Today, Putin pointed at reporters and said to Trump, “Are these the ones who insulted you?” The two leaders then had a good chuckle over it.
In Russia, reporters don’t insult Putin — and stay safe for very long.
To an autocrat, a free press is an odd and foreign thing. In an interview last year, I talked with George W. Bush about an experience he had with Putin. Bush was pressing Putin on democracy (as ditzy pie-in-the-sky idealists and universalists like Bush do). He particularly challenged Putin on freedom of the press.
Putin said, “Who are you to talk? You had Rather and those people at CBS fired!”
Bush tried to help him out. He said, “Vladimir, whatever you do, don’t say that publicly. The people in America will think, ‘Man, he has no clue what’s going on.’” But Putin did not heed this advice. He got the message out that Bush was a hypocrite, because he had gotten Dan Rather and others fired, and now he was talking about press freedom in Russia.
In our interview, Bush also brought up a certain claim that people make about Putin — that Donald Trump makes, for example. “People say, ‘He’s the most popular guy in Russia.’ I say, ‘Yeah, I’d be popular too if I owned NBC,’” and the other networks.
Another claim you hear is that Russians simply aren’t fit for democracy — freedom of the press and the rest of that Anglo-Saxon jazz. (Funny how the Koreans are — at least those in the south, free of a psychotic dictatorship.) Vladimir Kara-Murza told me a story about Boris Nemtsov. Kara-Murza is the Russian democracy activist who has survived two poisonings; Nemtsov was his friend and colleague, who did not survive (a shooting).
In the Yeltsin era, Nemtsov was deputy prime minister. One day, he went into Yeltsin’s office and the TV was on. A program was slamming the president, as usual. Yeltsin said, “Boris, hand me the remote control. I can’t take it anymore.” So, he switched off the television, or changed the channel — I forget which.
That was in Russia, and not very long ago.