Reading Putin

The Mind and the State of Russia’s President

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 to these questions hard to come by. Despite being one of the most theatrically visible world leaders -- shooting a tiger with a tranquilizer, say, or riding shirtless on a horse through the mountains -- Putin is in fact a mysterious figure. Two recent books on the Russian president, Angus Roxburgh's 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. 

RUSSIA ON THE RISE

By the end of his time in office, former Russian President Boris Yeltsin was in a state of political decay -- or, as Gessen writes, "a boxer gone blind, flailing in the ring, striking imaginary targets and missing real ones." Nearly ten years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia, like Yeltsin, was weak and humiliated. Roxburgh, for his part, rightly criticizes the overbearing and ultimately counterproductive tone that Washington and its allies took toward Moscow throughout the 1990s, which reinforced Russian insecurity and would later help to justify the reactionary and standoffish strain in Russia's Putin-era foreign policy. "The West's handling of post-Soviet Russia," Roxburgh writes, "has been just about as insensitive as it could have been."

Putin was meant to rescue the country from that painful era. To the members of Yeltsin's inner circle, he seemed an honest, dependable figure and, most important, one without a threatening agenda or a power base of his own. This made him, as Gessen puts it, an "ideal" candidate to replace Yeltsin: "Putin, being apparently devoid of personality and personal interest, would be both malleable and disciplined." Everyone saw in him what he or she wanted: the loyal statist, the clean-cut, modernizing reformer, the sober and disciplined KGB man. 

Yet those who anointed Putin scarcely knew him. And more than a decade of his rule has revealed little more. Gessen bases many of the details in her book on Putin's 2000 autobiography, First Person (written with the help of a team of journalists), an imperfect approach that yields some insights but has obvious limits. That portrait shows Putin as a man with a proud, almost protective fondness for his childhood reputation as a "postwar Leningrad thug" and a peculiar and covetous relationship with material possessions. (Gessen diagnoses him with pleonexia, the "desire to have what rightfully belongs to others," an intriguing but ultimately speculative claim.) 

Above all, Putin comes off as a man who, at every stage of his life and career, has had a respect for institutions, not ideology, and an obsession with the idea of one day controlling the real levers of power over those institutions. As he told his biographers for First Person, "I was most amazed by how a small force, a single person, really, can accomplish something an entire army cannot. . . . A single intelligence officer could rule over the fates of thousands of people."

As Putin gradually assembled that power during his early years in office, he ruled as something of an authoritarian modernizer. Guided by the economic advisers Alexei Kudrin and German Gref, he pushed through a number of new laws on land ownership, deregulation, and tax reform, which together lent a measure of predictability to the country's economy and paved the way for the years of growth that followed. Between 1999 and 2008, Russia's GDP grew seven percent per year, a higher rate than during Stalin's rapid industrialization. 

Such economic growth surely has as much to do with profits from rising oil and gas prices as it does with Putin himself. But it would soon become inexorably linked to his presidency. In the early years, the enthusiasm for the country's turnaround was contagious, and it still lingers today. As Mikhail Kasyanov, a former prime minister who was fired by Putin in 2004 and would later join the opposition, tells Roxburgh, "It seemed to me that Vladimir Putin and I were allies, building -- maybe not without mistakes -- a democratic state with a market economy."

Yet as his time as president wore on, Putin succumbed to the urges to consolidate control and purge potential rivals. Rising oil and gas prices soon flooded Russia with newfound wealth, providing him and his allies in the Kremlin with both confidence and an excuse to end reform. Thus followed the tightening of the screws: the arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the billionaire former head of the oil company Yukos; the cancellation of direct gubernatorial elections in the provinces; the raising of the threshold for political parties to make it into parliament; and so on. The resulting political order, to the extent that it could be rationalized, was dubbed "sovereign" or "managed" democracy by Vladislav Surkov, Putin's chief strategist (a figure conspicuously absent from Gessen's book). In sum, as Roxburgh puts it, Putin "believed that lack of central control lay at the heart of Russia's woes." And that is what he set out to fix.

