Vladimir Putin has been at the helm of Russian government for well over a decade now and while we often don’t think of living leaders as “great” or even worthy of the sort of lofty consideration we offer to historical leaders, there’s no doubt that Mr. Putin has become one of the most pivotal figures in Russian leadership—including those of the Soviet leadership and those who came before the revolution, even.
When we examine real fulcrums—actual true turning points—in Russia’s lengthy socio-political history, the ascent of Putin to power will have to be viewed as one of those points. He took a society on the mend from communism and in deep transition and, whether we believe it was for better or worse, provided at least a firm new direction for his nation. Love him or hate him, he did what we expect foremost of any governmental leader, which is to lead.
Instead of the unsure footing of Boris Yeltsin in the new world of a post-Soviet Russia, Putin charted a clear, determined, and certain path. One of the greatest fears as Yeltsin’s health became worse was that whomever stepped in for Yeltsin would offer more or less only a curatorship of the vague direction Yeltsin had over time sketched out but no real, concrete, plan or direction for what was at once a brand new nation but one still guided by the same institutions, and indeed same people, as it had been the later Soviet Union.
Putin, to the surprise of many, was not that meek steward or expected old hand like Viktor Chernomyrdin but a robust man of his own convictions and every intention of making the young government of Russia a model of those views.
This article is not intended as either hagiography nor a political attack on President Putin. There are many views that could be taken on the man and his role in Russian politics, and I do have my own opinions, but the purpose at hand is to examine how Putin formed his ideas about Russia, its future, and his approach to crafting a government able to realize his goals. For Serbia and most of Eastern Europe, President Putin is one of the most important of foreign leaders not only due to the historical legacy of relations between Russia and Eastern Europe, but because of current goals in economics and polity shared between these nations and Russia.
Also, for many even outside Russia, Putin represents either the future of conservative nationalism they admire and would like to see in their own country or else the perfect example of a near-dictator who never will allow full freedoms for all peoples of his nation, no matter what lip-service he gives to these ideals. In much of the Western media, Putin is offered in a shorthand manner, with only his athletic stunts and general role as Russia’s president even addressed and little nuanced exploration provided of his background beyond his KGB service. Such is a great mistake, for again, no matter our personal views on his politics, he has become one of the most enduring of European leaders of our own time—indeed only Germany’s Angela Merkel has had the longevity of years in office to rival Putin’s own.
The early years of the new Russian Federation were, in the wake of the USSR’s decline, a time of vast experimentation and one that the Russian leadership was even less prepared for than they imagined—all the way from Yeltsin on down. In a decade’s short span, a transition toward a free market economy was undertaken, but within the scope of an economic climate where even academic economists lacked much expertise on Western markets.
Access to academic journals published outside the Soviet Union were greatly restricted and censored, especially those that professed any manner of pro-democracy views. So, how could the people who were supposed to advise the leadership on this economic transition even have known how to best proceed? Most of these economists and other experts were either at leading Russian universities or had been part of Gosplan, the massive, central, planning agency that oversaw all aspects of Soviet logistics and retail.
It was expected, to put things into an overly simple yet accurate context, that when a state-owned auto repair shop was sold in example, the mechanic who worked there would be the person to purchase it. He would, the train of thought went, continue to work at the shop but at his own direct profit from his “new” business. However, such was not how things actually happened once state-owned businesses headed to auction. Instead, a situation any Western businessman would have seen coming is what actually played out, where people able to secure enough money to buy up various businesses did so regardless of any specific expertise or previous association with those businesses.
These were people who saw a chance to turn a profit either by buying and selling the businesses outright or else by establishing them as businesses they could run themselves or contract others to manage. In essence, they were the first independent investors of the post-Soviet world. In staggering short time, some of these investors and young businessmen had amassed large portfolios of diverse—and very valuable—businesses. These men would come to be known as the oligarchs and would play a key role—perhaps we can say the key role—in the Yeltsin years.
