Vladimir Putin is content.
He spent some time at the gym.
He took a virile shower, followed by a brief muscle-flexing, bare-chested strut in front of his favorite bodyguards.
He flopped down into one of the gaudily gilded Louis XV armchairs that line the halls of the Kremlin.
And then, alone, tired, strong, Russian, and triumphant, he let his thoughts wander.
No one in the world is richer than he.
No one, now, is more powerful or more loved.
That is what he said yesterday, after Mass, to his personal mini-pope.
“Do you know, pope, what lies at the heart of a Russian? I do. And do you know what’s even deeper down, down where you might expect to discover a plan, a wish, the idea of God, a secret? Me again; still me—the pride I give them; the fear I inspire.”
He saw a glimmer of fright in the pupil of his confessor. Good. A pope should fear his czar more than his god.
He is happy.
The only little shadow clouding his happiness on this fine Monday morning following the election is the silly business about poison.
He really did not expect the Westerners to make such a big deal about it.
“They didn’t say a word,” he muses, “when I exterminated a hundred thousand Chechens. They didn’t get overly upset when I got rid of a few thousand hotheads by sending them out to kill each other in Donbass. Never mind the Syrian kids that my buddy Assad and I had to gas, over which they shed not a tear. And now, on the grounds that I bumped off that wuss Skripal on their turf to show that the world’s best poisons are still made in Russia, suddenly they’re squawking about Glushkov’s strangulation, Berezovsky hanged from his scarf, Litvinenko and the polonium, and, I don’t know, what else? Oh, yeah, that Williams guy, who rotted naked in his own athletic bag.
“They’re almost funny, with their false indignation. They sucked up our gas and wheat. They laundered our billions in their supposedly incorruptible banks. And now they’re on my case because I remind one of mine that neither my power nor my vengeance know any territorial bounds and that there is no corner of the world where someone who betrays me can be safe. Get used to it, people! Learn fear! Russia is here. She has a leader who bathes in ice water, boxes with bears, and who never forgets—ever—when an agent turns.”
At the same time, the hoopla does not concern him overly much.
“Little Theresa isn’t much next to old Margaret. Now that one had balls. I gotta say, what a zoo… Theresa’s Diplomator, what’s his name? The one who might be half-Russian… Johnson, right. Boris Johnson. He’d make a good addition to my collection of mounted heads. Can’t say that out loud, of course. KGB rule No. 1: never look like a hunter; never let on that you eat people like him for breakfast.
“The Donald is no better. Another blond mop-top. These guys can’t even get a haircut. In Donald’s case, I’d settle for his scalp. Actually, I’ll take all of him, head to toe, and price is no object. He’s so easy to fool! He puffs out his chest if he thinks he isn’t in any real danger. But he knows I’ve got him right where I want him.
“No, the only one who worries me a little is that young French guy. I felt it last year in Versailles when he played Peter the Great and tried to stare me down with his steely blue eyes. Even with him, the secret is to stay cool; don’t blink; give no ground. He’ll end up caving to the mild-mannered cretins who assure him, like that woman, Hélène Carrère d’Encausse, from the Académie française did, that I have nothing against the West. That I just feel a little humiliated and surrounded, and that I saved the Russian state.”
In fact, the only thing that really bothers Putin during his reverie in the armchair is that if you overdo it with the poison you run the risk that it could come back to haunt you one day.
That was the lesson handed down to him by his grandfather Spiridon, who was Stalin’s personal taster (but how many of the old guard in the Western spy agencies remember that?).
“Don’t ever forget this, little one,” Spiridon said to him one day. He was 6 years old; they were in Gatchina, outside Leningrad—no, damn, he’ll never get used to that. Outside Petersburg, he meant…
“Don’t ever forget that a czar can be as cruel and fearsome as he can be; he can take all the precautions in the world. But the taster becomes accustomed, gradually inoculating himself against the subtlest poisons. And then one day, inevitably, it is he who ends up betraying you.”
He eliminated one, 15 years back, who was too close to that pathetic Medvedev.
Another, five years later, who struck him as shifty.
And the new one, little Leopold, whom he surprised the other night looking as if…
Enough! No negative thinking today! He is too happy for that. Too victorious. He turns his sad, tired gaze to the window and watches the snow falling on the Kremlin. He thinks of the body of the enemy who was killed by overzealous narodniki right outside his office. And then, on one of his encrypted phones, he scrolls through the lines that the French actor Gérard Depardieu sent him the other day when he announced that he was leaving Russia for Algeria.
Usually, it bored him when the actor spouted verses.
But he had to admit that this savage poem by somebody named Leconte de Lisle, whom he had never heard of, was disturbing.
Something about a dreaming jaguar; let’s see…
Here the bull-killer, slayer of stallions, tired,
Moves among dead tree-stumps moist and soft as sponge,
Implicit violence in his measured tread.
Pelt shimmering with each muscle’s plunge…
OK, nothing wrong with that, but…
He dreams that by some orchard water course
He leaps and digs his dripping claws
Into a bellowing bull’s startled hide.
There! That was meant for him. That old mutt of an actor, so eager to lick his hand, hits home for once!
Reinvigorated, he rises. It is time to go out and greet Russia.
Translated from the French by Steven B. Kennedy.