Vladimir Putin: the unlikely father figure for a motherland reinvented

The world remains unsure of what to make of Russia’s enigmatic leader, who has made a career of defying the West and its assumptions. Four new books address the president’s seemingly indomitable appeal, which has coincided with Russia’s return to the world stage.
People hold placards depicting Russia’s President Vladimir Putin as they take part in a rally and a concert by the Kremlin Wall in central Moscow in 2015, to mark one year since Russia’s President Vladimir Putin signed off on the annexation of Crimea in a epochal shift that ruptured ties with Ukraine and the West St Basils Cathedral is seen in the background Alexander Utkin / AFP
People hold placards depicting Russia’s President Vladimir Putin as they take part in a rally and a concert by the Kremlin Wall in central Moscow in 2015, to mark one year since Russia’s President Vladimir Putin signed off on the annexation of Crimea in a epochal shift that ruptured ties with Ukraine and the West St Basils Cathedral is seen in the background Alexander Utkin / AFP

In the summer of 2011, the Russian media were summoned to the Black Sea, where an archaeological dive had been under way for some time to explore the ruins of the ancient Greek city of Phanagoria. On that day, though, the diver was not an official member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, but rather the country’s former president, current prime minister, and future president, Vladimir Putin. Putin dove in clad in his form-fitting black wetsuit and soon emerged clutching two amphorae in suspiciously good condition for having purportedly been submerged underwater for millennia.

The moment was fodder for the day’s coverage on the state-owned Russian television channels. The recovered amphorae were merely one photo op among many; as The New York Times reporter Steven Lee Myers writes in his fine biography of Putin, The New Tsar, Putin’s term as prime minister showed him off as “the man of action, photographed riding on the three-wheeled motorcycle, harpooning a whale, hunting shirtless in the taiga, racing a Formula One race car”.

But it’s worth tunnelling in a bit closer on the case of the faux find to grasp something essential about Vladimir Putin and his formidable hold on authority in Russia. A whole public relations and advance team had undoubtedly been required to plan this event: to plant the amphorae, to find the right wetsuit for the prime minister, to summon the right journalists. “That his spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, later acknowledged that the ‘discovery’ was staged was an unnoticed footnote,” Myers adds, “to the televised image of a man in a tight wetsuit, still fit and in his prime.”

In another country, this might have been cause for a scandal, or at least a media cycle or two of pervasive mockery. In Russia, the faulty, fraudulent image stood. No one particularly cared about the reality. They preferred the appearance.

Watching Russia from the exterior makes for an oddly kaleidoscopic experience. In the years since returning for a third term as president in 2012, Putin has driven an ever-larger wedge between Russia and the rest of the world. Propping up the teetering regime of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, annexing Crimea, and destabilising Ukraine, Putin has reasserted Russia’s authority to act unilaterally in remaking Eastern Europe. The West wants to laugh at Putin’s excesses, his wrestling of bears, but his influence on the world stage is undeniable.

The hopes for a Russian “reset”, for a return to warm relations between the West and Russia, have been extinguished with last year’s calculated interference in Ukrainian sovereignty. Putin has been demonised in the West, but the invasion of Crimea was seen by most Russians as a reclaiming of historically Russian territory and the Ukrainian incursion as a defence of Russian values and Russian families against hostile Ukrainian neo-fascists.

Try as we might to dive for Vladimir Putin’s past, to find the relic that might explain all, we are stymied at every turn. How did the colourless KGB agent whose dream was to serve alongside the Stasi in East Germany become the troll-behemoth bestriding contemporary global politics, humiliating the West and noisily reasserting Russia’s primacy at every turn?

One might be tempted, with the assistance of four recent books on Putin and Putin’s Russia, to raise the question of when Putin changed. When did the behind-the-scenes bureaucrat start basking in the spotlight? When did the man with $5,000 in life savings become, by some measures, the wealthiest man in the world? (One of the books here says Putin is worth $40 billion; another says $70 billion – maybe.) When did the first world leader to reach out to President George W Bush after the September 11 attacks become the anti-western xenophobe? The question of the old Putin versus the new one is tempting but ultimately irrelevant. As much as commentators might speculate whether all this was planned, or if a decade and a half in power irreversibly changed him, this is the Vladimir Putin we have.

Considering that he is one of the most powerful men on the planet, the world knows surprisingly little about Putin. Myers’ biography speeds through the first 40 years of his life in 60 pages, with room for side tours into his father’s Second World War service and Stasi policy in East Germany. There is apparently little known about his childhood or adolescence, and even his early professional years remain mostly a blank. At age 37, Putin was a veteran KGB agent serving a regime, and a country, on the brink of collapse. The boy who had once decided on law school as the surest path into the intelligence services now found himself staring at the inevitable disappearance of the KGB.

