The Russian president, a practiced propagandist since before he entered the Kremlin, is refashioning more than just his public image
Vladimir Putin / AP
At last fall's Valdai Discussion Club, the annual Moscow session where Russian leaders meet with Western journalists and academics, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin made clear he would issue no apologies for his recent maneuver to reclaim the Russian presidency from his protégé, Dmitri Medvedev, and dominate his country's politics for perhaps the next dozen years. Responding to one question, he declared, "I do not need to prove anything to anyone."
Such defiance reflects two central elements of the Putin persona: his firm conviction that his personal destiny is intertwined with that of his country; and his resolve to fashion the Russian destiny through slow, methodical decision making over a long period of time. In past public appearances, Putin has made repeated references to one of his Russian heroes, Pyotr Stolypin, the reformist prime minister under the last czar, Nicholas II, who also favored measured, evolutionary change; and to his American model, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who brushed aside the unwritten two-term presidential limit that had guided all U.S. executive leaders up to his time. At one point at the recent Valdai conference, Putin was asked directly about these references to Stolypin and Roosevelt, both of whom, noted the questioner, "did not survive to see their projects through."
Putin did not miss a beat. "Well," he interjected, to a smattering of nervous laughter, "don't go planning my funeral just yet." Clearly, he does not conceive of the next phase of Russia's history moving forward without him.
Putin is back, or almost assuredly will be back, as Russian president in 2012. Notwithstanding all his time as Russian president or as the stealthy power behind the presidency, Putin remains a shadowy and inaccessible figure. This is not by accident, given that he has invested extraordinary efforts into hiding his true identity. There are large discrepancies in his official narrative--not surprising, perhaps, for a former KGB case officer adept at masking his real self as well as, sometimes, his very existence. His KGB role, including his East German service in Dresden, remains a mystery. Little is known even of his activities as deputy mayor of St. Petersburg. So little, in fact, that to our knowledge there may be only one published photo of the man from this important period of his official career. This is a striking contrast to his more recent penchant for projecting his political persona widely through photographs.
This vague biography prior to Putin's August 1996 arrival in Moscow contributed to another aspect of his career--a widespread tendency on the part of others to underestimate him. Seemingly lacking a firm identity or ideology, Putin was seen as a "quiet Chekist" who could easily "disappear in a crowd of two," as Russia expert Pavel Baev once put it. He seemed to have a knack for getting others to construct their own versions of what they wanted him to be and did not seem overly concerned about the result. When Putin first joined the Russian government, former acquaintances widely dismissed him as a second-rate figure. He was "a mediocrity," as a senior official from Helsinki put it. He was also called a puppet of the "Yeltsin family" (the entourage around former Russian president Boris Yeltsin), a tool of the security services (siloviki) or simply a "KGB thug" motivated by lust for money.
None of this was accurate. Putin turned out to be much more important--and more complex--than almost anyone perceived a dozen years ago. As president and premier, he is one of the longest serving leaders in post-czarist Russian history. As the 2012 Russian presidential election approaches, Putin has put himself forward as a critical protagonist in Russia's historical narrative. We propose here to offer a portrait of the man from official biographical accounts, his numerous interviews and speeches, our personal interactions with individuals who have known and worked with him, and our participation in the annual Valdai sessions. These offer an image of Putin as a student of Russian history who is moving increasingly into the dangerous territory of writer, manufacturer and manipulator of history.
Indeed, any effort to understand Vladimir Putin must begin with the man of history. For Putin, the interpretation and reinterpretation of history is a crucial matter. History was his favorite subject in school, and he remains an avid reader today. He appreciates the power of "useful history," the application of history as a policy tool, as a social and political organizing force that can help shape group identities and foster coalitions. At the September 2010 Valdai Club conference, Russian deputy prime minister Igor Shuvalov told the group that Putin and his team "are good students of Russian history. We've studied it and learned lessons from it." In late October 2011, in a Reuters interview, Putin's press secretary Dmitri Peskov stressed that "Putin reads all the time, mostly about the history of Russia. He reads memoirs, the memoirs of Russian historical state figures." For Putin, history is both personal and personalized--focused on individuals and their actions rather than on political, social and economic forces.
