Interviews March 2005

Parsing Putin

Paul Starobin, the author of "The Accidental Autocrat," on the complex and inscrutable character of Russia's president

Vladimir Putin never expected to become President of Russia. But on the eve of the new millennium, Boris Yeltsin abdicated, leaving him in charge. Over the five years he has served thus far, he has been faced with Chechnyan terrorism, rampant organized crime, and widespread business corruption. He has responded to each of these challenges by consolidating power ever more tightly within the Kremlin—a pattern that has made him a highly controversial figure on the world stage. While some view his heavy-handed approach as a betrayal of Russia's fledgling status as a democracy, others welcome it as a necessary antidote to the chaos of contemporary Russia.

Over the years, Atlantic correspondent Paul Starobin has researched Putin's history and background and spoken both with those who know him personally and with political analysts who have studied his behavior. In "The Accidental Autocrat" (March Atlantic), Starobin portrays Russia's leader as a complex mixture of seemingly incongruous parts. There is Putin the fighter—a man who describes himself as having a "pugilistic nature," and who has long held a black belt in judo. There is Putin the canny former KGB operative—rigorously trained to calculate his every move and to dispense information sparingly. And then there is Putin the believer—a man of faith, who as a child absorbed his mother's strong Orthodox Russian beliefs and continues to practice devoutly.

As the article makes clear, it may never be possible to fully understand Putin—what motivates him, how he thinks, and what he might do next—because his innate reserve makes him extremely difficult to read. But Starobin's analysis offers valuable insight into this extraordinary man in whom so much power is vested.

Paul Starobin is a contributing editor of The Atlantic and a staff correspondent for National Journal. From 1999 to 2003, he was the Moscow bureau chief for BusinessWeek.

We spoke by phone on February 3.

Benjamin Freed

The first thing I'm curious about is the phrase that became the article's title, "The Accidental Autocrat." What did you intend to convey by that?

Putin isn't one of these Napoleon-like figures who decided early on in childhood that he was a man of destiny. There's a kind of accidental quality to the trajectory of his rise. He had an okay career at the KGB; he made it to the rank of colonel, but was not really one of the great stars. Then after the Soviet Union collapsed, he became a deputy of the mayor's office in St. Petersburg and made some contacts, but just did not seem to be a man of meteoric potential. Then, lo and behold, through a series of coincidences and fortuitous events for him, he ended up in Boris Yeltsin's Kremlin. Yeltsin needed a new prime minister, and the other candidates were not to his liking. So Putin, who at that time was the head of the Russian security services, seemed an unobjectionable choice for the job. Yeltsin at that period was so ill that he was only really lucid for a few hours a day. Much of the business of state was being managed by a group known as "The Family," which included Yeltsin's daughter Tatiana. Putin sufficiently impressed this crowd that when Yeltsin decided to step down at the turn of the millennium he made Putin his acting president.

I had just come to Moscow at that point as the bureau chief for BusinessWeek magazine. I'd only been there about a month, and the question on everyone's mind was, who is Vladimir Putin? He quickly consolidated his rule, which leads us to the "autocratic" part of the title. In a number of important respects, Putin has reversed the democratic processes in Russia. He and his supporters would argue that this has been done in the name of basic law and order, which declined in Russia during Yeltsin' s time. But his critics point to the retreat from media freedoms and the recent decision to have the Kremlin appoint regional governors instead of having them popularly elected as they were in Yeltsin's time, and so on. These things point to Putin the autocrat.

So he never really expected that this is where he would end up.

Yes, there seems to be a recurring pattern in Russian politics, not limited to the Soviet era, for unexpected people suddenly to be handed or receive the mantle.

The other notable thing about Russian leadership is that if you go back over the past few centuries, the most famous leaders were all tyrants.

I would quibble with that term. An autocrat is not necessarily a tyrant. A tyrant is a special word in the political vocabulary that can be applied very aptly to someone like Stalin, for example. But Putin's more of a strongman. The question is, Just how much stronger and more autocratic might he become? We sometimes take it as a given that political personalities are static. But in fact political personalities often evolve, and Putin is a work in progress.

He does seem rather inaccessible and secretive.

Yeah, he is, which is also not altogether unusual in Russian politics. Part of what drives this notion of Putin as so secretive is that Yeltsin seemed to be such an accessible figure, particularly to the West. He seized the stage so prominently in his CNN moment back in August 1991—he stood on the tank to help thwart the coup that was being staged by the KGB and the hard-liners. Yeltsin, of course, rode that moment to become president. So there was an enormous reservoir of goodwill toward him. He had a voluble nature, and people felt like they could understand and relate to him. With Putin it's much harder to get a sense of who he is. Either by deliberate strategy or just by his innate nature, he's more recessive.

How close did you get to him ?

In some ways this piece distills a lot of what I experienced and reported on in my tour at BusinessWeek for four years from 1999 to late 2003. I met Putin at the beginning of that tour. It was just at a reception—we shook hands, exchanged a few words. But I at least got a sense of the man in a kind of physical sense. And then I watched him closely and got to know some of his people in the Kremlin. I didn't get to know many, but there were a few who would talk to Western journalists. And I got to know some of his acquaintances—people who had interesting things to say about him such as one of the leaders of the Jewish community, Rabbi Beryl Lazar. For this piece I didn't talk directly to Putin. He does very few interviews, certainly very few one-on-one interviews. If he's traveling to Turkey, for example, he might leave Moscow with a group of Turkish reporters. And he gives annual press conferences that are largely rigged with questions known in advance.

Did anything especially surprise or fascinate you about Putin the man?

Well, he's a difficult character study. One of the questions I had going in was whether he's a divided or an integrated character. It's in some ways a metaphor for Russia. We in the West often think of Russia as a divided country, split between East and West. And with Putin, this question is thrown into relief. He was born in St. Petersburg, which is one of Russia's most western-oriented cities. It's the port city of the Baltics and was built by Peter the Great deliberately to take the Russian mindset away from Moscow where the capital had been. At the same time, Putin is an Orthodox Christian. He was baptized secretly by his mother at a very young age. I guess she didn't want his father to know. So there are a lot of things to draw him toward old Russia. I ended up concluding that he's really not a very divided or ambivalent character. He's basically just a very complex, integrated one. What division there is might be between, on the one hand, his instincts as a fighter—he's a black-belt in Judo—and, on the other hand, his more methodical, cerebral instincts, which were instilled in him by his KGB training. In terms of his heart and soul, I think that lies with his Orthodox Christianity, which isn't just about his religious convictions. It's tied to his vision of Russia. I'm comfortable with the idea that these very different parts can co-exist, even if they don't seem like they're easily joined. But I can see why others might argue that Putin is more divided.

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