What is Vladimir Putin’s vision for post-Putin Russia? Could he imagine the next leader of Russia being picked in free and fair elections? Does he fear a palace coup or violent street protests?
We cannot know what is in Putin’s mind, but we are free to speculate. “Every self-respecting intelligence should have a full-time Putinologist,” Richard Laurie wrote recently, “and one reason is that President Vladimir Putin alone rules Russia. What he says goes.”
It is thus not surprising that most of those who try to explain today’s Russia end up writing Putin’s biography, the life story of a mystery-ridden former KGB colonel who came out of nowhere and now has nowhere else to go. Today getting Russia right means getting Putin right. His biographies seek to describe not just what has happened, but what is going to happen.
Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy’s new book Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin (Brookings Institution Press, £19.99) is the Putin biography that best answers this last question. It is a smart and thoughtful piece of work. The writers, who also co-authored the highly praised The Siberia Curse: How Communist Planners Left Russia Out in the Cold, do their best to put Putin’s actions and inactions in the bigger context of Russian society’s choices in the last two decades.
Hill and Gaddy’s starting point is the insight that what shapes Putin’s policy is not ideology, but experience. Interpreting experiences is the formula of the book. “Putin shaped his own fate, in large part because of the nature of his core identities,” they write. So for them, telling Putin’s story means constructing his core identities: the statist, the history man, the survivalist, the outsider, the free marketeer and the case officer.
1. Putin the statist
Putin’s statism is not a legacy of his KGB upbringing, nor a longing for the Soviet past. It is an expression of Russian society’s rejection of state failure in the first post-communist decade. This fear of state failure best explains why President Yeltsin appointed Putin as his successor but also why the majority of Russians welcomed a former KGB colonel as their leader.
But as memories of the 1990s fade, Putin’s popularity declines. Sovereignty, not just prosperity, was at the heart of…