Russia’s Imperial Impostor
On January 27, 2018, Vladimir Putin became the longest-serving leader of Russia since Joseph Stalin. There were no parades or fireworks, no embarrassingly gilded statues unveiled or unseemly displays of nuclear missiles in Red Square. After all, Putin did not want to be compared with Leonid Brezhnev, the bushy-browed septuagenarian whose record in power he had just surpassed. Brezhnev, who ruled the Soviet Union from 1964 to 1982, was the leader of Putin’s gritty youth, of the long stagnation that preceded the empire’s collapse. By the end, he was the butt of a million jokes, the doddering grandfather of a doddering state, the conductor of a Russian train to nowhere. “Stalin proved that just one person could manage the country,” went one of those many jokes. “Brezhnev proved that a country doesn’t need to be managed at all.”
Putin, a ruler at a time when management, or at least the appearance thereof, is required, prefers other models. The one he has liked the longest is, immodestly, Peter the Great. In the obscurity and criminality of post-Soviet St. Petersburg in the 1990s, when Putin was deputy mayor, he chose to hang on his office wall a portrait of the modernizing tsar who built that city on the bones of a thousand serfs to be his country’s “window to the West.” By that point in his career, Putin was no Romanov, only an unknown former lieutenant colonel in the KGB who had masqueraded as a translator, a diplomat, and a university administrator, before ending up as the unlikely right-hand man of St. Petersburg’s first-ever democratically elected mayor. Putin had grown up so poor in the city’s mean postwar courtyards that his autobiography speaks of fighting off “hordes of rats” in the hallway of the communal apartment where he and his parents lived in a single room with no hot water or stove.
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Peter the Great had no business being his model, but there he was, and there he has remained. Earlier this summer, in a long and boastful interview with the Financial Times in which he celebrated the decline of Western-style liberalism and the West’s “no longer tenable” embrace of multiculturalism, Putin answered unhesitatingly when asked which world leader he admired most. “Peter the Great,” he replied. “But he is dead,” the Financial Times’ editor, Lionel Barber, said. “He will live as long as his cause is alive,” Putin responded.
No matter how contrived his admiration for Peter the Great, Putin has in fact styled himself a tsar as much as a Soviet general secretary over the course of his two decades in public life. The religion he grew up worshiping was not the Marxist-Leninist ideology he was force-fed in school but the heroic displays of superpower might he saw on television and the imperial grandeur of his faded but still ambitious hometown, Peter’s town. Strength was and is his dogma, whether for countries or men, and the Russian emperors’ motto “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Nationality” is a closer philosophical fit with today’s Putinism than the Soviet paeans to international workers’ solidarity and the heroism of the laborer that Putin had to memorize as a child. Brezhnev was not the model for Putin but the cautionary tale, and if that was true when Putin was a young KGB operative in the days of détente and decline in the 1970s and early 1980s, it is even more the case now, when Putin faces the paradox of his own extended rule, defined by great length but also by perpetual insecurity.
Insecurity might seem the wrong word for it: Putin is well into his 20th year as Russia’s leader and in some ways appears to be at his most powerful, the global template for a new era of modern authoritarians. In the early years of this century, when the post-Soviet wave of democratization still seemed inexorable, Putin reversed Russia’s course, restoring centralized authority in the Kremlin and reviving the country’s standing in the world. Today, in Washington and certain capitals of Europe, he is an all-purpose villain, sanctioned and castigated for having invaded two neighbors—Georgia and Ukraine—and for having provoked Western countries, including by interfering in the 2016 U.S. presidential election in favor of Donald Trump and using deadly nerve agents to poison targets on British soil. His military intervention in Syria’s civil war helped save the regime of Bashar al-Assad, making Putin the most significant Russian player in the Middle East since Brezhnev. His increasingly close alliance with China has helped usher in a new era of great-power competition with the United States. Finally, it appears, Putin has brought about the multipolar world that he has dreamed of since he took office determined to revisit the Americans’ Cold War victory. All that, and he is only 66 years old, seemingly vigorous and healthy and capable of governing for many more years to come. His state is no Brezhnevian gerontocracy, at least not yet.
