From, Feb. 10, 2024, Complete text:

The interview with Russian President Vladimir Putin by the world’s most famous right-wing conservative journalist, Tucker Carlson, came out overnight on Feb. 9 and in no way exceeded the expectations that could have been formed from this conversation based on its ingredients.

Even before the interview was out, [Russian presidential press secretary] Dmitry Peskov promised that it would be published on the Kremlin Web site. Carlson himself, who has repeatedly relayed Russian propaganda talking points about the “dangerous authoritarian dictator” Vladimir Zelensky and the unwillingness of “[ethnic] Russians” to have “American missiles” and a “hostile government” as neighbors, visited the presidential administration (PA) in Moscow and was complimented by staff for how his position differs from the “Anglo-Saxon media.”

This predictably resulted in an obsequious, Westernized paean to officialdom in the spirit of Oliver Stone’s 2017 “The Putin Interviews.” Carlson would occasionally interrupt the autocrat, who showed no interest in pausing his historical backstory on Rurik and Hitler, and try unsuccessfully to direct the conversation along a different path with harmlessly tactful questions like “What is denazification?” or “Have you achieved your aims?”

Carlson never did extract any sensational confessions or significant facts from Putin, effectively just offering him, through the interview format, a platform to promote anti-Ukraine conspiracy narratives to a huge Western audience. For that reason, as I see it, an analysis of the conversation comes down to the question of how useful an idiot the former Fox News host proved to be for the Kremlin: average, or actually highly useful? Which is generally not that interesting, so I won’t touch on the interview itself much at all in this article.

It’s much more curious, after all, that from a certain angle, the PA’s move of hyping the incumbent ahead of the election by using an American journalist looks like a radically oppositional form of anti-marketing for Vladimir Putin and his political policies that was intensively broadcast by proregime media all week.

To unlock this point of view, we need to turn to the RIA Novosti news feed: On Jan. 4 [sic; Feb. 4], it had a breaking news story that Carlson had been spotted in Russia. Subsequently, in just four days, the propagandists at the state agency went on to write 131 news items about the journalist’s adventures (the number grew by the hour), including: “Carlson Tries Burgers at Vkusno & Tochka [Tasty and That’s It, Russia’s McDonald’s replacement – Trans.]”; “Carlson Leaves Hotel Through Back Door”; and “TNT Has Not Heard From Tucker Carlson About Appearing on ‘Shou Voli’ [Volya’s Show].” Since this level of detail is, of course, insufficient, RIA always has colleagues from Rossia Sevodnya [Russia Today, RT’s Russian news service] on standby: They can call the Vkusno & Tochka press office and confirm that Carlson spent exactly 566 rubles on double cheeseburgers with fries. The pro-Kremlin Telegram channel Mash, meanwhile, will add that the journalist also visited [French retailer] Auchan, where he “took interest in the groceries.”

This whole “Tucker Carlson week,” marked by documenting the conservative pundit’s every step and cranking out thousands of absurd breaking news stories about his movements, appears to have been a huge shock to the show’s main attraction himself. Tucker was surprised that he was being recognized on the streets, and in the last days of his stay in Moscow he was almost hysterical when he told reporters in his hotel parking lot that he was just going out for some coffee, not to record his interview with Putin.

On the one hand, such heightened attention could even come off as touching. However, I see this situation not at all as a sentimental expression of Russian hospitality, but, as [director] Aleksandr Rodnyansky put it, a rather humiliating “dance by the natives for an overseas guest.”

Because this kind of reaction to a visit by a foreign journalist, even an eminent one who intends to speak with the president on camera, doesn’t seem at all appropriate for a civilized European country, whose officials have for the last 10 years been talking inappropriately often about sovereignty and a “special path.” It comes off, instead, as a logical consequence of isolationism and an artificial “unplugging” of the country from the global cultural and political context, which are the actual results of talk about Russia’s so-called sovereign greatness.

Tucker Carlson’s case is very telling, because he is the first Western celebrity of that level to come to Russia on a public visit since the beginning of the war in Ukraine [in February 2022, see Vol. 74, No. 8, pp. 9‑13 – Trans.]. One who came not to the self-sufficient, developed autarky from the Russian government’s secret dreams that has consolidated over two years, but to a deeply disoriented country, starved for foreign attention, where employees from state news agencies trail the American guest into supermarkets and needle the cashiers at an ersatz McDonald’s about whether he ordered the Dobry Cola – after all, it must be such a curiosity for him.

Conceptually, the resulting hype resembles a cross between two phenomena: the desire of villagers in India and Nepal to take pictures with European tourists, who for some may be the first white people they have ever seen, and [former US president] Ronald Reagan’s 1988 visit to Moscow [see Vol. 40, No. 22, pp. 1‑8]. At the time, as journalist Bret Baier wrote in his book [“Three Days in Moscow” – Trans.], the press and idle onlookers caught up with the American president while he was still at the airport, Muscovites lined the roads and came out on balconies to catch a glimpse of the guest. During his appearance on the Arbat, there was almost a stampede, which KGB officers tamed by beating up passersby.

