Playing with Putin; First As Tragedy, Then As …


Belvedere, Yanyun Chen, 2013

by Jeremy Fernando

As in judo, the best answer to an adversary manoeuvre is not to retreat, but to go along with it, turning it into one’s own advantage, as a resting point for the next phase.
— Michel Foucault

On 2 October, 2013, we were confronted with a puzzling piece of news: Vladimir Putin had allegedly been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. [2] After checking that the news did not come via Punch — and that we were not in April — true befuddlement sank in: apparently no one had checked with the Chechens, Georgians, the worldwide LGBT community or even quite a number of Russians.

Putin’s nominators, the International Academy of Spiritual Unity and Cooperation of Peoples of the World (leaving aside all possible Monty Pythonesque jokes here), had put forth his name as,  “[Putin] actively promotes settlement of all conflicts arising on the planet.” They continue: “Being the leader of one of the leading nations of the world, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin makes efforts to maintain peace and tranquillity not only on the territory of his own country but also actively promotes settlement of all conflicts arising on the planet.” [3] In other words, the premise for the nomination is that Putin is one who settles problem: how he does so is quite beside the point.

Putin’s nomination naturally draws comparison with the nomination, and eventually awarding, of the prize to Barack Obama in 2009. The argument would go: if the man who won the prize is the same one threatening violence upon Syria, then surely the one who stops it — or at least temporarily stops it — from happening deserves it even more. We find this logic echo in the oft-repeated joke in the inter-webs after Putin’s intervention which resulted in the UN-led effort to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile: is it not ironic when an ex-KGB agent stops a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize from going to war? Moreover, one might even consider that after winning the peace prize, Obama has continued U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even if this is mitigated by the fact that these wars were not started by his administration, one should not forget that one of his major claims to fame is the murder of Osama bin Laden. Whether this act is justified or not is another question: a revenge killing seems to put him more on the side of the alleged enemy of democracy, of fundamentalism, than “the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.” [4]

Here, it would be too easy to draw a link to the founder of the prize: after all, had Alfred Nobel not invented dynamite? However, the argument goes: it is not so much what thing is (every thing has the potential for good and bad) but what you use it for. Thus, if one wanted to defend the nomination of the IASUCPW one might go: one should not consider so much the fact that many people have been killed, marginalised, brutalised, but that the eventual outcome is “stability,” “peace and tranquillity.”

In that manner, it is Putin who has fully opened the dossier of the Nobel Peace Prize: not just by showing that dynamite can be used in a peaceful manner, in a way that improves lives, but by showing that even in its most violent uses, it can be called peace — as long as it is for “fraternity.”

However, one must also never forget Paul Virilio’s warning that “to invent something is to invent an accident. To invent the ship is to invent the shipwreck; the space shuttle, the explosion.” [5] Which means that just because something seems to be used for peace does not efface the possibility of war.

We should also not forget that dynamite brings with it echoes of power (dynamis): which opens another dossier of what the prize is possibly about. For, we should not forget that “fraternity” is hinged around the notion of kinship — a relationship of blood, of origins; which means that one either is or is it not; an absolute kind of relationship. Thus, a call for a person who does “work for fraternity” is also a call for one who holds the family, the brotherhood, the frater together; that brings everyone under one roof, one home — opening our registers to the echoes of oikos and economy here — a call for one to be daddy. And when the notion of origins — auctor — is opened, authorship and authority are never far behind. In this sense, the one who does the “work for fraternity” is the one who writes the brotherhood into being: keeping in mind that all writing entails a laying out, and also a limiting, a framing. And whenever one frames, one decides what is put within the frame, and what is left out. [6]

Thus, more radically: that the most violent means of maintaining fraternity can be called peace.