An enormous struggle for post-Putin Russia has already begun.
But if Putin has aspired to be a ruthless modern tsar, he is not the all-seeing, all-powerful one he is often portrayed to be. He is an elected leader, even if those elections are shams, and his latest term in office will run out in 2024, when he is constitutionally required to step aside, unless he has the constitution changed again to extend his tenure (a possibility the Kremlin has already raised). Putin has struggled at home far more than his swaggering on the world stage suggests. He controls the broadcast media, the parliament, the courts, and the security services, the last of which have seen their influence metastasize to practically Soviet-era levels under his rule. Yet since winning his latest fake election, in 2018, with 77 percent of the vote, his approval ratings have declined precipitously. In a poll this past spring, just 32 percent of Russians surveyed said they trusted him, according to the state pollster, the lowest level of his long tenure, until the Kremlin demanded a methodological change, and his approval rating now stands in the mid-60s, off from a high of close to 90 percent after his 2014 annexation of Crimea. The subsequent war he unleashed through proxies in eastern Ukraine has stalemated. Protests are a regular feature of Russian cities today—a decision to raise the retirement age last year was particularly unpopular—and a genuine opposition still exists, led by such figures as the anticorruption activist Alexei Navalny, despite years of state efforts to shut it down. Putin has no obvious successor, and today’s Kremlinologists report an increase in infighting among the security services and the business class, suggesting that an enormous struggle for post-Putin Russia has already begun.
At every stage of Putin’s long, eventful, and unlikely rule, there have been similar moments of uncertainty, and often there has been an enormous gap between the analysis of those in distant capitals, who tend to see Putin as a classic dictator, and those at home, who look at the president and his government as a far more slapdash affair, where incompetence as well as luck, inertia as well as tyranny, has played a role. “Stagnation,” in fact, is no longer an automatic reference to Brezhnev in Russia anymore; increasingly, it is an epithet used to attack Putin and the state of the nation, beset as it is by corruption, sanctions, economic backwardness, and an indeterminate program for doing anything about it all. At the end of 2018, Putin’s former finance minister, Alexei Kudrin, said that Russia’s economy was mired in a “serious stagnation pit.” As the economist Anders Aslund concludes in his new book, Russia’s Crony Capitalism, the country has devolved into “an extreme form of plutocracy that requires authoritarianism to persist,” with Putin joining in the looting to become a billionaire many times over himself, even as his country has grown more isolated because of his aggressive foreign policy.
Sheer survival—of his regime and of himself—is often the aim that best explains many of Putin’s political decisions, at home and abroad. In 2012, when Putin returned to the presidency after a hiatus as prime minister so as to observe constitutional niceties, he was greeted with massive demonstrations. These shook Putin to the core, and his belief that street protests can all too easily turn into regime-threatening revolutions is the key to understanding his present and future behavior. On the international stage, no cause has animated Putin more than the prospect of another country’s leader being forced from office, no matter how evil the leader or how deserved the toppling. Early on in his presidency, he opposed the “color revolutions” sweeping some post-Soviet states: the 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia, the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine, and the 2005 Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan. He condemned the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Muammar al-Qaddafi in Libya. He went to war after his ally Viktor Yanukovych, the president of Ukraine, fled the country amid a peaceful street uprising. He is an antirevolutionary through and through, which makes sense when you remember how it all began.
FROM DRESDEN TO THE KREMLIN
The first revolution Putin experienced was a trauma that he has never forgotten, the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall and the resulting collapse of the communist regime in East Germany. It happened when he was a 36-year-old undercover KGB operative stationed in Dresden, and Putin and his men were left on their own to figure out what to do as angry East Germans threatened to storm their offices, burning papers “night and day,” as he would later recall, while they waited for help. Putin had already become disillusioned by the huge disparity between the higher standard of living in East Germany and the poverty he was used to back home. Now, he saw his country’s leadership, weak and uncertain, abandon him, too. “We cannot do anything without orders from Moscow,” he was told. “And Moscow is silent.”
