Monday, March 3, 2014


Many who have held supreme power recall the sense of finding themselves inside an invisible but impenetrable bubble. Boris Yeltsin in his memoirs complained about what he called a “rubber balloon,” and a friend of mine, who was once close to Mikhail Gorbachev, described to me his encounters with the USSR's last president in almost the same words. President Clinton, like Yeltsin, complained about this effect. It is difficult to get a sensible picture of the world when you are surrounded day after day, year after year by a circle of approval-seeking advisors. Bad enough in the US, imagine how much worse it must be in Russia where power is traditionally centralized and concentrated in the top executive. Fortunately, the US President is limited to only two terms.

If Yeltsin’s bubble was made out of some invisible rubber, Putin’s, especially after the Olympics in Sochi, is made of far sturdier and more modern stuff. I imagine an array of life-like screens flashing nightmare scenes of victimized and humiliated compatriots, alternating with the Russian version of The Triumph of the Will (Bondarchuk’s recent Stalingrad or some grandiloquent film epic by Nikita Mikhalkov).  For fourteen years Putin identified his own person with the destiny of Russia, and this is not counting his previous career of service under oath in the Services. Now he finds himself caged in his own presidential bubble – a humiliated superman of Russia – and is very hard for anyone to reach.

His friend and colleague on the political Olympus, Angela Merkel, tried. She called him. They talked. What of it? She later telephoned Obama and told him that she found Putin unreachable. Relying on a White House source in the know,  the NYT (03.02.14) cited Merkel as saying to Obama: “He is in another world.” How can we get him back ours?

The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 comes to mind. How remarkable it is that Nikita Khrushchev had the presence
tof mind, inner courage, and some deep humanity that had somehow survived Stalin’s tutelage, to back off and step away from the brink. How equally remarkable that Jack Kennedy had the instinct to go against his advisors and to have the political courage and patience for defusing the crisis. Despite the obvious differences, the Cuban Missile Crisis was the Crimean crisis of its own day, though of course, much more dangerous in the short run. Russia felt encircled by the might of the US and its Western allies. In those days, before the Soviet ICBMs became truly operational, the US could reach Russia with bombers and rockets carrying nuclear charges (some were stationed a stone’s throw from Crimea in Turkey), and all the USSR had then was a strategic bomber that could reach the continental US but did not hold enough fuel to return home from its mission. Some general suggested to Khrushchev that it could land in Mexico after bombing the US, to which Khrushchev retorted with characteristic brash humor, saying something to the effect that Mexico wasn’t Russia’s mother-in-law. But of course, both Khrushchev and Kennedy, especially Kennedy, were only beginning their careers at the top – mere rookies compared to Putin with his fourteen years in the driver’s seat.

‘Travesty’ by Konstantin Altunin,
The main question is: how to shake Putin out of his bubble? During the Cuban Missile Crisis, a special role was given the secret back channels, and there was no direct line between the Kremlin and the White House. Now, of course, there is plenty – chat away! President Obama called Putin twice. Like teens in love, they spoke for two and a half hours in two days! Chancellor Merkel called Putin. They chatted for an hour. Nothing worked. Direct communication has failed. Clearly, Putin is convinced the West is inviting him to play the game with loaded dice, and should he agree, would cheat him  and then, his worst horror, given the latest homophobic legislation in Russia, will set him up, a bachelor, with some LGBT type…

Let us hope he is wrong on both counts. So, how can he be convinced that the West is not scheming to cheat him? Let us invite Russia to join NATO and EU. And perhaps, just to break the ice, Obama should solemnly promise Putin that he won’t have to have sex with a gay guy. Then, after all of this has been settled and the crisis diffused, the world should let Ukraine, its post-Soviet territorial integrity assured, to sort out its own maddening mess.

Copyright © 2014 by Gregory Freidin (

PS.  "Travesty" by Konstantin Altunin shows President Putin wearing a tight-fitting slip and brushing the hair of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who is wearing knickers and a bra. The painting was seized at a gallery in St. Petersburg in August 2013.