Vladimir Putin
Vladimir Putin; drawing by David Levine


“This book is about Vladimir Putin,” says Anna Politkovskaya, a leading Russian journalist, “but not, as he is normally viewed in the West, seen through rose-coloured glasses.” Which may seem a puzzling way to start. There is a lot of indifference toward Putin in the West. There is a lot of disappointment. But there is not much admiration, especially now that Putin’s strongest ally among European politicians, Gerhard Schroeder, has gone as chancellor of Germany—and has taken a job on Putin’s payroll as chairman of a pipeline company.

Most Western governments would probably agree by now with the gloomy verdict of Putin’s long-serving economic adviser, Andrei Illarionov, who resigned on December 27, saying that he had joined Putin’s team in 2000 “to pursue an economic policy of broadening economic freedoms,” but that Russia had “essentially ceased pursuing that policy a minimum of two and a half years ago.” It was “difficult, if not effectively impossible,” he said, to identify any decision taken in 2004 and 2005 which had not reduced “economic freedoms, indeed political freedoms too.” He added that Russia’s reassertion of state control over its oil industry, which had included the renationalization of two big producers, Yuganskneftgas (the main production arm of the Yukos group) and Sibneft, was damaging the economy, even though the damage was masked for the moment by high oil prices. The Kremlin’s policy, he said, was that “energy could and should be used as a political weapon.”
As if to bear out Illarionov’s point about political freedoms, on the day of his resignation, the upper house of the Russian parliament, the Federation Council, approved a bill curtailing the rights of nongovernmental organizations in Russia. Ostensibly, this was for fear that they might be used as vehicles for terrorism or subversion. The law was slightly softened after fierce foreign and domestic criticism of a first draft, but it still gave Russian officials “an unprecedented level of discretion in deciding what projects, or even parts of NGO projects, comply with Russia’s national interest,” said Human Rights Watch, and would allow them to close NGOs which disobeyed. The law closes off the possibility that NGOs might ever serve as rallying points for effective political opposition in Russia, as they did before democratic revolutions in recent years in Serbia, Georgia, and Ukraine. Few people think Russia could face a similar revolution anytime soon. But it is part of Putin’s character to want to bring any independent organization, anywhere on the Russian political landscape, within the scope of his control, just in case.

And as if to bear out Illarionov’s warnings on energy, Russia also chose the holiday season to use energy as a political weapon against Ukraine. Gazprom, Russia’s state-run gas monopoly, raised fourfold its price for gas exported to Ukraine, then shut off supplies on January 1 when Ukraine refused to pay. The aim was apparently to undermine Ukraine’s pro-Western president, Viktor Yushchenko. But the effect may have been more to undermine the fragile reputation of Russia as a reliable energy supplier, especially among countries in Western Europe that rely on Russia for one quarter of their gas supplies. Most of this gas travels via Ukraine. When Russia cut supplies to Ukraine, Ukraine cut the pressure in the pipelines sending gas on to Europe, sowing panic. Western governments protested; Russia agreed to a much more modest price increase, though one that still produced a storm of protest in the Ukrainian parliament, leading to a no-confidence vote in the government; and supplies were restored on January 3. Even so, European countries that were happy until recently to rely on Russia for energy will be looking harder now for alternative sources in the future.

Politkovskaya’s presumption that Putin is well regarded in the West may therefore sound odd—but that is only because the West has moved a little closer to Politkovskaya’s own, much more skeptical, point of view, since she was writing her book. It appears only now in an American edition, but it was completed in May 2004, save for a postscript written later that year, and deals mostly with Putin’s first presidential term. Putin could still count then on some lingering indulgence from foreign governments that were willing to minimize public discussion of his authoritarian instincts in the hope that, if people were nice to him, his more liberal instincts would prevail. Now, with his second term well underway, his limitations are more apparent, and the ranks of his admirers have thinned. Many see him as a competent leader, even an effective one, by Soviet and Russian standards. But he is also a dour, cagey, somewhat sinister man who often looks as if he is in thrall to some deep private anger or bitterness, and who has never escaped the shadow of his KGB past.


