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The Real Power of Putin

Vladimir Putin
Vladimir Putin; drawing by James Ferguson

Biographies of political leaders typically offer a seminal moment, preferably early in their subjects’ lives, that crystallizes a character trait or provides a pivotal lesson for the life that follows. In the case of Yuri Andropov, longtime head of the KGB (1967–1982), briefly leader of the Soviet Union (1982–1984), and, most fatefully, patron of the young Mikhail Gorbachev, that moment came in the fall of 1956. From his window in the Soviet embassy in Budapest, Andropov watched in horror as, in the space of a single week in October, a student demonstration swelled into a popular uprising that toppled the Communist government and threatened to remove the Hungarian People’s Republic from the Warsaw Pact and thus from the outer tier of the Soviet Empire.

Through that same window, he could see the bodies of officers of the Hungarian secret police swaying from streetlights. Despite the successful crushing of the uprising by Soviet troops, in the course of which thousands of Hungarian civilians and hundreds of Soviet soldiers were killed, the events in Budapest marked the birth of Andropov’s—and the KGB’s—“Hungarian complex,” the mortal fear of small, unofficial groups sparking movements to overthrow Communist rule with direct (in the Hungarian case) or indirect encouragement by the West.

A generation later, in another Soviet outpost on the western edge of Moscow’s empire, a similar drama unfolded. This time the city was Dresden, the year was 1989, and the outpost was the KGB’s mansion on Angelikastrasse, directly across from the local headquarters of the Stasi, the KGB’s East German counterpart. A crowd of several thousand protesters had successfully breached the Stasi’s gates, gleefully ransacking the building while grim-faced intelligence officers stood by and watched. Also watching, from a window across the street, was thirty-seven-year-old Lieutenant Colonel Vladimir Putin, who was temporarily in charge of the mansion, its voluminous intelligence records, and its staff of four. Shortly after dusk, a small crowd peeled away from the Stasi building with the intent of pulling off a similar victory against the KGB.

According to the New York Times reporter Steven Lee Myers’s gripping account of this oft-told story in The New Tsar, Putin placed an urgent call to the local Soviet military command, requesting reinforcements to protect the mansion, only to be told that nothing could be done without orders from Moscow and that “Moscow is silent.” With his career and a treasure trove of highly classified documents on the line, Putin decided to take matters into his own hands. Approaching the mansion’s outer gates alone and unarmed, he announced in German to the crowd assembled there, “This house is strictly guarded. My soldiers have weapons. And I gave them orders: if anyone enters the compound, they are to open fire.” It worked, at least in one sense: the crowd returned to the Stasi building, leaving the mansion and its contents untouched. But if Putin won the battle, the Soviet Union lost the war.

What lessons did Putin draw from this episode, apart from its subsequent utility for biographical purposes? Haunted by the phrase “Moscow is silent,” he came to regard that silence as symptomatic of a “disease called paralysis—a paralysis of power.” A timely and assertive response to popular protests, it seems, might have produced a better outcome, might have kept Moscow’s East European buffer zone and perhaps the USSR itself intact. The protesters in Dresden that day were for Putin not a crowd but a mob: uninformed (some demanded to see the KGB’s nonexistent torture chambers), loud (some were shouting), and lawless (they ransacked the Stasi’s confidential files). They and their counterparts in Leipzig, Warsaw, Prague, Vilnius, Tbilisi, Baku, and Yerevan were sowers not of transparency but of anarchy.

We needn’t look therefore to the post-Soviet “color revolutions” in Georgia (2003) and Ukraine (2004), let alone to the more recent demonstrations in Moscow against election fraud (2011–2012), for the source of Putin’s visceral aversion to public protests. The groundwork was laid much earlier, and its timing bears on the debate about the current direction of Russian politics. As Putin’s rule has turned more authoritarian and his foreign policy more aggressive, observers have been asking themselves whether something fundamental has shifted in his outlook, and if so, why.

To be sure, like most people who have built their careers inside intelligence services, Putin was never going to be a plausible spokesman for deliberative and pluralist politics. Instead, he has presided over “managed democracy” (managed, that is, by the Kremlin) or “sovereign democracy” (sovereign, that is, vis-à-vis foreign influence)—variations on the Soviet era’s “people’s democracy”—all Potemkin democracies draped over authoritarian structures of power, going back to what Max Weber called the “fake constitutionalism” of the tsarist regime at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Nonetheless, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, what appeared to drive Putin was the sober pursuit of Russia’s national interest after the disintegration and free fall of the 1990s, which he countered by renationalizing the country’s principal assets—oil, gas, and precious metals—and thereby restoring state capacity. Even without getting a sense of his soul, as George W. Bush claimed to have done in 2001, one could recognize Putin as a conservative patriot, a man, to borrow Margaret Thatcher’s assessment of Gorbachev, with whom one could do business.