BOSS PUTIN

To Putin and his fellow siloviki, former members of the security services who have risen to power during Putin's tenure, nothing happens by chance, and conspiracies are ever present. Thus, comically, Putin appears to genuinely believe that U.S. President George W. Bush personally ordered the firing of Dan Rather from CBS in 2006 and that the United States has purposefully exported low-quality chicken parts to Russia. More recently, and more seriously, Putin could not fathom that last winter's mass street protests were not an organized, ominous plot but the manifestation of middle-class anger against his rule. 

In the most revealing section of The Strongman, Roxburgh heads to Russia as a consultant for Ketchum, the global public relations firm hired by the Kremlin in 2006 to manage its international image. Roxburgh portrays the high-level Russian officials with whom he dealt as a suspicious clique believing that everything and everyone can be manipulated, that a favorable op-ed in The Wall Street Journal surely must have a price, and that, as Roxburgh recalls, Ketchum should just "use [its] technologies to improve coverage." As he writes, "I had no idea what they meant." 

Yet both Roxburgh and Gessen mistake Putin's obsession with absolute, efficient power for actual ownership of it. They each suggest that Putin has exercised almost omnipotent control over every moment of Russian political life during his reign. But this muddles how the state is actually organized. Putin's famed "vertical of power" is less a well-oiled totalitarian system than a kind of pact. In exchange for loyalty, often in the form of votes or other kinds of support for the federal government, officials down the bureaucratic chain, from regional governors to local police chiefs, can oversee their fiefdoms however they like, collecting rents while pocketing millions or allowing abuses to flourish. Chechnya, ruled by the current president, Ramzan Kadyrov, as a kind of microstate according to his own interpretations of sharia and Chechen tradition, offers the most extreme example of this arrangement. As Kadyrov told a Russian newspaper in 2009, "I am wholly Vladimir Putin's man. I shall never betray Putin; I shall never let him down. I swear by the Almighty: I would rather die 20 times."

In other words, Putin is the figurehead and clan boss of a system that could rightly be called Putinism -- but that does not mean that he oversees everything that happens in that closed system or that the system always functions according to his directives. Yet Gessen, in her outrage -- much of it justified, to be sure -- blames nearly every calamity of the last decade on Putin. For example, regarding the 2007 murder in London of Alexander Litvinenko, a former agent of the FSB, Russia's main internal security service, she writes, "The authorization for such an intervention had to have come from the president's office. In other words, Vladimir Putin ordered Alexander Litvinenko dead." 

But such a statement, offered without much evidence, overstates Putin's level of control. Putin does not issue every order himself, nor do his underlings always follow the orders that he does issue. One of the most glaring examples of this disobedience came in 2004, during the Beslan school siege, in which terrorists from the North Caucasus held more than 1,000 people hostage for several days. As Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan reported in their 2010 book on Russia's security services, The New Nobility, early on, Putin ordered high-ranking officials from the FSB and other agencies to immediately fly to Beslan and take charge of the standoff. The officials did fly to Beslan, but they waited on the tarmac for 30 minutes and then departed for Moscow, not wanting to take responsibility and leaving the ultimately disastrous operation to be overseen by others. When a group of parents whose children were killed at the school confronted Putin about the incident, his reply was simple. "It happens," he said, explaining that too many generals get in the way of one another.

Such confessions of powerlessness are rare, a potentially fatal admission of weakness to both potential rivals within the elite and perceived enemies in foreign capitals. Thus, Putin leaves officials at all levels of government near-total impunity to settle their own scores and promises to back them. Gleb Pavlovsky, a former close political adviser to Putin who left the Kremlin in acrimony after supporting the idea of a second term for Putin's protégé Dmitry Medvedev in the spring of 2011, told me that Putin sees himself as "the master of the farm -- he can get angry at someone, but he is forced to defend him." 

And so it is not that Putin did not order the death of Litvinenko. It is that he has created a system in which identifying the person who did so is impossible. All that matters is that whoever killed Litvinenko -- and, for that matter, the journalist Anna Politkovskaya; the politician Galina Starovoitova, whose murder opens Gessen's book; and scores of others over the last decade -- knows that the master of the farm will protect him. 

