Is Putin On the Way Out? (with Zarina Zabrisky)
Rumors swirl around the Russian dictator. Are any of them true?
THIS WEEK, unnamed individuals in the immediate orbit of Vladimir Putin tested positive for covid-19. The Russian dictator did not, or so he claims, but he is self-isolating, just to be sure. He even scrapped a plan to attend a meeting in the Tajik capital of Dushanbe, opting to participate remotely.
We have no way of confirming any of this, of course. If Putin got the coronavirus, there’s zero chance he’d say so. For all we know, he decided he didn’t want to schlep all the way to Tajikistan, and this was a convenient excuse. What we do know is that, unlike the compromised American politicians who do his bidding, the Russian president takes the pandemic very seriously.
Back in the spring of 2020, when Donald John Trump was promising things would be better by Easter and poo-pooing masks, Putin could be found in a fucking hazmat suit, like the Kremlin was The Hot Zone. He got vaccinated as soon as he could—opting for the Russian vaccine, according to the press, called Sputnik V, which I’ve joked is 98 percent Stoli (and certainly isn’t as effective as the West’s varieties). I would not be surprised if Putin eschewed the homegrown vax for the superior, imported variety, as Russians of means do with their vodka. In any case, the Little Colonel is not going to let a pesky virus take him down.
Although he’s held different titles, Putin has been in charge of Russia for almost 22 years. Because of a tweak he engineered in the Russian Constitution, he is now eligible to keep the gig for 12 more. If he survives that long, he will be 80 years old, and his reign would have been longer than that of Stalin (just shy of 31 years) and Michael Romanov (32 and a half), and as long as that of Catherine the Great. He’d have to stay in power until his late 90s to eclipse the half-century reign of Ivan the Terrible—long odds, to be sure, but if Putin were still around in 2050, would anyone be that surprised?
There are those expert observers who, reading the tea leaves, believe that Putin is on the outs in Russia, that the Trump op was overreach, that people are sick of him, and that he will be removed and replaced by an even more reactionary hardliner—like, say, the former FSB director Nikolai Patrushev. The ex-KGB officer Yuri Shvets has suggested this, on Zev Shalev’s Narativ. The former FBI director of counterintelligence, Frank Figliuzzi, floated a similar theory in his “sit-down” with Lincoln’s Bible on The World Beneath podcast. But in his excellent book Striking Back: Overt and Covert Options to Combat Russian Disinformation, the journalist Thomas Kent writes, of a possible worse successor, “A British intelligence officer who contributed to this study said that he struggles with whether there are truly worse characters in the Kremlin wings, or if that idea, too, is a creation of Russian disinformation.”
As with all things Putin, it’s impossible to know what’s true. Does he really have Parkinson’s? Does he really have Asperger’s? Is he really a pedophile? What prompted him to order the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko? How much personal wealth has he amassed these last two decades? What’s the deal with him and Semion Mogilevich? Are there forces in the Kremlin working to oust him?
Is Vladimir Putin really on the way out?
On today’s episode of the PREVAIL podcast, I asked my friend Zarina Zabrisky— the Russian-born American author, activist, journalist, and news analyst— what she thought about the rumors of Putin’s demise.
“From your lips to God’s ears,” Zarina said. “I wish it was true. But nothing from what I hear or I know, unfortunately, confirms this theory. Not when you look at what’s happening. . .There’s lots of rumors going around all the time—that he’s getting married, that he’s having triplets, that he’s not even him, there’s this third double. . . these kind of things you just filter out and don’t pay any attention to anymore. I don’t see any grounds to the Parkinson’s thing. He’s extremely healthy. I mean, the guy doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke, he’s been doing martial arts all his life, he’s a health nut. I’m not happy to say it, but I’m afraid he’ll outlive all of us.”
In other words, Putin is the Tom Brady of international politics. Hyper-focus on health, longevity, and his despot’s craft have enabled him to play at a high level and win big, defying the odds.
But Father Time is undefeated, as they say in sports. One day, decades from now, we may be streaming a movie called The Death of Putin, which Netflix will tell us is a comedy. Ivan the Terrible, who created the secret state police, finally died after 50 years. Covid or not, even Putin won’t last forever.
Description: Greg Olear and his friend, the author and activist Zarina Zabrisky, talk Pussy Riot, Soviet university core curricula, hybrid war, Putin’s future in Russia, and why they put fiction writing on hold to report on Trump/Russia. Plus: “The Sound of Music,” sort of.
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Photo credit: The Kremlin, this week. Putin on his virtual meeting.