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‘He’s not a person, he’s a biorobot’ How State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin mastered the art of pleasing Putin

Source: Meduza
Anna Isakova / Russian State Duma Press Service

Since the beginning of Russia’s war in Ukraine, State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin has been even more vocal about his devotion to Vladimir Putin than usual. In daily posts and speeches, Volodin has denounced public figures who oppose the war as “traitors,” demanded Russia be paid for natural gas and other goods in rubles, and described U.S. President Joe Biden as “sick and miserable.” All of these statements have had one purpose: to please the president. Meduza special correspondent Andrey Pertsev tells the story of how Volodin learned to understand the Russian leader’s mood — and became a role model for other pro-government politicians.

There’s a story that’s been passed around by Russian State Duma deputies for almost 20 years now. The story goes that at a Duma session in the early 2000s, then-Vice Speaker Artur Chilingarov from the United Russia party tried to give the floor to one of the parliamentarians: “And now, Deputy Volodin!” Then came the reply: “Be more specific — we’re all Volodins!” The joke is that all of the deputies were Putin lackeys: “Volodin” in Russian can mean “belonging to Volodya,” and Volodya is a nickname for Vladimir.

At a State Duma session on April 11, 2003, Chilingarov did call for “Deputy Volodin.” He didn’t, however, receive any jokes in response; the Parliament was nowhere near full of Putin supporters — yet. The upper chamber didn’t have a strong majority until after the elections in December 2003.

There was one person, though, who definitely supported Putin already: Saratov native Vyacheslav Volodin, a member of the electoral bloc Fatherland – All Russia (OVR). In 2001, Volodin was one of the most vocal proponents of a merger between OVR and the Unity bloc; the result was the pro-Putin United Russia party.

19 years later, Deputy Volodin would become the Duma’s Speaker, and by March 2022, he would perfect his Putin-reading skills, making him a role model for Russia’s pro-government politicians.

Volodin the risk-taker

A month before the war in Ukraine began, the Russian Communist Party (KPRF) submitted a draft of a parliamentary address to the president with a request to recognize the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics. According to sources close to the Presidential Administration (AP), at the time, Kremlin insiders viewed the communists’ initiative as “unserious” and even “harmful” — despite constant Western media reports that Putin was preparing for an invasion.

“The Communists always used the DNR and LNR issue — it was a winner among constituents. There was no talk of any coordination [with the AP’s internal political bloc]; it was purely their own game. At that moment, it seemed harmful: there were supposed to be talks [between Vladimir Putin and French President Emmanuel] Macron and [German Chancellor Olaf] Scholz a few days later,” said Meduza’s source.

He added that the Kremlin’s political bloc would traditionally never allow an initiative from the KPRF to pass in the State Duma: “The Communists fell into the category of unreliable partners who aren’t part of the system long ago.”

But State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin raised the stakes. “Not by chance, State Duma deputies expressed the need for us to recognize the DNR and the LNR as sovereign states. Civilians are suffering and dying. We can’t just stand by and watch. We’re concerned about the issue of protecting our fellow Russian citizens and compatriots who live there,” he wrote on his Telegram channel.

As Meduza previously reported, Volodin hadn’t coordinated his actions with the AP’s political bloc; instead, he was demonstrating his own “independence.” According to a source from United Russia, whose statements were confirmed by two other sources close to the AP, the administration and United Russia both “introduced an alternative bill just in case.” Under that bill, the Duma would call for the president to recognize the DNR and LNR, but only he consulted with the Foreign Ministry.

United Russia’s Duma faction had plenty of votes to adopt that version of the document, but the deputies themselves didn’t receive any clear indication of how they were expected to vote. As a result, they voted both for their own “alternative” version of the project and for the Communist Party’s version of the document; both bills were adopted. “Volodin plays a tough game, including with the KPRF,” a source close to the AP told Meduza. “He personally has no problem with the Communists. He played along with them, and it worked out.”

