But, 20 years after the downfall of the Soviet Union and the supposed retirement of Kremlinology, the science of trying to figure out what’s really going on behind those thick red walls is prospering again.
Why has Prime Minister Vladimir Putin been so quiet? What does it mean when a former Putin cabinet minister, Alexei Kudrin, talks about creating a liberal opposition?
And what’s the story behind the firing this week of the top management at one of Russia’s more respected magazines?
That last incident looked to a lot of Russian journalists like a signal. It’s not what we say in public, it’s what we do behind the scenes, the authorities seemed to be warning them. But this also could have been the initiative of a loyal member of the inner circle — in this case, the owner of the magazine — trying to anticipate his patron’s wrath and moving first. There’s a long Russian — and Soviet — tradition of that. Or, possibly, it was just because someone in power doesn’t like bad taste.
Classic Russian tactic?
The magazine is called Kommersant Vlast, and it’s owned by one of the richest and most well-connected men in Russia, Alisher Usmanov. The publication and its affiliated daily newspaper, called Kommersant, have been increasingly critical of the Kremlin in the past few weeks.
The latest issue of the magazine broke new ground. It carried a photo of a ballot on which was written an obscenity directed at Putin. When he saw it, Usmanov fired the editor and general director.
Swear words don’t appear in respectable publications here, in large type. But Russian journalists immediately began to suspect a darker motive behind the firing. They feared that those in power, whose pronouncements have been so modest in public, were finding an indirect way to deliver a telling response. That has been a classic tactic throughout Russian history.
Alexei Venediktov, editor in chief of Echo Moskvy radio, tweeted that it’s unlikely that the top managers at Kommersant Vlast would have lost their jobs had the insult been directed at anyone besides Putin. Others quickly agreed.
Then, late Tuesday, another of Russia’s richest men — Mikhail Prokhorov, owner of the New Jersey Nets — said he was going to make a bid to buy Kommersant from Usmanov.
Prokhorov announced Monday that he intends to challenge Putin in the March 4 presidential election. If Usmanov was sending a message with the firings, Prokhorov seems to be sending one back.