A man, his dog, and his watch. (Photo via)
Russian president/emperor Vladimir Putin is all about the big gesture, the one that lets you know exactly who's in charge. (Spoiler: Vladimir Putin is in charge.) When he’s not shirtlessly fishing, shirtlessly riding a horse through the Siberian wilds, or firing a crossbow at a whale from a motorboat (he kept his shirt on for that one), he’s passing through the provinces doling out luxury watches to delighted peasants. Or, when he's feeling more extravagant, simply throwing them in wet cement or lobbing them off bridges.
Putin officially only pulls in about $180,000 a year, which—shamefully—is less than what David Cameron, prime minister of "a small island to which no one pays any attention," makes. However, Putin's watch collection alone is valued at over $700,000, meaning those alleged ownership stakes in multiple oil and gas companies must be serving Vlad pretty well.
The sweetest watch in his collection is this $500,000 number from A. Lange & Söhne, described by the company as a "peerless masterpiece," just like its celebrated Russian owner. Sitting next to that is the slightly less impressive $15,000 Breguet Marine and a number of Blancpains—throwaway pieces that go for around $12,000 a pop. The great shirtless one is also a fan of Patek Phillippe (particularly the white gold variety), whose suitably high-end Swiss advertising slogan is, “You never actually own a Patek Phillippe. You merely look after it for the next generation.”
The message behind these watches is pretty obvious: in a country that reintroduced the term "oligarchy" to the wider world, Putin needs to remind his people that he is in charge; that if Russia is a mafia state, he is its capo di tutti capi.
He uses his watches as props in this pantomime, just as the Russian opposition uses them as a symbol of his corruption—the Russian United Democratic Party made this short video, which at 1:02 shows Putin throwing one of his expensive timepieces into wet cement. There it sits, waiting to be swallowed and eventually driven over. At other points in the video, Putin's shown deciding—seemingly on a whim—to give watches to strangers. The lucky serfs shown in the clip are the son of a shepherd and a metal worker; both received a Blancpain Aqualung, which retails at over $10,000. The shepherd’s boy was given the watch in an open display of patronage, while the metal worker just came right out and asked Putin for it. In the same way the Russian tsars gave Faberge eggs to their family members to indicate their power and wealth, Putin hands out watches. (By the way, Faberge eggs are still ridiculous status symbols for Russia's ruling class. The more things change, etc.)
Vlad looking beefy in one of his watches. (Photo via)
This is a perfect expression of the way the Russian president demonstrates his power. As the Bureau of Investigative Journalism outlined last year, Putin is believed to use luxury yachts, hangs out in a $550 million palace overlooking the Black Sea, and reportedly owns shares in three major oil and gas companies. The Russian political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky thinks Putin could be worth up to $70 billion, which would make him one of the richest people in the world. All of this is kept hidden slightly out of view, but Putin knows that wealth and power go hand in hand. So, while on the macro level he's carving up his country’s resources and sharing them with his cronies, on a micro level he's demonstrating his power by throwing away objects that are, to him, mere trinkets. “I am immensely wealthy, but wealth has no dominion over me,” is what he's not-so-subtly saying.
The use of wealth to impress, terrify, and reinforce power is as old as power or wealth (i.e., OLD). In his essay “The Praise of Folly,” written in 1509, the Dutch philosopher Desiderius Erasmus writes about noble houses that would use banquets to demonstrate their considerable wealth. Guests would be brought in front of a feast, but instead of sitting down to eat, they would watch as that banquet was destroyed in front of them. A second ton of food was then laid out and the guests would eat, possessed by the knowledge that their host was truly wealthy, because he could afford to just throw a bunch of food and wine away, and thus truly powerful. It was the culinary equivalent of chucking a watch in some cement.
These small demonstrations often speak of larger things, the exercise of POWER, in the kind of all-caps-you-can’t-escape-these-structures way that Michel Foucault wrote about. A friend’s mother once described an encounter—which she insisted was true—with the mass-murdering Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. A Kenyan, she was working in a hotel in Nairobi in the 1970s when the then-leader rolled in with his entourage. During dinner, Amin beckoned to some waiters, who brought a number of cages over to his table. Amin opened his cage, which had a live monkey inside, picked up the animal, smashed its head against the table, and ate it.
This demonstration of small-scale savagery was indicative of the savagery Amin would inflict on his country as a whole. Putin hasn't got quite the same taste for animal cruelty as Amin, but his small demonstrations of power are matched by his larger ones. After all, if you are with him, you will be richly rewarded, but if you threaten him, you will—like his opponent Mikhail Khodorkovsky—be sent to prison indefinitely. The power dynamic is reinforced by everything Putin does.
Some more sweet watch action in an uncomfortable three-way handshake from 2005 with Tayyip Erdogan and Silvio Berlusconi, who were then the heads of Turkey and Italy, respectively. (Photo via)
Running through all of this is the idea of patronage in its various expressions. If you look after your own people, you will remain in power, and if you show them that you are not to be messed with, you will stop them from rising against you. Of course, history has shown us that the "people" rulers look after don't tend to be the masses. In sixth-century France, the Merovingian dynasty was brought to an end because its rulers no longer had the wealth to pay their political supporters. They ran out of bribes.
This sort of back-scratching deals go on today all over the world. The George W. Bush administration’s carve-up of Iraq and its ties to, among others, Halliburton, are large-scale examples of this, but these things begin on a small scale. The British prime minister’s personal patronage is clearly expressed by the fact that he or she can give and take away cabinet jobs at the drop of a hat. We think of this as entirely normal, but in fact it's a worrying concentration of power. It's a way of ensuring loyalty and good behavior among the ranks of those who are mutually invested in your authority.
In 2010, the price of building roads in Moscow was recently compared to the average price paid in Germany, and it turned out the Russian capital's roads cost nearly 17 times as much while being in much worse condition. A year later, Sergei Sobyanin, the then-mayor of Moscow, decided to repave some street and replace the asphalt, which reportedly gave off toxic gases when the sun came out, with brick. Fortunately, his wife Irina was involved in the brick business, meaning Sobyanin could reward her financially while also protecting his city from an almost certain spate of deaths caused by asphalt, the world's most commonly used road surface.
There is another historical model of how to be a leader, but it's one that is generally ignored and often misrepresented. Cnut, the Danish king who ruled Britain and Scandinavia at the beginning of the 11th century, one day famously taught his fawning courtiers a lesson by taking his throne out onto the beach. The tide came in, as it does, and passed Cnut. When I was told this story in school, the teacher explained to us that this was the action of an arrogant king who thought he could turn back the tide, when in fact it was the exact opposite—Cnut was showing his people that there were limits to his power and that he should not be treated like a God.
Putin, who recently had a parody painting of him and Dmitry Medvedev wearing women’s underwear seized in a dawn raid, cannot tolerate the idea that his authority is limited or that he should ever act with any humility. He can give a peasant a watch, but he can’t give them any real power. His government’s recent decision to demonize homosexuality shows that he will continue to find new groups to oppress and new ways to express his power. In this, he is not alone among world leaders. It’s just a shame that he and so many of his fellow rulers aren’t more like Cnut.
Follow Oscar on Twitter: @oscarrickettnow
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