None of this was expected per the logic of the elite Soviet economists who had learned their craft at Gosplan and some of the men who would become leading oligarchs had made their first purchases of businesses with only humble loans cobbled together from friends or family members. Some would go on to become not only of the richest men in Russia but indeed, in the entire world and to do so in less than a decade. In a nation that had for their entire lives seen its leadership come up via party mechanisms through governmental and military service, these young men realized there were new rules and men such as themselves—self-made, wealthy, and interested in not only business but politics—could perhaps form much of the future ruling class.
And a “class” it certainly was: the oligarchy came into being so rapidly that it was composed of like-minded men who despite coming from various walks of life had the same background with the Soviet system and the same goals of obtaining greater and greater wealth while watching their business empires grow. To their credit, many were also keen to help Russia and saw themselves as exactly the type of new businessmen of the Western model which would be required to bring Russia away from its Soviet past and towards a free-market future.
For the old guard of Soviet officials, they were however a nightmare. Not only were the oligarchs an unexpected political threat, they were gaining control over diverse areas of business and industry in a manner that few in the post-Soviet leadership had projected as even possible. In turn, the dynamic new exploration of free-market enterprise set Russia on unsteady economic ground as the macro-economic reality of the nation became a fast-moving and uncharted trajectory. Since the government had little understanding of how free-markets functioned much less the unstable nature of very young free-market economies, the state of flux in the Yeltsin years was something that lead to emerging inequalities in income and quality of life for many Russians, a lack of viable governmental support for key infrastructure as much of that infrastructure—media, industry, banking—was in a status of transition into private hands, and growing corruption as those who had financial or legal power abused that power in service of their own profits.
Boris Yeltsin’s own health was not its best and the oligarchy can be forgiven for thinking that the old man would sooner or later retire and a new democratic reality of change would take place with the men who already were leaders of business becoming a new wave of leaders of government, too.
Meanwhile, the continued state of war in Chechnya entranced Russian society and also demanded the lion’s share of the attention of the Russian political and military leadership. Much of Russia’s immense wealth in natural gas, oil, raw minerals and other industrial reserves as well as its banks and commercial aspects now had wound up in private hands and out of direct governmental control. With a leader (Yeltsin) who was seen at best by many as infirm and at worst, simply drunk as well as ill, and the government unable to fully contend with the Chechen problem, there was a growing loss of trust and faith in the government.
A nation where the government had in the living memory of most of its citizens once proclaimed to do everything now appeared less than able to do hardly anything at all. Vladimir Putin was Yeltsin’s head of the Federal Security Service—the agency that had taken up most of the KGB’s duties—and thus a key advisor to Yeltsin. Putin had made his career in the KGB prior to holding a variety of crucial administrative positions in Saint Petersburg after the fall of the USSR. Putin thus came from the type of background in the military or security services that was typical to his generation of Russian leaders, but he also had an eye for innovation and his experience in Saint Petersburg during the rough years following the end of the USSR had prepared him better than most of his peers to understand how the oligarchy was evolving and how Russia’s future had become one of private ownership, free-market economies, and global instead of national trade.
The problem was, Russia was not ready for as dramatic a change in socioeconomic outlook as it was experiencing, and Putin was one of few who both realized this and was willing to admit it openly. On this point is where many in the Western press misread Putin: while much can be said of him and nationalism, Putin’s early misgivings over the oligarchy were not without merit as he feared that a cadre of powerful private holders of key industries could well sell off these industries to external interests. If the main motivation of the oligarchy was expanding their wealth, he reasoned, how many would sell their holdings to the highest bidder and could that leave Russia watching helplessly as foreign nations or private sector investors gained control of assets that previously were state holdings? This was in some areas already happening and Putin’s concern was far from unwarranted.
