Is This a False Vladimir? Does It Matter?

On October 26, 2023, the Telegram channel “General SVR” announced the death of Vladimir Putin. According to the channel, the late president had been hastily replaced with a double, as the authorities had not yet decided what to do after his inconvenient death. This same information was announced by Professor Valery Solovey, who had repeatedly insisted for some time that the president was seriously ill. Such stories, of course, smack of “conspiracy theory” and were thus not widely believed, especially since the “General SVR” channel has an mixed reputation. On the one hand, it had reported several times about events being prepared behind the scenes by the government, which were later confirmed. On the other hand, a number of messages from the same channel turned out to be completely unreliable. In fact, “General SVR” is a kind of aggregator of Kremlin rumors, bringing to its readers information, both true and false, that circulates in the highest echelons of the bureaucracy and intelligence services.

Western politicians and journalists, as well as Russian emigrants (with the exception of sociologist Ekaterina Shulman), ignored the messages of “General SVR,” but throughout Russia rumors continued to spread, and sharply intensified after January 1 when, during his New Year’s televised address, President Putin seemed not quite himself, and there was an unpleasant sense that the head on the screen was somehow not quite firmly attached to the body.

To make matters worse, for some time now, during his public appearances, Putin began to reveal alleged details of his biography that blatantly contradicted what had been previously officially reported. If the former Putin had been a state security officer who worked in East Germany, a judoka, and a Leningrader, then the current Putin, in his own words, had instead been a marine, a carpenter, a taxi driver, and also an obvious provincial. His demeanor and vocabulary changed dramatically. In general, something strange had clearly happened to the president.

Of course, it is completely impossible to definitively confirm or refute rumors about the death of the president at the moment, but the very fact of their appearance speaks of a growing sense of uncertainty in both Russian bureaucracy and in society. Of course, the question of whether the person who performed on New Year’s Eve under the name of Putin was real or fake is not particularly important in a political sense. For the Russian state today, Putin has long since ceased to be a mere person, and has become a symbol; the ideologists of the regime now speak directly about his political immortality. Recall the article by the famous Kremlin publicist Vladislav Surkov, who proclaimed that no one except Putin will lead Russia as long as the current state exists, or the famous 2014 statement by State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin: “If there is Putin, there is Russia; no Putin, no Russia.”Within the framework of such an ideology, the death of a ruler is impossible in principle; such a thing merits not even the slightest consideration. Even if the information released by “General SVR” is correct, then, at a minimum, it is not clear how it could even be reported to the outside world – let alone the Russian people – without provoking the collapse of the regime’s ideological supports. Therefore, the man presented as Putin last week is undoubtedly the real Putin, whether or not he is biologically identical to the person elected to office of the presidency in 2018.

Curiously, there is precedent in Russian history for a ruler to die and and be resurrected – it happened more than once in the 17th century alone. After Tsarevich Dmitry, son of Ivan the Terrible, died under strange circumstances, an impostor appeared some time later in Krakow declaring himself heir to the throne. Historians believe that it was not, in fact, the risen Dmitry, but a fugitive monk named Grishka Otrepiev. After he marched on Moscow, with the support of both Polish troops and Russian troops who had come over to his side, the prince was unanimously recognized by all the boyars and even the mother of the real Dmitry. The new tsar settled in the Kremlin, but very soon the boyars, who hoped to control him as their puppet, discovered that he was trying to pursue an independent policy. The impostor was immediately exposed, cast from the throne, and killed. Soon after this, however, yet another Dmitry appeared near Moscow, founded his own court in Tushino, and was again officially recognized by a fair portion of the boyars, as well as his own wife Marina Mniszrech. Many territories of the state swore allegiance to him, although, unlike his predecessor, he ultimately failed to take possession of the Kremlin and the crown. After having begun a war simultaneously with the Moscow government and the Poles, False Dmitry II was killed by his own people in Kaluga. But a short time later False Dmitry III appeared, claiming the right to rule Russia from Pskov. This latest impostor was soon on the verge of riding into Moscow in triumph, but, like his two predecessors, he fell victim to a conspiracy drawn up by his own entourage in 1612.

All three stories reproduced the same pattern: a false ruler comes to power with the support of a significant part of the elite who try to legitimize their hegemony with his help, but very soon the puppet attempts to seize the levers of real control and act independently, after which he must be eliminated by violent means.

To what extent this story can repeat itself in modern Russia we can only guess. But in any case, it is highly instructive.

Translated by Dan Erdman.

This first appeared on Russian Dissent.

Boris Kagarlitsky PhD is a historian and sociologist who lives in Moscow. He is a prolific author of books on the history and current politics of the Soviet Union and Russia and of books on the rise of globalized capitalism. Fourteen of his books have been translated into English. The most recent book in English is ‘From Empires to Imperialism: The State and the Rise of Bourgeois Civilisation’ (Routledge, 2014). Kagarlitsky is chief editor of the Russian-language online journal (The Worker). He is the director of the Institute for Globalization and Social Movements, located in Moscow.