Video and Synopsis

Russia: Putin's Plan

The most popular leader in modern Russian history, President Vladimir Putin has brought the country new prosperity after a decade of drift and restored Russia’s standing as a world power. After two terms in office, though, Putin is supposed to step down.

But, as FRONTLINE/World correspondent Victoria Gamburg discovers in Russia, Putin has a new plan -- to give up the presidency but still hold on to power.

While the throngs of young supporters on hand to witness Putin announce his new plan seem wildly enthusiastic at the prospect, Gamburg wonders if those outside the gaze of Russian state television are buying the Kremlin’s message.

She follows a radio reporter friend named Saken as he covers a conference of Putin’s most vocal opponents -- an unlikely coalition of democrats, radicals and neo-Communists. They call themselves “Other Russia” and are united mainly by their disdain for Putin. 

“We’re not fighting to win elections now. We’re fighting to have elections,” says Garry Kasparov, the emerging face of Other Russia. Once the world’s greatest chess champion, Kasparov is now dedicating his life to bringing down Putin. At the close of the convention, Other Russia nominates Kasparov to be its first presidential candidate.

As one of several opposition candidates, Kasparov has also become a political target. Outside the conference hall, a crowd of young people has gathered to heckle him.

“We need Putin’s Russia,” they shout. “Kasparov, go back to America!”

Saken says the children have each been paid $4 by Kremlin-sponsored organizers to join the protest.

Despite the Kremlin’s tactics, Kasparov tries to take his campaign to the people, on the radio station Echo of Moscow’s program “Counterpunch.” Echo of Moscow is the last remaining media outlet that allows opposition leaders on the air.

“It’s the last voice … of all forces which are fighting the regime,” says Kasparov.

The problem is that only 2 percent of Russians listen to Echo, and Kasparov claims opposition leaders are blacklisted almost everywhere else.

When it comes to network television, many believe the Kremlin has the last word in deciding who gets on air. Vladimir Posner has worked for state television in Russia since the Soviet era and hosts one of Russia’s last live opinion programs. Off the air, he talks candidly with Gamburg about Putin’s means of remaining in power, but when the cameras start rolling, controversial opinions vanish. Everything seems to come from a very Kremlin-friendly point of view.

“Today, there is a golden boy in Russia, and that golden boy is Putin,” Posner tells Gamburg. “As long as he’s going to be golden, opposition, well, it’ll be there, it’ll make noise, but it’s not going to be able to get a lot of votes.”

Outside, the show’s audience says that they know little about the opinions of opposition leaders, but that is all right with them.

 “Kasparov is not my type. I don’t mind that I don’t see him on TV,” one woman says.

According to Posner, an avid follower of public opinion polls, the overwhelming majority of the country just does not care about freedom of speech.

So while Putin’s Russia is not the democracy many in the West hoped for, most Russians seem to prefer it to the hardships after Communism. And, in this election year, the Kremlin wants to make sure it stays that way.

To see how the process works, Gamburg travels on a midnight bus out of Moscow to a Kremlin-sponsored youth camp 300 kilometers away, where campers learn to demonize the Kremlin’s enemies. Her guide shows her to a field where youth from all over Russia have gathered for morning exercises and dancing to pop tunes. They are all part of a youth group called “Nashi,” which means “our people.”

It all seems quite innocent, but the Kremlin takes it very seriously. Nashi was founded a few years earlier, out of a fear that young people might be tempted by the opposition. On the main campground passageway, visitors
are greeted by pictures of the major opposition leaders in drag, including an image of Kasparov in a corset.

“These people are the fascists of our country. They betrayed Russia,” Gamburg’s guide tells her.

Some consider Nashi a throwback to Soviet youth leagues, complete with military training and mass weddings. Nashi’s founder even encourages newlyweds to fix Russia’s population problem by boarding a raft full of tents to make babies right away.

“We’re building the future of a great Russia. That’s our main goal,” one boy says. “We’re all patriots here.”

Back in Moscow, as the fall election season heats up, well-trained Nashi members have become a force in the streets, intimidating the Kremlin’s political opponents and flying the flag whenever called upon.

Opposition politicians are also finding it increasingly difficult to get on the presidential ballot. Every week, it seems, the Kremlin puts up new roadblocks, and, one by one, democratic hopefuls are eliminated.

Gamburg watches as Kasparov grows increasingly desperate, playing a complicated game with the Kremlin and the media in an attempt to raise his coalition’s profile. During a protest march, his plan pays off. He’s arrested.

“When the government is bringing thousands and thousands of special police troops from all over the country and literally introducing martial law in the center of Moscow, that’s a story,” Kasparov says.

The next day, his supporters plan another march in St. Petersburg. On her way to the protestors’ headquarters, Gamburg drives by thousands of riot police taking up positions all over downtown.