And business was indeed done: post-Soviet Moscow became home to more billionaires than any other city in the world, even as a prosperous middle class began to spread its wings there and in St. Petersburg and other Russian cities. Business was done across Russia’s borders as well, as China and the European Union became major consumers of Russian oil and natural gas. Putin imposed a semblance of law and a great deal of order at home, while Russia joined or sought to join the multilateral organizations (G8, WTO, OSCE, etc.) that are the benchmarks of global integration. All these trends were widely understood as both cause and effect of Russia’s transition toward “normal” market democracy.

What happened? Why did Putin’s Russia jump the rails? Why is the talk (not to mention the book titles) in the West no longer of transition but regression, with a “new tsar,” a “new Russian empire,” and a “new cold war”? Americans—the quintessential middle-class nation—cherish the notion that a rising middle class expands political freedom and the rule of law; that commerce among nations reduces the threat of war; and that, in the long run at least, democracy produces the greatest good for the greatest number. The distinguished historian Moshe Lewin argued that Gorbachev, Russia’s leading democratizer to date, was part of a rising tide within the Soviet population, an emerging majority of educated, white-collar urbanites, and that perestroika was the product not just of a handful of Communist Party reformers but of the accumulating modernization of Soviet society itself. Deep currents of Russian social history were flowing in the direction of liberalization, and Gorbachev rode the wave.

This notion and the cherished assumptions behind it are now facing historic tests not only in Russia but in China, Poland, and elsewhere. The members of Russia’s middle class who appear in the veteran NPR reporter Anne Garrels’s Putin Country, a survey of life in the provincial city of Chelyabinsk, hardly fit Lewin’s liberalizing mold. Enmeshed in webs of corruption that stretch from ballot stuffing to journalism for hire, from evasion of military service to the auctioning of university admissions, they blame the “everything for sale” mentality precisely on the neoliberalism imported from the West in the 1990s. As one woman puts it, “All those financial manipulations, the rush to privatize, these ideas didn’t come from here, they came from you, from the West, but the West didn’t have to live through the results.” Public protests in Chelyabinsk, however, are extremely rare, since few people can envision a viable alternative to the status quo.

Instead, Garrels’s subjects follow the time-tested Russian strategies of adaptation and circumvention. On the eve of recent elections, for example, students at Chelyabinsk State University were informed that, to express their gratitude for government-issued scholarships, they should support United Russia, Putin’s party. To verify that support, officials required students to use their cell phones to photograph their ballot as they voted. Some students complied with a twist: they placed a thread in the shape of a check mark next to “United Russia,” photographed the ballot, and then removed the thread and voted as they pleased.

According to Authoritarian Russia, by the political scientist Vladimir Gel’man, it is precisely such microstrategies of coping that help perpetuate Russia’s authoritarian politics. Like most politicians, Russia’s leaders are simply “rational power maximizers.” The difference is that they operate in a country almost entirely devoid of institutional and political constraints on elite behavior. Gel’man thus shows little interest in Putin’s worldview, or the views of those around him; in fact, he writes, “ideology as such has probably been the least meaningful factor in Russian politics since the Soviet collapse.”

Putin was able to abolish regional elections of provincial governors and instead appoint them himself, with impunity. His predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, brought in tanks to fire on the popularly elected Russian parliament and rewrote the constitution to fortify executive power, with impunity. Even Anatoly Sobchak, the law professor and first post-Soviet mayor of St. Petersburg (among whose protégés were Putin and his future sidekick Dmitri Medvedev), did not hesitate to dissolve the city council and concentrate power in his own hands, also with impunity.

These were assaults not on individual rivals, opposition parties, or independent media, but on the fundamental structures of the democratic process itself, and yet they generated hardly a ripple of protest. “Almost all success stories of democratization,” Gel’man notes, “result from constraints imposed on would-be dominant actors… by institutions, or by other actors, or sometimes even by themselves.” Rather than parse Putin’s speeches for signs of creeping authoritarianism, or endlessly cite the color revolutions as triggers of the Kremlin’s backlash against civil society, we should recognize that the Russia that emerged from seventy-four years of Soviet socialism was already deeply authoritarian before Putin set foot in the Kremlin.

