It was already dark when Vladimir Putin showed up in Mariupol last Saturday. The Kremlin boss is said to have been brought to the occupied Ukrainian city by helicopter. A cloak-and-dagger operation to present the Russians with a courageous leader who apparently does not shy away from being close to the front. In fact, it was the first time that Putin appeared on the occupied territory of Ukraine. Joe Biden’s visit to Kiev may have lured Putin out of Moscow. If a US president can stroll calmly through Kiev, then the Russian president should at least set his feet on those territories that he likes to call “originally Russian”, thought the Kremlin.

The anniversary of the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula nine years ago provided a fitting occasion. Putin crouched behind the wheel of a car himself and cruised through the dark streets of Mariupol, taking a tour of the new buildings and even peeking into the modest homes of his new subjects.

Putin’s sudden visit to Mariupol was the dominant topic on Russian state TV on Sunday. However, Dmitri Kiselyov only presented the complete propaganda theater in the evening. In his program “Westi Nedeli” (“News of the Week”), he presented the viewers with Putin’s visit – a heroic act for propaganda. But if you pay attention to the details, the glorious performance turns into an embarrassing charade.

The propagandists demonstrated with particular pride the driving skills of the Kremlin boss. “The president drives himself and obeys all traffic rules,” the audience was told while they could look over Putin’s shoulder. “There is quite a lot of oncoming traffic on the streets. The traffic lights work. Vladimir Putin stopped on red and let a truck and a tractor pass!”, are the enthusiastic words of the spokesman for the corresponding pictures. The message is clear: Putin has it all and is by no means senile, as one of his critics claims.

The images from the dark streets of Mariupol are indeed amazing in their own way. Not because Putin wouldn’t look senile behind the wheel, but because the propaganda seems to have put an unusual amount of effort into this work. Nothing is left to chance when Putin makes appearances of this kind. Streets are closed and entire blocks are cleared. When the Kremlin boss inspected the repaired Crimean bridge last December, not a single vehicle was to be seen far and wide. When he visited an armaments factory last week, the workers had to go into a two-week quarantine – even though only his personal security staff were allowed near the president.

In Mariupol, however, Putin is said to have spontaneously visited the residents of the new housing estates that had been built from scratch, propaganda tries to make the public believe. Wearing a bulletproof vest under his jacket, he shook hands with the people lined up in front of him, who were shifting their feet in embarrassment.

But like the tractor and the red light, the presence of these people was no coincidence. According to the propaganda idea, the tractor should create the illusion of normality; the red traffic light demonstrates Putin’s law-abidingness, the shaking of hands demonstrates his closeness to the common people.

However, the people who were allowed to face the Kremlin boss in the middle of the night were quickly identified on social networks. After all, the Kremlin apparently made an effort here to attract real residents of Mariupol to the spectacle. The main actor turned out to be a certain Nikolai Lotkov. He thanked Putin profusely for his new three-room apartment, which he got to replace his old one. His son Dmitri, his daughter-in-law Yekaterina and family friend Alexei Bondarenko are said to have rounded out the scenery. On the local Telegram channel Mariupol.Sprotiv, users say that Dmitry and Ekaterina Lotkov took part in looting during the bombing of Mariupol. Now they are apparently hired out as Putin’s extras.

“Thank you for the victory! Hold on! Health and happiness to you! We pray for you. We have waited for you for so long,” Yekaterina praised her president while clasping her hands as if in prayer. “We now have a little piece of paradise here,” she said, trying to shed a few tears. Meanwhile, behind their “piece of paradise” darkness hid the debris of Mariupol. Like the audience, the night time of Putin’s visit was carefully chosen. Nothing should stand in the way of the new myth of a rebuilt Mariupol that Putin now wants to spread.

A tractor, a red light and even real residents of Mariupol – the Kremlin dared a lot to stage a glorious performance for Putin in the rebuilt Mariupol. And he lost. While the Kremlin boss listened to the hymns of praise from the instructed admirers, a woman’s voice called loudly across the courtyard: “That’s not true at all! It’s for showing”. (On the video, the call can be heard at second 19.)

The video shows the irritated men around Putin looking for his source. While the Tass news agency removed the incident from its footage, the shout can be heard on Ria’s recordings. And also in Kiselyov’s evening program, the corresponding passage was omitted.

In fact, very few TV viewers will have heeded the call. But the picture that Putin presented in Mariupol was anything but glorious, even without the revealing comment: the heavy protective vest was visibly pressing on the shoulders of the Kremlin boss. Again and again he adjusted them and tried to relieve his bones. Strands of sweaty hair clung to the back of his head as he crept through the cold night.

Putin was only accompanied by Marat Chusnullin, who has been Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister for Construction and Regional Development since 2020. There was no sign of the local Moscow-installed government. Chuznullin was the one who presented the restored Philharmonic to Putin. He was the one showing his boss the great new roads. He was also the one who told Putin that it was Ukrainian forces that reduced Mariupol to rubble – one of the key propaganda fables in this war.

“Where we advanced, there were no hits. None at all. The tanks fired directly from their side. You can see correctly: Where they retreated, they fired directly at the houses. I say that as a master builder. I have every one House,” Chusnullin told Putin with a hand on his heart – a gesture as believable as the rest of the performance. In any case, the celebratory visit of Joe Biden under the blue sky and the bright sun of Kiev is in a different league.