At the headquarters, Kasparov’s representative holds a press conference to draw attention to the Kremlin’s tactics. The strategy seems to be working: There are as many journalists there as marchers.

As the marchers make their way to the city center, the police move into position. Suddenly, a group of young men appear, holding up the flag of the banned national Bolshevik party. Seeing the flag, the police move in.

“Arrest everybody,” they say.

March organizers suspect that the “Bolsheviks” were planted by the police to give them an excuse to crack down on Kasparov’s group.

The confrontation was covered on the evening news, just as Kasparov had hoped, but it did not matter. A short time later, the Kremlin officially ended Kasparov’s presidential bid, keeping him off the ballot on a technicality.

“We can disagree whether it’s an authoritarian regime, a dictatorship. But it’s a regime that is undemocratic. Nobody argues that,” Kasparov says. “But Russia, I don’t think, yet has made its final choice.”

Toward the end of Gamburg’s time in Russia, President Putin revealed the latest part of his plan: He chose a young protégé, Dmitri Medvedev, to run as his successor. The next day, Medvedev made his first announcement -- Putin would be his prime minister.

“The only way to bring our plan to life is to work with our plan’s author, Vladimir Putin,” Medvedev says.

share your reactions

Well done. Intellectually honest, objective, entertaining. Thank you, Frontline.
In response to some critics: the reporter is not judging Putin. She clearly presents bare facts and two points of view: one of Nashi and another of Kasparov and co, allowing us to draw our own conclusions.

We see that Putin is a true post-Soviet style leader. He is not a saint. He brings with him the baggage of a former KGB man. It's inevitable. It is humanly impossible for him to escape temptations, mistakes and wrong decisions. But, at least, he is fundamentally a different kind of leader (compared to all his Soviet predecessors).

Perfecting the leadership of Russia is a process with growing pains. Putin's actions may lack democratic purity, but, recalling history, we should be grateful that his opponents are not in labor camps and are free to speak, if only they could scramble a few followers, who cared to listen.

70.2 % elected Putin's choice and are looking forward to Putin's plan. Why do Russian people like a strong leader? Excellent question. But the answer is of historic proportions. And, obviously, couldn't have been planned by producers of "Putin's plan".

However, it would be a great story... It would take us 1,020 years back, to 988. In my view, it is definitely for another time. For another movie.

I'm surprised that Frontline/World could put together such a lengthy piece on the state of democracy in Russia and not discuss the influence of the oil economy. Putin's entire rise to power has been predicated on taking control of Russia's tremendous oil resources. Let's not forget that he has locked up several prominent business men and reneged on many deals with Western companies that revamped Russia's ailing infrastructure. Part of the reason Putin has received so much support domestically is because Russians enjoy a better standard of living than before. Also, those who are really benefiting from all the money wouldn't dare to criticize Putin.I enjoyed this piece, but found it overall superficial.

Moscow, Russia
Greetings from Moscow, and thank you for the story. To my view it is so intelligent, as nothing that I have ever seen before. The ideas are clear, brought outstandingly, and - I think - fair. I would like to comment specially on two scenes.

1. Remarkable appearance of a woman, who says that Speaker , and "other men", as she added, are more sexy and interesting for her, than the leaders of the opposition. (That was the excuse for she's not bothered that opposition doesn't appear on TV). I think she just wanted to end up in a joking way (not to lie, not to refuse to answer, but to tell something to take the strain off). But what is revealing is the kind of a joke. Today Russian mass-culture exploits more the lowest instincts, encourages intellectuality to a smaller extent than was 10-15 years before, and, I would say, tends to erode the difference between good and bad (for example, the criminal song "Gop-stop" at every New Year show program for last years on First state channel).

2. Appearance of young woman journalist, in a bus, while returning from "Nashi" camp, when she says: "It is frightening. There's a feeling that it is something like a cult... I don't judge ("criticize") them. Yes I can understand them, though - for myself, such path I would not choose... But I'm not from Putin's generation, I'm from the Yeltsin's generation" (like I am, personally). This attitude - to be different but not to judge them - is typical for intelligent people today. I voted for Medvedev.

I had a chance to work on projects and seeing in the news V.Putin talking about these projects, and my heart was always compassionate, I couldn't criticize him. For his weight is heavy, and, if it can be said, weight is enormous. (And Vladimir Posner, and many Russians, may feel like this). Although I, personally, can not agree with established system.

Initially, Putin just continued the strategy of "oligarchs's" (several rich and powerful owners), and it included, among other terms, rude manipulating of the public opinion, which commenced since 1996 elections. But since 2003 he had actually made a State stronger in bargaining with oligarchs (at the high price he paid). Now moral qualities of his power may seem very poor. But - we have to admit - it always takes time, years and decades, for the complete new configuration (which still carries liberty) to begin to work.