And if this sounds like nothing other than the worst kind of political spin, we should not forget that one of the founding gestures of the Nobel Prizes was a PR spin. Due to the massive success of dynamite — even as the process of its invention had cost numerous lives, including that of his younger brother Emil — it had eventually also been adopted for military use. Even though Alfred Nobel is usually regarded as a pacifist, the link between dynamite and death had tainted him: a stain that was all to clear to him in 1888 when, due to a journalistic error, his obituary was printed instead of his brother Ludvig who had passed on whist visiting Cannes. In the media, “he was scorned for being the man who made millions through the deaths of others. [One] French newspaper wrote ‘Le marchand de la mort est mort,’ (the merchant of death is dead). The obituary went on to describe Nobel as a man ‘who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before’. Nobel was reportedly stunned by what he read, and as a result became determined to do something to improve his legacy. One year before he died in 1896, Nobel signed his last will and testament, which set aside the majority of his vast estate to establish the five Nobel Prizes, including one awarded for the pursuit of peace.” [7]

Except that to accuse Vladimir Putin of attempting to put a positive spin via the acquisition of a prize would be completely missing the point.

His strategy is far more sophisticated, subtler: it would be too easy, too banal, to even show that one — he — is better than another; it is far more interesting to claim to be the same, just like everyone else, and allow them to realise that he — one — is not. And here we must not forget that Putin is a master of the grappling arts — a Master of Sport in Sambo, and an 8th dan in Judo [8] — the arts of turning an opponent’s movements, their strengths, against them.

We see this play out in Putin’s Opinion Editorial in The New York Times earlier this year. [9] In this piece, he masterfully turns all of America’s strengths, the notions they pride themselves on — decisiveness, being world leaders, being the best — back on them. Putin’s first masterstroke was in linking, melding even, the Obama and Bush Jr. eras: “Millions around the world increasingly see America not as a model of democracy but as relying solely on brute force, cobbling coalitions together under the slogan ‘you’re either with us or against us.’” [10] In doing so, he positions Russia no longer as a superpower, a threat to the rest of the world, but as another of the ‘small guys’. More than that, Putin’s Russia is one that continues to look out for other nations —“Reports that militants are preparing another attack — this time against Israel — cannot be ignored.” — including America’s friends. [11] His coup de grâce was ending his piece around the religious hinge upon which the US revolves: “It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.” [12] In other words, a demonstration of weakness as strength; where weakness is performed in order to gain an advantage, positing oneself as ordinary in order to show true exceptionality, “turning it into ones own advantage, as a resting point for the next phase” — throwing oneself onto the ground writhing, simulating vulnerability, in order to win a penalty; doing a Didier Drogba, as it were.

And this is the true farcical moment: not just because it is absurd, not just because this might be a smoke-screen sideshow in the middle of something, but more importantly, that Putin leaves it to you to fill it (fartus, stuff; farcīre, to stuff) with meaning. And by doing so, by having your complicity in filling in the blanks, as it were, he brings you to his side, making you a brother under his fatherhood. Here, one should also not forget that in Latin, the verb is associated with stuffing, to fatten up, to make ripe for the slaughter.

This is akin to the trick of the postmodern boss who acts as if (s)he is your friend, who acts as if (s)he is just like you. Who refuses to tell you what to do, give you orders, because ‘we are all equals’: which is a truly diabolical strategy of not only making you second-guess what (s)he wants, but more importantly, makes you embody your boss’ orders. Thus, if you get it wrong, it is not the boss’ fault, but merely your inability to be a good worker.

But one should never forget that two can play at the same game: in order to “go along with, turning it into one’s own advantage,” one has to submit so completely that the boss has no choice but to expose that (s)he is the boss. Or, as Slavoj Žižek teaches us, one has to tell one’s boss: “fuck you, treat me like you’re the boss!” [13] And, even though a direct challenge to the boss doesn’t seem like one is ‘using one’s opponent’s strength against them’ this would be the fake, the feint, in order to draw out the boss’ strength: and at the moment the boss’ power is displayed, (s)he can no longer maintain the illusion.

A moment of seemingly allowing oneself to be stuffed, whilst actually telling one’s boss to get stuffed — precisely by letting the boss stuff up.

