Re-reading that Starobin profile I mentioned, and then this article from the Times of London (via Larison), I thought of the memorable Perry Anderson essay on Putin's Russia from earlier this year - and particularly this passage:
... there is another, less obvious side to his charisma. Part of his chilly magnetism is cultural. He is widely admired for his command of the language. Here, too, contrast is everything. Lenin was the last ruler of the country who could speak an educated Russian. Stalin’s Georgian accent was so thick he rarely risked speaking in public. Khrushchev’s vocabulary was crude and his grammar barbaric. Brezhnev could scarcely put two sentences together. Gorbachev spoke with a provincial southern accent. The less said of Yeltsin’s slurred diction the better. To hear a leader of the country capable once again of expressing himself with clarity, accuracy and fluency, in a more or less correct idiom, comes as music to many Russians.
In a strange way Putin’s prestige is thus also intellectual. For all his occasional crudities, at least in his mouth the national tongue is no longer obviously humiliated. This is not just a matter of cases and tenses, or pronunciation. Putin has developed into what by today’s undemanding standards is an articulate politician, who can field questions from viewers on television for hours as confidently and lucidly as he lectures journalists in interviews, or addresses partners at summit meetings, where he has excelled at sardonic repartee. The intelligence is limited and cynical, above the level of his Anglo-American counterparts, but without much greater ambition. It has been enough, however, to give Putin half of his brittle lustre in Russia. There, an apparent union of fist and mind has captured the popular imagination.
I think there's little question that Putin has been one of the most successful world leaders of the new century, and I've always had the impression that this success is related to his being smarter, in some meaningful way, than most of his rivals and partners on the world stage. But sometimes I wonder if my high estimation of his intelligence isn't partially a function of the freedom that he's afforded by his semi-autocratic position - a freedom to be honest, to talk explicitly in the language of power politics, and to eschew the kind of pious cant that's required of politicians in the West (and particularly in America). I remember being particularly struck by this passage from the Starobin profile, describing Putin's response to the Beslan massacre:
On the day after the bloodbath Putin addressed the nation on television from the Kremlin. He seemed stripped raw; the brief clip I caught on the news was painful to watch. "It is a difficult and bitter task for me to speak," he began. "During these last few days each one of us suffered immensely." The thrust of his message was shame and embarrassment that Russians, "living in conditions formed after the disintegration of a huge, great country," had failed to pay enough attention to their defenses. "We demonstrated weakness, and the weak are beaten." His face was drained of color. I wondered if he was in shock.
Now obviously this kind of language, and the worldview it betokens, is connected to many of the Putin era's excesses, from the Chechen war to the partial rehabilitation of Stalin. But even so, it's hard to help feeling a sneaking admiration for a leader who can respond to a tragedy without resorting to either bluster or bathos, and who can acknowledge weakness and humiliation without immediately seguing into the narrative of self-congratulation and moral uplift that American Presidents automatically reach for in such circumstances.
It will be very interesting to watch what he does after 2008 - both how he continues to exercise power in Russia (as he assuredly will), and what his de facto political dominance will mean for the leaders who succeed him. He will only be fifty-six when his term ends - younger than any of the front-runners for the GOP nomination, it's worth noting - which means that the Putin era, in one fashion or another, probably still has decades left to run.
Photo by the Presidential Press and Information Office.