During a September 2005 Valdai Club lunch with Putin in the Kremlin, participants noted the prominent placement of busts and pictures of the great czarist-era reformers in his public-private area. In 2008, the Kremlin and the Russian government conducted a national contest in which Russian citizens chose "the most important persons in Russian history." The contest unfolded according to an elimination-round format in which each round's highest vote getters would be pitted against one another in subsequent rounds. The top designee turned out to be Alexander Nevsky, thirteenth-century grand prince of Vladimir and one of the most significant early Russian rulers, declared a saint by the Russian Orthodox Church. Number two was Stolypin, who resigned after a series of political setbacks and was subsequently assassinated. As a number of prominent Russian commentators pointed out at the time of the contest, it was fixed. Independent polls showed that few Russians considered these two figures even in the top twenty-five. The regime manufactured their popularity for its own purposes. But it was a hard sell. Stolypin had been denigrated in the Soviet era and depicted as a brutal repressor of the people. Yet Stolypin has since become Putin's role model of choice, a historical figure who justifies both Putin's policies as prime minister and his program for the further development of Russia.
Putin, it seems, has embraced Pyotr Stolypin as the model for his current premiership and putative future presidency because Stolypin tried to accomplish the political, economic and social transformation of Russia through non-revolutionary means. Putin's favorite quote these days is, "We do not need great upheavals. We need a great Russia," a paraphrase of Stolypin's famous rebuke to his fellow Duma deputies in 1907: "You, gentlemen, are in need of great upheavals; we are in need of Great Russia." At the 2011 Valdai meetings, as in previous sessions, Putin made frequent references to the importance of gradual, evolutionary change.
But there are risks in this effort to manufacture and manipulate history for purposes of the present. History can be stubborn in its details. Stolypin, for example, did not succeed in transforming Russia through steady, well-planned actions after Russia was humiliated in the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War and shaken by revolutionary turmoil. He repeatedly dissolved the Russian parliament after clashing with its more radical members, and Czar Nicholas II famously grew weary of the constitutional monarchy and tentative parliamentary democracy that Stolypin tried to lead. Putin and Stolypin have many more differences than similarities, and it would be rash to suggest that Putin is predestined to share Stolypin's fate, politically or personally. But in a general sense, Putin does face the same dilemma as Stolypin: before he can shape the future and make it into history as he envisions it, he has to deal with the political exigencies of the present. The past teaches us that the forces and pressures of politics sometimes go their own way despite carefully calibrated efforts to channel them. The disappointing results for Putin's United Russia party in the recent parliamentary elections are a reminder of that lesson. Putin expected voters to elect a thoroughly supportive parliament for his upcoming presidency. The newly elected Duma will not be as docile as he had planned. The challenge in scripting history is getting the real-world actors to understand and play their parts. Putin knows and plays his role. His people seem less willing to play theirs.
Still, Putin demands his place in Russian history, which makes him a man of mark in our time. He is one who deserves to be better understood. His outlook has been shaped by many influences, among them the archetypical Russian mentality as well as his early life; KGB training and service in East Germany; experiences in St. Petersburg in the 1990s; early days behind the political scenes in Moscow; and his time at the helm of the Russian nation. The force of history is a strong current that flows through all of these. To pull them together into a portrait of the man, we shall look at the Russian prime minister in five guises--Putin the statist, Putin the survivalist, Putin the outsider, Putin the free marketeer and Putin the case officer.
On December 29, 1999, the official website of the Russian government posted a document under the signature of then prime minister Vladimir Putin: "Russia at the Turn of the Millennium." Two days later, Russian president Boris Yeltsin appeared on national television and declared his resignation. He said he would hand over power to Putin, whose treatise quickly became known as the Millennium Manifesto. This was Putin's mission statement, suffused with lessons of history.