Indeed, despite earlier promises that Russia would abide by the Minsk agreements, President Putin soon changed his position. At a Russian Security Council meeting on February 21, Vladimir Putin effectively stated that he was planning to recognize the Donbas republics — and did it several hours later.

State Duma Chairman Vyacheslav Volodin arrives in Managua for an official visit
Russian State Duma Photo Service

On February 24, Russian troops invaded Ukraine. Vyacheslav Volodin became one of the first Russian politicians to support the war publicly. “Demilitarizing Ukraine is the only path left. The only path that will allow us to prevent war in Europe. Our only chance to stop the fighting and the humanitarian catastrophe,” he wrote on his Telegram that same day.

For the entire first month of the war, the State Duma Speaker actively spoke out in support of the “special military operation.” He made several claims about the whereabouts of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, including that he wasn’t in Kyiv but in Lviv or Poland (this was false). At one point, he called for Russian cultural figures to determine their position on the situation in Ukraine “by Monday.” He actively criticized Western countries’ leadership — calling U.S. President Joe Biden “sick,” for example, and suggesting he “undergo a psychiatric examination.”

“He understands what works on one specific person and can sense what that person likes,” said a source who knows the speaker. A source close to the AP put it differently: “Volodin entertains Putin, supports his ‘innovative’ ideas. Payment for gas and oil must be in rubles? Sure, let’s immediately put out a statement about why that’s wise and correct.”

“The less open Putin has become in recent years, and the more he’s been opposed to the idea of anyone arguing with him or addressing him as an equal, the further Volodin has gotten,” said political scientist Ivan Preobrazhensky. “In contrast to the old St. Petersburg team [who followed Putin into power], Volodin never claimed to have an equal or even a friendly relationship with Putin.”

Other Russian politicians quickly began following Volodin’s lead and spewing propaganda. Former President Dmitry Medvedev started writing regularly about Western sanctions, insulting leaders and residents of foreign countries. Federation Council Speaker Valentina Matvienko, Roscosmos head Dmitry Rogozin, and even Central Election Commission Head Ella Pamfilova all started mimicking Volodin in attempts to win favor with Putin.

The old joke seems to have come true: Russia’s politicians are doing everything they can to become “Volodins.”

The Duma crackdown

Officially, the position of State Duma Speaker is one of the highest in the Russian government. In 2016, however, Vyacheslav Volodin (then the first deputy head of the AP and curator of the political bloc] was unhappy with his position. This was confirmed both by sources close to the AP and by people in Volodin’s inner circle.

According to the sources, what Volodin really wanted was to move up through the ranks of the official power vertical; he was more interested in economic and political issues than personnel management. According to a source who knows Volodin personally, his goal at the time was to become the mayor of Moscow.

“The job has an economic aspect, a public aspect, and room for growth. [In contrast,] being the prime minister, under the current circumstances, is more like a sentence. Nobody has any doubt that Putin will run again and become the prime minister — so becoming a minister now means hitting a ceiling and being forever in second place, never first. All of the negativity will fall on the prime minister, who will only have a few years to work, and then he’ll lose the presidential election,” said the source.

There are a number of possible explanations for why Volodin still ended up in the State Duma.

According to sources close to the AP and to United Russia’s leadership, Vladimir Putin ultimately decided Volodin would leave the Kremlin after the results of the 2016 State Duma elections were finalized. United Russia set a new record, winning 343 Duma seats, though voter turnout was very low at 47.88 percent.

Andrei Gordeyev / Vedemosti / TASS

“On the technological side, everything was flawless. Due to the single-mandate districts, United Russia won a supermajority, while the systemic opposition’s representation decreased. But for the president, what mattered at that moment wasn’t technology but symbolism. It came out that less than half of the people who turned out to vote had voted for United Russia’s Putin-endorsed party lists. Putin loves rounds or symbolic numbers, but in this case, he didn’t manage to reach them,” a source close to the AP told Meduza.

