Putin the Terrible

Articles by Jeffrey Tayler and Paul Starobin consider Vladimir Putin, the war on terror, and democracy's uncertain future in Russia

Two years ago this week, Chechen militants besieged a theater in Moscow, taking more than seven hundred civilians hostage. Attacks by Chechen rebels are nothing new in Russia, but after the siege of Middle School No. 1 in Beslan early this fall led to the deaths of nearly 350 hostages, the country began a new chapter in its dealings with terrorism. In the days afterward, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced new political measures that will allow him to appoint all regional governors and hold all elections for the Duma—the lower house of the Russian parliament—on national party tickets.

Members of Putin's party, United Russia, already occupy two-thirds of the Duma's 450 seats, and although Putin is not encountering opposition from within his party, leaders outside the party have questioned his motives, suggesting that he is seeking to usurp a dangerous amount of power. Putin himself, however, asserts that he is simply trying to overcome the problem of Russia's ineffective counterterrorism policies, and to reassert the state's power in a land that has known democracy for only thirteen years.

A selection of recent Atlantic articles on Putin and contemporary Russia offer insight into the uneasy relationship between the war on terrorism and the experiment of Russian democracy.

In "Russia is Finished" (May 2001) Jeffrey Tayler, an Atlantic correspondent who has lived in Moscow since 1993, painted a dismal picture of the social and political atmosphere in Moscow just a little over a year after Putin's ascension from Prime Minister to President. In a section of his article entitled "Putin the Terrible," Tayler bluntly laid out the history of Putin's role to date.

At the time Yeltsin left office, Tayler explained, Russia was crippled by widespread corruption in the business and political realms, and was still reeling from the 1998 economic meltdown. To keep the situation under control, Yeltsin had thought it best to appoint a strongman as his successor. As a former head of the Federal Security Service (FSB), and a former KGB agent—who therefore, in Tayler's words, had a history of helping to keep "the Soviet regime in power through mass murder, expropriation, exile, torture, surveillance, violation of individual liberties, blackmail, and lies"—Putin seemed ideal for the job.

Putin recognized that democracy in Russia was still a fragile and uncertain thing. In a recent public address, he had observed that the Russians had thus far created only "the carcass of a civil society." But Putin was also a firm believer in retaining a strong government grip on the country: he had recently asserted in a different address that Russians were "not ready to abandon traditional dependence on the state and become self-reliant individuals." Instead, he suggested, they wanted "a restoration of a guiding and regulatory role of the state." He wasted little time in fulfilling this alleged desire on the part of his people:

He has set about strengthening the vertikal' vlasti, the "vertical line of power"—an oblique way of saying his own authority. Though the President's power was already czarlike, owing to Yeltsin's constitution, it was not enough for Putin. He has redrawn Russia's administrative boundaries along the lines of those of imperial Russia, and in five out of the seven "new" federal regions he has put former military or intelligence officers in charge. He has launched a campaign to oust governors on corruption charges—governors opposed to the Kremlin, that is.

In addition to placing his party faithful in high offices, by mid-2001 Putin had also consolidated all but one television station under government control, had introduced a "slightly modified" version of Joseph Stalin's national anthem, had embraced the paramilitary tactics of the tax police, and, in dealing with terrorism, had "prosecuted the war in Chechnya to the point of obliterating that republic."

Just four months after Tayler's article appeared, terrorists struck dramatically inside the United States. As the world was acclimating itself to post-9/11 realities, Putin was one of the first world leaders to express solidarity with America in its counterterrorism efforts. In "Putin's Policy of Realpolitik" (December 2001), Tayler offered his analysis of the situation. At first, he explained, the Russian populace had been almost unanimously in favor of their President's support for America. But over the course of just a few weeks, that support had mostly dissipated. The Russians Tayler interviewed gave a variety of reasons for this—ranging from dissatisfaction with America's foreign policy to international conspiracy theories. Some interviewees cited a fear that if Russia were to enter into a major anti-terrorism campaign, the country might become a target of further attacks, especially in light of the fact that the Russian population includes twenty-million Muslims.