I think that the story you've told provides an excellent insight into characteristics of the Putin's system in this transfer period. And the story teaches us, that suppressing the opposition is counterproductive for the spirit of country.

Thank you again, with all my appreciation and very best wishes.

It is great to see Russian people being exited about their country and their President. Specially the young people - the future of Russia. Why should we, Americans, be afraid of Russians being patriotic? It's an admirable quality in any nation. Hitler's Germany was not patriotic - they were fanatics. Nazi Germany was not a healthy nation - it was driven by Hitler's paranoia of hate and world domination. Russia just wants to develop into a normal country. It has a potential to become a great Nation.

Moscow, Russia

Not bad job, Victoria, really. To see something from the other point is a pretty useful thing. Unfortunately, it seems that Russians live in some kind of Soviet Union or in a society of Orwell's novel "1984". So, I'm in a bad mood now. And I won't vote today, 'cause there's no matter. Alas. But thanks.

zurich, switzerland
This program is extremely important. It shows just how far we in the west have fallen, in terms of our intellectual standards. Others have noted that the program was 100% biased in favour of the self proclaimed opposition, that no one from the government was allowed to defend their version of reality. But there is a greater problem, far more insidious than bias and a lack of balance in reporting. Consider, what of the logic involved?

Why should Putin need or want to kill democracy? He, of all the leaders in the world, doesn't have any motive. He is widely loved, rightly or wrongly. Simple logic dictates that he has nothing to gain by destroying democracy. And yet, we are presented with the case that he is evil, that he is the enemy of democracy. The "evidence" is the opinions of those who hate him for personal reasons, and whose only goal is to "take him down", not to build Russia up.

The real story here was why it is that Russians love a strong man, what it is about their culture that leads them to undervalue free speech. Why did the TV producer note that people just do not care about free speech? What drives this attitude in Russian culture?

That was the story, and it was missed because of the intellectually corrupt agenda of those who wanted to create a story of the big evil man in Russia who is cheating everybody. In short, the cult of personality may be destroying democracy in Russia, but it also destroyed the value of this documentary.

bugs bunny
albuquerque, NM

Great show, but one thing I think it lacked was the state of the Russian economy. It sounds like the economy is getting better under Putin. People don't care about political freedom if their lives are improving, and if they have freedom in every other aspect of their lives; social freedom, freedom of personal finance, etc. Look at our country, our corporations have a concrete political agenda, and they also own our media. Therefore, we have less political freedom because of their massive influence over what we see and hear, but I don't see any massive protest over corporate control over media and politics. We are too busy watching American Idol.

FRONTLINE/World's editors respond:
Dear Bugs,
High oil prices are at the center of Russia's economic boom. For Putin, it could not have happened at a better time. In other stories, we have reported about Russia's oil and natural gas wealth.

David Owens
Fresno, California

One striking aspect of this look at contemporary Russian politics is that it speaks through the voices of Putin's critics. The Russian people are the first to criticize Putin and their country, but they are also the first to defend Russia and Putin to outside criticism. As the young Nashi said in the documentary, the Putin opponents joined with Kasparov are united against Putin and the current government, but do not have a party platform for what they want to do. They know what they are against, but cannot decide what they are for.

Do the Bolsheviks really want to turn the clock back and have another Stalin? Most Russians are horrified at the thought, but some people, such as pensioners, had an easier life in those times. The Russians have come a long way in 18 years since the end of Soviet rule. Putin has brought economic stability and the beginnings of several voices in democracy. Many in Russian want to support another party, but the party with a thoughtful platform has not emerged. It seems the most rational politicians join Putin's party and for now that is progress.

People are protesting in the streets. There are many youth groups, not just the Nashi, who come to Moscow and carry political banners. None are getting killed.
When they learn to say what they are for and propose, they will find more support. The opposing parties do have members elected in the legislative branch. Though it is worrisome to have too much power in one person or party, Putin will bring some stability as Prime Minister.

I was in Moscow during the Fall elections and saw the Nashi and other groups marching around the cold Moscow streets. Some had some heated yelling between them. There were plenty of policemen too. Given Russia's history, a prudent person might leave the streets, but nothing terrible happened. Kasparov has his point that Russia needs more viewpoints, and his arrest in the streets only gave him more attention in Russia. The newspapers do cover his activities.

I visited Red Square two days after the election only to find it closed for the Nashi rally concert. It is a little spooky to see so many young people all so enthusiastic about their country and President. It reminded me of a Young Republican rally!

I liked this documentary very much, it gave a real feeling of being there in Russia. I would only caution that, as in the Soviet era, the detractors always found an easy audience with the foreign press, irregardless of their support in their own country.