Sources from the speaker’s inner circle, however, said that the decision to send Volodin to the Duma had nothing to do with punishing him. According to one:

After the results came in, the president held a meeting that included Volodin and the political bloc. Putin said that he was completely satisfied with the results and named two factors that led to United Russia’s victory. The first was that he himself had supported the party and taken part in campaigning, and the second was that Russian citizens rallied around the authorities in opposition to the West. Of course, he thanked the political bloc, but he didn’t name its work as a significant factor of influence.”

Still, according to the same source, Volodin wasn’t satisfied with his appointment. “[Being a Kremlin official,] he made the Duma into a manageable machine, effectively an appendage of the AP, depriving it of whatever independence it had.”

Political scientist Alexander Kynev emphasized that even before becoming speaker, Volodin was an “independent player” and “definitely wouldn’t have become a part of somebody else’s game.”

In the AP, Volodin tried to become the center of power. He wanted influential people to talk to him before making decisions regarding political candidates and governors. He wouldn’t veto anybody, of course, but he wanted his influence to be acknowledged,” said a source close to Volodin.

Meanwhile, Sergey Kirienko, who took Volodin’s old post in the presidential administration, was unhappy as well. According to the same source, by 2016, Kirienko had already gotten comfortable in his position at the state corporation Rosatom and took pride in it. Now, suddenly, “he was appointed into a world he had less experience in and expected to do work for which he didn’t have a full team.”

“For six months, Kirienko was fundamentally opposed to getting into the job, getting up to speed on the issues. He didn’t like his new circumstances,” said Kynev. A source close to the AP confirmed to Meduza that Kirienko was initially unhappy with his appointment.

Meanwhile, Volodin quickly began restructuring things in the State Duma. Deputies were suddenly required to attend all sessions, and those who skipped without a legitimate reason were punished. Additionally, the speaker banned deputies from voting by proxy, even when they had legitimate reasons to miss a vote (although this didn’t stop Volodin himself from having his colleagues vote on his behalf whenever he had to miss a session).

According to sources close to Volodin himself, all of this was done to make an impression on one person: President Vladimir Putin. “The goal was for him to see that the parliament was an effective machine that was ready to support any decision of his without fail,” said a source.

‘I’m the boss, you’re the idiot’

Back when he worked in the AP, Vyacheslav Volodin was not afraid to express his unconditional support for the president. “If we have Putin, we have Russia. If there’s no Putin, there’s no Russia,” he said at a meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club, a Moscow think tank, in 2014. In June 2020, he coined a new maxim: “After Putin will be Putin.”

Not long before that, Volodin had organized a State Duma session at which United Russia State Deputy Deputy (and first woman in space) Valentina Tereshkova proposed amending the Russian constitution to “reset” the number of terms anyone served as president before the amendment’s passing. “Volodin understood early on that Putin likes that kind of support that borders on flattery,” said a source from the State Duma speaker’s inner circle.

“Basically, he knows how to be liked. That doesn’t just apply to Putin — Volodin can appeal to anybody. When he wants to, of course,” a former AP employee said with a smile.

To illustrate his point, he brought up the relationship between Volodin and another former colleague who served in a high position in the administration. “When Volodin was a deputy and a functionary for United Russia, they were very friendly with one another, but then, when Volodin was promoted, they began to feud. Volodin started demanding personal loyalty pledges,” said the source. Meduza heard about these pledges from several other sources familiar with Volodin and his work style.

“He loves when people grovel before him — he can do the same thing. The philosophy is simple: I’m the boss, you’re the idiot; you’re the boss, I’m the idiot,” said a source from the speaker’s inner circle.

Despite this, a source told Meduza, at a certain point, Vladimir Putin decided to distance himself from Volodin. The president became more interested in the formats Deputy Chief of Staff Sergei Kirienko was proposing, such as “personnel competitions, meetings with their participants and winners, and generally just the talented young people Kirenko had begun to collect.”