He inherited a Russia which, chaotically and corruptly run as it had been under Boris Yeltsin, still seemed to be open to Western democratic values, if only for want of any others. He closed off that possibility by recreating a monopolistic political system that captured and confined power within a heavily militarized bureaucracy. This Russia, stronger and more confident, has become an awkward neighbor for the West. It sells nuclear technology to Iran, sponsors lawless rebel provinces inside Georgia and Moldova, bullies Ukraine and the Baltic states, and makes no great distinction in its foreign policy between democrats and dictators, save that it often seems to get along more easily with dictators. It remains, for all that, a necessary partner of the West. It has huge oil and gas exports, and a booming economy. Its cooperation is often useful in world affairs. But there can be few illusions left on either side of the relationship.

Or so you might think until you read further into Putin’s Russia, and you see what Politkovskaya has in mind. She says, in effect, that even if the West may think it has Putin’s measure, the reality is far, far worse. She portrays Putin as the bad master of a bad system, a bleak and cruel man who will leave Russia an even bleaker and crueler country. “Why do I so dislike Putin?” she asks rhetorically, and supplies a generous range of answers, of which these are only a few:

I dislike him for a matter-of-factness worse than felony, for his cynicism, for his racism, for his lies, for the gas he used in the Nord-Ost siege, for the massacre of the innocents [in Chechnya]…. I dislike him because he does not like people. He despises us. He sees us as a means to his ends, a means for the achievement and retention of personal power, no more than that.

As a writer for Novaya gazeta, the most honest and outspoken newspaper in Russia, Politkovskaya has been a brave critic of presidents, gang leaders, generals, bureaucrats, and other powerful people in Russian life. The essays and reflections in Putin’s Russia deal mainly with the army, organized crime, the war in Chechnya, and Putin himself. They make for depressing and often terrifying reading, backed up by Politkovskaya’s dogged reporting. You can argue about her sense of proportion, perhaps even her sense of fairness. Her book is one of the few that seem too hard on Putin. But her accuracy and sincerity are beyond dispute. So too is her gift for narrative. Here is one of her tales of army life, in its entirety:

Back to Moscow province. It is the morning of May 4, 2002. Army Unit 13815, in the village of Balashikha. Two boilerwomen working in the plant that provides heating for the unit hear cries for help from nearby. They rush out and see that a trench has been dug in the middle of the courtyard, in which a soldier has been buried up to his neck. The women dig down, cut the rope binding him hand and foot, and help him out of the pit.

At this moment an army major appears in a towering rage. He shouts at the women to leave the soldier alone. He is teaching Private Chesnokov a lesson, and if they do not go back to the boiler house immediately, he will have them sacked.

Private Chesnokov, having escaped from the pit, deserted from the unit.

In this book and in Novaya gazeta, Politkovskaya’s writing returns obsessively to Chechnya, the Russian republic in the northern Caucasus where Russia has fought two wars in the past twelve years trying to subdue increasingly radical secessionists. It now claims to be restoring basic civil order and handing local government back to Chechens, but in practice this has meant allowing a private militia run by Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya’s pro-Russian deputy prime minister, to pursue a reign of terror using torture, kidnapping and murder.1 Politkovskaya gives a disturbing account of Chechen civilians killed, wounded, displaced, and impoverished by the years of fighting. She fears for the corrosive effect on Russian public and private life when the army and the state become habituated to the brutalities and illegalities of prolonged warfare, saying:

We seem to have become very primitive in the last few years, even rather ignoble. The change in moral values is increasingly noticeable as the war in the Caucasus continues and broken taboos increasingly become familiar facts of life. Killing? Happens every day. Robbery? What of it? Looting? Perfectly legal in a war. It is not only the courts that fail to condemn crimes, but society as well. What was regarded in the past with repugnance is now simply accepted.

So fierce is the hatred between Russians and Chechens, she says, that “only a madman could envy the Chechens who live in Russia now.” The same, presumably, holds true for Russians who live in Chechnya. That hatred has been stoked not only by the war within Chechnya, but also by horrific terrorist attacks carried out across Russia over the years by Chechen separatists and their allies, including the seizing of a theater in Moscow in 2002, and of a school at Beslan in North Ossetia in 2004.


