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.

It was at this moment that Putin passed into the sphere of the secret institution. This work requires not only the personal desire to do it, but “positive vetting” by “competent organs.” This meant that the candidate must possess a number of qualities that will guarantee lifetime loyalty to the system that considers itself the backbone of the state. When Putin entered the KGB, the candidate had to believe, and not just in words, that the Soviet system was the most just of all, that imperialism was truly enemy number one, that the Communist Party was indeed the vanguard of humanity, that the history of the USSR was a series of victories, and that the unbearable difficulties on the path to these victories were caused by the stubbornness and cunning of its enemies. The regime’s foreign and domestic politics had to be seen as optimal strategies, to be protected by all possible means from hostile attack. Not many Soviet citizens were prepared forever to exchange a regular civilian career for the onerous labor and indissoluble obligations of a KGBofficer.

Putin made this choice. This means that he was ready to renounce, consciously and for his entire life, any critical reconsideration of the stereotypes of Soviet life. It means as well that he agreed that, from then on, even the slightly significant steps he would take in everyday life would have to be cleared with his bosses. He would have to renounce any defense of his “own opinion”—it could harm the cause. He agreed that the “personal” should yield to the “social.” Working in the foreign service of the KGB he had to remember the cardinal rule: don’t ruin relations with anyone, no matter how bad, who might come in handy. But at the same time one must not have any close friendships either: the moral obligations that might arise could conflict with the duties of service. A good worker should be utterly convinced that unquestioning fulfillment of orders facilitates the strengthening of the state that exists.

There is reason to believe that Putin was a good worker. Therefore, in order to understand the internal structure of the positions, convictions, and motivations of our protagonist’s behavior, we must understand the system of priorities, preferences, goals, permissible methods, ideology, and human relations within the gigantic Corporation that was the state security system of the USSR and Russia. Putin was an indivisible part and a reliably working component of this system. Understanding the basic perspectives of the Corporation, we will understand better “who Putin is.” According to an unspoken tradition, for example, the work of a state security officer abroad was considered more prestigious and professional than work in the KGB “against our own people.” (Similarly, regular army officers are more respected than officers of the internal police, who suppress disturbances within the country.)

The late 1970s and 1980s was also a period of the growing senility of the Brezhnev regime and the “five-year plan of flamboyant funerals.” The KGB, as the most informed organization in the country, was the first to realize the disastrousness of the gerontocracy’s course. It is well known that Gorbachev’s rise to power was Andropov’s doing. The KGB was looking for, and nominated, a man capable both of reformist thought and of recognizing the limits of permissible change. The KGB would never have chosen a rebel as leader. It needed a man who was able, and wanted, “to change without destroying.”

Putin seems to fit at least part of this description. It is true that for most of his career, he was never a leader. His work in East Germany between 1985 and 1990 was by KGBstandards a bureaucratic job in a relatively predictable, tightly controlled place, nothing like West Germany. The fall of the Berlin wall meant a change of work and position for Putin; and such an event would necessarily be reflected in the Corporation’s strategy. In 1990 Putin became the international liaison assistant to the president of Leningrad State University (LGU)—again not a leader and not a director. But he was a loyal, reliable person in a hotbed of dissent and badly controlled contacts with foreigners.

The state was collapsing; another state was being born. Which state’s security should be guarded at this time and place? This decision was not within Putin’s jurisdiction. Only the Corporation could answer that. That Putin was working at LGU meant the KGB had sent him, and in fact, as he says in First Person, the KGB continued to pay him. During the period of confusion, of shifting loyalties, of free elections, the rise of Yeltsin, the popularity of Sobchak, Putin neither welcomed nor criticized anything; he didn’t get distracted, he didn’t look for popularity—he wasn’t like Oleg Kalugin, the KGB major general who wrote a self-dramatizing memoir and left Russia for the US in 1994. At a time when everyone was in a rush to declare his changed views, Putin remained true to the discipline of the Corporation. One can only think that his unprecedented rise to the position of deputy mayor under Sobchak meant the Corporation trusted him with this high position, anticipating that the inexperienced democrats were likely to botch things up.

Putin has had no experience in concocting slogans or in popularizing ideas formulated during open debate with ideological opponents. He has no experience in speaking at meetings and demonstrations where the audience might be either indifferent or hostile, and where one has to quickly turn the mood in one’s own favor with a strong speech. In short, he doesn’t have the experience of a politician—he has no record of public success or bitter defeat. Broadly speaking, he has experience in implementing the idea of strengthening the state, which has involved, among other things, implicitly trusting people whom he considers to have authority. In particular, this means that, on joining Yeltsin’s team, having won Yeltsin’s trust and been named his heir, he again found himself in the position of serving a “Corporation,” serving an idea, serving a system.

But this time, it’s another Corporation—the Russian State Machine. This machine has its own system of priorities, its own view of Russia’s development, its own permissible methods, its own strategic friends and enemies. If we can correctly identify the circle of people who control this new corporation—its brain center—we can find another key to the enigma of Putin. At the moment it appears that the team Putin is putting together is heavily weighted toward advisers and economists from the liberal right, i.e., colleagues of Anatoly Chubais. But it is also widely thought that the oligarch Boris Berezovsky—the sworn enemy of this group, and of Chubais in particular—is currently controlling, or trying to control, most of Putin’s important moves.