Indeed, as the political scientist Andrei Tsygankov reminds us in The Strong State in Russia, in the wake of previous catastrophic breakdowns during the past thousand years, whether triggered by rebellion from within or invasion from without (or both), Russia has always reestablished a strong, centralized state. That state has taken a variety of forms, to be sure, but through all of them runs a common trait: the tendency for power to reside in persons more than in institutions. Like most premodern monarchs, the tsars recognized no formal constraints on their authority. And despite the transfer of sovereignty from the tsar’s mortal body to the immortal working class and Communist Party, the Bolsheviks constructed personality cults around Lenin and Stalin that dwarfed anything produced by the sacred monarchies. In Russia there are few signs of institutional or any other domestic constraints emerging in the near future. The new urban middle class, for all its visibility, lacks formal instruments through which to promote its interests. And while Russia may be famous for its fabulously wealthy oligarchs, they have been too busy maneuvering against each other to form an actual oligarchy.

In The Less You Know, the Better You Sleep, the veteran journalist David Satter shares the sense that there has been little change in Putin’s politics, and that the consolidation of authoritarian rule was already well underway in the Yeltsin era. But his analysis of those politics is much darker, focusing on the simmering accusation that in the fall of 1999, Russia’s security services (FSB) directly or indirectly orchestrated a series of bombings of apartment buildings in the cities of Buinaksk, Moscow, Volgodonsk, and Ryazan (the last foiled by alert residents), then falsely claimed that they were the work of Chechen separatists, thus providing a pretext for Prime Minister Putin, previously the FSB’s director, to launch Moscow’s second war against the breakaway republic of Chechnya.

Those accusations were first leveled in 2002 by Yuri Felshtinsky and Alexander Litvinenko, the latter a defector from the FSB who was fatally poisoned four years later by an FSB emissary in London using radioactive polonium 210. Whereas Myers and other authors under review present disturbing evidence but withhold final judgment about responsibility for the bombings, in which nearly three hundred civilians were killed and over a thousand wounded, Satter is convinced that these were acts of state-sponsored terrorism against the state’s own citizens.

He argues moreover that the horrific hostage-taking episodes at the Dubrovka Theater in Moscow in 2002 and at School No. 1 in the North Caucasian town of Beslan in 2004, in which a combined total of over five hundred people were killed, including nearly two hundred children, were “the result of a Russian provocation” designed to further Putin’s consolidation of power in the name of the war on terrorism. Satter’s shocking accusations are not just quantitatively but qualitatively different from those linking Russian authorities to the assassination of vocal critics such as Paul Klebnikov (2004), Anna Politkovskaya (2006), Anastasiya Baburova and Stanislav Markelov (2009), Natalya Estemirova (2009), and Boris Nemtsov (2015)—to name only the most prominent cases. The victims at the Dubrovka and in Beslan, like those of the apartment bombings, were not critics but anonymous, random targets of lethal violence, which is to say, of terrorism.

These charges, as Satter recognizes, boggle the mind. To understand today’s Russia, he insists, “is actually very easy, but one must teach oneself to do something that is very hard—to believe the unbelievable,” because “Russia is a universe based on a completely different set of values.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrived at a similar conclusion in March 2014, following a telephone conversation with Putin in the midst of Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula. Merkel reported afterward to President Obama that Putin was out of touch with reality, living “in another world.” One needn’t fully share this Manichaean perspective to conclude that Gel’man’s “rational power maximization” cannot adequately capture what drives Putin—or any other politician. To put it another way, it fails to grapple with John Maynard Keynes’s dictum that “the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas.”

According to Putinism, by longtime Russia observer Walter Laqueur, Keynes’s pronouncement should apply particularly to Russia, which even today is unable “to exist without a doctrine and a mission.” The Soviet Union from which Russia emerged in 1991 was the most purpose-driven society the world has ever seen. Yet Laqueur struggles to put his finger on what he calls “the emerging ‘Russian idea,’” partly because so many doctrines are competing for influence (Russian Orthodoxy, Eurasianism, antiglobalism, nationalism), and partly because, as he concedes, the vast majority of ordinary Russians “are not motivated by ideology; their psychology and ambitions are primarily those of members of a consumer society.” The ubiquity in contemporary Russian political thought of fantastic conspiracy theories periodically leads Laqueur to throw up his hands in frustration. At one point he concludes that, apart from a vague “nationalism accompanied by anti-Westernism,” “there might be no elaborate Putinist ideology” after all.

Financial Times reporter Charles Clover takes a different approach to the role of ideas in Putin’s Russia. Black Wind, White Snow—a phrase borrowed from Alexander Blok’s apocalyptic 1918 poem “The Twelve,” about Bolshevik apostles ushering in a new age—offers a highly person-centered (and thus appropriately Russian) history of “Eurasianism,” a keyword among today’s Russian conservatives. Like Blok, the original Eurasianists (many of them exiles in interwar Europe) sought to reconcile themselves to the Soviet project by recasting its historical meaning. Beginning with the aristocrat Nikolai Trubetskoy, they made their peace with Bolshevism as the only available means to insulate Russia from the violent self-absorption of a European civilization in steep decline.

