Vladimir Putin's Many Identities

Russia's president is too complicated to typecast as a Bond villain or rugged outdoorsman.

Fiona Hill and Clifford G. Gaddy, Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin. 390 pp., $29.95.

For many Americans, Vladimir Putin is a one-dimensional figure: cast in the role of a James Bond adversary, he is the leading villain in the morality play of international politics that pits a cold, calculating KGB veteran bent on restoring the old Soviet Union to challenge a United States seeking to promote peace and justice throughout the world. The conventional wisdom was summed up in the 2008 American presidential campaign when Republican contender John McCain said he had looked into Putin's eyes "and saw three letters, a K, a G and a B" while a Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, who later became Secretary of State, also defined him as a "KGB agent" who "by definition . . . doesn't have a soul." Biographies about Putin popular with the Washington foreign policy elite have stressed this aspect of his biography, often to the exclusion of other key factors.

If official Washington embraces the picture of Putin as the soulless adversary, the late-night comics have had a field day with the antics of Putin's public relations team. Putin's ability to embrace a series of challenges (hunter, fisherman, biker, deep sea diver, race car driver, even piloting a glider alongside cranes during their migrations) evokes the adventures described by the "Most Interesting Man in the World," a character created by Dos Equis beer—although there is sometimes an undercurrent of admiration in some circles for a politician who, unlike so many Western counterparts, often succeeds in pulling off the persona of an alpha male, a man of action.

With so many one-dimensional portraits of the Russian leader, the new offering by Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy is a refreshing change of pace. Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin seeks to move beyond the prevailing stereotypes to provide interested readers with "a portrait of Mr. Putin's mental outlook, his worldview, and the individual aspects or identities that comprise this worldview."

Acknowledging that Putin's background in the KGB was indeed a formative experience, they also highlight other "identities" that form part of the complete Putin. There is, of course, Putin as the "case officer”; but there is also Putin as the quintessential "outsider" (starting from his boyhood in St. Petersburg and continuing through his university days and his subsequent career, but also reflecting his absence from Russia during the days of perestroika as the Soviet system imploded); Putin the student of Russian history; Putin the "gosudarstvennik" (state servitor); Putin as the son of Leningrad blockade survivors; and Putin as the business manager and free marketeer. Their argument is that there is no one frame of reference for the Russian president, and that his policies and attitudes are often an amalgamation of these competing identities.

Hill and Gaddy argue that Putin draws upon each of these personas to help find solutions to the challenges he faces. The "case officer" draws upon the techniques embraced by Yuri Andropov's KGB to "work with people" through personal encounter and direct dialogue to achieve results. The "history man" mines the lessons of the late tsarist period and the insights of the philosophers of the White emigration to apply them to the problems of post-Soviet Russia. An American management textbook translated by the KGB's Red Banner Institute, Strategic Planning and Policy, which Putin borrowed from "liberally" (in their estimation) for his own doctoral dissertation, highlighted the importance of setting long-term priorities and planning for unexpected contingencies, and helped to provide a blueprint for reorganizing Russian political and economic life along corporate lines, while the "survivalist" in Putin led him to push for creation of strategic reserves (which saved Russia from going under during the Great Recession of 2008). Putin embraces both a strong state (and the emergence of a class of state servitors) and a strong business class (that is nonetheless politically loyal), an approach based on his own experiences in trying to navigate the post-Soviet collapse while serving as deputy to Petersburg's first democratically-elected mayor Anatolii Sobchak during the turbulent 1990s.

On paper, several of these political identities are contradictory, yet Putin seems to believe that he can push through the contradictions to find a workable synthesis, a conviction best demonstrated by his odd amalgamation of tsarist and Soviet symbols for 21st century Russia. Of course, this itself has roots in the thinking of some of the emigres of the 1930s, whose tagline "the Tsar and the Soviets" was their vision for the future of the country.