Press Conference – Putin’s Russia, 2014
26th February 2022
First performed at Theatre503 as ‘Interrogation’ as part of its ‘Is It Getting Cold In Here?’ season about relations with Russia, in June 2014
Directed by Will Wrightson
Cast: Lawrence Werber
“There were rats in the front entrance-way where I lived as a kid”, Vladimir Putin
A man enters the room. The man is small, trim, smart, shifty, and unsmiling, but not without charm. He may not handle his words as an Englishman would. He has a microphone, perhaps a lectern. He thinks and talks very quickly, and speaks quietly, matter-of-factly, not in a heavy obvious fashion. Flashes of viciousness as the mood arises but ‘reasonable’.
OK, so there isn’t long.
But despite the current difficult situation, I am prepared to talk, and to answer some of your questions, a dozen questions, about what we face today, what must be done and my political mission of salvation, my vision if you will.
Firstly… I would like to say that this man here.
Here in the front row. [He probably hasn’t even glanced at the front-row yet]
There’s something about his look.
Yes, you, the way you looked at me just now.
Are you accredited?
Do you have the relevant papers?
[To unseen others, out of sight] Yes, this man here – no, no, it’s not a problem.
I can handle it.
I can handle you, my friend.
We will sort it out later.
Later. Don’t worry. Stay where you are.
You have a family, don’t you?
Everyone has someone.
I should add that no one should make sudden movements.
These might get misinterpreted.
The object of the exercise is to avoid misunderstandings.
Judo means “the gentle way” – but even so…
Scribble as you please but I’d prefer it if you listened, took note of me in your head.
I’d also like to say that I don’t really regard this as a foreign trip.
It may take me a bit longer to do this Q&A than it would back home, but I have blood ties to this region so for me it’s as good as if I invited you over to my place!
We don’t have long [studies watch].
Incidentally, this watch was given to me by a man outside.
It’s very nice, isn’t it?
I saw this man, I saw the watch.
And he could see that I liked the watch.
And he gave it to me. How nice was that? How considerate?
I’m ready for my first question.
[strains to hear] I’ll repeat that. “What effect am I striving to achieve?”
That’s a very good question, and it deserves a serious answer.
Let me put it like this.
It would be as if you were sitting on a train and you were on your way home.
It is late at night. Perhaps this is the last train home.
And the train pulls away from the station, yours is the next stop.
You prepare your bags, shuffle a little in your seat in anticipation.
Then, after a while, you pull into the next station.
And just as you are about to get off the train you realise you have arrived at the station you just left.
You are still miles from your destination.
It makes no sense.
And your heart starts to pound a little bit faster, because you realise you are at the mercy of forces unknown.
Along those lines.
Or let me put it another way – it’s as if you were upstairs in an attic, and found a stash of dusty books that no one had read for years and years.
And you became engrossed by chance in an old fairy-tale – and it is about a man who is visited, without realising it, by a devil, and that devil takes everything this person holds dear, the furniture say and the children, but the man only realises what is going on at the last minute, when it’s too late – and just as you are finishing this story, you get a terrible presentiment, and maybe you hear something going on downstairs, several floors below, the sound of a chair being knocked over, maybe.
Which is to say that I am here to wake you up, but if you are seeking to find out about me now for the first time, it’s already too late.
For me, your questions are useful, mainly for what they will tell me about you.
They enable me to get closer to the way you think.
Second question [strains to hear]
Have you had a good year?
Yes, of course. The Games, right?
A lot of muscular effort.
Those who complained about cockroaches in hotel bathroom showers were proved to be wrong.
Syria, yes. Everything good there too.
And China too continues to shake our hand in friendship.
Ukraine?…. [He considers a moment, as if contemplating a fly, swats it away, shrugs]
So all in all, I sleep soundly at night. Next.
Why did I allow the journalist Buboyski to be handed over to the terrorists and boiled alive?
That is a stupid question. I will take another.
No wait. OK. I am happy to respond to this.
You can see that I don’t mind difficult questions.
That is a true democracy.
This story keeps circulating and it has no basis.
Buboyski was sticking his stupid nose into things for years and it is a matter of record the kind of muck he was peddling.
Suddenly everyone in the world has heard of him because of some dossier of gossip produced by some so-called human rights organisation.
But those people who wrote the report, did they come to ask me about it? No.
And I would have told them – if a man steps on an ant as he walks along a pavement, is that murder? Because Buboyski was nothing more or less than an ant.
And if you bother to check, the details are quite clear.
Buboyski was in bed with Kirkoff, so to speak, so when Kirkoff got himself imprisoned for owning too many things, Buboyski started running around writing stories that it was a big crime. And he cited as a witness Mironov who claimed that Kirkoff was just this regular guy, blahblah, but this is really dumb, because our files show that neither of them are regular guys. And if you have dirt on your shoe, don’t you scrape it off?
How Buboyski got to the border in that condition is a mystery but if he was met by a bunch of bandits, who then wined and dined him, what business is that of mine?
