Comrade Putin Knows Best

Amid the clutter of a makeshift studio, Marianna Maksimovskaya, one of Russia's best-known TV anchors, is getting ready for her evening newscast. But tonight she's not wearing her regular gray suit; she's dressed in black pants and a turtleneck, looking somewhat like a guerrilla broadcaster--which she's just become. Only hours before, allies of President Vladimir Putin evicted Maksimovskaya and dozens of her colleagues from one of the country's leading broadcast stations, NTV, in a hostile takeover. Now the rebellious journalists are on the run. A friendly station with a small viewership has given them a temporary home, and Maksimovskaya is furiously typing a script. "OK, let's stop messing around here," she snaps to her skeleton crew when it can't find news reports. The show starts 15 minutes late, Maksimovskaya misses some cues, but she projects an air of professionalism. "Last night, on the eighth floor of our TV building, the takeover finally took place," she tells viewers in bland anchorese. Behind the camera, however, Grigory Krichevsky, another ousted journalist, is more opinionated. "They've finished off democracy in Russia," he says.

If so, many Muscovites seem not to care. Last week Gazprom, a natural-gas monopoly controlled by the Kremlin, replaced Maksimovskaya and her NTV colleagues with a more government-friendly team--effectively silencing Russia's only remaining independent national broadcast station. Gazprom-appointed management also took over a major newspaper and magazine (following story). But the response from the public was, for the most part, a big shrug."All these programs and publications keep shouting that they are the only independent voices," said Galina Moshkova, a psychologist in Moscow. "It's all propaganda." As far as she's concerned, NTV was just the mouthpiece for a self-interested tycoon, Vladimir Gusinsky. Lots of other Russians evidently feel the same way. In a recent poll, 57 percent said that they approved of restoring censorship. And these days there are even plenty of Russian journalists--many of them fans of Putin's strong leadership--who interpret freedom of the press as the freedom to fawn all over the government. "The only real taboo at RTR [Russia's main state-owned TV network] is that we don't say bad things about the president" as NTV sometimes did, says RTR host Aleksandr Gurnov. "A journalist may think he's bad, but you're not allowed to say that. It's like Hyde Park Corner--you're not allowed to say bad things about the queen."

Actually, what's happening in Russia today resembles something much closer to home--the old Soviet Union. A little over a year after Putin's election Russia is undergoing an extraordinary revival of Soviet-era habits, reflexes and rhetoric. What's being selectively salvaged from Soviet days is the idea of an authoritarian state with leaders who decide what's "best" for the people--a state whose interests seem to take precedence over pluralism and press freedom.

Putin's prescription for Russia's many ills is the "strengthening of the state." Internally that translates into a political system organized tightly around the president, his powerful Kremlin administration and custom-tailored Unity political party, and a new power elite drawn largely from the old KGB and the military. Externally it means the pursuit of policies to undercut American dominance and reassert Russia's great-power status. The leader of the liberal Yabloko party, Grigory Yavlinsky, says: "Putin is creating a bureaucratic police state." If so, he's doing it with public consent: his popularity ratings still hover at around 70 percent, higher than George W. Bush's.

In many ways it's a paradoxical undertaking. Few Russians really believe their country is headed for a wholesale restoration of totalitarianism. No one talks seriously about bringing back Marxist ideology, central planning or the all-encompassing welfare state. "Most of the country has changed dramatically," argues Andrei Kortunov, a Moscow political analyst. New economic choices, wider access to information and the freedom to travel have all left their mark. And unlike the Soviet days, people can still speak out without fear of being thrown into the gulag. Indeed, Putin tries to combine his strong-state rhetoric with plenty of upbeat talk about democratic values and press freedom.

Still, Putin and the country's political elite clearly believe that freedom is overrated. Last week the Unity Party, Putin's political organization, announced that it was merging with three other parties--a move that critics say amounts to the creation of a "new Politburo." The media also display fewer alternatives in programming. "Watching TV in Russia is becoming a Soviet experience again," says Aleksei Venediktov, another opposition journalist. "The main difference is that now there are commercials." Putin's supporters say that he's simply following a popular longing for stability, and polls seem to confirm that. The vast majority of Russians consistently express regret for the breakup of the U.S.S.R., as well as enduring respect for leaders such as Leonid Brezhnev or Vladimir Lenin. (In a recent survey, 79 percent said that they regret the collapse of the U.S.S.R.) That's one reason that Gurnov, the journalist at Russian state TV, recently decided to revive a Soviet-era program on foreign affairs. " 'International Panorama' for Russians is like a household name," says Gurnov. "I chose the name primarily because of nostalgia. It's like Volkswagen making the new Beetle."

But there's more at work here than a mere longing for the past. Putin is exploiting an angry backlash against the West's often heavy-handed attempts to make Russia over in its open, democratic image in the 1990s. Today, amid the debris of those hopes, many Russians consider Western prescriptions--from free markets to free speech--to have been a malign plot.

Perhaps the most unnerving throwback to Sovietism is the budding Putin personality cult. Putin enthusiasts around the country have been printing up songs and poems glorifying his mighty deeds. Viktor Yurakov, the self-described "ideology chief" of the Petersburg chapter of the Unity Party, published 10,000 copies of a pamphlet for schoolchildren that included a heroic portrait of Putin. Little Vladimir, the pamphlet explains, "wasn't afraid of anyone and never tricked anyone." Yurakov is unapologetic. "We tell them about the tasks of the party, where it's going, what it wants to do."

Nostalgia for the U.S.S.R. has been widespread in Russia for years. But while Putin's predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, generally tried to hold it in check, Putin has made the nostalgia act part of his program. Especially when it comes to another favorite theme--the hints of a revived cold war with Washington. Last week a security-police spokesman accused a leading member of the Chechen separatist movement of being a "CIA agent."

Ultimately, it's unclear whether the retro trend is a resumption of old national habits, or merely a temporary lurch backward. Yuli Rybakov, a liberal deputy in the Parliament, argues that 10 years of democracy can't be expected to overcome 70 years of Bolshevism and centuries of czarist autocracy before that: "The totalitarian mind-set is still an organic part of public consciousness." On the other hand, he says, his recent visit to Cuba also gave him perspective. "It gave me the shivers. It made me realize what foreigners must have felt in the old days when they came to the U.S.S.R. Despite everything, we still live in a free country compared to Cuba." A pause. "For the time being, at least."