RISKY BUSINESS

Russia's profound economic and social transformation during Putin's tenure has created, for the first time in the country's post-Soviet history, a true middle class, largely comprised of educated urban professionals in Moscow and Russia's other millioniki, cities of more than one million people. A consumer class has come of age; Russia's market for cars, for example, is now larger than Germany's. As this population has grown and become more materially secure, it has begun to worry about its civic voice and come to believe that it would be better off under a more equitable system. Economic success and frequent interaction with the West, whether through work, travel, or the Internet, have bred a new social culture, complete with its own expectations for responsive and transparent governance. Yet for much of Putin's rule, this did not lead to direct involvement in politics; instead, this class was in a state of quiet rebellion, living in a distant, self-created world far from the state and politics in general. 

Then, last year, two events shook it from its slumber: first, Putin's announcement in September that he, not Medvedev, would seek to return as president and, second, last December's parliamentary elections, which were marked by widespread evidence of falsification meant to boost the results of the pro-Kremlin party, United Russia. The sense of grievance and the feeling that, as one popular slogan of recent months goes, "It's not all the same to us" manifested themselves in mass protests that drew as many as 100,000 people to the center of Moscow. This was not a revolutionary movement -- after all, its upwardly mobile participants had too much to lose. But according to Lev Gudkov, a sociologist and head of the Levada Center, a respected independent polling agency, the demonstrations put forward a series of moral demands: about trust, honesty, and transparency in public life and politics. 

As these street demonstrations continue to sputter along, the protest movement has started working in smaller, quieter ways: for example, young, independent candidates are winning seats on municipal councils in Moscow, and teams of volunteer election monitors are traveling to monitor voting in cities around the country. The apathy and individualism of the Soviet era are fitfully giving way to civic consciousness. 

Yet for all that Russia has changed in recent months, Putin has largely remained the same. Now, as always, he relies on a mixture of masculinity, straight talk, and crass humor, while stoking two fears that have long found social resonance: of the chaos and weakness of the 1990s and of a Russia encircled by foreign enemies. His first reaction to the protests last December was to blame them on U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Then, he compared the white ribbons of the demonstrators to condoms. "Putin is continuing to joke in the old way," Pavlovsky told me. 

But those old jokes are becoming less and less effective. For starters, the country's sizable urban professional class, having reached a certain level of economic security, is concerned with democratic values and respect. Unlike, for example, in Mubarak-era Egypt, the demands for change are not rooted in economic despair. As such, Putin can no longer rely on his image as the irreplaceable guarantor of stability and growth. In fact, recent surveys show that the more wealthy an adult man in Moscow is, the more likely he is to support the idea of antigovernment protest. In other words, and in contrast to in other authoritarian states, in Russia material wealth does not cause a person to be co-opted by the system; it is starting to turn a person against it. Economic independence from the state, which those with relatively high-earning jobs have, breeds a desire for political independence.

This dynamic perhaps explains why by the end of the campaign season in February and March, Putin sought to stir up a kind of Russian class-based politics. As he saw it, he was the leader of rural and industrial Russia, defending the country from those unnamed forces that want, as he said in a campaign speech, "to interfere in our affairs, to force their will on us." In this speech and others, Putin has tried to link in the public consciousness the country's middle-class protestors to enemies abroad that would wish Russia ill. On the night of his victory, he told the employees of a tank factory, "You put in their places those people who went one step too far and insulted the working man." The real "Russian people," he went on to say, are "the worker and the engineer." 

In the short term, Putin's strategy of pitting the working class against the middle class and the countryside against the cities has worked. But that may change. For years, in the smaller cities and provinces, dissatisfaction with the government and the broader status quo never translated into animosity toward Putin himself. But now, as Mikhail Dmitriev, president of the Center for Strategic Research in Moscow, argues, that cognitive dissonance is weakening. Many of the same trends in the cities are working their way through the provinces: rising standards of living are leading to rising expectations, and local grievances, whether about poor infrastructure or particularly corrupt officials, are gaining national resonance, with discontent being directed back toward Moscow. According to Dmitriev, attitudes in the regions are sharpening against Putin, making the provinces the "key to the resolution of Russia's political future." 