And who is to say he ever even reached the border?
What is a border? How do we know for instance whether such and such a thing is actually happening in the world around us or if it is simply the product of our mind?
Who is to say: “At this point there is the world, and at this point there is you”?
It is complex, the more you think about it.
These are philosophical matters, of course.
I think of myself as more of a philosopher than a politician.
I live in the realm of ideas.
I am an idea belatedly forming in your mind.
Next question…. Do you have a favourite saying?
Give me a second. “You are what you eat!”
There is no equivalent in Russian, I think.
My advice is to find out whether you’ve displeased the chef before you take a bite!
My grandfather, by the way, was a chef for Stalin.
We should look upon the world with the eyes of Stalin more often than we do.
I too enjoy cooking by the way.
I’m no egotist.
I just do what needs to be done.
I like the smell of sizzling meat.
… What was the happiest day of your life?
Another excellent question.
I think it was probably the Soviet October Revolution Parade, 1984.
I was in my early thirties.
Red Square looked ravishingly beautiful. Moscow was the centre of the universe.
I made a note of the equipment I saw. [He recites, aroused, by heart]
[The sound of an old Soviet military marching band, builds]
5,800,000 rifles and carbines
102,000 machine guns
28,000 trench mortars
53,000 field and heavy guns
I cannot tell how many projectiles, mines and fuses
24,000 aeroplane engines
50,000 ammunition waggons
55,000 army wagons
11,000 field kitchens
1,150 field bakeries
At night in those days, I used to dream of Armageddon.
I think we all did, didn’t we?
Those of us who had the privilege of being alive then.
It was like a very high resolution picture, sharpening and sharpening in focus.
The world hanging by a thread. Russian roulette.
A game of grand-master chess. Four minutes to get to the shelter.
So much paper, so many documents. Corridors and corridors of files.
Where are they now – those parades, those people, that paper, those dreams?
They are ghosts. Just ghosts [He looks around him].
… What was the unhappiest day of your life?
The day, the hour, the second the first hammer struck the Berlin Wall and that vital threat of total annihilation packed its bags, shredded its nerves and left town.
Even now, to think of all those perverts, hooligans and delinquents dancing around in ecstasy on the ashes of the Cold War makes me want to throw up.
What had I been working for all those years? A chimera?
It was as if someone had walked into my house behind my back and tipped over my sofa, scattered cushions all over the floor and drowned my pet rabbit in the toilet.
What harm had that rabbit done anyone?
“The summer of love”!? It didn’t seem that way to us.
You think this makes me old-fashioned, absurd?
Perhaps you still don’t understand how close my country, maybe the whole world was, to complete disintegration at that period.
Did I want to save the world? No, the job just fell to me.
I am an ordinary man.
But I grew up in a city that was built on land reclaimed from a swamp.
I understand how things go.
I now have 150 million post-Soviet souls in my care.
Do you know how much psychological force you need to hold things together?
To make things cohere.
It requires a thinker as well as a fighter.
To think well is to fight hard.
The collapse of Communism marked the death of an idea.
My job has been to replace that idea.
Not with consumerism, no, but with something deeper, more profound and lasting.
A feeling that no matter where people go, they are within a sphere of influence.
They have not been abandoned. They Belong.
Sometimes the best ideas need to be written in blood.
Let me clear about this: “when I compare the scale of the possible tragedy to what we have now, I do not have a second of doubt that we are doing the right thing.”
Why do so many people seem to fear you?
The opposite is the case.
We are facing that moment when the oppressed lose their fear.
For two decades we have grovelled at the feet of American capitalists.
Now the masses are rising up, a force for righteousness.
The world, spinning out of control, will tilt back on its axis.
When we speak, every word will be like punching a fist through a window.
Letting in air.
We will lick the blood off our fingers like jam from an English scone.
The sweet taste of revival.
We will turn the yellow vomit oozing from coward traitors’ mouths a pure black.
This has nothing to do with morality. It has everything to do with decency.
The people crave a strong state that will take care of them, not chaos and darkness, and free market economics.
So, what exactly is there to be afraid of?
Answer me that.
Next? [listens] Can you tell us an anecdote from your youth?
Well, yes. There were rats in the front entrance-way where I lived as a kid.
Loads of them.
My friends and I used to chase them round with sticks.
I once spotted a huge rat and pursued it down the hall until I drove it into a corner.
It had nowhere to run.
Suddenly it whipped around and threw itself at me.
I was surprised and frightened.
Now the rat was chasing me.
It jumped across the landing and down the stairs.
Luckily, I was a little faster and I managed to slam the door shut in its nose. …
There… on that stair landing, I got a quick and lasting lesson in the meaning of the word “cornered”.
It’s not the most incredible anecdote ever, I admit it, but it means a lot to me.
OK, a few more.
…. What political leaders do you find most interesting?
Napoleon Bonaparte [laughs]
He was not a small man in a big world, he was a big man who understood that the world is small.
What the hell is that buzzing sound?
Is there a fly in here?
