Russia's Would-Be Masters

What sort of men have ruled Russia? Articles from 1928 to the present examine the inner lives of Russia's leaders.

Last month, a news conference between President George Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin garnered an unusual amount of attention. Most observers watched to see whether Bush would manage to chide Putin—for moving Russia in an increasingly authoritarian direction—without damaging his relationship with the prickly Russian leader. But the conference was a spectacle in another way as well, as two men of nearly opposite personalities struggled to find middle ground. In response to President Bush's rather heroic attempts at humor and affability, Putin maintained the steely, unresponsive exterior he has come to be known for. In the March 2005 Atlantic, Paul Starobin profiled Putin, and managed to get behind that exterior to shed light on the interior life of one of today's most inscrutable and powerful leaders.

Starobin is just the latest in a series of Atlantic authors who have scrutinized the Russian heads of state over the past hundred years—leaders who have been at the helm of a unique nation that in just a century routed monarchy and communism, and then embraced democracy, albeit tenuously. Each leader has wielded power of no mean consequence for Russia and the rest of the world. Articles on Tsar Nicholas Romanov II, Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev, and Starobin's on Putin have sought to explain who these men truly were and how their disparate personalities shaped their careers—in the process offering a unique approach to understanding the Russia of their times.

On July 16, 1918, Nicholas Romanov, deposed Tsar of Russia, his wife Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna, and their five children were executed by gunfire in the basement of the house where they'd been held prisoner by Bolshevik revolutionaries. Nicholas was the last of the Romanovs, who had ruled Russia from 1613 to March 15, 1917, when he had been forced to abdicate the throne. The stage for revolution had been set by Russia's devastating losses in war and the growing discontent and poverty of its people, but Tsar Nicholas's weakness of character and autocratic rule made that revolution inevitable. Following his abdication, the revolutionaries vied for power until the Bolsheviks, led by Lenin, took command, laying the foundation for Communist Russia.

In a three-part article, "The Fall of the Russian Empire" (January, February, and March 1928), Edmund Walsh analyzed the misrule of the Tsars, describing with meticulous attention to detail the circumstances of Nicholas' abdication and eventual assassination. In the telling, he showed Nicholas to be an irresolute and feckless monarch who held obstinately to autocracy, ignoring both the reason of his counselors and the reality of a seething Russia. During his coronation even, staggering beneath the weight of his crown and gold robes, Nicholas let the scepter he held slip to the ground, an act perceived by many as a bad omen. His weakness was taken advantage of by many, not least his wife, and proved to be his undoing. As Walsh explained, "Never master of his own will, Nicholas spent his life awaiting the judgments of the Pobyedonoststevs, the Sturmers, and the Protopopovs who surrounded him, and of the Empress who ruled him."

For all the power vested in him, Nicholas was not a man to brandish it in his conduct with others. He was a civil and mannered man who retained his apparent calm even at the moment of his abdication. The men who presented him with the ignominious task of signing away his crown recalled that he expressed no ill feeling toward them, but was instead polite and cooperative. In "The End of the Monarchy" Walsh described Nicholas's attitude while he was imprisoned.

And here he was ... this well-intentioned and urbane, but woefully weak and indecisive monarch. Harassed and crushed by the weight of an inherited responsibility too heavy for his shoulders, wearily answering 'Yes' or 'No' to importunate counselors who knew how to play shrewdly on his fears, his prejudices, and his superstitions, he had lived, as it were, a phantom king in a haunted palace.

Both in his private and public life, Nicholas was dominated entirely by his wife. Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna was a German princess by birth, and much hated by the people for her apathy toward Russia and her tremendous power over the Tsar. She was far more than a consort; when Nicholas went to battle in 1915, she ruled in his place. Her domineering nature was the diametric opposite of Nicholas's shiftlessness. In "The Part Played by a Woman," the first installment of his report on the fall of the Tsars, Edmund Walsh describes Alexandra thus:

The domination that this imperious, proud, aloof, and resolute woman exercised over her irresolute and impressionable husband became such a menace that more than one grand duke, duchess and general cried out in warning against it.

She was also a mother driven to desperation by the health of her only son, Alexis, a hemophiliac and heir to Russia's throne. From this sprung her dependence on Rasputin, a "clever adventurer, a habitual drunkard and a licentious roué who utilized for his purposes some hypnotic or mesmeric power" that brought, to the amazement of Alexis's doctors, immense relief to the ailing heir. The intensely religious Alexandra was entirely subject to Rasputin's manipulations, as is evidenced in the following letter to Nicholas—a letter in which Alexandra, in turn, seeks to manipulate her husband, couching political advice in the most intimate and adoring language.

