A guide to the Kremlin

When Irina Khakamada, the femme fatale of Russia’s political opposition, decided to run against Vladimir Putin in the presidential election in March 2004, she asked a Russian public relations firm how she should “project her brand’‘. A five-hour brainstorming session yielded only one sure-fire strategy: stage the kidnapping of your husband and child.

“They told me: ‘Can you imagine the press sensation?’‘’ she writes in her new book, Sex in Big Politics. The excited PR went on to imagine the popular sympathy, the television commercial in which she tearfully vowed to fight until the end.
More importantly, he said, her poll ratings would rocket, and those of her opponent—presumably dubbed her family’s kidnappers by a cynical electorate—would sink.

“This was the only thing they could think of,’’ she says, during an interview in her Moscow office two years later. While her book explains on its cover that the word “sex’’ refers to gender, its salty title has captured tabloid front pages with its promise to lift the lid on this chauvinistic and impenetrable world. It is a rare glimpse into a woman’s place in this male institution.

But for Khakamada (51), a president’s gender is not yet relevant in Russia’s “managed democracy’‘, where only one vote counts, that of Putin. “The first priority is not when will there be a first woman president of Russia, but when the president will be someone not chosen by the oligarchs and the vlast,’’ she says.

Vlast, translated as “the power”, is redolent of Russia’s authoritarian and Soviet past and the absence of political pluralism in its present. Kremlin advocates would say a similar business and social nomenklatura rule Britain or the United States, but Khakamada disagrees. “In the West, a politician is not a god, but hired by society to serve the state,’’ she writes. “But here it is quite the opposite. Politicians hire society to satisfy their permanently growing demands.’‘

She is referring to the growing behemoth of state-run business, a series of massive energy companies bolstered by the Putin administration that many refer to as Kremlin plc. This loyal and rich elite has little need for an opposition, and even less for a woman in it.

When Khakamada stood against Putin, she complained of how her campaign adverts were broadcast only on state-dominated television early in the morning, when most voters were asleep or on the way to work. Her name was blackened in many ways, including the suggestion she was a Kremlin stooge. This is part of what she calls the “virtual matrix’’ of Russian politics—a Kremlin-run construct designed to provide a captive audience with a predetermined political process in which any real opponents are hamstrung.

“If you are in an independent and honest opposition then you cannot be in politics,’’ she says, describing Russian politics as “influence on decision-making, but not participation’‘. Russians saw so-called democracy in action during the economic chaos and fraudulent votes of the Boris Yeltsin 1990s, and today prefer to satisfy their material wants in Russia’s growing economy. In 2004, Khakamada, the only candidate to really take off the gloves during the campaign, got 3,8%. Putin got 71%.

The book is intended as a guide to politics in this era: how to influence a process you cannot participate in. “I undress officialdom to reveal the unwritten rules.’‘

She unveils an ugly caricature of Russian political life. There are bureaucrats so tightly controlled that their only true freedom is the choice of when to drink. She describes how they “drink regularly, scarily, and everywhere’‘. There is the need to get close to a minister’s family to get your way, or for the prime minister to kiss you when he greets you, or at least shake your hand, otherwise you will be lucky to stay in your job for six months.

And then there are the women: the quiet backroom deputies who keep each male minister running on time. At times, they are also the irresistible secretaries upon whom the bureaucrat forces himself. Her advice from personal experience with an unnamed senior politician who pushed her on to the sofa: accept your boss’s advances, but tell him it will have to be another day for “physical reasons’‘, thus avoiding incurring his wrath.

Aptly, her book was released on March 8, a Russian public holiday dubbed Women’s Day. For 24 hours, a culture that has historically seen women as the carers, the moppers-up, and the objects of fleeting lust, lauds womankind. “I am not an oppressed sexual minority,’’ she says. “I do not want cheap compliments once a year from men I do not believe.’‘

Khakamada puts the enduring socialist tradition down to Russia’s retention of some Soviet foibles. Just as Russians like the nostalgia of March 8, they welcome authoritarian leadership. There are, she says, two halves to Russia, a country where 11 times zones and a hybrid culture bridge the gap between Japan and Norway. One is Asian, where the vast resources and government are based—a testosterone-fuelled world where women are nothing but facilitators. The other is European, where the individual is paramount, schools, hospitals and small businesses thrive, and women are the source of industry.

Khakamada is part Japanese and well placed to judge these two halves. The Kremlin’s leader, perhaps, is caught between them. She describes Putin as charmingly liberal and down-to-earth in person, but intensely Soviet in practice. “It is difficult to get inside the soul of a person who has served so long in the special services. But some of his decisions make your hair stand on end.’’—Â

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