Did someone let a fly in here?
[He springs into action and with his bare hands, he grabs and kills the fly]
Did you see that?
Have you noticed that insects are getting more intelligent?
No, really. I’m not joking.
They’re watching us all the time – they are intercepting our thought-processes.
You’ve noticed this, yes?
I’ve got a theory that some of them are working for the Americans.
I’m not joking.
Those Satanists would weaponise mosquitos if they could.
If you type my name into Google enough times, their computer programmes start trying to sell you package holidays to Siberia – that’s the way those people operate.
A question please – something more challenging now.
… Given my remarks about Pussy Riot, is it fair to say I have a woman problem?
Hmmm. I love women but you need to understand they fall into two camps.
There are the American women and the Russian women.
Up until now the lamest ideas of irresponsibility and progress have been upheld by the sheer force of American military might – but those days are drawing to a close.
Have you not smelt the carcasses of the animals from the abattoirs you feed on?
Did you not see the harmless creatures they vivisected to give you your perfumes?
Sometimes, as with Pussy Riot, Americanisation infects our women like a virus.
The stench of corruption is unbearable.
A very unfortunate and sad medical problem.
The true Russian woman understands her function: which is to beat her children hard, to show them how bad the world is, so that her children can grow up prepared for it.
That is true beauty, true nobility.
Right now mother Russia is calling out to her lost children – they were lured away by the paedophiles and rapists she warned them about and they need her protective embrace once more. One by one, in the dead of night, they will return to her.
…I am quite surprised no one has asked a question about the current situation.
… Who is behind the explosions in the city that are happening now? And what is to be done about them?
Even as we speak, the furniture store up the road has been set on fire by the arsonists, people are jumping from burning buildings.
The enemy of chaos is at your gates.
Those who say – “but you have whipped up this trouble” are in the business of libel.
What have we done? Nothing? These suggestions are the phantasms of your mind.
It is a time to reach out in a spirit of co-operation, and uphold international law.
We have to think about the shattered limbs of the broken infants and put ourselves in the place of bereaved parents.
What must be done is what anyone would do faced with such circumstances.
Haul in those in who look suspicious and interrogate them.
Once you ask the right set of questions you will get the right set of answers.
We can have our tanks on your streets within 48 hours, if that is useful to you.
Within a week, every undesirable man over the age of 12 can be bussed away.
If any of them make it to the age of 100, they will get a special telegram from me!
How nice am I?
Why are you staring at me like that? Who put that corpse in the second row?
This is someone’s idea of a practical joke, is it?
[Points at vacancy as it passes him] I will completely fuck you up for this.
So, last question, then.
…Can I describe my billion-dollar palace by the Black Sea?
Maybe I will invite you there, so you can see it from the inside for yourselves!
Let me instead tell you of the palace I dreamed of as a boy.
It was like the communal courtyard where I spent my childhood days, toughening up, learning how to become someone other people would step away from.
Endless rooms and passages in which I could walk in happy solitude, knowing that if anyone came to call who wasn’t as it were on my approved list, they could be dealt with and could disappear, go somewhere they would soon be forgotten about.
Eventually everywhere in the world would be an extension of its unique splendour, even including all the places I had not yet been to.
Even this humble room here. This little annexe.
I would often go there in my mind.
I still do.
If you walk around the palace long enough – and look hard enough, eventually you will find a little child, that child who was abducted all those years ago.
All grown up, yes, but inside a child.
I can tell you that I pretty much take my instructions from the child.
I ask the child what it wants me to do to those who abandoned it and I should advise you that it’s pretty much everything.
The child is really unhappy about the way it was put in harm’s way.
It often whispers in my ear that it’s payback time.
It wants a purge to begin. How can I refuse its cries?
There comes a point when you have to purge things in your life – have you ever felt that? – start afresh completely, bring it all down to ground zero, and other people might say you are mad – but you have to do it – even if you end up utterly alone.
Isolation, and I can vouch for this from personal experience, only makes us stronger.
We’ll close there. I have work to attend to.
Soon it will be your turn to answer a few questions.
But I have to warn you – you may not get off lightly.
We want to see a new architecture of brutal honesty rise up across the world.
Even if we are not victorious, the defeat will be magnificent.
Yes, I’d say your time is nearly up.
So I want to leave you with something to chew on.
You have been filling your empty lives with cement.
And soon, very soon, you will sink to the bottom.
Unless, that is, you reach out to grasp my hand of friendship.
How do I know you will clasp my hand?
Because when the little old widows in their ragged dresses were hunched in dirt pits in the bombed out streets in Grozny, did you so much as cough in disapproval?
You saw how things could be – and you accepted them. Your hearts stirred
I think I’ve had enough now of you lot invading my mental space.
Show’s over. Get here out of me.
I mean. What I meant to say is. Quite simply. Get. Out!
[He moves to leave, stops, stands and stares, slow-fade out]
Dominic Cavendish is the lead theatre critic for The Daily Telegraph. He is the founding editor of the audio archive Theatrevoice
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