Eurasianism began as an imaginative—to put it generously—theory of historical linguistics, allegedly showing that Russian tonal patterns had more in common with those of the steppe peoples of Inner Asia (“Eurasia”) than with Europeans’. For Trubetskoy and his collaborator Roman Jakobson, moreover, linguistic structures captured and preserved deep affinities of culture and consciousness, rendering visible, to the trained eye, the true frontiers of a great Eurasian civilization that had amalgamated dozens or even hundreds of tribes in a single “convergence zone.” From here it was a short step to declaring that Russia was neither a Slavic nor a European country, that in fact most of Russia’s problems came from trying to be European when it wasn’t. Better to recognize and embrace one’s inner Mongol.

Lev Gumilev with his parents, Nikolai Gumilev and Anna Akhmatova, 1916
Lev Gumilev with his parents, Nikolai Gumilev and Anna Akhmatova, 1916

The most fertile Eurasianist of all was Lev Gumilev, whose story Clover relates in a series of utterly absorbing chapters. The offspring of two of modern Russia’s greatest poets, Anna Akhmatova and Nikolai Gumilev, Lev Gumilev seems to have passed through all of his country’s twentieth-century agonies to emerge a profound and profoundly damaged thinker. During his decade as a zek (prisoner) in the Gulag, he became a keen observer of human relations in the primordial setting of the camps, developing categories of analysis that we would now recognize as belonging to evolutionary psychology and sociobiology. Rather than a Hobbesian war of all against all, Gumilev found that prisoners naturally organized themselves into microcommunities:

Groups of from two to four persons emerged on this principle; they “eat together,” that is, share their meal. These are real consortiums, the members of which are obliged to help each other. The composition of such a group depends on the internal sympathy of its members for each other.

Internal sympathies, or what Gumilev called “complementarity,” led members of such communities to defend and make sacrifices for each other in ways that cannot be explained solely via rational self-interest (let alone rational power maximization). He called these prerational or suprarational impulses “passionarity,” a New Testament–tinged neologism signifying the instinct for self-sacrifice on behalf of a greater collective good.

Gumilev’s time in the camps was interrupted by service in the Red Army toward the end of its epic battle against Nazi Germany. Compared to the Gulag, he wrote, “the front line felt like a resort.” As he approached Berlin in the spring of 1945, Gumilev struggled to make sense of how a backward, motley country like the USSR could have overcome superior German organization and technology. Amid the “ornate books,” “asphalted roads,” and “luxurious apartments and automobiles,” Gumilev and his fellow Soviet soldiers, “dirty and unshaven, stood and wondered, why are we stronger? How are we better than this immaculately groomed and shiny country?” His eventual answer: Eurasians’ higher coefficient of complementarity and passionarity.

Gumilev went on to write a slew of works, intricate, inspired, and ill-equipped to withstand scholarly scrutiny, culminating in the long-delayed publication of his Ethnogenesis and the Biosphere (1989), which was all the rage when I was a graduate student in Leningrad. With the Soviet Eurasian state disintegrating around him, Gumilev’s Stockholm syndrome, as Clover calls it, came into full bloom: he rose to public prominence as an ardent defender of the very state that had executed his father, silenced his mother, nearly starved and worked him to death for twelve years, and murdered millions of his fellow Eurasians. Was this Gumilev’s version of passionarity?

After his death in 1992, his fame only increased. Eurasianism offered a renovated moral purpose for the multi-national USSR (and for a possible successor state) that was neither Marxist nor nationalist, a “third way,” as Clover puts it, emphasizing “the unconscious sympathy of the people of the Soviet Union, the millennia-old unity of inner Eurasia, and a lurking distrust of the West.” It is easy, and not entirely wrong, to dismiss such sentiment as a fig leaf for Russian imperial ambitions. But it is worth recalling that Russians have never inhabited the nation-state form; for centuries they have been accustomed to living in multinational polities, always as the dominant ethnic group but rarely with the ambition to become the only ethnic group.

