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The Making of Mr. Putin

Tatyana Tolstaya, translated from the Russian by Jamey Gambrell

First Person: An Astonishingly Frank Self-Portrait

by Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, with Nataliya Gevorkyan, Natalya Timakova, Andrei Kolesnikov, Translated from the Russian by Catherine A. Fitzpatrick. The Russian original, Ot pervovo litsa, is available on the website www.vagrius.com.
Public Affairs, 207 pp., $15.00 (paper)

At this year’s forum in Davos the question “Who is Putin?” was put to the members of the Russian delegation. They became confused, looked at one another, and mumbled something incomprehensible. There was laughter in the hall. But indeed, who is he?

For a certain group of Russians—let’s call them left liberals—the answer was obvious from the beginning: Putin is a bloody tyrant and a future dictator. This point of view requires no detailed evidence. It is enough that Putin worked in the KGB for many years. For that matter, for this part of the liberal intelligentsia, which has recently supported Grigory Yavlinsky and his Yabloko Party, conclusions are obvious in advance and without any argumentation. In their dogmatism the members of this group are indistinguishable from their opponents. It’s no accident that this group is called the “liberal gendarmerie.” The opponent of a bad person almost always seems good in their eyes. Black and white are their basic colors.

By the time of the election, left liberals had formed their judgments from uneven but identically repellent components: Putin worked in the KGB; he is presiding over the war in Chechnya; he hates the Radio Liberty correspondent Andrei Babitsky and called him a traitor. With this, the question of trusting Putin became closed and the left liberals called on everyone to vote for Yavlinsky. (Five percent of the voters did so.) The logic was the following: “We know that we will be defeated, but we will take defeat with our heads proudly raised. We will express our protest against impending dictatorship. We will lose beautifully.”

Yavlinsky himself, asked for whom would he cast his vote in the case of a second round of elections—which could only have been between Putin and the Communist candidate, Gennady Zyuganov—answered that he would vote for no one, that both were abhorrent to him. This is exactly the way he behaved during the elections of 1996, when the choice was between Yeltsin and Zyuganov. Yavlinsky didn’t like either of them. By acting this way, however, in the name of purity, he helped no one with anything—neither people nor ideas.

The right-wing liberals, headed by Anatoly Chubais, a former deputy prime minister and minister of finance, and Sergei Kirienko, who briefly served as one of Yeltsin’s prime ministers, supported Putin. Being political pragmatists, they were concerned with real change, the necessity of using all available means in order to get a package of desperately needed liberal reforms through the Duma, including changes in the punitive and unworkable tax laws and, most important, measures providing for the private ownership of land. Both men knew from firsthand experience what real politics and real struggle were like in the endlessly complex and confused Russian situation. Both of them knew what it means to take responsibility and make decisions, with all the consequences, including falling from the heights of power at the caprice of Yeltsin and his circle. Both fell and got back up without wasting time on complaints and pointing to their wounds.

Their position was as follows: it is impossible to demand liberal economic reforms from the President while depriving him of liberal support. If the liberals hold their noses and turn away (Yavlinsky’s solution), then less fastidious and greedier forces, of which there is a bountiful supply in Russia today, will be all too happy to rush to power. Yes, Putin wasn’t raised in a democratic garden. But he worked for approximately six years on the democratic team of Anatoly Sobchak, the mayor of St. Petersburg who was one of the first reformers to appear in the post-Gorbachev period. Putin supported Sobchak when he was attacked, at a time when this support was not popular and even dangerous.

Putin’s program is being written by a liberal team including German Gref, Aleksei Kudrin, and other members of the “Petersburg democrats” whose thinking is close to that of Chubais. Putin recently appointed Andrei Illarionov, another liberal economist from St. Petersburg, as his adviser. The right liberals think that there is a chance—let’s call it their political calculation—that things will continue this way. In short, it seems that the right liberals are trying to push Putin toward democracy, while the left liberals are throwing rotten tomatoes from behind the fence they have constructed around their idea of democracy. This is the main split in Russia’s democratic forces, and it will surely deepen.

Besides the democrats, there is also the rest of the population, which voted for Putin by a clear majority over the Communist Gennady Zyuganov. This can be interpreted as a desire for a “strong hand.” But it could also be seen as a welcome sign of society’s recuperation. It could mean that almost two thirds of Russia’s voters do not want to be pulled backward toward the “bright past” of the Soviet era that Zyuganov’s propaganda offers. It is possible that during ten years of reform many people have developed a taste for the new freedoms and opportunities that have appeared in Russia—and this despite mass impoverishment, the painful collapse of the country, the growth of crime, and the pervasive corruption. These voters are placing their hopes on the future, and not on the past, and in Putin they see someone who they believe will help the country to press forward. Of course, it may also be possible that people simply wanted something new and unknown.