Putin was saved by St Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak, who hired him as an all-purpose fixer. He would eventually rise to the post of deputy mayor before Sobchak lost reelection, and Putin was at a loss once more. He went to see one of his old friends and asked if there would be a job available for the black belt as a judo trainer. Then Sobchak’s former political mentor Boris Yeltsin called, unexpectedly summoning him to Moscow for a government position. The man who had been pondering teaching children judo would, in four years’ time, become the president of Russia.

Putin was mostly unknown, a hopeful phantom conjured by Yeltsin, perennially in search of a general to set the country’s affairs in order. Putin was no general, but his ramrod vigour was a vital contrast with the alcoholic, ailing Yeltsin, who had suffered a heart attack one week before his reelection in 1996. Putin would become the head of the FSB in 1998, and the country’s prime minister the next year.

Yeltsin chose Putin as his successor, as Myers notes, because he wanted to demonstrate to Russians how democracies executed an orderly transfer of power. Indeed, Putin took power in orderly fashion; he just never passed it on. And from the very outset, Putin’s popularity was in direct relation to the use of force. During Putin’s term as prime minister, detailed in The New Tsar, his brief included overseeing the second invasion of Chechnya, considered to be an instant career-ender. Instead, the surprisingly successful campaign swept him into winning an election for the presidency after Yeltsin appointed him as his successor.

Visiting the troops in Chechnya, Putin told them that the era of “little Russia”, wrenched apart by political and ideological forces beyond its control, was over. For all the seeming zigs and zags of Russian policy in the years since, he has been good to his word, regularly looking to peel off sections of neighbours like Georgia and Ukraine and destabilise their political cultures to keep them from asserting their independence. According to Walter Laqueur, in his occasionally informative, deeply uneven Putinism, Putin the KGB agent had never entirely moved on from the Cold War, with its us-and-them distinctions. NATO was still the enemy, and the West the dangerous vixen intent on breaking up the harmony of a happy ex-Soviet household.

Putin had been formed by the secret services, and his mindset, as Myers repeatedly notes, was framed by its shadowplay. After the Kursk submarine disaster of 2000, in which the new president was tongue-lashed by desperate family members, Putin was convinced that the mothers and sisters of the dying sailors were actually prostitutes hired to embarrass him. Nosy reporters demanding details about operations in Chechnya were deemed Islamist radicals and threatened with forcible circumcision. And opponents — journalists, opposition figures – sometimes fared worse, according to accounts.

The more power Putin accrued, as Myers rightfully notes, the less tolerance he had for the West. When he became president, Russia was weak and fractured and poor, but the gusher of oil and gas money made the country wealthy, and increasingly less dependent on handouts from the West.

Putin began to slowly turn on the West after the US-led invasions of Kosovo, in 1999, and Iraq, in 2003. The former was seen by much of the world as a success and the latter as a failure, but to Putin, both were unacceptable intrusions on another nation’s sovereignty by a foreign power.

The US was exporting democracy at the point of a sword, and Myers argues that Putin came to believe that democracy’s dark twin was radicalism, the one never arriving without the other. Russia would provide support for the teetering regime in Syria during the fleeting Arab Spring out of fear that democratic activism might come for Putin next QUOTE HERE? Perhaps the experience of growing up in a dictatorship, in which democrats and extremists were thrown together in their opposition to the state, convinced Putin that fascism was the inevitable endpoint of democracy.

The double game Putin played has come to a decisive end since his return to the presidency in 2012. Where once Putin had insisted on his democratic bona fides, he is now content to trip up western attempts to, as he sees it, impose democracy by force in the Middle East and Central Asia. The ruthlessness and violence have been there from the outset; what has vanished is even the semblance of an appeal to Europe and North America’s democratic ideals. In this, he has the support of his citizens, for whom, according to Laqueur, “democracy is what happened in their country between 1990 and 2000, and they do not want any more of it.”

As Putin has shifted his gaze away from the West, his state has taken on a more ideologically rigid tone. Putin’s mission had once been the imposition of stability and prosperity; now, the “Russian idea”, Laqueur notes, stands on three pillars: Russian Orthodoxy, patriotism and fear of the West. Laqueur believes that Russia cannot be understood without reference to the pre-Soviet, czarist state; Putin, with his efforts to remake the likes of Joseph Stalin as Russian nationalist figures (Stalin’s Georgian heritage notwithstanding) and his embrace of the Orthodox patriarchate as willing accomplices in a clerical state, all gesture to today’s Russia as a conscious ideological throwback, looking to create a new Russia out of a patchwork past.

Putin is assembling a “buffet” of history, in Myers’ telling image, “that he presented to a society deeply divided over what it represented”. Laqueur argues that Russia has become a nation of confabulators, “a phenomenon in which people describe and even act upon false notions they believe to be true”. Their Russia could not have invaded another country, could not have shot down airplanes, could not have murdered dissidents, and so it must not have. Everything must be blamed on shadowy others: Americans, fascists, homosexuals. Putin’s astonishing 87 per cent approval rating this summer speaks to a deep-seated desire to leave politics to politicians.

