Assessing Putin

What drives Vladimir Putin, what dogs him — and what role will he play in the Russian state of the future?

December 4, 2007

Return to part I.

What will Putin’s legacy amount to? For starters, let us dispense with a giant “red herring” that too many Western commentators have pursued for far too long.

What I am referring to is the question of whether Putin is a “democratic reformer” — or a “Soviet authoritarian.”

The answer, of course, is that Putin is an authoritarian reformer. He is profoundly committed to reforms intended to make Russia into a successful modern state. But at the same time, he is profoundly skeptical of his society’s capacity to undertake such reforms without strong control from above — at least without running a grave risk of flying to pieces in the process.

Whether he is right or wrong on this is open to question. But it is an old Russian position dating back to Peter the Great and even beyond. And it is a stance that was confirmed in Putin’s mind and in the minds of a large majority of ordinary Russians by the dreadful experiences of the 1990s.

Putin is also not a personal dictator, but a member of an authoritarian ruling collective of former and serving security officers. As he prepares to step down from his present role in 2008 (while retaining dominant influence), one key question relating to this group is not whether they have become democrats — but to what extent they remain officers.

In other words, are they capable of restraining their personal greed and ambition — and rallying as a collective behind Putin in his new role, and behind Putin’s chosen successor? Or will they have become like the magnates whom they have succeeded, and allow their immoderate desires to tear the state apart?

A second question, of course, is whether they themselves are intelligent, dynamic and honest enough to build a great modern economy.

There is nothing at all foolish or irrational in Putin’s attempts to promote a version of South Korea’s past economic program in Russia — except that it may turn out that such a system needs Koreans to run it.

What role Putin himself will play after 2008 is the subject of fevered and fruitless debate. Fearing just such anarchical competition among a predatory ruling elite, most Russians — and most foreign investors — devoutly hope that it is an influential one.

Noting his intensely controlled nature, Russians sometimes remark that Putin has a somewhat “Germanic” character, uncharacteristic of Russians in general. In a historical sense, there may be something to this.

The rational, organized, hard-working, but somewhat cold-blooded and inhuman Russian-German is a familiar figure in Russian 19th century literature. But he is also a personification and externalization of something which over many hundreds of years had become intrinsic to Russia’s own society and culture: the constant attempts of the state and state elites to impose order and development on an intrinsically anarchic country.

A combination of this anarchy — and of desperate attempts to overcome it in order to catch up with the West — repeatedly led the Russian state towards not just authoritarianism. It also triggered absurd and often very savage attempts at controlling every aspect of behavior. That is true from the Tsarist bureaucratic code to Gosplan.

There are certain milder elements of this in Putin’s own attitudes. In addition to limiting even the long-term growth of real democracy, they may also yet help stifle just the economic dynamism that he genuinely wants to promote — above all through state-directed, partially state-controlled monopolization.

For all the strengthening of the state under Putin, Russia has not wholly shed either the anarchy of the 1990s, or the tradition of “Russian revolts — senseless and merciless,” as Pushkin described them. And they are a reminder of the fact that ruling Russia does require a certain toughness.

During my stay in Russia, bloody anti-Caucasian rioting broke out in the depressed northern town of Kondopoga, a place that epitomizes all the dreary, desperate areas left behind by Russia’s contemporary march to prosperity. If that march falters, it is easy to see how such places could be breeding grounds for a far more savage version of Russian chauvinism than anything we have seen under Putin.

But toughness aside, there is also another side to it all. Walking in central Moscow under a sunny sky, I saw streets lined with handsomely restored 19th century mansions and churches. And I saw luxuriously appointed shops selling every item one could buy in London or New York.

These streets are filled with well-dressed, well-off people — and even, mirabile dictu for anyone who lived in the former Soviet Union, with smiling, helpful shop assistants.

What encouraged me the most was a sign of the continued strength of the Russian intellect. I was able to ruminate from one well-stocked bookshop to another.

These included a specialist architecture bookshop featuring among other things a journal devoted to architecture and interior design in the Urals — clearly something which 15 years ago one would have said was a virtual oxymoron.

But soon enough, nagging doubts came back. How much of all this depends on the price of oil — and what happens if that price falls?

And just as in the 1990s, I looked back with bitter sadness and irony to the hopes of the Gorbachev era. And I wondered: Will I one day remember this bright day in Moscow in the same profoundly disappointed manner?

Amidst the chaos and the misery of the 1990s, I and many Russians looked back with bitter sadness and irony to the hopes of the Gorbachev era. And I wondered: Will I one day remember this bright day in Putin’s Moscow with the same feelings of bitter irony and disappointed hope?