Yet is it possible to objectively answer the question “Who is Putin?” Or, more aptly, “Who will Putin turn out to be? What can we expect from him?” Watching Putin on television and listening to his speeches, and especially reading the ones that are published, is a waste of time: the texts are written by speechwriters; the video clips are meticulously put together by image-makers; and everything is vetted by the presidential administration.

When we see Putin skiing down a mountain on TV, mixing with the crowd (his bodyguards also pretend to be red-cheeked skiers), or watch him drop by a little restaurant, supposedly to eat blinis, you understand that Putin himself is absent, that you are watching a kind of national fun-house mirror in which the projected fears, hopes, tastes, and customs of the electorate are reflected. He’s skiing—so he’s young and healthy, no comparison with the old, sick Yeltsin. He’s mixing with the crowd—so he’s democratic. He’s eating blinis—so he observes national traditions, especially around Easter—a nod in the direction of the Russian Orthodox Church. Specialists in PR wouldn’t allow him to eat, say, sushi and sashimi in public before the elections—that isn’t Russian food. What if this faux pas suddenly cost him a couple of million votes…?

Thus, for example, the image-makers, preparing Putin’s interview on television’s Channel One (controlled by the “oligarch” Boris Berezovsky), tried at first to hide the candidate’s dog from the voters. Putin’s dog—a toy poodle, small, white, fluffy, named Toska—didn’t fit the image of the mysterious, steely, decisive, masculine leader that they were trying to create. But the press somehow sniffed the dog out and even published its picture. The dog was forced to come out of hiding (more accurately, Toska suddenly appeared on the screen, dropped on Putin’s lap from somewhere off camera, obviously thrown into the picture by some assistant). Then came the following conversation: “Is this your dog?” “Well, I don’t even know whose she is—mine or my children’s…. We used to have another dog, a ferocious dog…. But it died, and so the kids convinced me to get this one….” He’s disavowing his own dog!—so anti-Putin viewers exclaimed in outrage.

Some light is thrown on Putin’s past by the recently published book by and on him, which is really a long interview. Three journalists from the newspaper Kommersant (also controlled by Berezovsky) met with the presidential candidate six times (altogether for a period of twenty-four hours). There are many interesting details in the book, but it’s clear that the information in it is carefully doled out, with Putin keen to make a good impression on his readers.

What if we try to understand “who Putin is” without relying on those who are molding his image—since we aren’t inclined to believe them? I’ve heard that the training program for US Green Berets includes an exercise in “determining the contents of a box without opening it.” Let’s try to apply something of the same approach to the freshly elected president of Russia as well. Central to understanding the image of our protagonist is the well-organized and effective Soviet state machine that found, convinced, educated, and defined Putin during his youthful, formative years, which coincided with “developed socialism,” that is, the Brezhnev period. At the time, the KGB was the most efficiently functioning part of the Soviet state machine. Its strength was founded on the absence of any control by law, on panic-stricken fear of its omnipotence, and on its immensely detailed information about what was going on in the country and in the heads of its citizens.

Putin, according to his own account, dreamed of joining the secret service from the age of fifteen, i.e., from an age when ideas about a spy’s work are still colored with “romanticism.” While still a schoolboy he tried to volunteer for the KGB but was turned down because of his age and was told that they don’t take volunteers. First he must receive an education. “What kind?” asked the boy. “Law school.” Putin entered law school and waited. Eventually he was approached by the agency. From that moment on, Putin has lived behind a thick curtain of lifetime secrecy; at that moment he entered a secret order about whose inner workings we know very little. This was in the middle of the 1970s.

A few words on this period in Soviet history. The end of the 1960s brought the USSR’s invasion of Czechoslovakia and a strategic failure in the race for space: after the Americans landed a man on the moon in 1969, it became obvious to the Russians that they would forever be in second place. The beginning of the 1970s saw the flourishing of the “Andropov” approach to the country’s internal life. Dissenters were pushed out of the country. If that was not possible, it was easy enough, without resort to any criminal prosecution, to make it impossible for “inconvenient” people to function: careers could be cut short, new works banned from publication, and people forbidden to travel abroad or emigrate for reasons of “state security.” And if such measures failed, the psychiatric hospital could be substituted for the labor camps. That the economic system had more or less reached a dead end was largely clear by the middle of the 1970s. At the same time a colossal military potential was unleashed: the country began to build its most powerful nuclear rocket systems. It was also the period of the greatest hypocrisy in the foreign policy of détente—tensions were created mostly by the USSR itself.

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