This is perhaps the most memorable passage from Putin’s 2000 as-told-to memoir, First Person, which remains both the key source for understanding the Russian president’s history and a prescient document in which he laid out much of the political program he would soon start implementing. The revolution in East Germany, as scarring as it was for Putin, turned out to be only the prelude to what he considered and still considers the greater catastrophe, the collapse and dissolution of the Soviet Union itself, in 1991. This was the signal moment of Putin’s adult life, the tragedy whose consequences he is determined to undo.
Putin was a KGB man in full, an authoritarian modernizer, a believer in order and stability.
Putin would go from his KGB posting in the backwater of Dresden to president of Russia in less than a decade, ascending to the Kremlin on New Year’s Eve in 1999 as Boris Yeltsin’s handpicked successor. Yeltsin, aging and alcoholic, had brought democracy to Russia after the Soviet collapse but had soured his country on the word itself, which had come to be associated with economic crisis, gangster rampages, and the crooked giveaway of state assets to communist insiders turned capitalists. By the end of his two terms in office, Yeltsin was barely able to speak in public and was surrounded by a corrupt “Family” of relatives and associates who feared they would face prosecution once they lost the protection of his high office.
Putin had arrived in Moscow at an opportune moment, rising in just a few years from an obscure job in Yeltsin’s presidential administration to head of the post-Soviet successor to the KGB, known as the Federal Security Service, or FSB. From there, he was appointed prime minister, one in a series of what had been up until then replaceable young Yeltsin acolytes. Putin, however, was different, launching a brutal war in the breakaway republic of Chechnya in response to a series of domestic terrorist attacks whose murky origins continue to inspire conspiracy theories about the FSB’s possible role. His displays of macho activism transformed Russian politics, and Yeltsin’s advisers decided that this KGB veteran—still only in his 40s—would be just the sort of loyalist who could protect them. In March 2000, Putin won the first of what would be four presidential elections. As in those that followed, there was no serious competition, and Putin never felt compelled to offer an electoral program or a policy platform.
But his agenda from the start was both clear and acted on with breathtaking speed. In just over a year, Putin not only continued to wage the war in Chechnya with unforgiving force but also reinstated the Soviet national anthem, ordered the government takeover of the only independent television network in Russia’s history, passed a new flat tax on income and required Russians to actually pay it, and exiled powerful oligarchs—including Boris Berezovsky, who had helped him come to power and would later suspiciously turn up dead in his British home. Over the next few years, Putin would further consolidate his authority, canceling elections for regional governors, eliminating political competition in the State Duma, and surrounding himself with loyal advisers from the security services and St. Petersburg. He also, in 2004, arrested Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russia’s richest man, and seized his oil company in a politically charged prosecution that had the intended effect of scaring Russia’s wealthy robber barons into subservience.
These actions, even at the time, were not difficult to read. Putin was a KGB man in full, an authoritarian modernizer, a believer in order and stability. And yet he was called a mystery, a cipher, an ideological blank slate—“Mr. Nobody,” the Kremlinologist Lilia Shevtsova dubbed him. Perhaps only U.S. President George W. Bush found Putin to be “very straightforward and trustworthy” after getting “a sense of his soul,” as he announced after their initial 2001 summit meeting in Slovenia, but Bush was not alone in considering Putin a Western-oriented reformer who, although certainly no democrat, might prove to be a reliable partner after Yeltsin’s embarrassing stumbles. At the World Economic Forum in Davos a year earlier, an American journalist had asked the new Russian president point-blank, “Who is Mr. Putin?” But of course, it was the wrong question. Everyone already knew, or should have.
Outsiders have always judged Russia on their own terms.
