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by John Helmer, Moscow

During President Vladimir Putin’s four-and-a-half hour press conference on Thursday – the second longest on record in Russia; the longest in the rest of the world — he was congratulated several times by the audience for the answers he gave about the running of Russia. This is a regular feature. Putin’s arranger Dmitry Peskov – his “boss” Putin called him at one point —  didn’t have to try hard to produce it.

After the conference concluded, the president’s critics attacked him for saying nothing new, repeating himself, evading the point of the question,  making promises he doesn’t intend to keep, etc. The critics always say this. It’s their regular feature. This is cyclical, according to one of the Twitter comments. “If there is anyone who wants to watch Putin’s news conference but cannot do it today, don’t worry. Next year you will watch a re-run.”

What was new this time was that in Putin’s performance, he cited 36 sets of state statistics in answer to 55 questions.  Subtracting the time taken by the questioners and Peskov’s audience management, Putin produced the numbers, new sets of them, every five minutes. 

They covered, in his sequence:  climate change; garbage recycling; production capacity;  airports;  highways; farm exports;  mines;  doctors’ pay;  new medical facilities,   vehicles and equipment; heart disease, tuberculosis and child mortality rates;  Ukrainian Army tanks;  Ukrainian gas prices;  Fareast mortgages;  housing replacement;  political party registrations;   inflation;  reserve fund outlays; new rolling stock;  bilateral foreign trade turnover; China’s GDP; loans to Belarus; sanction losses to the European Union; defence spending; robot vehicle kilometre testing; source of migration figures;  historical birth rates; numbers of women of child-bearing age; pharmaceutical exports; life expectancy; environmental technologies; pension growth; and the share capital of Innopraktika, his daughter Yekaterina’s company.

All the data sets were delivered impromptu, unscripted, direct from Putin’s memory.

Here is the Kremlin transcript, with video film and voiceover translation in English. The RT broadcast version of film can be watched here.  

A study of the president’s head and ears has revealed no headphone through which he might have been cued by a concealed prompter. His desk top was also checked. Apart from a plastic drinking cup, scribble-pad, several pens, and a small notebook, there was no sheaf of data, no tabbed briefing book, no script to which Putin might have referred, no teleprompter. He looked down only to make notes of the multiple questions he was being asked.

A wired electronic device was visible on the desk, on Putin’s left. It appears to be a standby audio translation connection. It is too small for data read-outs; too far from the president to be read without revealing his eye contact — he doesn’t glance at it throughout.

A cognitive psychologist was asked to review the performance. He described Putin as a prodigious mnemonist. To explain that last term he referred to the work by the internationally recognized Soviet neuropsychologist Alexander Luria (1902-77). First published in Russian in 1965, then in English in 1968, Luria’s work, the case study of S., one of Luria’s Moscow patients,  is titled  “The Mind of a Mnemonist”; read it in full.

In Luria’s case book, which he assembled from observations of S. for over thirty years, “there was no limit either to the capacity of S.’s memory or to the durability of the traces he retained.”  When S. first appeared at Luria’s clinic, he was a newspaper reporter. He then turned into a professional mnemonist, performing memory feats in theatres with live audiences. “Throughout the course of our research S.’s recall was always of a spontaneous nature. The only mechanisms he employed were one of the following: either he continued to see series of words or numbers which had been presented to him, or he converted these elements into visual images.”

Luria illustrates how meaning was transformed into memory: “it was the meaning of words that was predominantly important. Each word had the effect of summoning up in his mind a graphic image, and what distinguished him from the general run of people was that his images were incomparably more vivid and stable than theirs. Further, his images were invariably linked with synesthetic components (sensations of colored ‘splotches’, ‘splashes’, and ‘Ones’) which reflected the sound structure of a word and the voice of the speaker. It was only natural, then, that the visual quality of his recall was fundamental to his capacity for remembering words. For when he heard or read a word it was at once converted into a visual image corresponding with the object the word signified for him. Once he formed an image, which was always of a particularly vivid nature, it stabilized itself in his memory.” 

Although their prodigious memories seem to be similar, mnemonists aren’t either cognitively the same in their methods of recall or psychologically the same in the personalities. According to Luria (right), his patient S. couldn’t readily understand poetry. Abstract ideas were also a problem for him to follow – his thinking was graphic, not logical nor strategic. Also, “the big question for him, and the most troublesome, was how he could learn to forget.”

Luria didn’t generalize from his single case. Because the mind of the mnemonist is so rare, he acknowledged the impact of the mind on the personality is something “we know least about, is probably the most interesting.”

If Putin hadn’t performed his memory feats for record lengths of time in public – records no significant politician in the rest of the world can match – he would not have invited attention to them. And yet neither in his Russian biographies, nor in the foreign ones – friendly and hostile, balanced or unbalanced — can a section on his memory be found.  In “First Person”, the authorized self-portrait prepared for Putin by three Moscow journalists in the year 2000, Putin’s fifth-grade schoolteacher was quoted as remembering “he had a very good memory, a quick mind”. She didn’t remember him as a prodigy.

His first wife, Lyudmila Putina, came closer. She told the reporters: “Volodya always had a good memory….It was the first time I saw him in action [St. Petersburg mayoral press conference]. I sat there open-mouthed. He talked about politics, the economy, history, and the law. I listened, and I kept thinking, ‘How does he know all this?’”

When the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment – a mini-GRU – put out a contract to spy on Putin, it sent a Harvard professor named Timothy Colton to assess Putin’s body movements. Colton was so hapless at this the Kremlin-sponsored Valdai Discussion Club still invites him to attend its annual meeting with the President. Colton denies he was paid to spy. “I was not and never have been in any way a clandestine military contractor. I have never had a security clearance, and I have never conducted classified research for any organization. Therefore, there is no conflict between my role as an academic researcher and my work with [the Pentagon].” Read that story here. It didn’t occur to Colton or the Pentagon to investigate Putin’s memory.

In this Kremlin photograph (above) of President Putin at the Valdai Discussion Club on November 13, 2011, Colton can be seen in the right rear background wearing a red accreditation tag and a tie to match.   Colton’s invitations to observe Putin have been repeated by the Valdai Club.  In the Kremlin record of the Valdai panel discussion on October 27, 2016, Colton (extreme right) was wearing the same tie. 

Nor has it occurred to a Russian reporter or researcher to investigate whether the statistics Putin’s cites in his annual press conference are accurate. There are simply so many of them across so many subjects, the task is deterring.  Just this is also a rhetorical or debating device, well-known since Aristotle, and more recently nicknamed in the US the gish gallop; that’s when a debater tries to overwhelm with as many points as possible, leaving his opponent with too little time to fact-check or rebut.   

Rarely, though, Putin’s memory trips himself up.

That’s when in answer to a question, he responds with a set of statistics which, though accurate in themselves, aren’t complete, exposing thereby something more important, sensitive, or secret which he has left out.  Since the mnemonist cannot forget, what is missing isn’t an oversight. It’s an intention which the personality of the mnemonist usually keeps offstage, unrevealed to the audience. In the president’s four-and-a-half-hour performance last week, there was one example.

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