"I only long to hold you tight in my arms and to whisper words of immense love... Lovey, I am here... This is the beginning of the glory of your reign. He [Rasputin] said so and I absolutely believe it. As our Friend [Rasputin] says, the worst is over. Only get Nikolasha's nomination [his transference to the Caucasus] quicker done. No dawdling!..."

While the Tsar seemed to have abdicated "both in spirit and in truth," Alexandra was bitter and resentful of the family's loss, especially her son's, for Nicholas had given up the throne for both himself and Alexis. In "The Last Days of the Romanovs," Walsh described the royal couple during their incarceration.

Under the moral torture and physical confinement—toward the end the prisoners were allowed but five minutes in the garden each day—the ex-Tsar maintained that astonishing external calm and passivity which characterized his whole life. His health did not seem to weaken, nor did his hair whiten.... But the Empress never left the porch; she aged visibly, her health failed, and gray hairs appeared.

In the end, unlike the trusting, accepting Nicholas, Alexandra, always more astute, predicted with chilling prescience that they would all be killed.

While Nicholas Romanov and his family were held under arrest, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, the father of the Bolshevist Revolution, entered Russia in a sealed train in April 1917, after a decade of exile in Europe. After the fall of the Tsar in March, a Provisional Government had been set up in Petrograd. By October, Lenin had wrested power away from it and stood at the head of the Soviet Union, predicating his power on the strength of his promise to deliver to the people what they most desired—bread, land, and peace. In "When Lenin Returned" (October 1954) Edward Crankshaw, an English historian, set out to shed light on this man who, through his years of exile, stayed obsessively focused on his goal of creating a government of the proletariat. According to Crankshaw, "He appealed to Marx as the fundamentalist appeals to the Bible. He had a single burning idea: to bring the Marxist revolution to the world and to Russia." Indeed, Crankshaw argued, it was almost through sheer force of will that Lenin created the Soviet Union.

Unsociable and distant as a boy, Lenin went on to develop an "extreme sociability," but he used it only to draw people to his cause. Underneath any kindness or warmth he displayed, Crankshaw explained, was ruthlessness toward anyone whom he saw as keeping him from his goal.

There was a deep fund of kindness which he would switch off when it was politically desirable to do so; but it was kindness from outside. It was the kindness of a man who does not like hurting animals but will kill them, as painlessly as possible, if they happen to get in his way.

Despite Lenin's single-mindedness and apparent emotional imperturbability, Crankshaw argued that the Russian leader was "no automaton." Crankshaw wrote that most of what we know about Lenin the man comes from the memoirs of his wife, Nadezhda Konstantinova Krupskaya. She described a man possessed of a love of literature and music, particularly Beethoven's Appassionata Sonata. She wrote that he "mellowed" during his last days in exile, and turned away from his books of revolutionary philosophy, back to the classic novels he favored. He loved spending time outdoors, relaxing in the mountains or hunting. And Krupskaya writes that he once let a fox go, "because it was so beautiful."

But such sentimentality was rare. Lenin's strongest characteristic—the one that underlay his takeover of Russia and would have the greatest effect on its future—was his steely conviction that his was the only path. He wanted a "dictatorship of the proletariat," but he trusted only himself, not the people, to achieve it.

He was a man selfless and without ambition. He was absolutely lacking in imagination. He loved the people as animals, not as people. He pitied them, but he did not respect them.... He wanted to save the people from the dreadful tyranny of the Tsars—but in his way and no other. His way held the seeds of another tyranny.... His sustaining faith, his scientific base, as he would have called it, was that the world revolution, which alone could sustain the Russian revolution, was at hand. He was wrong.

Casting unique light on the career and personality of Joseph Stalin, Lenin's successor and the USSR's brutal dictator for twenty-nine years, are the memoirs in letter form of Stalin's daughter, which were reviewed by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. in the November 1967 issue. In "Twenty Letters to a Father," Schlesinger traced Svetlana Alliluyeva's reconstruction of her father's paranoia, which seeped into the Communist party and ultimately stained Russia itself, pitting children against parents and friends against each other. The daughter of the man who unleashed an unspeakable terror upon his people remembers him as being a loving and demonstrative father, especially during the early years of her childhood. He would cover her with kisses and address her affectionately as "little sparrow" and "little fly." His relationship with his wife, however, became increasingly estranged, as she watched, appalled, while her husband unleashed violence and famine across Russia with his reforms of forced collectivization. Things came to a head at a banquet held in November 1932 to celebrate the fifteenth anniversary of the Revolution. Stalin pressed his wife, Nadya, to drink. Already in the clutch of a "terrible, devastating disillusionment"—in Alliluyeva's words—at her husband's reforms and his "unresponsive and irascible" nature, Nadya ran from the table to her home in the Kremlin and shot herself. She left behind a letter for Stalin, full of reproaches and incriminations.

