flattery to Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov, First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov or anyone else.

When Khrushchev fell, official adoration building up around him ended overnight. Instead, a dirty doggerel began making rounds: "What a nasty surprise / How could we have been so gullible / For a full decade we've been kissing a backside / But it apparently was the wrong one."

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