Head of state: rallying for Vladimir Putin, Moscow, May 6, 2012 (Sergei Karpukhin / Courtesy Reuters)
On the morning of May 7, Vladimir Putin glided through the empty streets of Moscow in a dark limousine, his motorcade making its way toward the Kremlin for his inauguration as Russia's president. There were no supporters lining the streets, no hecklers, or even curious passersby, for that matter; the police, fearful of protests, had virtually quarantined the city. The picture was of a man isolated in the soothing, if illusory, cradle of supreme power. As Putin took the oath to become president, an office he first occupied more than 12 years ago, he said, with a somber face, that serving Russia was "the meaning of my whole life."
During the Putin era, Russia has changed considerably. The country has doubled its GDP, paid off its foreign loans almost four years early, built up a one-party façade of democracy, deployed its energy resources as a means of coercive diplomacy, reasserted its regional influence, and fought a war against Georgia.
Yet Russia's antigovernment protests, which broke out last December, have challenged Putin like never before. For the first time, he could not claim that those who opposed him were a marginal, ineffectual force. And although he may have prevailed in the presidential election last March, the underlying factors behind the mass opposition to his rule -- namely, a rising middle class that increasingly demands political representation and respect -- will only grow.
With Putin again in command, understanding him is more important than ever, both for those inside Russia who seek to challenge his rule and for those abroad who must navigate relations with Moscow in his new term. What ultimately lies behind Putin's drive to consolidate power? Is it the need for control for its own sake, the assemblage of wealth and influence, the pursuit of wresting Russia back to greatness, or something else entirely?
Little is known about Putin's past and his fundamental nature, making the immediate answers The Strongman and Masha Gessen's The Man Without a Face, attempt to fill this gap, drawing portraits of what is, ultimately, an unknowable subject. Both books marshal new and valuable details about Putin's life and rule. But in the end, any attempt to understand Putin by unraveling his personal story, rather than focusing on the state he built, is a bit like telling time by looking at the needle of a sundial instead of its plate: the necessary information is contained not in the object itself but in the shadow left behind.
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