Vladimir Putin’s regime has a track record in building up public heroes whom it hopes to use, only to find the ungrateful wretches unwilling to play the roles it intends. The most recent is Natalia Poklonskaya, a woman whose trajectory from cartoon heroine to legal adviser has starkly illustrated the way Putin faces criticisms not just from remaining liberals at home, but also nationalists.
Poklonskaya shot to fame amidst the Russian take-over of Crimea. A Ukrainian, she had been a senior prosecutor in Crimea, then in Kyiv, until she resigned in the wake of the ‘Euromaidan’ rising, ‘ashamed to live in the country where neo-fascists freely walk the streets.’ She returned to Crimea and after it was annexed by Moscow was appointed its Prosecutor.
Blonde and elfin, her hesitant manner starkly contrasting with her military-style uniform, Poklonskaya became something of a cult figure, not least in Japan. The internet was full of manga cartoons about her, fan clubs popped up across Asia, and songs were composed about her.
Ukrainian, pro-annexation, openly Christian, and with a global image, the Kremlin thought they had a new soft power weapon and groomed Poklonskaya for political stardom. In 2016 she was elected as an MP on its United Russia ticket.
However, for all her girlish looks, Poklonskaya was not a pushover. The Kremlin should have looked at her record: she had been a tough organised crime prosecutor who successfully prosecuted one of the kingpins of Crimea’s Bashmaki gang, despite suffering threats and an assault that left her with partial facial paralysis.
Much to the dismay and irritation of the Kremlin’s political managers, she proved to be willing to speak out on a range of issues. Eventually she was essentially forced out when, in 2018, she was the only United Russia MP to defy the whip and vote against raising the retirement age.
Not least thanks to the Kremlin’s efforts to build her up to use her, Poklonskaya had too high a national profile to be wholly side-lined, though. First she was made ambassador to Cape Verde – an archipelago off the African coast of absolutely no strategic interest to Moscow – as a gilded but empty sinecure.
The Kremlin then made her deputy head of Rossotrudnichestvo, the foreign ministry’s agency for contacts with the Russian diaspora abroad. In practice, this is increasingly nothing more than agency for fighting political warfare.
Again, it wanted to harness her admitted stature and charisma to its cause, and again it turned out she had a mind of her own. She called the war against Ukraine a ‘catastrophe,’ lamenting that ‘my two native countries are killing each other, that’s not what I wanted and it’s not what I want.’ She also highlighted the plight of conscripts deployed illegally to Ukraine.
Hence another move, this time back to the Procuracy, as an adviser to Prosecutor General Igor Krasnov. She has said that she will stop being active on social media, but it’s hard to see her staying if this is another ‘take the salary and shut up’ sinecure. Krasnov is a law-enforcement professional rather than a political hack, and it will be interesting to see if he listens to her. She has, for example, criticised the practice – encouraged by other Kremlin mouthpieces – of public witch-hunts of government critics, saying ‘the days of denunciations for “anti-Soviet conversations and propaganda” are long gone, and personally I am against returning to the dark past.’
Meanwhile her stature only grows, and where once it was thanks to the Kremlin, now it is in spite of it.
She is not a liberal or a westerniser, so much as part of what could be called an ‘ethical nationalist’ wing of Russian politics. They see themselves as Russian patriots, Christians, often moral traditionalists, but not rabid imperialists. Instead, they often see the Kremlin as immoral, corrupt and even totalitarian.
The Kremlin assumed that nationalists would be pro-regime, but increasingly it faces new critiques from the right. Some, like former Donbas ‘defence minister’ Igor ‘Strelkov’ Girkin, are ultra-hawks, who attack the Kremlin for being too weak and amateurish in Ukraine. Others, like Poklonskaya, see this as an unnecessary war driven by cynical political calculation.
As individuals, such people are not real threats to the Kremlin. However, that even nationalists are turning against the Kremlin, and that those whom it was so willing to feed are biting its hand, highlight the vacuum at the heart of Putinism. Behind corruption and empty imperialist bombast, after all, what can it offer?