Staunton, March 19 – Many view the Gelendzhik palace case as Aleksey Navalny does in his film about it, but in fact, Vladimir Pastukhov says, that structure and its evolving meaning are part of “the personal drama of Putin who simultaneously cannot break away from power … but cannot any longer remain in complete charge.
When Putin says that he “feels himself like a slave in the galleys,” the London-based Russian analyst says, “he is speaking the truth. He has neither the culture of service not a maniacal drive to rule, and therefore he views power as a heavy cross and a suitcase without handles at one and the same time” (novayagazeta.ru/articles/2021/03/19/praskoveevskie-nebesa).
Such a burden is both heavy and hard to throw off, Pastukhov continues, “and it is dangerous.” And the story of the construction of the Gelendzhik Palace highlights that reality for Putin not only by virtue of its and his current state but because of the evolution of its construction and his plans for it.
Early on in his presidency, Putin thought he could after a time become a Russian counterpart to China’s Deng Xioping and move to Gelendzhik after dispensing of most of his presidential duties and intervene only when it appeared essential and necessary. But he has learned that “Russia isn’t China” and that that possibility is thus foreclosed to him.
His desire to do that has run into Russian realities, a fact that has often been commented upon in discussions about what will come “after Putin.” But Pastukhov argues that the Gelendzhik history shows that “in a certain sense, ‘the post-Putin era’ has already arrived” because he exists simultaneously in two states.”
“On the one hand, purely formally, he hasn’t gone anywhere and remains the central figure of the power pyramid … but on the other hand, by ascending into the skies above Gelendzhik, he rules there, without being in contact with reality or getting involved in the mundane affairs of power.”
“By inertia,” Pastukhov continues, “everyone supposes that if someone ordered the dispatch of Skripal, Navalny or someone else, then this decision must have been taken at the very top.” That may be true, “but the specific feature of the present time … is that the machine of terror works automatically and Putin isn’t needed for its functioning.”
This means that there has been formed “alongside Putin ‘a political bot’ which imitates a living power which already works in correspondence with its algorithms but at the same time remains completely unnoticed and as a result is not a factor studied by Russian politics,” despite all the attention that subject routinely gets.
“This ‘political bot,’” Pastukhov continues, “which consists of a faceless small club of administrative and financial chains and a primitive ideological program of survival, long ago already represents a greater threat for the future of Russia than any of the decisions of the president.”
And what is perhaps even worse, it is “step by step developing the habits of life without Putin.”
Pastukhov draws these conclusions after rejecting Navalny’s argument that Gelendzhik is all about corruption, an insistence that may have won the opposition leader support in the population but that does not allow an adequate assessment of what the palace and Putin’s links to it mean.
“The main secret of ‘the Putin-Rotenberg palace’ is not whom it belongs or doesn’t but for what it is needed or more precisely was needed because now it isn’t” in anything like the way it was to Putin and others in the past.
Neither Putin nor Rotenberg nor anyone else is the owner of the palace, Pastukhov says, because “to begin with, strictly striking the institution of private property itself has been destroyed.” It is allocated only for “temporary use” not by the state owner as was the case in Soviet times but by “an amorphous, semi-mafia syndicate” lacking clear legal definition.
Thus, Putin as long as he is president can have as many palaces as he wants; but once he leaves office, they “turn to dust. And in this sense, to describe what has happened in terms of ‘bribery’ or ‘corruption’ is counter-productive.” It is equivalent to calling Egyptian pharaohs corrupt for building the pyramids.
“The result of 20 years of Putin’s rule in Russia has been the formation of a special kind of ‘corporative’ property of the ruling clan which jointly controls practically all significant shares in the country.” This collective property is not exactly like most Soviet state property, but it closely resembles “the legal regime of collective farms.”
That is, no one owns it forever; but dividing it up on a death or with a departure from the kolkhoz is extremely difficult. In short, as long as Putin is in power, he “owns” it in the sense that he controls it. Once, he leaves, he does not own anything at all, a powerful incentive to remain in place.
Putin’s attitude toward Gelendzhik has evolved over time. When according to the most probable account he began thinking about it, in 2005-2006, he envisioned a future for himself much like Deng’s and a place like this palace as precisely the kind of place from which he could exercise that kind of power -- especially as then no one though of a president for life in Russia.
But by 2010, Pastukhov says, “it had become finally clear to Putin that Russia is not China” and that he could not play that role. He first tried trading places with Medvedev only to discover the shortcomings in that and then amended the constitution so he can remain in office for life, something that devalues Gelendzhik completely.
(He did think in the run up to the Sochi Olympiad in 2014 that he could use it as a magnificent guest house for senior guests. But because of Russian behavior, there were none of those in attendance, thus eliminating the palace’s utility in that regard.)
And so the palace at Gelendzhik resembles a clinically dead man being kept alive by artificial means. It no longer has a purpose. Putin doesn’t need it but he can’t get rid of it either. His earlier dreams have dissipated and with them the usefulness of such a place. But it still stands there, reminding those who look closely of Putin’s vanished dream.