Naturally, the Nobel Committee was never going to award the prize to Putin. [14] But this is his final masterstroke. For, not only is he going to continue his silence on the issue — maintaining his image of “being a modest person” [15] — by not winning, Putin will open the register of the possibility that he could have, or even should have, won. Moreover, the echo of Putin still haunts the prize: without his intervention, the UN — and by extension, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons — would not have been in Syria, at least not yet, and would not have been even in the running (despite the important work they have always been doing) for the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize.

But perhaps, what saves us, what gives us hope, is that ultimately Vladimir Putin is not quite good enough at judo. For, despite his feints, his performance of weakness, the fact that this piece is being written suggests a certainly transparency to his act. Of course, one could claim that this slight glimpse into his strategy is all part of Putin’s ploy — and one must be careful not to fall into the trap of thinking that one’s analysis is anything more than a position. However, without positing, all thinking would also be impossible.

Thus, what we should be even more wary about is a pure performance that so convinces us that (s)he is nothing more than the performance. Particularly an act that suggests there is no saving grace left for her or him. For, it might be time to reverse the popular saying that the devil’s greatest trick is to convince us that he did not exist. Perhaps the greater trick is to convince us that (s)he is nothing but the devil: and in that way expect nothing but the worst from that person — effectively giving her or him carte blanche to do just anything.

Perhaps then, the Nobel Peace Prize nomination we should we truly wary of is the one bearing the name Anthony Charles Lynton Blair.


[1] With thanks to my dear friend Lim Lee Ching for his thoughts, comments, and critique; without which this piece would not have been possible.

[2] Wills Robinson. ‘Putin Nominated for Nobel Peace Price’ in Daily Mail (2 October, 2013):

[3] Felicity Morse. ‘Vladimir Putin Nominated for Nobel Peace Prize’ in The Independent. (2 October, 2013):


Not that being an enemy of democracy, freedom, or peace, has ever stopped one from winning the prize: one should never forget that Henry Kissinger received it in 1973.

[5] Paul Virilio and David Dufresne (Interviewer). “Cyberesistance Figher – An Interview with Paul Virilio.” translated by Jacques Houis. in Après Coup Psychoanalytic Association. (January 2005).

[6] Here, one should not forget that to frame is also to accuse someone of something (s)he might not have done. Which opens the reading that Putin’s framing of “peace and tranquillity [in] the territory of his own country” involves the framing of those he does not see fitting into his frame.

[7] Marc Lallanilla. ‘The Dark Side of the Nobel Prizes’ in Live Science (4 October, 2013):


[9] Vladimir V. Putin. ‘A Plea of Caution from Russia’ in The New York Times (11 September, 2013):

And, needless to say the choice of September 11th for the arrival of the letter from the Kremlin was perfect.

[10] The fact that many conservatives have gone out of their way to point out that Bush Jr. never actually uttered the phrase — “you’re either with us or against us” — has served Putin’s purpose even more; now it can be attached to just anyone.

[11] Putin. ‘A Plea of Caution from Russia’.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Alex Miller. Vice meets Slavoj Žižek:

[14] In the lead up to the announcement all signs pointed — deservedly so — to Malala Yousafzai. Eventually, it went to Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

[15] According to Russian singer and MP Iosif Kobzon, who backed Putin’s nomination, “Vladimir Putin did not influence the nomination and being a modest person, will refuse to comment on it.”

About the Author:

Jeremy Fernando is the Jean Baudrillard Fellow at the European Graduate School, where he is also a Reader in Contemporary Literature & Thought. He works in the intersections of literature, philosophy and the media; and has written six books — including Reading Blindly, and Writing Death. Exploring other media has led him to film, music and art; and his work has been exhibited in Seoul, Vienna, Hong Kong and Singapore. He is the general editor of both Delere Press, and the thematic magazine One Imperative; and a Fellow of Tembusu College at the National University of Singapore.