The Putin Put-On

Vladimir Putin
Vladimir Putin; drawing by David Levine

In August 1999, an unremarkable, previously unknown KGB lieutenant colonel named Vladimir Putin shot out of the shadows like an imp out of a snuffbox and landed in the center of the stage of Russian politics. His extraordinary ascent to the highest rung of state power took only six months, during which Yeltsin’s administration orchestrated the equally rapid consolidation of his position among the country’s power elite, both in and out of the State Duma.

Most surprising of all was his confirmation, in March 2000, not simply as Russia’s new president, but as a triumphant and popular president, no less popular, and perhaps more so, than Boris Yeltsin had been at the peak of his glory. Popularity is a prize not often bestowed on post-Soviet politicians; competition among Russian politicians over the last five or six years has amounted to trying to convince the electorate that one’s rival is even more repulsive—“I’m the lesser of two evils, so vote for me and not for him.”

The political show that brought Putin to power—he was the “dark horse” in Yeltsin’s circle—is familiar. Entangled in their own intrigues, up to their ears in corruption scandals, and scared to death, the entourage of Russia’s first president decided it needed an actor to play the part of a “strong man” capable of “establishing order in the country.” The actor wasn’t especially talented but, as it turned out, he was diligent and a quick study.

Whether or not the Kremlin’s “president makers” achieved their main goal—to ensure their own safety through the transition of power—is a quite different question. If these people were the least bit familiar with literature and folklore, they would know that when artificial creations come to life, they pose the greatest danger for those who made them. About a year ago, in the heat of an argument in the State Duma, I called Boris Berezovsky, who was then a supporter of Putin, a “puppeteer.” “Better a puppeteer than a puppet,” answered the quick-witted Berezovsky. Nowadays Berezovsky is financing the Russian human rights movement from abroad. It is out of the question for him to enter the territory of the Russian Federation.

As for the first steps taken by Putin, a necessary condition of the Russian political game was that the candidate project a reticent, enigmatic image. A large part of the electorate holds conservative or even reactionary views and was intended to see in Putin a man with the potential to restore old Soviet values, a bearer of the imperial idea, a proponent of the “strong state” in the traditional Russian understanding of this concept. If he was to please the public, the new president should be anti-Western, and it was to his advantage that he was a former employee of the KGB. In order to win the affection of these conservative voters, Vladimir Vladimirovich unleashed the second Chechen war, gave speeches about…

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