Is Russian President Vladimir Putin dead?
In fact, the Russian president supposedly breathed his last on Thursday, Oct. 26. The Putin we see now is thus actually his double, who, Solovey claims, has been filling in for the sickly real Putin for several months.
Few Russian or Western analysts believe General SVR and Solovey (who some say are one and the same person). After all, they have no concrete evidence supporting their sensational claims. They do provide remarkably detailed accounts of Putin’s supposed death that enhance their verisimilitude, but imaginative crackpots and secret police provocateurs would be expected to do the same.
The problem is that Solovey strikes one as anything but a crackpot or a dupe of the Federal Security Service. He has a biting sense of humor, speaks well, argues logically and generally comes across as the kind of professor every student would want. Other than his claims regarding Putin’s death and the supposed exile of Yevgeny Prigozhin, the deceased head of the mercenary Wagner Group, to an island off the coast of Venezuela, his analyses of Russia’s internal politics are invariably smart and incisive.
So, if Solovey isn’t a madman or a puppet, he must be one of two remaining possibilities.
As a would-be opposition leader who may or may not really believe that Putin is dead, Solovey may be determined to sow confusion in the ranks of Russian elites and among ordinary Russians, leading them to wonder whether the great leader is still alive and to question whether the man claiming to be Putin really is Putin — thereby undermining his legitimacy.
With Russia’s presidential elections scheduled for March 2024, popular doubt about Putin’s health and existence can only complicate the Kremlin’s plans regarding just who should run and what margin of victory should there be. Unsurprisingly, Putin’s spokesman, the ever-mendacious Dmitry Peskov, felt compelled to deny rumors of Putin’s death and the existence of Putin doubles as fake news. But, since Peskov is always assumed never to tell the truth, was the denial a confirmation, or was it really a denial?
The other possibility is that Solovey and General SVR are not bona fide independent democratic oppositionists, as they claim to be. They may in fact be agents of the security services or spokesmen for powerful elites able to provide Solovey — who lives in Moscow and, despite his savage criticism of Putin, has managed to avoid arrest — with protection. The intended effect of the death claim would be the same — doubt, confusion and delegitimation — but the fact that the instigators could be establishment elites has more worrisome implications for Putin and the political system.
Two democrats in cahoots with a handful of others in Russia can effectively spread rumors, but cannot upend the existing system. In contrast, elite efforts to delegitimize the current regime bespeak a significant crack within what appears to outside observers as a monolithic regime.
And that, in turn, means that the post-Putin power struggle has already broken out, even if the real Putin is still alive. It’s broken out because the elites, both those supporting Putin and those opposing him, believe that Putin is too enervated, too weak or too politically moribund to make a difference.
Would the elites providing cover to Solovey be democratically inclined or, at least, opposed to retaining the existing Putinite system? Given Russia’s political culture, given that its population has been taught to despise liberalism and democracy for over two decades, and given the high likelihood that establishment elites may be out to merely reform the system and not replace it, chances are that Solovey’s possible protectors are conservative reformers who would want to dismantle the worst aspects of Putinism and try to end the war against Ukraine before the number of Russian dead exceeds 300,000. Solovey himself describes his politics as liberal conservative, which may also be the appropriate modifiers to describe his protectors.
Regardless of whether Putin is physically dead or alive, the brouhaha over his rumored death clearly shows that he’s in serious trouble. Hundreds of thousands of Russians have read General SVR’s and Solovey’s claims. Many more are discussing them. Seeds of doubt about the “grandpa in the bunker,” as Putin’s critics call him, have been planted.
And just as the general and Solovey have no proof of Putin’s death, their critics have no proof of his life, as one can always claim that the man claiming to be the real Putin is really a doppelganger.
Russian politics is becoming even more bizarre than usual. Strap on your seatbelts: The next few weeks and months are likely to be even more full of surprises.