Politkovskaya’s insistence on judging Putin’s Russia by its policy and behavior toward Chechens is honorable, even heroic in view of most Russian attitudes toward them. But it is also misleading, in the sense that most Russian life is not like that at all. It would be like judging America today by its behavior in Iraq, or Britain in the 1970s by its behavior in Northern Ireland. These are vital parts of the story, they must be told, but they are not the whole story. The focus on Chechnya leads Politkovskaya into damning generalities about Putin which require more detailed argument than she has the time or the disposition to supply here. It would be one thing to say that Putin has been overly timid about military reform. It is another thing to say, as Politkovskaya does, that he is “entirely to blame for the brutality and the extremism endemic in the army and the state.” In fact there were plenty of both under Gorbachev and Yeltsin. But still, her anger is honest anger. And it serves to remind us that for all Putin’s public polish, his early career in the KGB and his oversight of the last Chechen war must give him a dark and scary hinterland.

Indeed, if there is anybody who does see Putin through rose-colored glasses, you might say, it is the Russians themselves. He enjoys a huge and authentic popularity at home. That, understandably, makes Politkovskaya herself a touch uncertain where to assign blame for what he does. Toward the start of her book she says that “as president, [Putin] is the person who shapes policies. In Russia, people imitate the man at the top.” Toward the end of it she says: “[Putin’s] people follow society’s responses very attentively. It is wrong to imagine they aren’t bothered. It is we who are responsible for Putin’s policies, we first and foremost, not Putin.”

The second of those positions is certainly the more constructive. But it is not necessarily the more reassuring.


Lilia Shevtsova, a Russian political scientist who has worked for the past ten years with the Carnegie Endowment in Moscow, is no great enthusiast for Putinism either, but she diverges from Politkovskaya’s approach by trying to see Putin’s good points as well as his bad ones. She catches well his elusive character when she warns that

we must not underestimate Putin by denying him the capacity for reflection and doubt…. He is not a linear personality lacking internal vacillations…. Most of his decisions are marked by inconsistency and, apparently, doubts…. The ruler of an exhausted, chaotic country that is continually torn between conflicting options and developing by trial-and-error has to be a complex person…. This politician has to keep turning one face, then the other, to the public.

Even so, the accumulation of Putin’s decisions forces Shevtsova toward an increasingly harsh conclusion. The first edition of her book came at a time of relative optimism in 2003, when, as she now says, an “amazing macroeconomic consolidation and friendly relations with Western powers appeared to confirm that [Putin] was on a good course, that he had finally found what Russia needed.” But as she takes the story up to 2005, in a much revised and expanded second edition, she worries that the picture has changed markedly for the worse:

The slowing pace of economic reforms in 2003–2004, deepening social problems, the continuing war in Chechnya and the danger of spillover to other North Caucasus republics, and finally the tragic escalation of terrorist acts in Russia together tested Putin’s leadership—and he failed. This Russian leader has been confronted by new challenges, and his reaction has been the traditional answer for all Russian and Soviet rulers: He has embarked on the path of centralization, clamping down on all autonomous actors and political freedoms.

She dwells on the state’s campaign against one such actor, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, former boss of the Yukos oil company, who is now serving an eight-year sentence in a Siberian prison. Most of Yukos has been renationalized. There are many theories about Khodorkovsky’s downfall, and probably all of them have some truth. The affair served many different interests. It pleased an envious public; it reversed the rigged privatization of Yukos ten years earlier; it punished Yukos for buying votes in parliament; it cowed other businessmen into keeping quiet and paying their taxes; it enriched the state; and, very probably, it also enriched a wide range of state officials as they harassed Yukos with tax inspections and lawsuits, dispossessed Khodorkovsky, and, finally, transferred the main assets of Yukos to a public company, Rosneft.