Peter Pomerantsev updates and extends this idea with his memoir-cum-jeremiad Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible, in which his experiences as a television producer offer him the opportunity to peer into the heart of the new Russia. “The Kremlin has finally mastered the art of fusing reality TV and authoritarianism to keep the great, 140-million-strong population entertained, distracted, constantly exposed to geopolitical nightmares, which if repeated enough times can become infectious,” Pomerantsev says.

Pomerantsev’s thesis explains the tenor of the Russian media’s often-outlandish claims, in which the US is a meddlesome brute, Europe is a haven for gay radicals, Ukraine is overrun by neo-Nazis and the Russian soldiers fighting and dying in Ukraine are actually excitable Ukrainian volunteers burning with patriotism for Mother Russia. “TV is the only force that can unify and rule and bind this country,” according to Pomerantsev, and Putin is the man wielding the ultimate channel clicker.

“This isn’t a country in transition,” Pomerantsev concludes, “but some sort of postmodern dictatorship that uses the language and institutions of democratic capitalism for authoritarian ends”.

It is telling that Pomerantsev and Myers both mention Kremlin media mastermind Vladislav Surkov, a Putin loyalist and aesthete with pictures of the president and Tupac Shakur side-by-side on his desk. Putin, like the rapper-actor-poet-activist-felon, is a blank screen on which others may project their fantasies, their desires, and their beliefs. He is everyone and no one.

Putin has no true rivals, no pretenders to his throne, but one of the foremost thorns in his side over the past decade has been former chess champion Garry Kasparov. Myers mentions Putin’s daringly rooting for the outspoken Kasparov during his match with Anatoly Karpov in 1985, but his sympathies had undoubtedly dissipated by 2007, when Kasparov was arrested at a protest rally. “If you aspire to be a leader of your own country,” Putin peevishly lectured after Kasparov’s arrest, quoted in The New Tsar, “you must speak your own language, for God’s sake”.

Now, Kasparov is back with a book, Winter Is Coming, about the perfidy of the western powers in failing to stand up to Putin. Kasparov has some good points to make, lost as they might be amid a misshapen mass of aggressive back-patting and reminiscences of chess matches. What message is sent, he asks, to pro-democratic forces in Russia when President Bush says he has been comforted by gazing at Putin’s soul or former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder takes a position with Russian state oil company Gazprom, and describes his new boss as “100 per cent democrat”?

Kasparov, as a budding opposition-leader-in-exile, cannot blame his countrymen for Putin, and heaps all the blame on Clinton, Bush, Obama, Schroder, Sarkozy, and the like. He argues that the West has consistently misread Putin, trotting out what he calls “Putin would never” arguments and then watching helplessly as each one was blown to smithereens. “It is long past time,” Kasparov says, “to stop listening to Harvard professors and think tank experts lecture us about what Putin would never do and high time to respond to what he is actually doing.” Kasparov laments the failures of the US and European Union to respond forcefully and consistently to Russian incursions into Ukraine, which he believes only strengthened Russia’s hand. “Taking action requires courage and there can be high costs in achieving the goal,” he notes. “But as we now see in horror there are also high costs for inaction, and the goal still has not been achieved.”

Kasparov rightly asks why the West never took a harsher stance against Putin, but an equally pertinent question might be, why have Russians embraced Putin as their leader, and never taken a second look at the man who made the presidency his 15 years ago?

None of the writers here see fit to speculate about the future beyond glumly assuming Putin will be Russia’s president for at least nine more years.

More revanchist land grabs are certainly a possibility. But such actions cost money – $25-35 billion per year, by Laqueur’s estimate. What happens when Russia can no longer afford to pay for Crimean retirees’ health care? Does the enthusiasm of Russian-speaking Ukrainians wane when Russia fails to deliver on its promises of an economic boom?

Putin’s Russia is now an idea, not merely a place, a demand by the president “not to look overseas, not to run to the left or to the side, and not to betray your homeland, but to be with us, work for Russia and love her as we do — with our whole hearts.” Pragmatism has been replaced by the idealistic Eurasianism described by Laqueur, a Russia looking east for inspiration and Lebensraum. But the agreement between Putin and Russia is not binding for life, and circumstances may unmake everyday Russians’ apathy with politics.

As the oligarch whom the president enriched, emboldened, and then incarcerated believes, Putin was created by a people desperate for protection from the cruel fates. “The Russian problem is not just the president as a person,” argues the recently freed Mikhail Khodorkovsky in The New Tsar. “The problem is that our citizens in the large majority don’t understand that they have to be responsible for their own fate.” What happens to Russia when they do?

Published: September 24, 2015 04:00 AM


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