A central point of the manifesto was that Russia, throughout its history, had lost its status when its people were divided, when they lost sight of the common values that united them and distinguished them from other nations. Since the fall of communism, Putin asserted, Russians had embraced personal rights and freedoms, including freedom of personal expression and freedom to travel abroad. These universal values were fine, but they were not Russian. Nor would they be enough to ensure the survival of the nation. There were other, distinctly Russian values that were at the core of what Putin called the "Russian idea." Those values were patriotism, collectivism and solidarity, derzhavnost' (the belief that Russia is always destined to be a strong state and great power), and the untranslatable gosudarstvennichestvo, which essentially puts the state at the heart of everything.
Russia is not America or Britain, with their historically liberal traditions. Putin said:
For us, the state and its institutions and structures have always played an exceptionally important role in the life of the country and the people. For Russians, a strong state is not an anomaly to fight against. Quite the contrary, it is the source and guarantor of order, the initiator and the main driving force of any change. . . . Society desires the restoration of the guiding and regulating role of the state.
Putin promised to restore that role. He declared himself to be a gosudarstvennik--a man of the state, a servant of the state, a builder of the state.
The state, or gosudarstvo, has a very specific meaning for Russians. In Russia, as in France, Germany and other great European powers, the state is personified--Mother Russia, the motherland, Mat' Rossiya or Rodina. The twist in Russia is that while Mother Russia must be protected, she does not necessarily protect you. In the United States, the state exists to protect the rights of the individual. In Russia, the state is primary. The state stands above the individual, who is subordinate to the state and its interests. The fact that Putin is a gosudarstvennik, a person who believes that Russia must be and must have a strong state--and thus a strong state apparatus--seems to be the most obvious thing to say about a former KGB operative. He is hardly unique among other leading Russian figures in being committed to statist goals, and Putin's statist traits have been explored in other biographical analyses. More interesting is the way in which Putin's thinking about the state seems to be influenced by his reading and his interpretation of Russian history.
For Putin, history reinforces the importance of serving the state and of the eternal nature of the state versus the ephemeral nature of the individual. At the same time, none of Putin's ideas of history are particularly new. He has appropriated and synthesized--with the help of Kremlin ideologue Vladislav Surkov and others--ideas with long historical roots that were revisited in Russia in the 1980s and particularly in the 1990s. In 1996, Boris Yeltsin set up an official group, headed by prominent political thinker Georgy Satarov, to figure out how to create a "new Russian idea" as the ideological touchstone for a renewed "Great Russia" after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The group faded into oblivion after a brief period of half-hearted debate, but a slew of important books and articles, spanning a century of Russian political thought, was republished, along with some paler reflections and reformulations by contemporary writers. As Vladimir Lukin, former Russian ambassador to the United States, remarked in 1998, "We're now all reading from the same reading list."
Putin's novel contribution was to synthesize that reading list into a creative contemporary fusion of czarist and Soviet ideas. While Putin's interpretations of the history and idea of the state are difficult for non-Russians to grasp, they have broad resonance in Russia. They include Eurasianism (an old effort dating back to the czars to justify Russia's rule over the vast multiethnic space of its empire); a fervent reembrace of the Russian Orthodox Church and its theology; "sovereign democracy" (Putin's strained reformulation of the czarist-era concept of autocracy with a democratic twist); and narodnost, the celebration of the spirit and essence of being Russian--which refers to the narod or the collective Russian people.
Putin has drawn one very important conclusion from his reading of Russia's long history: the danger of repeated "times of troubles" that have risked the collapse or disintegration (raspad or razval) of the Russian state. Putin is obsessed with unity and avoiding the dangers of splintering and fracturing in politics. Those sentiments appear repeatedly in his pronouncements. The ruling party is Edinnaya Rossiya, United Russia (really "single" Russia or "the one Russia"). Putin wants Russians and Russia to be the same as he is, one strong personality with multiple facets, not multiple personalities. In his mind, there are no more famous historical Russian conflicts between Slavophiles and Westernizers, Whites and Reds, Left and Right, liberals and fascists; no KGB pitted against ordinary Russians, the perpetrators against the victims of the purges and the Gulag; no ethnic Russians clashing with minorities. Everyone is in this together, and everyone together must support the state, Mother Russia.