We still don’t know what the real balance of power is in Putin’s entourage, and this will become apparent only as events unfold and as Putin appoints his government. Another indication will probably be the May elections for governor of St. Petersburg, a city whose complex politics have great influence on the national scene not only because it is Russia’s “second capital” but because many of the government’s important players—including Putin himself, Chubais, Stepashin, Kudrin, Gref, and Illa-rionov—have ties to that city. It was generally assumed right after Putin’s victory on March 26 that one of his priorities would be to see that the current governor, Vladimir Yakovlev, would not be reelected in May. Yakovlev and Putin both served as deputy mayors under Anatoly Sobchak, an outstanding democrat who was at one time thought to have a chance at becoming president of Russia.

In 1996, amid charges of corruption, Sobchak lost the election to Yakovlev, a man who has since become closely associated with the criminal world and who is now accused of being responsible for St. Petersburg’s having acquired the title of “the crime capital” of Russia (there have been numerous political assassinations in St. Petersburg in recent years). Yakovlev headed the campaign against Sobchak, which was conducted on all fronts, and at the time Putin publicly called Ya-kovlev a Judas. In the event, Sobchak lost not only the election, but his former popularity; he became persona non grata, a persecuted politician and citizen, and was obliged to move to France for several years out of fear for his life.

For many, Putin’s relations with Sobchak remain a mystery. It is usually claimed that Sobchak trusted only spineless flatterers. But this clearly doesn’t describe Putin. It is possible that Putin’s successful relations with Sobchak were based on the fact that Putin’s true bosses were in the Corporation, that Sobchak was only his nominal superior. Gaining Sobchak’s trust gave Putin the op-portunity of controlling an emotional politician. Thus, in this interpretation Putin’s ability to get along with Sobchak was simply a reflection of his professional competence as an intelligence officer.

If so, however, then another enigma arises. Sobchak’s fall was precipitous and devastating to both his local and national reputation. As a tough intelligence officer turned politician, Putin, according to all calculations, should have crossed his former boss off his accounts. Instead, after becoming acting president, Putin unexpectedly brought Sobchak back from “exile” into his inner circle, and made him a trusted official in his election campaign. Before Sobchak suddenly died of a heart attack in late February, it was widely expected that he would be appointed to one of the key posts in the government.

Why such loyalty to Sobchak? The answer lies in the same place—in the system of Putin’s values. As a professional who needs to be careful in choosing the most reliable people for important tasks, Putin understood who Sobchak was. Sobchak had evident personal weaknesses, which his opponents have gladly exploited—such as his poor mastery of the details of municipal management and his love of expensive, flamboyant festivals in a city with a broken economy. Nevertheless he was a man who proved that his political commitments and moral values not only remained steady over the years of perestroika, years of disappointed hopes, but, on the contrary, were strengthened. Putin chose Sobchak, for whom honor and conscience were dearer than public opinion of himself. Only his sudden death prevented Sobchak from resuming their interesting partnership on a national level.

The state for Putin is unified and indivisible; it has its clear interests, which cannot be compromised either in foreign or in domestic policies, no matter how strong the objections of human rights advocates in Russia or abroad. The Chechen rebels don’t take Russia’s interests into account—so Putin isn’t going to take Chechnya’s interests into account. The opinion of foreign powers must be taken seriously as long as the interests of foreign powers don’t interfere with the government’s domestic policies. This would not necessarily preclude a pragmatic response to international protests against conditions in Chechnya. As a nuclear power Russia should be treated as an equal partner with other nuclear powers, and not be ashamed of its small budget. If Russia has renounced the ideas of an iron curtain and of personal and party dictatorship, then its leaders have to be consistent. Putin’s first political demands were for “the dictatorship of law” and “the defense of the rights of property holders.”

At present Putin’s policy is based on the idea of strengthening the state, raising the army’s morale, making Russia’s incoherent economic reforms consistent with one another, bringing about order in Russia’s vertical ruling structures, and taking a pragmatic approach to foreign policy. Who will Putin rely on in his new role, in the role of the director of the new Corporation? It seems to me that the answer is clear: on those forces that genuinely support him, regardless of their political affiliation. And he will respond to their support from the point of view of his understanding of “benefit for the country,” and not benefit for individuals or parties. It would be naive, if not silly, to think that Putin’s policies can be influenced by accusing him in advance of all possible sins (as the left liberals are doing). And on the contrary, for a Russian who genuinely believes that his economic initiatives will enrich the state and the population, then the only place to seek support for these initiatives now is from Putin (as the right-wing liberals are doing). Now as never before there is a historic chance to carry out systemic reforms in Russia. It would be a great mistake not to try to make use of it.

“…We had a dog, true it was a different one, a ferocious dog…” [Putin tells his interviewers.] “Unfortunately, it died, run over by a car…. But the kids wanted a little dog, and they finally convinced me. Now it’s not clear whose dog it is more—mine, my wife’s, the kids’…. The dog just sort of lives here on its own….”

INTERVIEWER (jokingly): “…like a cat.”

PUTIN (not laughing at the joke, coldly): “No, no, don’t insult our dog. It doesn’t work as a cat. A dog is a dog. We really love it.”

No, he’s not disavowing his dog. It’s just a completely different dog. And he won’t let anyone offend it. In his own way he loves this dog. Just as he loved the previous one.

Translated from the Russian by Jamey Gambrell

This Issue

May 25, 2000