Several sources (both close to the AP and close to Volodin) reported that Putin thought seriously about replacing Volodin with a new State Duma Speaker. But the pandemic interfered with his plans.

“Face-to-face meetings with the president were effectively discontinued. At the same time, however, the Security Council, which met regularly over video, began to play a larger role. Volodin was an ex officio Security Council member. That gives him the opportunity to regularly present his ideas to the president and to speak with him once a week. Kirenko isn’t a Security Council member, so he doesn’t speak to the president regularly,” said a source close to the speaker.

According to the source, Volodin uses the Security Council meetings to “test” the president’s mood. “He listens carefully to the comments Putin seems to throw out off-handedly, then he expresses the same sentiment publicly and more clearly. He presents his ideas at the Security Council and watches the president’s reaction.”

“A lot of people are afraid to speak or to act on their own behalf, and Volodin is afraid, too, but he does it anyway. He’s not the most intellectual person, but he’s able to sense quite a lot — not with his brain but with his spine,” said one of Volodin’s acquaintances. “He’s got an animal lust for power and a sixth sense for it. A lot of his moves are made instinctually — he follows his nose and he knows which way the wind is blowing. He’s not a person, he’s a biorobot.”

According to Meduza’s source, Volodin’s unwavering support for Putin and his ideas come down to just that: knowing “which way the wind is blowing.”

“Right now, you certainly can’t overdo it with patriotism, but you sure can underdo it,” he said. “Volodin knows it’s not time for moderation, and that it’s better to go further than what the president might be expecting. When Putin mentions demanding rubles for gas, Volodin suggests demanding rubles for all imported products and raw materials. And so on. And his sixth sense hasn’t failed yet.”

He and other sources Meduza spoke to (both close to the AP and to Volodin himself) noted that Volodin’s extreme patriotism and support for the president are both pragmatic and self-serving. “He doesn’t work for Putin, he works for himself. He just understands that supporting the president like this is currently what puts him in the best position. Other politicians are realizing this and beginning to copy him,” said a source close to the AP.

Political scientist Ivan Preobrazhensky pointed out that what all of this is happening, Putin himself is, to a certain extent, tearing apart the entire political system that’s been operating for the last few years “because it limits his absolute power.”

“Volodin is happily supporting him in this — just like what happened with the law banning foreigners from adopting children, for example. Then with counter-sanctions, which also hit the Russian economy, and which a lot of technocrats were objecting to. Volodin immediately accepted those things and suggested doubling down on them,” said Preobrazhensky.

In his view, trying to guess Putin’s desires is “the most rational strategy for working with Putin at a time when he’s become secretive and prone to deliberately misleading even his own entourage.”

Political scientist Alexander Kynev also noted that Russia’s politicians and officials have begun actively expressing themselves in public in response to what they feel: “Under turbulent conditions, personnel changes, intrigue, and complaints about state agencies are inevitable.”

“Those in the center are going to manufacture some personnel shuffling, in part to distract citizens’ attention from economic difficulties; they’ll blame the country’s problems on state employees,” said Kynev. Volodin, he said, is showing off his “fighting spirit and drive.”

“This activeness might be a sign of his desire for a new position, or it might just mean that he’s striving to keep control of his current position. But who knows what will happen if someone more hawkish appears, or if some personnel shifting occurs and somebody else needs a position,” he said.

At the time this article was published, State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin had not responded to the questions Meduza sent to the Russian parliament's press service.

All of the sources who spoke to Meduza said that in private conversations, Volodin has never really tried to hide his wish to one day become Vladimir Putin’s successor — and that he’s “working for” this. “When he says that after Putin will be Putin, he’s either consciously or subconsciously hinting at himself,” said one source. “The next Putin will be named Volodin — even his name helps.”

Story by Andrey Pertsev

Translation by Sam Breazeale

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