For Putin, history is very personal. He comes from a family of survivors of one of the blackest periods in Russian and Soviet history. In World War II, his father, serving in a special-forces unit that operated behind enemy lines, was one of only four Soviet commandos who returned alive from one of his first battles outside Leningrad. Severe wounds suffered early in 1942 disqualified him from further active duty. Out of the hospital, he remained in Leningrad with his wife and son. More than a million of the Putins' fellow Leningraders died during the Nazi siege from September 1941 to January 1944 from artillery barrages, bombings, starvation and disease. The Putin family's five-year-old son, Vladimir's older brother, was one of those who perished.
This event fits neatly into the general context of a historical narrative in which Russia constantly battles for survival against a hostile outside world. Some individuals and families perish; others survive against the odds--without protection from the state but for the sake of the state. The "survivalist" may be the mentality that is the most widespread among Russians of nearly all backgrounds and ages, given the shared experiences of war and privation. It is reflected even today in what is possibly the most prosperous period in Russian history, in the prevalence of potatoes and other staple crops grown on private dacha plots. Leningraders, or St. Petersburgers, like Putin particularly demonstrate this trait.
Putin's lessons from the history of the Leningrad siege were compounded by his own experience of being the city official responsible for bringing post-Soviet St. Petersburg through the food crisis in the winter of 1991-92. Planning for contingencies and being prepared for the worst-case scenario have governed his policies as national leader since 2000. Putin applies his worst-case-scenario thinking to the state level: Always have a Plan B. Don't make irreversible commitments. The key is to maintain adequate reserves, like the private dacha food stores but on a massive scale. As president and prime minister, Putin has engaged in a concerted policy to create (and protect) Russia's budget-stabilization fund and build up foreign-exchange reserves.
In 1996, a group of Putin's friends and colleagues in St. Petersburg, all living in the same lakeside vicinity and all situated on the outside of Russian power, would get together informally to discuss the mismanagement in Moscow. The stories about this so-called "Ozero" fraternity (from the Russian word for "lake") suggest these outsiders formulated a plan to intervene and send their own candidate or candidates to Moscow to "sort things out." All St. Petersburgers are, by definition, outsiders to the Moscow power center, and many in this particular group had, like Putin, spent periods of time outside Russia or the USSR, where they were able to detach themselves from the ongoing events and form a more dispassionate analysis of the state of affairs.
Putin, in his humble family origins, was a double or even triple outsider--outside the St. Petersburg elite; outside the Soviet nomenclature; even, in many respects, an outsider to the KGB establishment. Unlike Defense Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov, Putin was not a KGB "golden boy" who always seemed on a fast track to somewhere. Putin was even an outsider to one of the biggest dramas of Russia's recent history, Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika. While the rest of his countrymen were engaged daily in those tumultuous events of the late 1980s, Putin was stationed abroad, in Dresden. He did not return to the Soviet Union until after the fall of the Berlin Wall. And when he came to Moscow in 1996, it was explicitly as an outsider: his fellow St. Petersburgers Anatoly Chubais and Alexei Kudrin brought him to the capital to help in their campaign to reestablish order and rein in the oligarchs who had essentially privatized Moscow and the state.
To many observers, Putin, the erstwhile KGB operative in Dresden, was an odd choice to assist the seemingly arch-liberal reformers Chubais and Kudrin--even if he had worked closely with them in St. Petersburg. But Putin had already established himself as a free marketeer, and the KGB was his proving ground. In 1984-85, Putin attended courses at the KGB Red Banner Institute in Moscow. During this period, the KGB was furiously engaged in an effort, initiated by former KGB chairman and recently deceased Soviet leader Yuri Andropov, to save the Soviet system by searching for a new economic model that would include elements of capitalism. The KGB was the only institution that dared examine the Soviet system and recognize how poorly it functioned. Putin, aware that central planning was not working, studied Western textbooks on economics and management. He may have questioned the soundness of the Soviet economy before this period, but his experience in the KGB Institute likely confirmed his suspicions. Later in the 1980s, during his KGB stint in Dresden, Putin was given a further opportunity to see the failure of communism firsthand in what was supposedly the most advanced of the communist states. East Germany had advantages the USSR did not have--better human capital, recent memory of capitalism, advanced industrial and agricultural development--yet it too was failing. Back in St. Petersburg in the 1990s, Putin quickly linked up with the leading Russian free-market advocates of the moment, including Chubais and Kudrin, in the group around Mayor Anatoly Sobchak, his former law professor from Leningrad University.