When Yeltsin tapped Putin as his favored successor, some observers were surprised but Putin in many ways was the most-logical choice: he brought comparative youth and vitality to the mantle of leadership that were lacking in Yeltsin and he was someone who was known for being a man of action over one of just words. The Russian federal government was adrift at sea with various problems from the disjunctive economy to the situation of Chechnya and strong leadership would be essential for resolving any of these issues. When Yeltsin appointed Putin to power, Putin almost at once set about limiting the depth and scope of the influence of the oligarchy—much to the alarm of many including the oligarchs themselves.
No one should have been so surprised, though: unlike the career politicians and generals who made up the post-Soviet elite—and unlike the newly-powerful oligarchs—Mr. Putin had made his career in the intelligence services and had a very Soviet-like understanding of the control of media and opposition voices which he had gained during his years in East Germany. Putin realized that the oligarchs now had control of much of Russian industry and he was willing to offer them a tacit deal: make your money, fine, but stay out of politics, including refraining from the use of the new private media outlets (owned by several leading oligarchs) to criticize the government.
Putin’s logic was that these men who wished to increase their wealth would be content doing so and would welcome the understanding, knowing that the government would in return leave them alone if they left it alone. However, the oligarchs did not see things that way and believed that they had ample freedom to be critical of the government. Moreover, many did in fact have their own political ambitions.
Putin’s response to the threat he believed these businessmen to hold—in his view, not only to his own leadership but to the very fabric of the Russian political system—was the first of many measures his critics would cite as an example of abuse of presidential powers if not outright corruption. To the oligarchs who owned independent media outlets, Putin made clear that use of these outlets to broadcast or publish information critical of Putin’s government would be a very bad idea and in the cases of Boris Berezovsky, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and others, Putin prosecuted these businessmen for economic crimes germane to their business interests; whether there were valid complaints insofar as corrupt business practices is up for some debate but it seems the prosecution would not have been nearly as serious had it not been for the political activities of these oligarchs.
As was often said during the Stalinist years of the USSR, “if there is a grudge, a crime can be found in the books”. The West was surprised and disturbed that a supposedly democratic president of the new Russian Federation would undertake such old-fashioned, Soviet-inspired tactics to keep his enemies at bay, but whether right or wrong, there was logic to Putin’s approach. Putin saw the oligarchs as out of control and exercising too much influence on Russian politics and given his KGB background, the immediate defense that seemed reasonable to Putin was to discredit and silence this opposition.
This was the onset of what appears to be Putin’s political philosophy of a right to use unmitigated powers of the state to withhold or repress when doing so seems to be required to maintain the greater integrity of the nation. That philosophy has become the core of many of the complaints others in the international arena have made of Putin over the years, from his treatment of his political opposition to his endorsement of the anti-gay propaganda laws recently. The issue at hand has always been one of Putin seeing a person, group, or movement as running contra to what he believes to be the greater general interests of Russia and his resulting actions to curtail the power of that entity he views as a threat. Putin’s treatment of the oligarchs however was the first tangible manifestation of this approach.
While the complaints regarding Putin’s often heavy-handed approach have a great deal of merit, it’s important to discern between Putin’s use of official power in a manner that is within the rule of the law under the Russian federal constitution versus instances where it is possible that he or his staff are going around the law and actually engaging in corrupt practices, as has been accused in recent elections where the opposition claims that Putin’s United Russia party has not obtained nearly as many legitimate votes as it has claimed.
In the latter case, if true, there is an unquestionably valid case for complaint—legal and otherwise—whereas in the former, the issue is far less certain as Russian law, while allowing rights of freedom of speech, provides generous protections to elected officials from slander and other attacks, plus ample protections for vital government-owned businesses from outside investment or interference. Given Putin’s background in the intelligence community, it is little wonder that his approach would be one of a strong defense and at times, indeed an offense against those he views as threats.