According to Alliluyeva, Stalin was greatly shaken by his wife's suicide, which he saw as a terrible betrayal. Years later he returned to it constantly, almost driving his daughter "out of [her] mind" with his probing into what or who set Nadya up to it. Her mother's death, Alliluyeva believed, was the trigger that drove Stalin to the paranoia of his later years. Though Stalin could appear as an immensely capable and reasonable man, impressing many of the statesmen of his time—Churchill and Roosevelt among them—his paranoia dictated his day-to-day existence, until it became pathological and indivisible from his every interaction. Alliluyeva described how eventually he fell victim to a kind of "persecution mania," in which he saw enemies everywhere. Once he'd made up his mind that someone was against him, his view never altered:

"Once he had cast out of his heart someone he had known for a long time, once he had mentally relegated that someone to the ranks of his enemies, it was impossible to talk to him about that person.... Any effort to persuade him ... made him furious.... All [that] accomplished was loss of access to my father and total forfeiture of his trust.... He was in the grip of an iron logic whereby once you said A, then B and C have to follow. Once he accepted the premise that X was his enemy, the premise became axiomatic, and no matter what the facts might be, they had to be made to fit. My father was unable ever to go back psychologically to believing that X wasn't an enemy but an honest man after all. At this point and this was where his cruel, implacable nature showed itself the past ceased to exist for him. Years of friendship and fighting side by side in a common cause might as well never have been."

As Stalin aged, his life became increasingly "solid, morbid and claustrophobic." A victim of his own fears, he isolated himself to the extent that he barely knew his grandchildren and grew suspicious of public applause. At the Bolshoi Theater on his seventieth birthday, he was contemptuous of the performers, saying, "They open their mouths and yell like fools." At the end of his days, eaten away by dissatisfaction and suspicion, he rejected all of his dachas and lived out of a single room where he worked, ate, and slept. Schlesinger included Alliluyeva's description of her father's final moments, which provides us, first-hand, with a sense of the man and the fear he instilled into the hearts of those around him:

At what seemed the final moment, he suddenly opened his eyes and cast a glance over the room. "It was a terrible glance, insane or perhaps angry and full of the fear of death.... The glance swept over everyone in a second. Then something incomprehensible and awesome happened that to this day I can't forget and don't understand. He suddenly lifted his left hand as though he were pointing to something above and bringing down a curse on us all. The gesture was incomprehensible and full of menace, and no one could say to whom or at what it might be directed. The next moment, after a final effort, the spirit wrenched itself free of the flesh."

Out of the desolation and hopelessness that was the aftermath of Stalin's regime rose Nikita Khrushchev, the "gaudy butterfly in a drab chrysalis" as described by Perry Anderson in his April 2003 review of William Taubman's book Khrushchev: The Man and His Era. Khrushchev's career was marked by his "secret speech" denouncing Stalin in 1956, an act that permitted Russia to begin to distance itself, in steps however halting and measured, from the culture of fear and falsification that had come to ail it. Khrushchev was one of Russia's most colorful rulers. Famously outspoken and impulsive, he extended a generous gesture of aid to China, only to suddenly and completely withdraw it, creating a dramatic breach in Sino-Russian relations. That Khrushchev's opinionated tongue should have survived Stalin's regime of suppression is itself extraordinary. That the head of a superpower should have behaved with the utter lack of self-consciousness described below by Anderson only adds to his enigma.

His famously uncontrolled harangues—condemning Stalin's crimes in the "secret speech," denouncing the U-2 in Paris, hammering his shoe on the table at the United Nations, bawling out artists at the Manezh exhibition—would be unthinkable today. Although he was sensitive to slights, no twentieth-century politician was more careless of "image" (meaning a manufactured and spurious presentability); and for just that reason few have left images more enduring in the public memory.

Khrushchev's talent for bureaucratic maneuvering and manipulation helped him rise to power. As Anderson put it, his was an odd combination of "energy, ebullience, and rueful awareness of his own character limitations." Born to a poor family, he liked to refer to himself as a peasant, in the mold of those described by Tolstoy. To Anderson however, Khrushchev was anything but Tolstoyan.

It is doubtful whether any human being ever resembled Tolstoy's wise simpletons in their insipid schmaltz; certainly no one less so than Khrushchev. There was, however, much that was Dostoyevskyan in this strange bucolic, in whom so much bluster and self-abasement, cunning and naiveté, impulsiveness and calculation (not to speak of crime and expiation), were inextricably intertwined.