Shevtsova implies, surely correctly, that Putin was also jealous of Khodorkovsky’s reputation in the West as the man embodying the bright future of the Russian oil industry and with it the whole Russian economy. After September 11, when oil prices stayed high, the Middle East looked ever more volatile, and Russian oil exports were increasing, Khodorkovsky seemed in some ways a more vital figure for American interests in Russia than did Putin himself. He intensified his contacts with Western companies and Western governments. He spread his money around think tanks abroad and politicians at home. He was, moreover, much keener than Putin on the full-scale Westernization of the political and economic systems of Russia; such a trend would raise the market value of his oil company. He was thought to have political ambitions of his own. As Shevtsova puts it, “he openly challenged not only the leader, but also the way that Russia was ruled.”

Khodorkovsky’s downfall marked a watershed in a contest between state power and business influence in Russia which had got underway in Yeltsin’s day—a contest, we might say, between guns and money, both interpreted broadly. Under Yeltsin, the people with guns could get money, and the people with money could get guns. By sending Khodorkovsky to Siberia, Putin showed that the people with money could no longer get guns.2 The cost of that victory was probably higher than he expected. The expropriation of Yukos shocked the United States, which had expected Putin’s Russia, whatever its other failings, to respect private property and to maximize oil production. Here it defied both expectations.

At the end of 2004, the Yukos affair was followed by the Orange Revolution in Ukraine: Viktor Yushchenko won a presidential election with American and European support, despite Russian efforts to rig the vote in favor of its own candidate, Viktor Yanukovych. These rows over Yukos and Ukraine helped bring Russian– American relations to their lowest point since George W. Bush took office, perhaps even the lowest since the breakup of the Soviet Union. At around the same time, Russia’s relations with the European Union were deteriorating for additional reasons. Russian wanted easier trade arrangements and visa-free travel, which the EU refused to give. The lack of any progress in Russian–American and Russian–EU relations since then suggests that Russia is moving even further away from its supposed goal, under Yeltsin, of integration with the West. Putin replaced the idea of integration with one of mere interaction. Now he seems willing to forgo even interaction, save when interaction is clearly going to serve Russian interests—as it does when Russia takes its turn in the chair of the G8 group of rich industrialized countries this year. Russia cares little now about pleasing other people, much more about emphasizing its autonomy of action and of ideology, a position somewhat like China’s.

Russia could easily be in much worse shape. But with a bit more imagination and a bit more effort it could be in much better shape. This, in the end, is where Shevtsova’s critique of Putin comes to rest, and mine too. It is a matter of squandered opportunity. Putin came to power with broadly based political support, huge popularity in the country, a growing economy, and a West suddenly keen—after September 11—to have Russia as a real ally. This, if ever, was the time for Russia to make its historic choice in favor of Western liberalism. As Shevtsova says:

It is unlikely that Putin could have overturned the entire old system. But he could have initiated a systemic breach, which would have facilitated the building of a new state. For instance, he could have chosen a government of parliamentary majority, responsible to the Duma, and therefore, to the voters. This would have been the start of a way out of Russia’s regime, which is totally irresponsible; [under the current system] parties cannot influence policy, having no chance to form the government…. But Putin did not take the chance. He chose the simplest variant for himself—he picked the bureaucracy as his major ally…. He must not have believed that Russia was ready for modernization without the tight hold of authoritarianism.

She hopes that Putin’s clear bias against liberal democracy will mean “less deception and fewer illusions” about his rule, and in due course a reaction against it. The public, she says, “will see the results of his authoritarian rule and will stop hoping that the ‘iron hand’ will save Russia.”
Perhaps, but I doubt it. For one thing, the material results of Putin’s rule must look pretty good to many Russians right now, thanks mainly to high oil prices. Life is better for them now than it has been for at least twenty years—perhaps better than ever before, and certainly more hedonistic. At the same time, the reputation of liberal democracy has taken some hard knocks. The moral compromises and political misjudgments made in the name of fighting terrorism have left neither America nor Europe in much of a position to lecture Russia about anything.

