Game of clones: Why ‘Game of Thrones’ is a lot like Russian politics ­ except not really

Kremlin and St. Basil's

(Moscow News – – Anna Arutunyan – May 6, 2013)

Anna Arutunyan is a correspondent and editor at

When, over the long weekend, I sat down to watch “Game of Thrones,” a fantasy series set in a mythical realm where seven houses ruthlessly vie for supreme power, I was prepared to draw parallels with Russian politics. At first, the show delivered to my inner geek ­ as would any show about power plays from an age before the establishment of functioning institutions and the legal-rational state made politics bloodless and boring.

Here’s Boris Yeltsin as the hard-drinking King Robert Baratheon surrounded by scheming boyars. Here’s the Kremlin’s mystifying gray cardinal, cast as Tyrion Lannister, a brilliant, strategically gifted dwarf who’s getting things done behind the scenes.

And look, is that a glimpse of opposition leader Alexei Navalny that I see? Except that the goldenhaired leader of the resistance is a girl, and she has dragons. Unless Daenerys Targaryen, the Mother of Dragons, is actually Moscow socialite-turned-protest activistturned- wife Ksenia Sobchak, as a helpful colleague pointed out.

By the end of season two, the parallels were starting to fall flat. “Game of Thrones” was kind of like Russian politics in every way except the one that really mattered: Vladimir Putin wasn’t in it. He just wasn’t. We certainly don’t see him in King Robert’s successor ­ a sadistic, inbred teenager that I wouldn’t even compare with Ivan the Terrible.

Eddard, Lord Stark, Robert’s choice for king’s hand ­ i. e. prime minister ­ turned out too principled, and, what was more, fatally slow to grasp the intrigue that unfurled after Robert’s death. None of the Lannisters fit ­ except, once again, Tyrion, with his opportunism and survivor’s knack. On second thought, I won’t draw any additional parallels between Tyrion and the world of Russian politics. That way danger lies.

Seriously, though. I’m not the only person trying to read Russian politics on the tea leaves of “Game of Thrones.” And yet I had to ask myself ­ dead serious this time, because there’s a lot of death on the show ­ why I was looking for political answers in a show that wasn’t even based on history? The answer lies in a peculiar quality of recent American cable series: their treatment of naked power.

Yegor Prosvirnin, a nationalist Russian blogger, once had this to say about “The Boss,” a series about an ailing Chicago mayor who spins a web of deceit to conceal his neurological condition: “If Machiavelli were alive today, he would make a similar [film]. It’s a cold, fascist hymn to Force. It’s obvious that if Russian filmmakers were given billion-dollar budgets, they wouldn’t create anything like it, because they don’t think in terms of self-justifying Force.”

American cinema, Prosvirnin was saying, is obsessed with power and force; Russians don’t think in those categories. But what he didn’t write is that Russians don’t think in those categories because many live in them.

The recent American shows that deal with the subject ­ whether “Game of Thrones” or “House of Cards” ­ are trying to get at the essence of self-justifying power, the ancient kind, before it was effectively bound by the rule of law or political institutions.

When Petyr Baelish tries to tell Queen Cersei that knowledge is power, she orders her guards to slit his throat, and then swiftly tells them she’s changed her mind. “Power is power,” she tells Baelish (actually, Baelish is right ­ because he’s got some major “kompromat,” i. e. compromising information, on her family).

“Power is power.” Those three words serve as a kind of definition in the imaginations of those who take for granted their Weberian legal rational state. But is it really?

Out here, in Moscow, there’s a 16th century fortress that, were this Europe, would probably just be a museum. Instead, it’s still a fortress ­ and the seat of power we call the Kremlin. But we won’t find the one who occupies that seat in a show like “Game of Thrones” ­ because we don’t really have an inkling of what power is at all.