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 Putin’s pact with the Russian people. In 2000, Russians longed for a state that could be respected.
2. Putin the history man
Contrary to many of Putin’s critics who see him as an accidental ruler suffering from greedy presentism, Hill and Giddy portray him as a history man: someone who is aware of his historical role and is pre-occupied with Russian history, but is unable to deliver a compelling vision for 21st-century Russia. For Putin there is nothing stange about the idea that Russian citizens should celebrate the battle of Stalingrad one week and the anniversary of the Romanov dynasty the next. He looks at Russian history mostly as an instrument for the country’s survival.
Putin’s generation is cynical and non-ideological, but it appreciates the role of ideology in power politics. Putin longs for Russian ideology: an ideology that can give an identity to the country and the regime. In his view, Russia needs ideology to protect it from the evils of globalisation. So the Kremlin’s alliance with the Orthodox Church is not a tactical maneuver but a political imperative.
3. Putin the survivalist
Putin the survivalist is probably the most interesting of the identities presented in the book. As the authors wisely observe, there is a great difference between being a survivor and a survivalist. The former is passive; the latter is active. Putin is not a survivor: he is a survivalist. He lived outside Russia when the country underwent profound changes and he witnessed the failure of the Soviet empire firsthand in East Germany in 1989. When East German protesters gathered in front of the KGB office and tried to get in, Putin only managed to keep them outside, pretending to be an interpreter. For him, survival is another word for victory.
Survivalism defines Putin’s tendency to think in terms of worst-case scenarios, which is at the heart of his doctrine for governing Russia. It allied him with economic liberals like Alexei Kudrin—but for Putin this was a matter of security, not economic policy. Financial reserves were meant to defend Russia’s sovereignty. And the impact of the financial crisis vindicated and reinforced his beliefs. The focus on survival explains another key element of Putin’s policy: his obsession not to be perceived as weak. He was willing to invade a neighboring country to prove his strength.
4. Putin the outsider
Putin was an outsider at university, in the KGB, in Dresden and in the Kremlin. More importantly, he has initially chosen to act as an outsider. The outsider is always better placed to understand what is really going on; his handicap is his inability to belong. The outsider cannot identify with anything and anyone—even his loyalty is more of a strategy than an impulse.
After more than a decade in power, Putin remains an outsider to his own political system. In his government, he still relies on people he met before entering the Kremlin.
5. Putin the free marketeer
Putin is not a market reformer. He does not believe in the state-run economy, and he appreciates the dynamism of the market, but he endorses an odd version of the free market. He simply dreams of being the invisible hand (or the not so invisible one) that runs things. Hill and Gaddy argue that his bitter experience when assigned to deal with the food crisis in St Petersburg in the early 1990s was critical in shaping his views on economics. Unlike the communists, who still dream of re-nationalising the economy, Putin’s dreams of re-nationalising the elites who run the economy. His war against the oil company Yukos and his infiltration of private companies was a desperate attempt to control the market.
For Putin trust means leverage. He simply cannot trust those who keep their capital in cash and their families abroad. Oligarchs are not considered to be owners, but managers of state-owned assets. In order for them to be effective, they should believe that they are owners, but in order for the regime to survive, they should be reminded that they are just managers.
6. Putin the case officer
In most conspiracy theories the rise and rise of Vladimir Putin can be simply explained by three letters: KGB. But what does KGB really mean in Putin’s worldview? Hill and Gaddy are great at answering this question. They say that Putin did not bring the KGB to power. He brought his friends to power and unsurprisingly many of them used to work in intelligence.
In the KGB Putin was trained to see people where others see institutions. He learned not how to work in institutions, but to work around them. This mastery of the informal explains Putin’s success in the murky 1990s, but it also explains his failure in institution building.
Hill and Gaddy give us a framework to understand the sources of Putin’s support and the roots of his failure. He failed to restore Russia’s state and to build a stable political regime. The Russian state today is bigger and wealthier but no more effective than the Russian state of the 1990s.
Putin’s six core identities helped him to fake a state, but not to build one. Putin the statist did not make Russia more governable. Putin the history man failed to offer the nation a unifying idea. Putin the outsider failed to identify with any of the projects that he initiated, his United Russia party being the best example. Putin the survivalist was too busy to plan for the worst-case scenario, so he missed opportunities for reform and development. Putin the free marketeer populated Russia with state-minded companies whose owners have learned to be loyal, but not to be competitive at the global level. And Putin the case officer turned out to be a genius at subverting institutions, but he failed to respect their autonomy.
7. Putin the Tsar
Putin the Tsar is one important part of Putin’s identity that is missing from the book. It is also a pretty recent one. Watching Putin’s tears on the night of his latest re-election, it was clear: he is the Tsar. Only a Tsar in decline cries like this, only Tsars feel offended by the ingratitude of their subjects. This seventh identity emerged after Putin entered the Kremlin, but it is of growing importance.
In the last decade Putin has faced the dilemma familiar from any similar regime: whether to consolidate his personal power or to consolidate a regime that is able to survive without him. In 2008, when he decided not to run for a third presidential term, it seemed that Putin the regime-builder has taken the upper hand. But when Putin announced his return to the Kremlin on 24th September 2011, it caused a regime change: not the one the west was hoping for, but still a regime change. Putin survived in power but his regime collapsed.
There is much that is fascinating but also much that is sad in Putin’s life story. In a tragic way it resembles the story of the man in the 1980s joke, who all his life has worked in the factory known to produce the best samovars in the Soviet Union. Throughout his career the man smuggled parts out of the factory, aiming to assemble a glorious samovar for himself. But every time he got all the parts together, it turned out that what he assembled was not a samovar, but a Kalashnikov gun.
Isn’t this the shortest version of Putin’s story?
A version of this article was published in Pro & Contra magazine