Vladimir Putin's Many Identities

March 5, 2013 Topic: Politics Region: Russia

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.

Putin the legalist wanted to honor the letter of the constitution preventing three consecutive presidential terms, but then engineered the tandem—with him returning to the prime ministership—as a way to retain power. He embraced libertarian prescriptions like instituting a flat tax yet presided over a partial re-nationalization of the Russian economy. Yet, when the opportunity arose in 2008 during the economic crisis for the state to completely reverse the privatization of the 1990s, Putin demurred and stressed the importance of a private business sector for Russia's future prosperity. These different identities also help to reconcile Putin's emphasis on effectiveness (and his desire to set up a system that can function like a Swiss watch) with his rewarding of loyalty and friendship, often manifested when members of his team who do not perform as expected in one function are transferred rather than fired (as well as apparent toleration for corruption even at the highest levels).

Putin is willing to fuse together contradictory political impulses. "Managed pluralism"—the desire to obtain some of the benefits of competition between political and economic groups with a degree of control and direction from the top—sums up the Putin synthesis. It reflects Putin's belief that Russia's future lies along a continental European path of political and economic development but mandates a strong guiding role for the state.

In theory, Russia's business elites and middle class should freely choose and ratify the Putin path for development, but the 2011 and 2012 protests showed the extent to which this theory is now diverging from reality. Neither Putin apologists nor Putin detractors will be happy with their narrative: the former because it does not uncritically accept the picture that Putin's "political technologists" have sketched for consumption, especially for the domestic Russian audience; while the latter will be unsatisfied because the authors deliberately chose not to pursue stories about "his reported accumulation of vast personal wealth and the scale of corruption within the inner circle of the Russian government" or to spend "time parsing the course" of Putin's rise to power and what steps he may have taken to achieve his position. In other words, this is not meant to be a piece of investigative journalism that purports to locate some hidden Putin vault where his secrets are stored.

But what it attempts to do is understand how and why Putin has taken the decisions that he has in his thirteen years as Russian president and prime minister. By suggesting that Putin is comfortable with multiple political identities, Hill and Gaddy take what might appear to be a series of disconnected and even contradictory approaches and find a unifying synthesis.

Yet this synthesis largely occurs within the person of Putin himself. And thus the supreme vulnerability of the system which he has created: it requires Putin to personally be involved to ensure its proper function. "Dostoika"—the "completion" of the project he started in 1999 of restoring Russia as a great power—can only occur under Putin's watch. The various Kremlin factions (security service veterans, liberal economists, and so on) in many ways represent competing Putin identities, with each group able to pit one version of Putin against another. But like "Chavisma" in Venezuela (Hugo Chavez, who also took office in 1999, is Putin's contemporary in power), Putinism—especially the reconciliation of the opposing tendencies within Putin's political identities and among the Kremlin clans—requires Putin himself to act as the balancer and decider. Remove him from the picture, and there is no guarantee that a new arbiter emerges who can synthesize the contradictory strains.

A related problem is the so-called "revolt of the stakeholders": whether or not the key groups in Russia who accepted Putin's "bargain" in 2000 (a free hand to chart the general course of the country in return for providing stability and prosperity) are still convinced that Putin and his system are even necessary for Russia's future. In 2008, Putin handed over the presidency to Dmitry Medvedev on such a high note of public acclamation for having resurrected Russia from the collapsed basket-case of the 1990s to one of the twenty-first century’s reemerging powers. Like Charles de Gaulle, however, his second act in the presidency has been less successful. There is no longer the same confidence among the business and middle class voters that previously were stalwart supporters that Putin is charting a path to a successful future. And while Putin's multiple identities, in his first run as president, provided him with creative and unexpected solutions, they may be a liability in 2013 when the question is no longer saving Russia from chaos but constructing durable institutions for the future.