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.

In your article you wrote that he was "stripped raw" by what happened last fall at Beslan. Was this different from his response to other incidents, like the hostage-taking in the theater in Moscow a few years ago? Or was this more of a wake-up call to take major action?

I think that Beslan stands out as an almost uniquely horrible moment for him. The theater moment was horrible too, of course. In the theater incident, scores of people died as a result of the gas that the Russian special forces shot in to subdue the attackers. But in Beslan children were involved, and it was essentially a huge massacre. The death toll stands at about 350. So the scale of this is different, and for Putin it was really a shock and humiliation. He's the leader of this patriarchal country, and he's not able to protect the women and the children. I think in fact that these terrorists were intending to torment him by demonstrating that they could show up on Russian soil, outside of separatist Chechnya—in a northern area that's predominately Orthodox Christian—and do this sort of thing.

In the wake of all that, he's been trying to tighten control of the country. You note in your article that he's come under Western and internal criticism for that. Another point you raise is that Western sentiments are out of touch with the anxieties and priorities of ordinary Russians in this regard. What are those anxieties and priorities?

In any society, there's sort of a checklist of things that people are concerned about. The Western checklist puts democracy pretty much at the top. The typical Russian checklist, on the other hand, puts order and economic concerns at the top. Democracy lies somewhere further down the list, which isn't to say they don't care about it. It just doesn't have the same magnitude of importance. I noticed that difference living in Moscow. There's a difference between the liberal intelligentsia-type perspective among Muscovites—much of the liberal intelligentsia lives in Moscow—and the perspective of ordinary Russians. This is an age-old tension in Russian society. I think in the West there is sometimes a distorted picture of Russia, because so much of the picture we get is created by what the liberal intelligentsia are recounting and reporting.

How are people in general responding to Putin's post-Beslan measures?

Well, I think they initially accepted some of the ideas, such as having the Kremlin appoint governors even though that might appear to be only tangentially related to the Beslan disaster. If Russia got a better class of governors that would be a good thing, because many of them who are popularly elected are pretty bad. A number of them are corrupt and are involved in big businesses for their own pockets and so forth. In general, there certainly was an appetite for somebody like Putin in the immediate wake of the Yeltsin era.

But there is dissatisfaction too with Putin that is emerging, not just among the liberal intelligentsia. It emerges from some of the reforms he's trying to conduct, not connected to Beslan, but more broadly with his efforts to "de-Sovietize" things. Right now, for example, he's attempting to pare back some of the public subsidies that pensioners enjoy—things like public transportation. This has triggered what some are calling the revolt of the Babushkas, the grandmothers. They like those benefits, and they're not going to take this. It should be noted that this isn't an anti-democratic revolt. It's a bit like the Social Security debate in America. Many of these pensioners are living hand-to-mouth and they don't find it acceptable that the state would reduce their benefits. There are also idealistic students who are beginning to voice some discontent with Putin. Part of that is related to the military, which is a pretty corrupt and backward institution in Russia, one that is almost impervious to reform. Young people worry about being conscripted and they play all sorts of games to get out of it.

Another big issue that seems to be on Russia's doorstep these days is Ukraine. It's no secret that Putin strongly backed Yanukovich, but now that Yushchenko has won and is starting his presidency, what's going to happen in the relationship between Russia and Ukraine? It seems that that relationship could get especially complicated if there's any evidence that there was Russian involvement in the poisoning job.

People should be pretty careful speculating about that. There are any number of reasons that such poisoning could have occurred. Putin is a bit of a bully, but he's a little bully. He did huff and puff and threaten a bit with Ukraine. But it just didn't work, and he quickly backed down. I think Ukraine and Russia still need each other for a lot of reasons. Ukraine gets a lot of its energy supply from Russia, for example, and there's a great deal of Russian capital that's invested in the Ukrainian economy. Much as Europeans say they have a soft spot for Ukraine, they have not come in and invested in the way the Russians have. There's also the matter of the Russian navy in the Black Sea and using Ukraine's facilities and so forth. So I'm not sure we're going to see a great level of detachment. Having said that, it's clear that under Yuschenko—and particularly under his prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who might be the most dynamic force in his administration—there is going to be a Westward orientation in Ukraine's political, economic, and security policies. I think Putin understands that. He's basically lost the fight and will try to be as gracious as he possibly can. He received Yushchenko in Moscow not long after his election, and that seemed to go okay. And Putin has got other things to worry about. The Republic of Georgia has also gone in a westward direction. The Russian empire is still a declining force.