Putin is, moreover, a man for the dull and the gray in government. That is a handicap for a democrat, but probably an advantage for an authoritarian. He is not installing a fierce dictatorship that might provoke an equally fierce reaction. Horrible things may be happening in Chechnya and some other places, as Politkovskaya shows. But Putinism means mainly the exercise of power through a vast and featureless bureaucracy which existed long before him, and whose control of the courts, the parliament, and broadcasting he has merely restored or strengthened. That could prove to be a Russian model of government with plenty of staying power, whatever the price of oil.


Andrew Wilson, a lecturer in Ukrainian studies at the University of London, offers a very different perspective on Russia, and on Putin’s rise to power, which serves, nonetheless, to complement the work of both Politkovskaya and Shevtsova. His interest lies in the structure of politics, not in the impact of policies. He shows how far the authoritarian habits of the Soviet era continue to shape the political culture of post-Soviet countries, in ways which will rarely be conducive to good government. He finds a general expectation that power will be wielded without accountability; that values and beliefs will play little if any part in determining who holds power, save that they may be exploited for cynical and tactical ends; and that politics will be conducted as a sort of warfare in which the aim is to destroy the enemy and capture the terrain.

When post-Soviet political habits collided fifteen years ago with the demands of the democratic world in which Russia sought to play a leading part, the results were confused, not to say chaotic. Russia’s first president, Boris Yeltsin, rewrote the constitution, ordered artillery to shell his parliament, and signed away his nation’s oil companies to a clique of bankers in exchange for a relatively trivial amount of campaign financing. The country veered from one deep crisis to another. There was little chance of progress toward formation of a stable system of political parties, or toward a division and a balancing of powers among federal and regional institutions, or toward a shared sense of national values and national interests.

But if they never quite got around to putting in place these deeper foundations of democracy, Yeltsin and his contemporaries found that a seemingly democratic superstructure could be lashed together much more easily, and could appease or fool Russia’s new Western friends, as well as many Russian voters. The essential activity, they saw, was to stage elections and election campaigns, making generous use of advertising and broadcasting to give the idea of a Western-style contest. Since Russia had no strong and independent political parties or other political and judicial institutions, elections could be manipulated easily by anybody with the power and the money to do so, usually the Kremlin and its friends. The purpose of the people around Yeltsin was, as Wilson nicely puts it, “to legitimate power, but not to provide any real threat to it.” Even for elections like these, however, expertise was useful. A new profession for Russia, the “political technologist,” was born, approximating to the job of a political consultant or campaign manager in America, but with much more creative scope.

Yeltsin’s presidency, and especially the parliamentary election of 1995 and the presidential election of 1996, was a golden age for these Russian spin doctors. The Kremlin had administrative and financial resources, but little idea how to use them in electoral politics. It relied on the “political technologists,” who used techniques imported from the West or revived from the Communist era to develop arguments exaggerating and demonizing the power of the Communist Party; to run television advertisements claiming that Yeltsin was a strong president when, much of the time, he was too sick to speak clearly; to invent dummy parties and dummy candidates to confuse and divide voters; to bribe or bully journalists into filling the press and television with pro-Yeltsin stories.

Wilson quarrels with the use of the term “spin doctor” to describe these post-Soviet fixers. Their job, he says, was not merely to refine the image or the message of a candidate or a party at election time. It was to stage-manage an election from beginning to end, including the creation of candidates, and of parties, and of issues. A Ukrainian analyst, Volodymyr Polokhalo, explains to Wilson that, on election day,

Western observers are looking for attributes of, or departures from, normal democratic procedures. But our elections are different. The big falsification is the falsification of the whole electoral process, the falsification of almost all the participants in that process. There are no real political subjects, no real independent political actors. To voters who lack sufficient information, they are not false, they are real; but most parties are only the creation of various donors looking for a suitable façade.

This is what Wilson calls “virtual politics.” He writes briskly and clearly, paying some heed to all the countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States, but arriving mainly at a study of Russian political models and Russian political methods, with occasional digressions into the application of those models and methods in Ukraine. He talks to practitioners of political technology such as Gleb Pavlovsky, a one-time dissident described by his rivals as “a major expert in contaminating the political environment,” and as “nothing but a charlatan [who has] mastered the black art of self-mystification”; and Pavlovsky’s one-time sidekick, Marat Gelman, a “master of provocation” who leads a second life as one of Moscow’s leading dealers in modern art.