Both of these phenomena are understandable: The inhabitants of Himalayan villages are quite poor and uneducated, as well as simply cut off from civilization by virtue of being geographically inaccessible. Reagan’s arrival in the USSR was not just sensational but even, to reference Jean Baudrillard, hyperreal: It was as if the line had blurred between perestroika rhetoric and real life, where symbols of the new reality were actually starting to seep into the latter – symbols like a top-tier American politician strolling through Red Square. And, of course, the foundation for both of these phenomena can be described as a sort of “isolation shock,” a condition that can be understood with no further explanation by looking at the line outside the McDonald’s on Pushkin Square on opening day in 1990.

Vladimir Putin’s political course over the last two years can also be described in terms of this line – into which he put all Russians by physically and symbolically closing that same McDonald’s – and Tucker Carlson’s visit demonstrated this as vividly as can be. I find it hard to believe that if this journalist had come to Moscow in early February 2022, when he was still a Fox News host, his appearance would have provoked such mass hysteria. Because that was a country with a fundamentally different model for perceiving the Western world: The latter was not viewed “by default” as the radical antithesis to a besieged fortress of a country where a famous guest from the US was a daring risk-taker whose movements (and receipts from fast food restaurants) were worthy of a microscopic analysis by federal media outlets. Prewar Moscow, even after 2014, was visited almost daily by world-famous musicians, actors and politicians, and that was just a normal element of reality for the capital of a modern, globalized country.

Suffice it to recall the aforementioned Oliver Stone, who came to Russia several times in 2016 and 2017 to film an interview with Vladimir Putin and promote a book containing the transcript. Not to detract from Tucker Carlson’s merits, but the three-time Oscar winner Stone is still a more famous and, one might even say, cult figure. At the time, however, the press limited itself to a few stories, and the American director did not elicit any large-scale media craze. The same goes for the countless stars who came to the country, like Lady Gaga, who openly supported the LGBT community from the stage; Bill Clinton, who often visited Moscow; and even Paul McCartney, whose triumphant concert on Red Square in 2003 still did not seem to garner the media’s attention to the extent that the “coming of Carlson” did.

[Carlson’s arrival] also pointed to a qualitative shift that has occurred in how the image of the Russian president is perceived. Bringing to mind the 2020s slang term “bunker grandpa,” Vladimir Putin completely stepped into that role not at all during COVID‑19, but actually after the start of the invasion of Ukraine, because it was from that moment on that, through the efforts of propaganda, his image was so strongly sacralized and even demonized that any contact he had with “mere mortals” came to be presented as a sensation. For example, in the 2000s, Putin gave two interviews to Larry King, who was by no means a bottom-feeding journalist. In 2021, he chatted with Hadley Gamble from CNBC; earlier, while at Novo-Ogaryovo [as prime minister], he spoke with the editors at Time for their Person of the Year issue – and the very fact of an interview with someone from a Western media outlet was never presented as an extraordinary event as the result of careful selection from among “Anglo-Saxon media” or as an act of “laying a global lie to rest.”

Because in two years the president, with his arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court [see Vol. 75, No. 12, pp. 11‑13], has managed to become a kind of Kim Jong‑un: an eccentric dictator hidden from the public, who rarely interacts with the outside world and sets out unrealistic demands for foreign interviewers. Vladimir Putin has plunged the country where he seized power into a symbolic state similar to that of North Korea: the state of the world’s most developed, largest “backwater,” where the appearance of a “proper American” is blown up by the media into something nearly on the scale of a national holiday.

It’s sad and shameful to watch this, because modern Russia, after all, is not North Korea, nor the USSR circa perestroika, nor a Himalayan village. This is a country that, way back in the early 2000s, became accustomed to a European lifestyle and the status of an equal participant in globalization processes, whose authorities have been trying to artificially drag it into a North Korean/Soviet/Himalayan mode for 10 years now (and with particular zeal for the last two).

The nuance here is that this goal is completely unattainable. Carlson’s arrival showed that institutionally the Russian Federation, and particularly the “sovereign democrats” in its leadership, are extremely dependent on external attention, Western public opinion and their own reputation in foreign media. This country suffers from phantom pains stemming from the incompetent amputation of its ties with the outside world, and an American journalist’s visit to speak with the feckless surgeon showed just how in demand the ties he severed actually are.

He showed that tacit or active support for Vladimir Putin entails the further “provincialization” of Russia and its complete transformation into an East Germany slathered across all of Eurasia, where – you never know – Western pop music or jeans might start to be seen as heavenly gifts, like in a Melanesian tribe in the grips of a cargo cult, while RIA Novosti churns out news stories along the lines of “The Voice of Wisdom: People in France in Awe of What Putin Said About Zelensky.” It is this dystopian background that should be kept in mind when reading the Carlson-Putin interview, not the latter’s half-hour-long mantras about neo-Nazis and heroic attempts to use a full-scale invasion to put a stop to a war of his own making.