Despite such doubts on the part of the Russian people, however, Tayler suggested that Putin's decision to ally his country with America was a wise one that would offer him an opportunity to improve Russia's standing as a world power. "It might appear that Putin's plans run counter to Russian interests," Tayler wrote. "They do not." Joining with the United States in its then-new campaign against terrorism, he suggested, would be a win-win proposition.

If the United States smashes bin Laden's network, it will have done Moscow a favor by eliminating a presumed (and likely) sponsor of the Chechen struggle for independence. If the United States fails, and especially if it fails in Afghanistan, it will have crashed on the rocks of the same mountainous country that dealt the Red Army a defeat so demoralizing that it contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union. In defeat the United States would prove vulnerable, and its superpower status would suffer—a net gain for Russia, according to the zero-sum Cold War logic pervading much of the Kremlin's foreign policy.

The following month, in "The People's Choice" (January 2002), Tayler offered further analysis of Russian public opinion regarding the war on terrorism. Tayler observed that Putin's flouting of his people's desire to stay out of America's terror war seemed to have no effect on his popularity. Russian leaders, he explained, do not have the same respect for their subjects as leaders in the West ideally hold. Thus, despite Putin's open support for President Bush's anti-terror campaign, his image as an iron man kept him in good favor with the population.

Historically, this concern for the greatness of Russia is evident in the leaders many Russians have most revered: Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, and Joseph Stalin. They were tyrants all—but tyrants obsessed with increasing the power of Russia, and tyrants who succeeded in doing exactly that by employing the most brutal means imaginable. (No opinion polls were taken during their reigns, but certainly the prospect of being boiled alive, dragooned into draining swamps, or worked to death in frozen tundra could hardly have elicited much enthusiasm among their subjects.)

With the American war on terror going on in their backyard, few in Russia could make a persuasive objection to Putin's consolidation of executive power. "Whether or not the Russians yet understand this," Tayler wrote, "their president does—and that is what counts in a land where the leader leads and the people, like it or not, follow."

Most recently, in "Dawn of the Daddy State" (June 2004), Paul Starobin further explained why citizens in a democracy are sometimes willing—on occasion even eager—to allow their leaders to exercise a seemingly undemocratic degree of power. For the sake of security, he pointed out, the Israelis have accepted the construction of a fence along the West Bank, Europeans have accepted close government surveillance, and the United States has accepted the Department of Homeland Security. Discerning something Hobbesian in all this, Starobin briefly paraphrased what Hobbes had to say on the subject of security and the social contract in his treatise, Leviathan:

In a proverbial state of nature, man willingly gives up some portion of his liberty to a sovereign as the only conceivable protector of his life and property. During times of relative quiet and prosperity it is easy to forget that this sort of bargain exists—but in times of danger, woe to the sovereign that neglects its duty to protect.

By contrast with the United States, however, where (notwithstanding vocal opposition from its detractors) the Patriot Act is welcomed by a majority of citizens, or Israel, where the Fence is a public demand, in Russia, Starobin suggested, the government's measures allegedly on behalf of "security," are in fact beginning to err on the side of totalitarianism:

One obvious danger, fascism, already lurks at the door of Russia, a humiliated country whose color has shifted from red to brown since the collapse of the Soviet Union, in 1991. Putin is proving to be a manipulative paternalist, exploiting fears of Chechen terrorists and thuggish business oligarchs to nourish nationalist sentiment and his own cult of personality in the Kremlin.

Despite these new, increasingly draconian-seeming political measures, however, it may be premature to conclude that Putin is on his way toward transforming Russia into a twenty-first century totalitarian state. And as for Russia being "finished," so long as Putin remains in office, it seems unlikely that the country will go out without a fight.