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The Kremlin Goes Retro

  • Brian Whitmore

The tandem is back!

The tandem is back!

Sure it was awkward, strange, and kind of ridiculous.

But there was also something a bit retro about the video the Kremlin released over the weekend showing President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev pumping iron and having breakfast together in Sochi.

A tandem photo op? Are you serious? Didn't those go out of fashion back in 2011 when Medvedev was pretending to be president?

In addition to spawning a whole slew of Internet memes, online jokes, and snarky tweets, the short video has also sparked a wave of head-scratching about what kind of message the Kremlin was trying to send.

There has even been speculation that Putin may be considering reviving the tandem when his current term expires in 2018 -- which seems highly unlikely, to say the least.

Nevertheless, Gazeta.ru noted in an editorial that the last time such a video appeared was when Putin and Medvedev took a fishing trip together in Astrakhan in August 2011 -- just one month before Putin announced his intention to return to the presidency.

The editorial also noted that coverage of Medvedev on state media has been heavier and more positive than usual lately, and suggested that returning him to the Kremlin would allow the regime to gradually change policy "without losing face."

Wishful thinking, perhaps, but the meme is definitely out there in relatively liberal media outlets.

More realistically, the Gazeta.ru editorial also suggested that a big government shake-up may be coming and Putin could have been sending a message that the prime minister was safe.

Whatever the Kremlin's goals, they are likely to remain opaque. But less murky is what the video appears to reveal about the regime.

Primarily, it shows that it is running out of tricks and ideas and is completely clueless about how to deal with the crisis it has placed itself in.

It has no idea how to keep the economy afloat in an era of low oil prices. It has no idea how to extract itself from the quagmire in eastern Ukraine.

In a recent commentary, Mikhail Fishman, editor in chief of Slon.ru, called the Putin-Medvedev workout video a ritualistic and "mechanical reproduction of things that have worked in the past -- or were perceived to have worked."

They worked, that is, back in the days when oil was at record highs, the Russian economy was growing at 8 percent, and Putin could handpick a pliant successor.

"The system has ruled out any discussions about the future," Fishman wrote. "And when you have no perspective about what might happen, not to mention any idea about how to plan for it, even your capability to fantasize begins to wither."

LIkewise, the Moscow-based political commentator Stanislav Belkovsky said recently that Putin is seeking to freeze and ossify the political system.

"He believes his task is to preserve the situation, to fill in the foundation of this sprawling building with liquid nitrogen or something of this order, so the current age is sufficient," Belkovsky told Slon.ru.

And one other important thing the male-bonding-video redux shows is just how vulnerable the regime -- and Putin -- feel at the moment.

"Staged photos and videos like this weekend's gym session are something of a barometer of Putin's insecurity," Amanda Taub wrote in Vox.

"Over the past year, Putin's popularity ratings have been sky high and the staged Putin adventure photos have been a bit less frequent -- possibly because his invasion of Crimea essentially served as a real-life contribution to the genre."

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or

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