Indeed, with the direct election of governors returning this fall, albeit with strong controls on who can run, the first murmurings of actual political change are likely to come not from Moscow but from one regional capital at a time. Opposition mayors have already come to power in Yaroslavl and Tolyatti, with more elections scheduled for this summer and fall. As the ruling party, United Russia, continues to lose popular support, and new political figures emerge in cities and regions, Putin may confront local politicians who are more popular than he is. 

Such a predicament could soon mirror that faced by Mikhail Gorbachev toward the end of the Soviet Union, when he was surrounded by leaders of Soviet republics, Yeltsin among them, who, although technically subordinate, enjoyed greater popular legitimacy among the local population. Such a scenario would not lead to the fracturing of Russia, as it did to the Soviet Union. But it could change the entire incentive structure for local politicians, with those governors seeking to retain their popularity having to think as much about local demands as demands coming from the Kremlin. So far, candidates for regional office in the Putin era have been chosen for their demonstrated loyalty to Putin alone. But if real politics continue to develop in the regions, and politicians there become even minimally answerable to local voters, that calculus will change -- with unforeseeable results for Putin's hold on power. 

HOLLOWED OUT

The Putin system, although influenced by would-be modernizing autocrats from Russian history, such as Pyotr Stolypin, the tsarist prime minister, and Yuri Andropov, the KGB chief and short-lived Soviet general secretary, is ultimately unique to Putin's time. It does not, as Gessen writes, represent "the transformation of Russia back into the U.S.S.R." Putinism has survived because, unlike the Soviet Union, it largely leaves its citizens alone. They are provided an array of freedoms as consumers and career-minded professionals; from cheap furniture at IKEA to vacations abroad, many of the trappings of middle-class European life are available, and for those with ambition and talent, Moscow can be a tremendous place to make a career. Choice is everywhere -- except when it relates to politics. And by design, there are no refuseniks in Putin's Russia: anyone unhappy with this arrangement can leave at any time. In effect, Putinism is something much more crafty and postmodern than the lumbering, stifling control enforced by the Soviet state. 

That said, Gessen, at the close of her book, wisely notes that Putinism, unlike communism, represents not a coherent worldview but rather a governing architecture built around preserving stability and, thus, power. Unlike in Soviet times, when official propaganda could attempt to rationalize certain privations, Putinism offers little for Russian citizens to believe in, no sense of mission to justify sacrifice or even discomfort. This will present two problems for Putin in the coming years. First, in the event of a new global economic crisis or a fall in oil prices, there will be little willingness to endure any loss of material well-being. And second, new political figures and movements would not, in Gessen's words, need to "overcome the force of an ingrained ideology" to present themselves as workable alternatives. 

For now, economic growth is modest but steady, and the Russian budget will likely remain stable, staving off any dramatic domestic shocks. But Putin has provided no indication of what direction, if any, he plans to move the country in. In formulating their vision for Russia, Putin and those close to him may look admiringly at China, with its phenomenal economic growth and its unmoving, one-party control. But unlike in Russia, the governing order in China is more powerful, and more prized, than any one individual. Putin is thus in danger of creating something closer to a Central Asian autocracy, in which a self-described "national leader" doesn't so much defend the system as becomes it. Vladislav Inozemtsev, an economist and director of the Center for Post-Industrial Studies, told me that this puts Russia in the unique category of being a "financially stable, nondeveloping country."

That may keep Putin secure for a time, but it offers few hopeful long-term prospects. Having constructed the fundamental architecture of stability from the weak foundation of the 1990s, Putin appears unsure what to do with the building he has created, other than see it continue to stand. How long it will continue to do so depends on Putin's ability to adapt his vision of the state to a changed Russia. The throne may feel familiar, but the kingdom is brand-new.