In the post-Soviet chapters of Black Wind, White Snow, Eurasianism’s lineage starts to unravel. Clover looks to Alexander Dugin, a prodigious right-wing intellectual impresario, to carry the banner raised by Trubetskoy and Gumilev, but the diversity of sources on which Dugin draws—nationalist, fascist, postmodern—makes him an uncomfortable fit. Clover’s method for establishing Dugin’s and Eurasianism’s influence on the Kremlin is similarly unconvincing, focusing entirely on the occasional appearance in Putin’s speeches of keywords such as “passionarity” or “Eurasia.” One could just as easily cite other keywords uttered by Putin in order to draw the attention of other constituencies, a technique Clover correctly identifies as the “dog whistle.” While Eurasianism has clearly found its way into the rhetorical stew from which Russian political elites feed, and periodically provides ideological gloss for this or that initiative, there is little evidence that it has actually shaped Kremlin policies, whether at home or abroad.

If there is one arena in which Russia’s “power maximizers”—rational or otherwise—bump into unavoidable constraints, it is in the conduct of foreign policy. Simply by virtue of its size and the number of its neighbors (both greater than any other country), Russia remains a global player. But as the Australian scholar-diplomat Bobo Lo persuasively argues in Russia and the New World Disorder, Moscow has yet to adapt to the disorder of the post–cold war world or to the limited efficacy of “hard power” and adversarial paradigms.

To be sure, Putin has demonstrated considerable skill in the arts of soft power. Much has been made of his election-year comments concerning Donald Trump, especially by Trump himself, who brags about Putin calling him “brilliant” and “a genius.” Actually, the word Putin used was yarkii, “colorful” or “flamboyant,” a description with which it would be hard to disagree.

More significant—and more alarming—than any mutual flattery between the two autocratic figures, however, have been the financial ties between the Trump camp and a range of Putin’s allies. Paul Manafort, who resigned as Trump’s campaign manager on August 19, previously sold his services to Viktor Yanukovych, the Ukrainian leader whose ousting in February 2014 led to Putin’s annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine, as well as to Oleg Deripaska, a billionaire aluminum magnate and Putin confidante who was banned from entering the United States. Carter Page, one of Trump’s foreign policy advisors, formerly worked for Russia’s state-owned energy company Gazprom. Trump himself, after his hotel and casino business went bankrupt in 2004, benefited significantly from infusions of capital that originated with Russian oligarchs.

For Putin, Trump represents not just a man with whom the Kremlin can do business, but potentially the most useful among the cohort of ultra-nationalists, including Nigel Farage in Britain, Marine Le Pen in France, and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, who are leading the latest assault on globalization, neoliberalism, and the Western alliance system—this time from within. But whatever drove the Kremlin to hack the DNC’s e-mail, and whatever inspired Putin to express oblique praise for Trump, neither action seems to be helping Trump’s campaign—on the contrary. This may well be another example, as in Dresden in 1989, of Putin winning the battle but losing the war. It may also be a sign that, in Russia as in the US, all politics is local, and that Putin’s actions in the US election are designed primarily to bolster his domestic image as a master of political intrigue. Here, he appears to be succeeding.

Putin has also waged a soft-power irredentist campaign to mobilize millions of ethnic Russians and Russian speakers in the “near abroad,” the former Soviet republics that now ring Russia’s western and southern flanks. And where a Russian political diaspora cannot be found, the political analyst Agnia Grigas shows in Beyond Crimea, Moscow creates one: via humanitarian assistance, media saturation, and widespread granting of Russian passports. But these efforts to recoup at least some of what was lost in 1991 have been both selective and opportunistic.

Even in the most dramatic examples, in Georgia and Ukraine, Putin appears once again to be winning battles but losing wars. Having skillfully annexed the Crimean peninsula and locked eastern Ukraine, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia into protracted conflict, Moscow has effectively pushed the rest of Ukraine and Georgia more firmly than ever toward the European Union, while setting off a punishing regime of sanctions against Russia by the West. Other former Soviet republics now look with greater wariness at Putin’s proposed “Eurasian Union,” and NATO is beefing up its mission in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

Is Putin’s newly assertive stance a symptom of “reimperialization,” as Grigas insists, or rather of what Lo calls the “prolonged agony of post-imperial adjustment,” not unlike the Anglo-French attempt to occupy the Suez Canal in 1956, or the brutal French war in Algeria in the 1950s? “It is unrealistic,” Lo reminds us,

to expect Russia to be the exception to the rule that empires, modern and ancient, do not go quietly. They either collapse as a result of crushing defeat (Germany, Japan) or domestic implosion (China), or they strive for decades to cling on to the scraps of their imperial past (Great Britain, France). Less than twenty-five years ago, Russia was the largest land empire in history. The current political generation was born and raised in imperial times.

One needn’t subscribe to the theory of Eurasian “complementarity” to grasp that, with decades or even centuries of cohabitation by Russia and its former imperial holdings, and without oceans or other natural borders to separate them (apart from the Caucasus), Russia is unlikely to go quietly anytime soon.