Courteney Price
Escalon, California

This almost made me sick. The tents -- wow. And putting the opposition in drag? Bolsheviks? Pop sensation Putin needs to compare someone other than Bush to Hitler. Nashi, Nazi, what is the difference? This is frightening, now if they could just tag team us with China in a few years Asia would entirely rule the planet. The only thing on our side will be the insatiable greed of these two countries, and their refusal to share the glory of becoming the next unipolar super power with each other.This is a fear I will have for as long as Putin is in office, indefinitely.

Gregory Brown
Boulder, Colorado

From communism to democracy to fascism in less than 20 years. It's sad isn't?

Bloomingdale, IL
Where does Putin get the money to organize his campaign? Is it possible to follow the trail to its sources?

Charles Fraser
Bethlehem, Pennsylvania

Nashi seems eerily similar to a youth movement in Germany during the thirties. I think there is a feeling in Russia that a return to prosperity is worth forfeiting an array of freedoms.

Boston, MA
I agree that this program was very very biased. Not one government voice, or even anyone to speak to their side. And there wasn't any representation or explanation of people who are happy with the status quo. Let's face it, Russia's economy is growing, mostly due to oil money. So how is that changing the status quo? Plus, most of reporting has already been before by other outlets. Nashi has been around for a long time. We also know a great deal about media censorship and why the opposition has failed against the Kremlin machine. But where is the insight or deeper story here? I wanted to know a lot more ahead of this historic elections, but I mostly feel like this was redundant.

Houston, TX

What disturbed me the most is young school children heckling opponent leaders on the street. Are they really expressing their own political views? I doubt it. And what's with the youth group, "Nashi", sponsored camp? Two words, propaganda and brainwashing.

Doug Case
Boise, ID

Great documentary. I can't believe how ignorant I was about the situation in Russia. There is so much similarity to what's happening in Russia now to what happened in Germany in the 30's. I pray history does not repeat itself.

fairbanks, alaska
Who is your editor, Boris Berezovsky?

Portland, OR
My mom and I are watching the show right now. And to tell you the truth, we're quite appalled at how Russia, among with Putin is presented. I know your programming as being unbiased, and open to both (if not more) sides of view. Unfortunately we just see one side here. No democracy, no freedom of speech, etc. Parts of interviews not interpreted (from Russian to English) in whole, missing some crucial parts, and the choice of interviews are quite interesting... one sided.
My mom and I, keep close contact with Russia (we've moved to US in 1996, not for political reasons), traveling there every year, and this is not what we see there right now, at least not what your program is showing today. I myself, have several friends that work in the media (both private and government owned), and based on what they say and what we see, it's quite an opposite.
I'm sorry, but we're very disappointed at what we've seen on this program. To a person who doesn't know Russia, it's a clear path to make an assumption that Russia is going back to 1930's. It's almost as if the media is pushing the idea of reincarnating the Cold War in the minds of everyday American citizens.

Steve Badera
Troy, New York

George Bush looked into Putin's eyes and saw his soul. No wonder, they're soul mates!

"Kasparov is not my type. I don't mind that I don't see him on TV," one woman says.
Did anyone catch the exact wording this woman used? I thought she said something very different about Kasparov, eluding to his ethnic origin. The translation on TV was different than the one I found on the transcript on the web site.

In any case, the translation was diluted for the audience, which I believe is a major blunder by the editorial staff at PBS/Frontline.

FRONTLINE/World's editors respond:
To "anonymous" who said we had "diluted" our subtitle translation of the remark by a Russian woman who said, "Kasparov is not my type." Not true.

We are very careful with our translations in our reports. Sometimes subtitles are edited slightly for clarity due to the speed at which they have to be displayed to keep in time with the original spoken delivery.

For example, in the line in question, the woman literally says that "Yavlinsky, Kasparov are not my type." Yavlinksy is another major opposition politician, but he does not figure in our story, so we did not include his name.

There is no reference to the ethnicity of Putin's opponents that was left out of our translation. No conspiracies, no editorial blunders.

For your benefit, we include the Russian transcription of the
interchange along with our translation below:

Q: А вас это не смущает, что их не
показывают? Грызлова показывают
каждый день, а Каспарова ни разу.

Doesn't it bother you that you don't see them on TV? The
parliamentary speaker is on every day, and Kasparov is never on.

Вы знаете, мне, Грызлов, например,и
другие мужчины, они как то более
сексуальны и интересней кажутся...
(laugh) ... А вот наверно, Явлинский,
Каспаров, это не мои типажи мужчин,
как бы. Я не страдаю от того, что я их
не вижу на телевидении. Вот и все.

I think that the speaker is more sexy and interesting. Kasparov is not my type. I don't mind that I don't see him on TV.

Leoule Goshu
Cambridge, MA

This is such an important story! Thank you for sharing about the lack of democracy and dissent in Russia.