David Remnick examines how effective the resistance to Putin's next presidency can be.
On the night of November 20th, two weeks before elections for the State Duma, Vladimir Putin set aside the cares of the Kremlin and went to the Olympic SportComplex for an ultimate-fighting match—a "no rules" heavyweight bout between a Cyclopean Russian named Feodor (the Last Emperor) Yemelianenko and a self-described anarchist from Olympia, Washington, named Jeff (the Snowman) Monson. The bout was broadcast nationally on Rossiya-2, one of the main state television channels. Putin, wearing a blue suit and no tie, was at ringside. He has always been eager to project the macho posture of a muzhik, a real man. He has had himself photographed riding horses bare-chested, tracking tigers, shooting a whale with a crossbow, piloting a firefighting jet, swimming a Siberian river, steering a Formula One race car, befriending Jean-Claude Van Damme, and riding with a motorcycle gang. Once, on national television, he tried to bend a frying pan with his bare hands. He did not quite succeed, but the effort was appreciated. And now ultimate fighting: the beery crowd of twenty thousand—some prosperous, some less so—were his own, Putin's people.
Yemelianenko and Monson were of a rough equivalence: heads shaved, two enormous sacks of rocks, though the Russian was distinguished by his unstained skin; Monson had tattoos from ankle to neck, including two in crowd-friendly Cyrillic—svoboda and solidarnost'. The gesture got him nowhere. Almost from the start, the Russian dominated the fight. Yemelianenko, with a deft and powerful kick, snapped a bone in Monson's leg, causing the American to limp pitifully. But, even as Yemelianenko took command, steadily reducing Monson to a swollen, bloody pulp—a source of pleasure to the crowd—it was hard to tell if Putin was enjoying himself. The camera flashed to him now and then. He barely betrayed a smile. His face, now smoothed with Botox and filler (it is said), is more enigmatic than ever. What was more, he had larger concerns. He knew that, no matter how hard his operatives tried to get out the vote in the provinces and massage the results, the Kremlin party, United Russia, was going to lose ground.