How Putin or any major world leader could see the punk rock band Pussy Riot or gay rights advocates as a “threat” to the integrity of his nation may astound many in the West, but it’s crucial to understand the manner in which Russian conservatism works: Putin and like-minded Russian politicians remember the Yeltsin era with no small degree of fear and regret not because of the lack of economic or other progress so much as the general uncertainty of the era. The first war in Chechnya should not have begat a second war there, the oligarchs’ rise was totally unexpected by many, and economic progress was a matter of starts and stops with no clear indication from one day to the next of whether it would be boom or bust. That uncertainty and the influence of Western interests are two things that seem to haunt Putin more than all else and two spectres he desires to keep at bay as much as possible.
It must also be realized that Putin served most of his career under the Soviet administration and probably believes that even in Soviet times “freedom of speech” was a given right, but affronts to state power were not protected by such freedoms. This of course is a very different outlook than is found in the United States and Western Europe, but the background of Putin is essential in understanding his approach; moreover, the view often taken by the Western media and politicians—that Putin and Russia ought to become more Western and embrace contemporary Western values—runs directly contra to Putin’s own views and even feeds into the aforementioned fear of foreign powers trying to mold Russia into their own image.
Putin desires a “Russian Russia” and some could even argue a neo-Soviet Russia regardless of the specifics of polity involved. Many Russians of Putin’s own generation hold on to nostalgia for the Soviet years, no matter if they are in fact better-off now. In part, this may be due to, again, the spectre of a lack of certainty whereas they had more surety during the Soviet era. The same general bias against change may also help explain why Putin keeps getting re-elected and why many Russians harbor xenophobia towards Chechens and other ethnic peoples of the Russian Federation including those such as the Evenki who have not been involved in armed conflict with Russian authorities as have the Chechens.
Putin has long expressed his admiration for Yuri Andropov—a man who like himself became the most-powerful politician in Russia of his own time and who also like Putin came up through the ranks of the KGB. Andropov’s tenure at the top was short due to his ill health and unexpected death, but he was known for similar attacks on those who spoke out against him or against the Soviet system. When it is considered that even some of the highest-ranking of Soviet officials tumbled from their lofty offices quickly—and some even were executed, such as Lavrentiy Beria—during the Stalinst era, it is easy to see how people who came of age a few decades following this period still carry with them a deep fear and skepticism of anyone who could be termed “the opposition”. The concept of favor could change like the winds and those in power could fall swiftly and with little recourse.
Andropov was known to the West for his love of literature and Scotch, his seemingly adroit cultural interest in the West in a manner absent from—scorned by, even—other Soviet leaders. However, his foremost concern was the ability to reserve the lion’s share of power in the Soviet state for those he trusted and to ensure that the USSR did not drift from its stated objectives and direction. To a great extent, that is probably the Andropov that Putin admires: the one who in a tough time was able to keep the Soviet machine running and to cloister away those doubters who could spell for it trouble.
Knowing what we know of Putin—that whether we share his view of Russia and admire him for it, or in contrast despise that view as insular, xenophobic, and even self-defeating—we can, armed with this knowledge, better shape our own understanding of current Russian polity. The later years of Yeltsin’s era of post-Soviet Russia were years of an entire nation adrift as many aspects of life were explored that had been off-limits or tendered in a very different manner under the communism of the USSR. Putin was not content with seeing unknown and vague forces continue to steer Russia in a wanton manner under his own watch: he was to be the leader Yeltsin was not—strong, vital, and direct.
With that self-assurance comes the faults of a stubborn, certain, direction, to be sure, and those faults are evident in Putin’s government, but what would a Russia under the other contenders for president in Yeltsin’s cabinet have been like instead? To deal with Putin in a manner productive for all parties involved, the West has to realize that Russia—at least United Russia, Putin’s Russia, and indeed much of the Russian people—does not want to be “like the West” exactly.
It must be realized, too, that change in the type of outlook—an insular, some may say old-fashioned, vantage—that Putin espouses will come only from within: no one will change Russia except for Russians who wish to change it for themselves.