Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
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Time Europe
Russians Happy to Follow the Leader
Putin’s foreign and domestic policies are worlds apart

Thursday, Dec. 6, 2001

Formally, the Office of the Prosecutor General of Russia is a civilian organization. But this Office also belongs to what is called the "silovyye vedomstva": the community of security and military agencies and ministries that is the backbone of Russian power.

In the former Soviet Union, prosecutors wore uniforms. In the new liberal Russia, these uniforms have slowly been transformed into a more military type, with the same kind of shoulder straps and insignia other siloviki wear.

Formally, prosecutors and investigators still retain civilian titles: counselor of justice, senior counselor of justice, counselor of justice second class, etc. In informal parlance, however, people refer to them as captains, colonels and generals.

Blue is the traditional color of Russian repressive agencies; the Federal Security Service uniforms, for example, still retain the blue shoulder straps and cap-bands of the KGB. But it is the prosecutors who now sport all-blue uniforms. When Stalin died, I was just six-years-old. But I recall that many civilian agencies—the Foreign Ministry, geologists, engineers—had military-type uniforms then.

It's universally accepted that smart uniforms are needed for airline or railway personnel, but the sight of military-looking civilian prosecutors makes me uneasy. Now, I hear that they are re-introducing uniforms at the Foreign Ministry and at the Mountain Engineers Institute in Saint Petersburg. The fashion seems to be in tune with times. What kind of uniform will be offered to journalists? Well-cut straight yellow coats, with pens on the shoulder straps? Or simply straight jackets?

Another blast from the past is the growing cult of the leader. "We have a missile launcher Grad/ Behind us Putin and Stalingrad," raves the latest popular hit about the Chechen war. Teenage members of a pro-Putin organization stage rallies, dressed in T-shirts printed with the face of their beloved leader. In Murmansk last September, I saw an exhibition of Putin photos. Two larger-than-life Putins, both resplendent in a Russian Navy uniform, looked at each other from either side of the entrance. The caption under the left Putin read: "Our President"; the caption under the right Putin read: "Our future." Looked more like our past to me.

In the town of Izborsk in western Russia, which Putin visited back in August 2000, a special "Putin path" was opened for tourists eager to follow in his footsteps. In the Urals, a local factory bakes cakes adorned with a Putin image. Lev Kerbel, 84, who created the mammoth monument to Marx in the downtown Moscow, wants to immortalize Putin in bronze or marble.

The latest hit is a calendar comprising 12 portraits of the President. Created by the artist Dmitry Vrubel (known for his image of Brezhnev kissing Honneker, painted on the Berlin Wall) and his wife Viktoria Timopheyeva, 1,000 copies of the calendars have been printed. But none are for sale. They have been given as gifts to the chosen few at the Kremlin, the Cabinet and the Parliament.

The West now seems infatuated with Putin. The Russian President appears a paragon of liberalism, democracy, sophistication and championship of human rights. Nice to have such an ally. Yes, the one good thing he has done for his country was siding with the United States in the war on terrorism. Yes, his foreign policy has taken a major and welcome turn. But Putin's foreign and domestic policies are taking divergent courses.

And Putin's stand is not all that unusual for Russian rulers: Alexander I promoted liberal constitutions in post-Napoleonic Europe, but banned any such attempts at home; he championed human rights elsewhere, but not in Russia. Putin's attempts to launch a liberal economy and civil society by police control look very much a contradiction.

For all the success on the international stage, Russia is sliding back to militarized uniforms, cult images and controlled speech at home.

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