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The bitterest pill of all: There are historic reasons why Medvedev's sidelining is hard to swallow

Dmitri Medvedev and Vladimir Putin Bowing Heads TogetherAndrei Kolesnikov, the Kommersant correspondent who perhaps gets closest to Vladimir Putin of any journalist, once told me about the time he asked the prime minister why the Russian media didn't report more freely on politics.

Putin responded that he understood the problem ­ but that society, as he saw it, wasn't "ready" for unfettered footage of what really goes on in the corridors of power. And in a way, Putin was right.
Dmitry Medvedev's nomination of Putin for president and his revelation that the two had reached an agreement years ago succeeded where investigative reporters and oppositionists had failed ­ Medvedev's actions cracked the facade of televised coverage. During Saturday's United Russia convention, the two members of the tandem effectively declared that the country's democratic institutions were Potemkin villages: While keeping up appearances was necessary, ultimately, one man ruled Russia ­ and it didn't matter whether he was president or prime minister.

Peering into the gaping crack in their television sets, Medvedev's would-be "electorate" ­ those savvy, self-sufficient, urban members of the elite ­ were dismayed and sickened by what they saw.

Bloggers started unfollowing Medvedev on Twitter. Even his aide, Arkady Dvorkovich, tweeted that there was nothing to be happy about.

An IT manager friend of mine, who is the sort of person who would naturally gravitate toward a leader like Medvedev, confessed to me in his kitchen that he felt disgusted with himself for trusting that, for all his limitations, Medvedev was actually serious about modernization. "How could he do this to me?" the friend said, as he sadly sipped another glass of whisky.

Another friend, a journalist, referred to historical instances of dual rule to describe the expecta- tions Russians had of Medvedev. In one infamous case, Ivan the Terrible temporarily left the throne to a malleable Tartar prince called Simeon Bekbulatovich, who "ruled" the Zemschina for 11 months while Ivan built up his Oprichnina theocracy from Alexandrovskaya Sloboda. Then Ivan got tired of his Oprichnina, returned to his Moscow throne, and thanked Simeon for keeping his seat warm ­ by giving him a provincial post in Tver. A more successful example was that of Mikhail Romanov, who was just 16 when he was crowned tsar in 1613. For the next six years, Russia was governed by his father, Fyodor, who was barred from the throne because he had earlier been forced to join the Orthodox church. Mikhail eventually grew up and became a fully-fledged ruler ­ regaining control over the regions and reforming the army.

Before Saturday's congress, people were still wondering whether Medvedev would be remembered as another Michael Romanov, or another Simeon. Afterward, some Muscovites were feeling so ashamed that they talked about leaving the country.

How could they have been so wrong?

These supporters were not naive, after all. They had already reconciled themselves with Russia's "sovereign democracy" concept, and they were cool with managed elections and even Kremlin-fabricated parties. They were aware that Medvedev was a president who ruled in Putin's shadow. But they also hoped that the set-up aimed somehow to eventually wean Russia off of personalized power, and that the Pinocchio puppet was on course to become a real boy.

The fact that Medvedev was never meant to be that was a hard pill to swallow. What happened last weekend was that the curtain fell to reveal how decisions are really made in the corridors of power.

Unfortunately, sometimes we need the illusion of Potemkin village-style democracy, as it's better than none at all.

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