In many ways, Putin has been strikingly consistent. The president who made headlines in 2004 by calling the breakup of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century” is the same president of today, the one who told the Financial Times earlier this year that “as for the tragedy related to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, that is something obvious.” For Putin, the goal of the state remains what it was when he came to office two decades ago. It is not a policy program, not democracy or anything approaching it, but the absence of something—namely, the upheaval that preceded him. “Ultimately,” he said in the same interview, “the well-being of the people depends, possibly primarily, on stability.” It might as well have been his slogan for the last 20 years. Where once there was chaos and collapse, he claims to offer Russia confidence, self-sufficiency, and a “stable, normal, safe and predictable life.” Not a good life, or even a better one, not world domination or anything too grand, but a Russia that is reliable, stolid, intact. This may or may not continue to resonate with Russians as the collapse of the Soviet Union recedes further and further from living memory. It is the promise of a Brezhnev, or at least his modern heir.
Today, Putin is no more a man of mystery than he was when he took power two decades ago. What’s most remarkable, knowing what we know now, is that so many thought he was.
There are many reasons for the mistake. Outsiders have always judged Russia on their own terms, and Americans are particularly myopic when it comes to understanding other countries. Putin’s rise from nowhere received more attention than where he intended to take the country. Many failed to take Putin either seriously or literally until it was too late, or decided that what he was doing did not matter all that much in a country that U.S. President Barack Obama characterized as a “regional power.” Often, Western policymakers simply believed his lies. I will never forget one encounter with a senior Bush administration official in the months just before Putin decided to stay in power past his constitutionally limited two terms and engineered his temporary shift to the Russian premiership. That would not happen, I was told. Why? Because Putin had looked the official in the eye and said he wouldn’t do it.
In general, U.S. interpretations of Putin’s Russia have been determined far more by the politics of Washington than by what has actually been happening in Moscow. Cold Warriors have looked backward and seen the Soviet Union 2.0. Others, including Bush and Obama at the outset of their presidencies and now Trump, have dreamed of a Russia that could be a pragmatic partner for the West, persisting in this despite the rapidly accumulating evidence of Putin’s aggressively revisionist, inevitably zero-sum vision of a world in which Russia’s national revival will succeed only at the expense of other states.
There are many reasons why the West misunderestimated Putin, as Bush might have put it, but one stands out with the clarity of hindsight: Westerners simply had no framework for a world in which autocracy, not democracy, would be on the rise, for a post–Cold War geopolitics in which revisionist powers such as Russia and China would compete on more equal terms again with the United States. After the Soviet collapse, the United States had gotten used to the idea of itself as the world’s sole superpower, and a virtuous one at that. Understanding Putin and what he represents seems a lot easier today than it did then, now that the number of democracies in the world, by Freedom House’s count, has fallen each year for the past 13 years.
When Putin came to power, it seemed as though the world was going in the opposite direction. Putin had to be an outlier. Russia was a declining power, “Upper Volta with nukes,” as critics used to call the Soviet Union. Putin’s project of restoring order was necessary, and at least not a significant threat. How could it be otherwise? On September 9, 2001, I and a few dozen other Moscow-based correspondents traveled to neighboring Belarus to observe the rigged elections in which Alexander Lukashenko was ensuring his continuation as president. We treated the story as a Cold War relic; Lukashenko was “the last dictator in Europe,” as the headlines called him, a living Soviet anachronism. It was simply inconceivable to us that two decades later, both Lukashenko and Putin would still be ruling, and we would be wondering how many more dictators in Europe might join their club.
History has shown that just because something is inconceivable does not mean it won’t happen. But that is an important reason we got Putin wrong, and why, all too often, we still do. Putin is only nine years away from hitting Stalin’s modern record for Kremlin longevity, which appears to be more than achievable. But the West’s long history of misreading Russia suggests that this outcome is no more preordained than Putin’s improbable path to the Russian presidency was in the first place. We may have misunderestimated him before, but that doesn’t mean we might not misoverestimate him now. The warning signs are all there: the shrinking economy, the shrill nationalism as a distraction from internal decay, an inward-looking elite feuding over the division of spoils while taking its monopoly on power for granted. Will this be Putin’s undoing? Who knows? But the ghost of Brezhnev is alive and well in Putin’s Kremlin.