Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and King Hamlet might be dead – but Putin’s the ghost in everybody’s room

Bryan MacDonald
Bryan MacDonald is an Irish journalist, who is based in Russia
Russian President Vladimir Putin (RIA Novosti / Sergey Guneev)
For the paranoia industry, the spectre of Vladimir Putin is the gift that keeps on giving. There’s rarely a situation these days in which many media elements won’t invoke the Russian president’s name.

Shakespeare wasn’t exactly a horror writer, but the bard was rather fond of using ghosts as plot devices. Arguably the most famous is ‘King Hamlet,’ the eponymous hero’s late father. The 17th century Poet Laureate, Nicholas Rowe, alleged that Shakespeare himself had played the ghost in the Danish fable. If the Royal Shakespeare Company are currently planning a revival, they could do worse than employ a Vladimir Putin lookalike in the role. Stratford’s Dirty Duck pub would empty faster than Richard Burton’s bladder with that kind of attraction nearby.

The Kinks were thinking about a ‘Dedicated Follower of Fashion’ when they sang: “They seek him here, they seek him there.” These days, the lyric could be applied to the Russian president. For much of the Western press, Putin is a phantom who stalks almost every situation. Indeed, his name is even invoked in Sports reports about Manchester United. Overall, the paranoia has reached levels unseen since some American eccentrics warned of the dangers of a “communist moon” in the 1960’s, the heyday of both The Kinks and cranks.

As soon as David Cameron visited Buckingham Palace to inform Queen Elizabeth that parliament had been dissolved, I just knew Putin would, unwittingly, play a central role in the current UK election campaign. However, if it all seems somewhat screwy, just wait until the US primaries kick off next year. By the time the, increasingly inevitable, battle begins between the Bush-Clinton monarchies, the crackpots will most probably have burst the basin altogether.

Putin - bigger than the Beatles

When I first moved to Russia in 2010, I was immediately struck by how often then President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin were on television. In fact, they were so frequently on the Rossiya 24 channel that I dubbed it ‘Putmed TV.’ It turns out that I didn’t need to travel all the way to Russia for wall-to-wall Putin. He’s now on BBC, Sky News and CNN as often.

Last autumn, I happened to have an hour to kill at Berlin’s gigantic Hauptbahnhof (main rail station). On an upper floor, there’s a huge newsagent with a well-stocked international press section. Amid a collection of magazines from Argentina to Norway and Japan to Spain, Putin stared out from, what seemed like, every second cover. I wasn’t around for Beatlemania but I’ve now got a fair idea of what it felt like. They used to say that sex sells, the modern media mantra seems to be that Putin sells better.

Anyway, it took approximately a week and a half for the UK press to find a way to knit a Putin-centred narrative into UK election 2015. A UKIP MEP described the Russian president as a “very nationalist leader” who is “standing up for his country.” Upon hearing this, many British hacks were probably like hungry Labradors who’d just seen a particularly juicy steak hanging from a window. Their two current bête noire together. The ‘kippers’ and ‘big bad Vlad.’

Putin and Farage – neither went to Oxbridge

The UK media establishment don’t detest UKIP because of its slightly racist policies. Rather they resent that the party dares to have leaders who didn’t attend Oxbridge. For some time now, they’ve been trying to link President Putin to UKIP, hoping that it might generate mud that would then stick. The policy hasn’t worked. The entitled types that run the UK press might abhor Putin but there’s no evidence that the general public do. In fact, I’ve found that the Russian president is rather popular amongst many normal British folk.

As my op-eds on Ukraine attest, I dislike hyper-nationalism in all forms, whether it be British, Russian, Irish or any other stripe. For that reason, I’m not too keen on UKIP. Nevertheless, their rise proves that the traditional UK parties have lost touch with a significant segment of the UK electorate. Also, regardless of personal discomfort, Nigel Farage’s party has opened a debate in British politics that was long overdue and for that they must be applauded.

The MEP in question, Diane James, went on to comment that “I do admire him (Putin). He’s a very strong leader,” before adding that she respected him “from the point of view that he’s standing up for his country.” Ms James then invoked the spectre of Ukraine, explaining that “he is putting Russia first and has issues with how the EU encouraged a change of government in the (sic) Ukraine.”

It’s certainly true that Putin puts Russia first, as all presidents and prime ministers ought to do worldwide with their respective countries. After all, it was Russian people who elected Vladimir Putin, not American neocons or Eurocrats, so why should he do their bidding? Ms James is also correct in that the EU helped provoke the “change of government” in Ukraine. That said, why not call a spade a spade? It was a coup, and a very obvious one at that. If you dispute my form of words here, why not ask the “shadow CIA” Stratfor? Their head honcho, George Friedman called it the “most blatant coup in history” in an interview with Russia’s Kommersant newspaper.

To be honest here, while some UKIP’ers might kind of hero-worship Vladimir Putin, I doubt the feelings are reciprocated. There’s a tendency among both the European far-right and far-leftto project Putin as an image of everything their own leaders aren’t. Strong, decisive and patriotic are terms that frequently spring forth.

Multicultural Russia

However, in reality Putin is a political centrist. He leads a multi-ethnic, multi-confessional country, which is the world’s second largest (after the USA) destination for immigrants. To keep power in his vast nation, he walks a tightrope between copious ideologies and faiths and winds up largely representing ‘middle Russia.’ His own cabinet is far from exclusively Orthodox Christian or Slavic. Indeed, the defence minster - a very powerful job in Russia - Sergey Shoigu is half Tuvan. Shoigu is joined by a smorgasbord of Jews, Tatars, Koreans, central Asians, Armenians and Kavkaz folk in the upper echelons of government, business and society.

Unlike many of the European rightists who express admiration for him, the Russian president makes a conscious effort to be inclusive. He attends synagogues, mosques and churches. Also, Putin isn’t in the habit of slating immigrants to Russia. Conversely, he’s never suggested that he holds communist sympathies either. I’m sure this is much to the chagrin of his left-wing European devotees.

Nevertheless, this matters not a jot to the neo-liberal European establishment and their media puppets. For these guys, Putin is the best bogeyman they’ve got now that bin Laden, Saddam and Gaddafi have exited, stage left, pursued by an eagle rather than a bear. Never mind, that there’s no actual comparison between the Russian president and those three, when your system requires a DC Comics-style bad guy, proportion is a mere hindrance.

Like King Hamlet, the ‘ghost’ of Putin isn’t going to vanish anytime soon. Rosencrantz and Guidenstern might be dead but Western paranoia about the Russian ‘threat’ is very much alive. If you think it’s a little overdone now, just wait until the US election cycle begins. On that long and winding road, ‘Putinmania’ will hit new heights, no matter what the man himself does or doesn’t do.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.