Vladimir Putin’s one-year anniversary as president of Russia was marked by a Soviet-style celebration. “We are back to pretending again,” my Russian friend commented as we watched the stage-managed antics of several thousand young people, all of them wearing T-shirts bearing the likeness of Vladimir Putin, converging on Vasilevsky Spusk (adjacent to the Kremlin) on May 7. They are members of a pro-Putin youth organization, one of several that have sprung up in recent months. Everybody wants to suck up to vlast (the authorities, though the “powers that be” might be closer to the Russian) nowadays. Russian elites have more or less consolidated around the “little colonel,” as the ex-KGB officer is derisively called by some of my Russian pals who see the hand of the Kremlin behind the “Marching Together” group’s performance. Some of the participants openly admitted that “material incentives” had played a role in their trip (they were shipped in from all over the country) to Moscow.

Putin is obviously a front man, a suit put forward by elites to protect the kleptocracy built by his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin. He has not let them down. He put on a good show, seizing control of Vladimir Gusinsky’s NTV station, running “Gus” out of town, and letting Russia’s former “oligarch number one,” Boris Abramovich Berezovsky (BAB), know he was unwelcome in these parts. Thus, Mr. L,aw and Order made “war on the oligarchs,” providing cover for Gusinsky’s and Berezovsky’s replacements, who are now busy fighting over the morsels of property Gus and BAB left behind. It turns out that the “war on the oligarchs” was just another “re-division of property,” with Russia’s gangsters/oligarchs cutting up the shrinking economic pie once more.

Meanwhile, Russia is being whittled away, little by little. The country’s infrastructure continues to wear out. The May 10 fire that knocked out a Russian military command-and-control facility (temporarily putting several Russian spy satellites out of action) was just the latest in a series of “technological catastrophes” (the Kursk submarine disaster, the Moscow TV tower fire) that have illustrated the country’s technical/industrial decline, the flamboyant “ultranationalist” Vladimir Zhirinovsky has proposed legalizing multiple marriages to help cope with the country’s demographic disaster; Russia is losing nearly a million a year in population, but nobody wants to talk about the factors that have accelerated the country’s demise, including alcoholism (the state and Kremlin-friendly oligarchs control the production and sale of vodka), abortion, and suicide. And the oligarchs have found a profitable new industry, with children disappearing from orphanages and being sold by their relations to supply the international trade in human organs.

There will be no Day of Reckoning for the Russians, just the slow winding down of a nation and civilization in retreat. So the Russians are back to pretending again, as they did under Brezhnev, that their country is a superpower, that their leader is the Father of the Peoples, and that all is well and the plan has been over-fulfilled. Putin, who particularly appears to enjoy ceremony and the trappings of power, will hand out more medals in the land where everybody is a hero. It is a painful thing to watch a country die. The West should observe closely—and learn.