After a rocky experience with free-market capitalism in the 1990s, many in Russia backed down on the commitment to "the market." They gave up on capitalism and turned to a "statism" defined as "state control of the economy." What is distinctive about Putin is that he stuck to his commitment to the principles of the market economy and private enterprise despite the trials of the 1990s and some bruising experiences in St. Petersburg. For Putin, history trumped ideology, and history had delivered its verdict on communism. No matter what Soviet theory had propounded, history proved that the centrally planned, command-administrative economy could not succeed. The market won out, and Putin stayed with the winner. Still, he continued looking for a magic bullet to reconcile private ownership on the one hand with the needs of the Russian state on the other. Putin's dealings with Russia's oligarchs over the past decade trace the trajectory of his efforts to compel this unruly, self-interested group of powerful business owners to accept that the state's interests take precedence over individual corporate ones. Thus Putin has cast himself in the role of enlightened political leader, as a statist who determines the state's interests but protects entrepreneurs, gives them a free hand, and only intervenes in businesses decisions and operations in extreme cases that appear to threaten state priorities.
Putin's former role as a KGB case officer was important in his approach to the oligarchs. Once again, his notion of history shaped this role. In 1997, the FSB (the successor to the KGB) launched a series of annual scientific workshops entitled "Historical Lectures at the Lubyanka." The workshops were organized by the Center for Public Relations of the FSB and the FSB Academy. They invited scholars, including those from civilian universities, to present and discuss papers on various aspects of the security agencies' history. We do not have direct evidence about Putin's role in initiating these lectures, but we can assume he knew about them. By 1998, he was head of the FSB and ultimately in charge.
The theme of the 1998 conference was "The Russian Special Services at a Turning Point of Epochs: The End of the Nineteenth Century through 1922." One lecture delivered by Professor Yelena Shcherbakova of the FSB Academy was entitled "The Bourgeois Intelligentsia of the 1860s as a Potential Adversary of the Political Police." Shcherbakova examined and critiqued the efforts of the Third Section of His Imperial Majesty's Own Chancellery, a small department formed to serve as the czars' secret police, to understand the mindset and concerns of the opposition intellectuals of the time. The Third Section could have done a better job, she suggested, adding that today's KGB/FSB should draw the proper lessons from this history:
One of the most important tasks for the security organs is to provide a competent social prognosis, so that it will be possible to prevent the emergence of certain tendencies rather than have to combat the results of those tendencies. This is especially important in times of troubles and social instability.
Contrary to some early accounts, Putin was never a spy or a thug in the KGB. (The tough-guy image he projects is largely playacting.) Most of the stories we have collected about the way Putin operates show that he prefers a softer, quieter, more subtle approach. He performs unforgettable favors for people, even strangers, on the theory that one can't predict how prominent they might become. He collects information about people and circumstances that will help him relate to them. Putin's job in the KGB was more about persuasion than coercion. Putin was a case officer, and his skill was rabota s lyud'mi (working with people). There is a German account of Putin's Dresden posting that asserts Putin's real mission in East Germany was to recruit German Communist Party functionaries and even Stasi secret-police officers to back the Soviet Union and Mikhail Gorbachev, turning them against German leader Erich Honecker, who was actively trying to undermine Gorbachev's perestroika in the Eastern bloc. Rather than simply being a provincial German backwater, as many Putin biographers have asserted, Dresden was a center for intraparty opposition to Honecker, led by Dresden's local Communist Party leader Hans Modrow and others. Putin is clearly proud of his assignment in Dresden, and he has spoken in interviews of his ability to communicate and interact with people (sobshenie s lyud'mi) as one of the most important assets from his KGB training and experience. Putin understood the principles of British scholar and intelligence chief John Masterman's "double-cross system": Don't destroy your enemies. Harness them. Control them. Manipulate them, and use them for your own goals.