Something in your article that really struck me was your point that religion seems to be sneaking back into public and political life—you describe how religious iconography has been drawing crowds in Moscow, and how one of Putin's closest confidantes is a Russian Orthodox priest. This reminded me a bit of what's going on in the U.S. now, especially having just had an election in which moral values played such a strong role. As we're experiencing the political ascendancy of moral values here, is a similar phenomenon going on in Russia thanks to Putin?

I'm not sure I would say thanks to Putin. But Putin is giving this values movement breathing space, possibly both because it's in his interest to do so and because he embraces it himself. It's difficult to compare to America, but perhaps there are some parallels. I think the main thing here in Russia is that there was a moral vacuum during the Communist period when atheism was an enforced policy. Upon the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Church saw and the believers saw that this was a wholly new moment in Russian history and a time for them to make a comeback. So there's been a great restoration of churches and monasteries, and a great outreach to new believers. There are certainly many young people who have become genuine believers and have a real love not just of God in the Orthodox presentation but also of the affiliation between the Orthodox and the Russian—the nation. It's a crucial thing in understanding Orthodox culture that there's this association between religion and nation. I think in that sense it's a bit different from in America. For a number of reasons Putin wants to be attached to this movement. It's possible that he can gain great prestige among his people by being seen as a religious man, as Yeltsin was not. Yeltsin was seen as an atheist.

So Putin's faith is sincere.

Well, I believe it is, but I can't know for sure because, unlike George Bush, I don't believe you can see into another person's soul. There's an elaborate body of movements and hand gestures associated with Orthodox ritual, and the people who watch Putin in church say that he's got those down. I'm also told on good authority that his relationship with his confessor, Father Tikhon, began well before he became president. So, yes, I do think he's a sincere believer.

At the end of your article you discuss the fact that the Russian constitution limits the president to two terms, and you explain that there's some speculation that Putin might try to amend the constitution so he can stay on. Is this likely to happen?

It's difficult to say. I think that if it happened it would probably happen toward the end of his second term, which won't be for a while. Whenever he's asked about this possibility, he says that he's not thinking about amending the constitution, but he's very careful and cagey, and it wouldn't be in his interest to talk about it. I think the likeliest possibility is that he'll try to hand power off to some designated successor whose name might not even be known to us—another Putin if you will. Several of my sources in Moscow said that it would be in character for Putin, as a stealthy sort of figure, to not tell anybody who it is he's keeping in mind as his successor, avoid all the obvious choices, and then spring this person on the Russian public as a surprise. With the television media being basically state-run it would be very difficult for any opposition figure to beat Putin's choice. I don't think we can dismiss the possibility that Putin will either try to remain president or in some way remain the dominant figure. There's been talk, for example, about a new union between Russia and Belarus that would put Putin at the top. There are any number of possibilities.

If he did change the constitution to stay on for a third term or even longer, what would that say about this relatively new experiment of Russian democracy?

Well, I think during Putin's term we've already had a commentary on this relatively new experiment, and it's been a fairly bleak one. So this wouldn't be some dramatic departure; it would be a deepening of an existing trend. The other factor here is the corruption question. In Russian history money and power have traditionally been associated with each other. And there's a perception that as Putin has captured power, naturally he or the members of his regime must be trying to make themselves rich. If that's the case—and we don't really know—that would be a disincentive for Putin to leave power. Or at any rate it would incline him to make sure that anybody he gave power to is very closely tied to him. Otherwise whoever succeeds him might seek to prosecute him or in some way move against him. That's a big danger here. One of the things that Putin did after becoming acting president on Yeltsin's designation was to provide legal immunity for Yeltsin from any such prosecution.

He certainly sounds like a very shady character.

I would say he's opaque. He's a subterranean figure in lots of senses. We see a little bit of the tip of the iceberg, but there's a lot underneath, which is the nature of Russian politics and business. Most of the important things that happen here take place very, very far outside the public view.

Do you plan to go back to Russia anytime in the future?

I'm fond of Russians and of Russia, and it's always been an interest of mine. My affair with Russia began as a reader. I think the first big Russian book I read was Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevsky when I was in high school. I was excited by that. And then I read Tolstoy, and so before I had ever gotten anywhere close to Russia I had some sense of this magical, deeply intriguing place. And that continues. My wife is a native Russian speaker from the former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan. She lived there basically until we got married when she was in her mid-twenties. So Russian is spoken in our household by our young children and—not always particularly well—by me. I hope to get back there on occasion, perhaps for more reporting ventures, but also just because I know people there and am interested in what's going on and want to keep up. One of the things you learn about being a foreign correspondent is that there really is no substitute for actually living in the place you're reporting on. Being over here now, in America, I can try to keep up with Russia but it's tough. You lose the instincts you had for what was happening—what might happen.