In "Dissension Inside the Kremlin," (June 1962), Edward Crankshaw described Khrushchev as different from his predecessor, Stalin, in many ways, not least with respect to his functioning in the Kremlin. Though Khrushchev was supreme, he understood compromise and often governed by it—a trend Crankshaw applauded and believed the West should welcome. While Stalin, according to Crankshaw, rarely spoke publicly and when he did revealed little of value, Khrushchev was "one of the world's most compulsive talkers ... perpetually shouting his intentions at the top of his voice." He did not instill awe as Stalin did, but a "healthy regard for his temper." In all, Crankshaw appraised Khrushchev as widely respected for his "genius as a practical politician."

He is, indeed, the first true politician, as the word is understood in the West, to be produced by Soviet Russia. With this goes a high valuation of his extraordinary combination of physical stamina, nervous drive, boldness and cunning, and adroitness. There is nobody else anywhere near the top of the Communist hierarchy who can drive and lead as Khrushchev drives and leads. So the Soviets need him. He is the best head of state they have got, and they know it.

Finally, in direct opposition to the unrestrained, voluble, even entertaining Khrushchev stands Vladimir Putin, a famously reserved and unfathomable leader. In his profile, Starobin describes Putin as a "difficult character study," and seeks to understand him by exploring what he sees as the three defining aspects of his character: the fighter; the mysterious former KGB man; and the believer.

Growing up in Leningrad, Putin, a diminutive child, was often picked on by stronger children; in response, he resolved to "fortify himself." He settled on judo and proceeded to excel in it, so much so that his coach once described him as fighting like a "snow leopard" and "determined to win at any cost." Starobin writes that Putin's skill at judo—and his strength of will in general—may be even more impressive than it first appears, if a hypothesis Starobin came across in his research is true. According to Brenda L. Connors, a certified "movement analyst" who examines gait and body movement to make analyses of emotion and leadership qualities, Putin shows signs of some sort of damage to the right side of his body—perhaps from polio or a stroke. As Starobin writes,

Connors believes that Putin's infirmities "created a strong will that he survive and an impetus to balance and strengthen the body." She continues, "When we are unable to do something, really hard work becomes the way." His prowess at judo astonishes her: "He is like that ice skater who had a club foot and became an Olympic skater."

The dogged ruthlessness that is characteristic of Putin has been most on display in his response to the Chechen conflict, in which Putin has always taken the harshest possible line. Starobin explains, "As the Chechen conflict illustrates, Putin is a ferocious, even pitiless fighter. One need not put stock in Connors's research to see that life does seem to have taught Putin that 'the weak are beaten.'"

Putin's Chekist instincts derive from the sixteen years he spent in the KGB—a tenure that has profoundly shaped his leadership style. As a young teenager, Putin had already decided he wanted to join the spy agency, and the reason he cited hints at the lure that power has always held for him. Starobin quotes an interview with Putin about the KGB in which he commented, "What amazed me most of all was how one man's effort could achieve what whole armies could not. One spy could decide the fate of thousands of people."

Putin is regarded as both keenly observant of people and "excessively mistrustful" of them—he only confides in a handful of advisers, and two of them are former colleagues from the KGB. Starobin argues that these characteristics were both on display in the Machiavellian way in which Putin consolidated his power as President—by methodically and skillfully stripping it away from the oligarchs who had held sway under Yeltsin. As Starobin explains, "Putin the Chekist is a model of cool calculation, elusiveness, and calibrated tactics. He wears casual cynicism like an old cloak..."

Lastly, Starobin examines 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 Putin has grown older and more powerful, his religiosity seems only to have increased. Starobin speculates that Putin may be shifting Russia away from the religious dead zone it occupied during the Soviet era to what Starobin terms a "Patriotic Orthodoxy"—a strong government animated by a current of religion. As Starobin explains,

I suspect Putin recognizes that Soviet ideology has little appeal to Russians, other than to a dying class of pensioners. But he seems to believe that Patriotic Orthodoxy, which—like Soviet ideology—is compatible with a highly centralized state and a strongman ruler, can take root and help morally regenerate the nation. There is also a psychological compatibility: the basic tenet of Patriotic Orthodoxy—that only Russia can help Russia—is akin to his personal conviction that strength comes from within, that he can count only on himself.

Russia's constitution mandates that Putin leave office in 2008, once he reaches the end of his second four-year term, but there is much speculation over whether he will actually do so. It would not be surprising for a leader whose rule is becoming increasingly autocratic and who seems to have a strong moral stake in the future direction of his country to extend his stay in office. Starobin concludes, however, that such a move could prove erroneous, as it has for so many Russian leaders before him. As Starobin concludes,

If the task-minded Putin thinks his work is not done, [Connors] told me, he might try to extend his rule. But she also believes that he is bound to discover that the exercise of the will, which has brought him so far, pays diminishing returns. That sounds right to me. Russia tends to be cruel to its would-be masters. Its abiding harshness creates tough and determined types like Putin, but the country nearly always thwarts them in the end.