Monday, 16 September 2013

Putin is a tosser

...allegedly; at least according to Conservative MP  Henry Smith, the Tory MP for Crawley, on Twitter (in response to Putin calling the UK a little island) - and I don't think he was referring to Putin's judo skills; meanwhile President Obama has likened him to a 'bored schoolboy in the back of the classroom’.  Both of these comments have been made recently in reaction to events  at the G20 summit in St Petersburg.  Tosser or petulant schoolboy, or even jackass (as some internet spoof news sites have claimed Obama said of him) - none of these descriptions correspond to any of the characters and storylines in the Seventies UK children's cartoon: Mr Benn, as far as I can recall.    This cartoon was a favourite of mine, and I have mentioned it in an earlier post regarding my purchase of a gingham shirt like the one worn by Sean Connery in the Russia House (http://blog.therussiahouse.net/2013/02/a-large-unmade-bed.html).  In the cartoon, Mr Benn – dressed in a suit and bowler hat - passes a costume shop, which he enters, chooses a costume, puts it on in the dressing room, and leaves the dressing room through another door to have an adventure relating to the identity or role of the costume. 





Listening to a Russia special on BBC Radio 4’s Start the Week programme earlier this year, I was fascinated to hear Putin being described as a Mr Benn type character by one of the guests on the programme: Fiona Hill. Fiona is director of the Center on the United States and Europe, and senior fellow in the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution (one of the Washington’s oldest think tanks, which conducts independent research into social sciences; primarily in economics, governance and foreign policy), and she has written a number of books and articles about Russia.  

Her most recent book, co-authored with Clfford Gaddy, is “Mr Putin: Operative in the Kremlin”, which describes how Vladimir Putin’s public relations team has orchestrated PR stunts to appeal to the Russian populace; these have ranged from a  fire-fighting airplane pilot, the shirtless big-game hunter, the scuba diver, the easy-rider biker, even night club crooner – Hill thinks is reminiscent of the British cartoon character Mr. Benn.    These staged PR stunts do cause much amusement in the West and perhaps for the urban middle classes in Russia, but they are popular with the wider Russian population outside of the capital, specifically with the target  audience to which the various stunts are intended to appeal.




They ask in the book “Who is Mr Putin?”; because, it has proven very difficult, if not impossible, to get any concrete facts on Vladimir Putin’s past: “Observers have variously said, he has no face, no substance, no soul; he is 'the man from nowhere' - a nobody, yet a man who can appear to be anybody. Of course, Putin is not a 'nobody'; he only wants the world to see him that way, and he has gone to extraordinary lengths throughout his life to conceal who he really is."



Much has been made, in the Western press, about Putin’s past as a KGB operative – suggesting secretive nature, shadowy past, brutal operating methods, communist – but this is too simplistic an observation to explain his improbable rise to power. 

 Whatever we may think of the role of the KGB in persecuting dissidents, killing defectors, crushing dissent, its core function, as a security service, was to protect the state.  It has been said that the KGB, with all the vast intelligence resources at its disposal, was perhaps the most “progressive” organisation in the Soviet Union – in the sense that they were able to assess accurately the relative fortunes of western and communist economies – and identify that the centrally planned model was failing (not that they were able to do much about it, although it has been suggested that the KGB were influential in hastening Gorbachev’s rise to power).  

Putin’s background as a KGB operative was probably more important in the development of his “people” skills – in the book Hill and Gaddy describe how Putin let slip that he was a specialist in communicating with people:  “Working with people has a dual meaning in KGB jargon. It also means working on people”.  They have indentified Putin’s multiple identities, of which, six are most prominent: Statist, History Man, Survivalist, Outsider, Free Marketeer, and Case Officer. It is the combination of all his identities that made Putin an effective behind-the-scenes operator in Russian politics and helped propel him into the Kremlin.  

It’s fascinating stuff (from what I’ve read from various internet extracts and transcripts of talks that Fiona Hill has made) so much so, I have ordered the book today from Amazon.


Incidentally, my wife bought me a new winter coat last week which has a big furry hood.  When I saw it, I thought “my god, it’s a Putin coat!”.  So I tried it on and thought “I know, I shall go for a Mr Benn-like adventure - as President Putin”. Now, who is the tosser?

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