Putin's career in Moscow, from his first appearance in the summer of 1996 to the present, is essentially a chronology of the case officer's task list that Putin learned in the KGB and practiced in Dresden. Through this lens, he viewed the Yeltsin family, the oligarchs and others as destroying the Russian state in the 1990s by essentially dismantling it for their own gain. To Putin, these people were like enemy agents operating on Russian territory. How to deal with them? Run a counteroperation. Putin became the operative in the Kremlin, the man who would recruit and co-opt them and turn them back into servitors of the state on his terms, not theirs.
Identifying, recruiting and running agents is done on a very intimate, one-to-one basis. But having dispatched the Yeltsin family and the oligarchs, Putin now seeks to apply his case-officer tradecraft to the entire nation, to enlist every Russian in the service of the state. How can that possibly work? He cannot hope to co-opt every single Russian individually. This is where history comes in as a key instrument in his toolbox and where Putin has progressively stepped over the line between learning from and applying the lessons of history to manufacturing and manipulating it. By defining history, Putin seeks to win groups and classes to his cause. He determines which groups' history is part of the inclusive myth and shows which groups are outside the collective history. This is a powerful tool. It allows for a definition of the us and the them, the nashi versus the chuzhiye (which also means "others" or "aliens" in Russian). Both these terms have a particular and piquant salience in contemporary Russia. One of the most important of the Kremlin-sponsored political youth groups is called "Nashi." Its goal is frequently to demonize and often physically go after thechuzhiye.
Using history, Putin has scaled his role as case officer up to a national level. Over the course of his career, from Leningrad to Dresden to St. Petersburg to Moscow, he has moved from being an outsider and a peripheral figure to a man who actively makes history. Instead of Fidel Castro-style mass speeches, Putin takes the case officer's approach, engaging one-on-one with the Russian people in public settings, including televised hotline call-ins and press conferences, where everyone listens to him respond and tailor his answers to the questions of a specific individual. He also resorts to outlandish performance pieces in which he transforms himself into a deep-sea diver, race-car driver, biker, airplane pilot, sportsman--all to appeal directly to different Russian audiences.
Putin's references to Stolypin and others are similarly deliberate and specifically targeted. As he stated in his Millennium Manifesto, Putin is trying to fix Russia. He sees himself as a historical figure among the pantheon of those who have sought to save the Russian state. Putin knows that he is shaped and constrained by Russia's past. He must work with what he has and try to improve it without aiming for any radical transformation. He remains ever mindful of the fateful experiences of Gorbachev in the 1980s and Yeltsin in the 1990s, as well as of the myriad failures of various czars. Outside observers may not want to believe him, but this is how he sees himself. If U.S. and other policy makers wish to work with Putin after 2012, they would be well advised to pay attention to and play to his sense of history. Otherwise, Putin, as a good case officer, will certainly figure out ways of "running" them for his own and Russia's purposes.
Putin's emphasis on history, however, reveals a weakness. There is a difference between being the student and the writer of history. The honest student of history learns from mistakes of the past. But the writer of history who seeks to leverage it for contemporary aims glosses over these mistakes. When mistakes are whitewashed, learning from history becomes more difficult. A leader can no longer stand back and draw dispassionate conclusions.
As we have observed through our Valdai encounters and other interactions with Russia and its leaders, the political system Putin has shaped over the last twelve years is highly personalized and heavily dependent on him remaining at the center. He approaches every interaction as a hands-on recruiter and views other individuals as sources of raw intelligence. He does not seem to rely on others for direct counsel or interpretation of people or events. Just as he approaches his reading of history, Putin takes in information and makes up his mind. He has difficulty delegating to others--as the recent experience of the tandem with Dmitri Medvedev illustrates. The limitations of the system he has created are evident. Once Mr. Putin is gone, all bets are off on Russia's political future. At present, there is no scenario for Russia without the great survivalist Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.
This article originally appeared at NationalInterest.org, an Atlantic partner site.