The result is a systematic and intelligent discussion of a generally neglected or misunderstood part of the post-Soviet political process. So lucidly does Wilson explain the operations of the stage managers, their ideas and ambitions, that his account risks at times redressing the balance too far in their favor, allowing them to claim more credit than they deserve for shaping basic policy.

Wilson is generally on his guard against his subjects’ exaggerations. He has put political technologists at the center of his study, he says, “not because they are the only people who count in post-Soviet politics, but out of a desire to change the perspective from more traditional accounts that take the public performance of politics at face value.” But the political technologists are, needless to say, pretty good at creating a wider view of their own importance. “So much—the political system, the state—in modern Russia, was built by political technologists,” says one, Efim Ostrovsky, for example. Alexei Sitnikov, the head of a political consultancy called Image-Kontakt, claims credit for “conducting the voluminous research and creating the necessary profile” which led Yeltsin to make Putin his successor, by appointing Putin first as prime minister and then resigning to leave him as acting president. Wilson himself offers a view that the “real credit for Project Putin” should go to Gleb Pavlovsky, together with Valentin Yumashev and Alexander Voloshin, who served at different times as chiefs of staff in Yeltsin’s Kremlin.

All this may well be part of the truth. Doubtless Pavlovsky and Sitnikov did write political analyses that helped to identify Putin as a possible successor. But they probably conceived of other political schemes as well, and plenty of other people probably had a hand in recommending Putin, including some who must now regret their choice. Nor should the reasons that Putin got his chance at office be conflated with the reasons that he prevailed once he got there. He had the confidence of the army, and the security services, and big business, compared to which the political managers were small fry.

As Putin’s administration has gained in experience, so it has pushed the spin doctors further down the influence chain. They can still run the show in local elections, but at the national level, the Kremlin does its own strategic thinking, even if it uses hired hands to execute the strategies. Putin’s deputy chief of staff, Vladimir Surkov, is probably the most skillful political manipulator in Russia today. The Kremlin has also learned to use the courts, and the public prosecutor, and the tax police, to frighten or ruin anybody that might get in its way long before an electoral campaign has even begun. Thus Mikhail Kasyanov, a former prime minister, has found himself under investigation for fraud soon after he began hinting at running for the presidency in 2008. Marat Gelman says to Wilson that this sort of approach “is far more effective than any that people like me can propose.”

Putin has contrived, in the words of Martin Wolf of the Financial Times, “not only to establish a monopoly of power, but also to monopolize competition for it.” Opposition is allowed only where the Kremlin feels it would be useful—for example, to make Putin’s own positions look good by comparison, or to float trial balloons. Accidents may happen. The Rodina (“Motherland”) party, though a Kremlin creation, has given the impression of slipping its leash once or twice to challenge Putin from the nationalist right. But that, too, may fall within the Kremlin’s calculation.

The question now is to what degree the current regime’s monopoly on power, and on the competition for power, will be sustained. Putin’s second term ends early in 2008. It is his last under the current Russian constitution, and the argument is well underway about what to do next. If Putin wants more presidential terms he can have them easily by arranging for parliament to change the constitution. But he seems for the moment to have some other option in mind—perhaps, the gossip says, to have himself appointed prime minister, and to try shifting his power to the parliament; or to have himself appointed chairman of the state gas monopoly, Gazprom, and also of a board managing the country’s fiscal reserves. In either case a protégé would take the presidency.

If Putin were to quit tomorrow, he would go down in history as the leader under whose regime Russia reversed its post-Soviet economic decline. As for his political legacy: here, as the Russians like to say, history can be very unpredictable. Measure Putin against Boris Yeltsin, and Putin has been an efficient reactionary, a disappointment to democrats. But measure him against the last Russian leaders to have enjoyed sustained and uncontested power—Brezhnev, say, and before him Stalin—and Putin looks much more like a step in the right direction. We can only wish that he had made the historic choice Shevtsova described, and broken with such company altogether.

This Issue

February 9, 2006