Incorruptible Putin

Why the Panama Allegations Won't Stick

Russian President Vladimir Putin looks on during a meeting with journalists after a live broadcast nationwide call-in in Moscow, Russia, April 14, 2016. Maxim Shemetov / Reuters

The biggest surprise about the Russian reaction to the Panama Papers leaks came in the form of a poster that depicted Russian President Vladimir Putin as the drug-addled protagonist played by Johnny Depp in the movie version of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas—complete with Panama hat, aviator sunglasses, and cigarette holder. Adorning a central Moscow bus stop for several hours before the authorities had it removed, the poster read, “What Panama?”

The rare public display of defiance mainly served to draw attention to the apathy of the general public—it comes as no surprise in a country where state propaganda fuels widespread suspicion that most foreign developments are plots against Mother Russia. Even as Western fiction, however, revelations from the leaked documents would strain credulity; above all, information revealed that the handful of individuals from Putin’s inner circle who moved at least $2 billion through Caribbean offshore companies included Sergei Roldugin, an obscure cellist from St. Petersburg who is the godfather of one of Putin’s daughters.

The president’s response was more incredible still. Dismissing the accusations against Roldugin as part of a U.S. plot to undermine Russian unity by impugning a humble musician, he said his old friend had only deposited cash that he had honestly earned on the side and intended to use to buy instruments to donate to charity.

A man walks past a poster depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin and reading "Which Panama?" at a bus stop in Moscow, Russia, April 6, 2016.
A man walks past a poster depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin and reading "Which Panama?" at a bus stop in Moscow, Russia, April 6, 2016. Sergei Karpukhin / Reuters
When a justification of that level of hilarity suffices for dismissing such damning, if circumstantial, evidence of massive corruption—and that in a time when Putin has already saddled the country with a prolonged recession, international isolation, and repression—there is little hope that society will ever be moved to wake up and slough off a tyrant who appears to derive power from the brazenness of his denials.

Asked about the prospects that, with matters so grim, the beleaguered opposition may finally manage to sway Russians, those among the handful of Putin's remaining critics typically respond with curses and repetition of

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