Putin and the Uses of History

Putin and the Uses of History

Mini Teaser: “I do not need to prove anything to anyone,” declared Vladimir Putin. Convinced he is the steward of his country’s future, Putin masters Russia’s history—and seeks to manipulate it.

by Author(s): Fiona HillClifford G. Gaddy

STATIST:ON December 29, 1999, the official website of the Russian government posted a document under the signature of then prime minister Vladimir Putin: “Russia at the Turn of the Millennium.” Two days later, Russian president Boris Yeltsin appeared on national television and declared his resignation. He said he would hand over power to Putin, whose treatise quickly became known as the Millennium Manifesto. This was Putin’s mission statement, suffused with lessons of history.

A central point of the manifesto was that Russia, throughout its history, had lost its status when its people were divided, when they lost sight of the common values that united them and distinguished them from other nations. Since the fall of communism, Putin asserted, Russians had embraced personal rights and freedoms, including freedom of personal expression and freedom to travel abroad. These universal values were fine, but they were not Russian. Nor would they be enough to ensure the survival of the nation. There were other, distinctly Russian values that were at the core of what Putin called the “Russian idea.” Those values were patriotism, collectivism and solidarity, derzhavnost’ (the belief that Russia is always destined to be a strong state and great power), and the untranslatable gosudarstvennichestvo, which essentially puts the state at the heart of everything.

Russia is not America or Britain, with their historically liberal traditions. Putin said:

For us, the state and its institutions and structures have always played an exceptionally important role in the life of the country and the people. For Russians, a strong state is not an anomaly to fight against. Quite the contrary, it is the source and guarantor of order, the initiator and the main driving force of any change. . . . Society desires the restoration of the guiding and regulating role of the state.

Putin promised to restore that role. He declared himself to be a gosudarstvennik—a man of the state, a servant of the state, a builder of the state.

The state, or gosudarstvo, has a very specific meaning for Russians. In Russia, as in France, Germany and other great European powers, the state is personified—Mother Russia, the motherland, Mat’ Rossiya or Rodina. The twist in Russia is that while Mother Russia must be protected, she does not necessarily protect you. In the United States, the state exists to protect the rights of the individual. In Russia, the state is primary. The state stands above the individual, who is subordinate to the state and its interests. The fact that Putin is a gosudarstvennik, a person who believes that Russia must be and must have a strong state—and thus a strong state apparatus—seems to be the most obvious thing to say about a former KGB operative. He is hardly unique among other leading Russian figures in being committed to statist goals, and Putin’s statist traits have been explored in other biographical analyses. More interesting is the way in which Putin’s thinking about the state seems to be influenced by his reading and his interpretation of Russian history.

For Putin, history reinforces the importance of serving the state and of the eternal nature of the state versus the ephemeral nature of the individual. At the same time, none of Putin’s ideas of history are particularly new. He has appropriated and synthesized—with the help of Kremlin ideologue Vladislav Surkov and others—ideas with long historical roots that were revisited in Russia in the 1980s and particularly in the 1990s. In 1996, Boris Yeltsin set up an official group, headed by prominent political thinker Georgy Satarov, to figure out how to create a “new Russian idea” as the ideological touchstone for a renewed “Great Russia” after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The group faded into oblivion after a brief period of half-hearted debate, but a slew of important books and articles, spanning a century of Russian political thought, was republished, along with some paler reflections and reformulations by contemporary writers. As Vladimir Lukin, former Russian ambassador to the United States, remarked in 1998, “We’re now all reading from the same reading list.”

Putin’s novel contribution was to synthesize that reading list into a creative contemporary fusion of czarist and Soviet ideas. While Putin’s interpretations of the history and idea of the state are difficult for non-Russians to grasp, they have broad resonance in Russia. They include Eurasianism (an old effort dating back to the czars to justify Russia’s rule over the vast multiethnic space of its empire); a fervent reembrace of the Russian Orthodox Church and its theology; “sovereign democracy” (Putin’s strained reformulation of the czarist-era concept of autocracy with a democratic twist); and narodnost, the celebration of the spirit and essence of being Russian—which refers to the narod or the collective Russian people.

Putin has drawn one very important conclusion from his reading of Russia’s long history: the danger of repeated “times of troubles” that have risked the collapse or disintegration (raspad or razval) of the Russian state. Putin is obsessed with unity and avoiding the dangers of splintering and fracturing in politics. Those sentiments appear repeatedly in his pronouncements. The ruling party is Edinnaya Rossiya, United Russia (really “single” Russia or “the one Russia”). Putin wants Russians and Russia to be the same as he is, one strong personality with multiple facets, not multiple personalities. In his mind, there are no more famous historical Russian conflicts between Slavophiles and Westernizers, Whites and Reds, Left and Right, liberals and fascists; no KGB pitted against ordinary Russians, the perpetrators against the victims of the purges and the Gulag; no ethnic Russians clashing with minorities. Everyone is in this together, and everyone together must support the state, Mother Russia.

SURVIVALIST: FOR Putin, history is very personal. He comes from a family of survivors of one of the blackest periods in Russian and Soviet history. In World War II, his father, serving in a special-forces unit that operated behind enemy lines, was one of only four Soviet commandos who returned alive from one of his first battles outside Leningrad. Severe wounds suffered early in 1942 disqualified him from further active duty. Out of the hospital, he remained in Leningrad with his wife and son. More than a million of the Putins’ fellow Leningraders died during the Nazi siege from September 1941 to January 1944 from artillery barrages, bombings, starvation and disease. The Putin family’s five-year-old son, Vladimir’s older brother, was one of those who perished.

This event fits neatly into the general context of a historical narrative in which Russia constantly battles for survival against a hostile outside world. Some individuals and families perish; others survive against the odds—without protection from the state but for the sake of the state. The “survivalist” may be the mentality that is the most widespread among Russians of nearly all backgrounds and ages, given the shared experiences of war and privation. It is reflected even today in what is possibly the most prosperous period in Russian history, in the prevalence of potatoes and other staple crops grown on private dacha plots. Leningraders, or St. Petersburgers, like Putin particularly demonstrate this trait.

Putin’s lessons from the history of the Leningrad siege were compounded by his own experience of being the city official responsible for bringing post-Soviet St. Petersburg through the food crisis in the winter of 1991–92. Planning for contingencies and being prepared for the worst-case scenario have governed his policies as national leader since 2000. Putin applies his worst-case-scenario thinking to the state level: Always have a Plan B. Don’t make irreversible commitments. The key is to maintain adequate reserves, like the private dacha food stores but on a massive scale. As president and prime minister, Putin has engaged in a concerted policy to create (and protect) Russia’s budget-stabilization fund and build up foreign-exchange reserves.

OUTSIDER: IN 1996, a group of Putin’s friends and colleagues in St. Petersburg, all living in the same lakeside vicinity and all situated on the outside of Russian power, would get together informally to discuss the mismanagement in Moscow. The stories about this so-called “Ozero” fraternity (from the Russian word for “lake”) suggest these outsiders formulated a plan to intervene and send their own candidate or candidates to Moscow to “sort things out.” All St. Petersburgers are, by definition, outsiders to the Moscow power center, and many in this particular group had, like Putin, spent periods of time outside Russia or the USSR, where they were able to detach themselves from the ongoing events and form a more dispassionate analysis of the state of affairs.

Putin, in his humble family origins, was a double or even triple outsider—outside the St. Petersburg elite; outside the Soviet nomenclature; even, in many respects, an outsider to the KGB establishment. Unlike Defense Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov, Putin was not a KGB “golden boy” who always seemed on a fast track to somewhere. Putin was even an outsider to one of the biggest dramas of Russia’s recent history, Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika. While the rest of his countrymen were engaged daily in those tumultuous events of the late 1980s, Putin was stationed abroad, in Dresden. He did not return to the Soviet Union until after the fall of the Berlin Wall. And when he came to Moscow in 1996, it was explicitly as an outsider: his fellow St. Petersburgers Anatoly Chubais and Alexei Kudrin brought him to the capital to help in their campaign to reestablish order and rein in the oligarchs who had essentially privatized Moscow and the state.

Image: Pullquote: Putin wants Russians and Russia to be the same as he is, one strong personality with multiple facets, not multiple personalities.Essay Types: Essay