By Fiona Hill & Clifford G. Gaddy
WHO IS MR. PUTIN? This question has never been fully answered. Vladimir Putin has been Russia’s dominant political figure for more than a dozen years since he first became prime minister and then president in 1999–2000. But in the years Putin has been in power we have seen almost no additional information provided about his background beyond what is available in early biographies. These relate that Vladimir Putin was born in the Soviet city of Leningrad in October 1952 and was his parents’ only surviving child. Putin’s childhood was spent in Leningrad, where his youthful pursuits included training first in sambo (a martial art combining judo and wrestling that was first developed by the Soviet Red Army) and then in judo. After school, Putin studied law at Leningrad State University, graduated in 1975, and immediately joined the Soviet intelligence service, the KGB. He was posted to Dresden in East Germany in 1985, after completing a year of study at the KGB’s academy in Moscow. He was recalled from Dresden to Leningrad in 1990, just as the USSR was on the verge of collapse.
During his time in the KGB, Putin worked as a case officer and attained the rank of lieutenant colonel. In 1990–91, he moved into the intelligence service’s “active reserve” and returned to Leningrad University as a deputy to the vice rector. He became an adviser to one of his former law professors, Anatoly Sobchak, who left the university to become chairman of Leningrad’s city soviet, or council. Putin worked with Sobchak during Sobchak’s successful electoral campaign to become the first democratically elected mayor of what was now St. Petersburg. In June 1991, Putin became a deputy mayor of St. Petersburg and was put in charge of the city’s Committee for External Relations. He officially resigned from the KGB in August 1991.
In 1996, after Mayor Sobchak lost his bid for reelection, Vladimir Putin moved to Moscow to work in the Kremlin, in the department that managed presidential property. In March 1997, Putin was elevated to deputy chief of the presidential staff. He assumed a number of other responsibilities within the Kremlin before being appointed head of the Russian Federal Security Service (the FSB, the successor to the KGB) in July 1998. A year later, in August 1999, Vladimir Putin was named, in rapid succession, one of Russia’s first deputy prime ministers and then acting prime minister by Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who also indicated that Putin was his preferred successor as president. Finally, on December 31, 1999, Putin became acting president of Russia after Yeltsin resigned. He was officially elected to the position of president in March 2000. Putin served two terms as Russia’s president from 2000 to 2004 and from 2004 to 2008, before stepping aside—in line with Russia’s constitutional prohibition against three consecutive presidential terms—to assume the position of prime minister. In March 2012, Putin was reelected as Russian president until 2018, thanks to a law pushed through by then President Dmitry Medvedev in December 2008 extending the presidential term from four to six years.
These basic facts have been covered in books and newspaper articles. There is some uncertainty in the sources about specific dates and the sequencing of Vladimir Putin’s professional trajectory. This is especially the case for his KGB service, but also for some of the period he was in the St. Petersburg mayor’s office, including how long he was technically part of the KGB’s “active reserve.” Personal information, including on key childhood events, his 1983 marriage to his wife Lyudmila, the birth of two daughters in 1985 and 1986 (Maria and Yekaterina), and his friendships with politicians and businessmen from Leningrad/St. Petersburg, is remarkably scant for such a prominent public figure. His wife, daughters, and other family members, for example, are conspicuously absent from the public domain. Information about him that was available at the beginning of his presidency has also been suppressed, distorted, or lost in a morass of competing and often contradictory versions swirling with rumor and innuendo. Some materials, related to a notorious 1990s food scandal in St. Petersburg, which almost upended Putin’s early political career, have been expunged, along with those with access to them. When it comes to Mr. Putin, very little information is definitive, confirmable, or reliable.
As a result, some observers say that Vladimir Putin has no face, no substance, no soul. He is a “man from nowhere,” who can appear to be anybody to anyone. Indeed, as president and prime minister, Mr. Putin has turned himself into the ultimate political performance artist. Over the last several years, his public relations team has pushed his image in multiple directions, pitching him as everything from big game hunter and conservationist to scuba diver to biker—even nightclub crooner. Leaders of other countries have gained notoriety for their flamboyant or patriotic style of dressing to appeal to and rally the masses—like Fidel Castro’s and Hugo Chavez’s military fatigues, Yasser Arafat’s ubiquitous keffiyeh scarf, Muammar Qaddafi’s robes (and tent), Hamid Karzai’s carefully calculated blend of traditional Afghan tribal dress, and Yulia Tymoshenko’s ultrachic Ukrainian-peasant blonde braids—but Vladimir Putin has outdressed them all. He has appeared in an endless number of guises for encounters with the press or Russian special interest groups, or at times of crisis, as during raging peat bog fires around Moscow in 2010, when he was transformed into a fire-fighting airplane pilot.
All this with the assistance, it would seem, of the Kremlin’s inexhaustible wardrobe and special props department.
THE KREMLIN SPECIAL PROPS DEPARTMENT
Mr. Putin’s antics are reminiscent of a much-beloved children’s book and animated cartoon series in the United Kingdom, Mr. Benn. Each morning, Mr. Benn, a non-descript British man in a standard issue bowler hat and business suit, strolls down his street and is beckoned into a mysterious costume shop by a mustachioed, fez-wearing shopkeeper. The shopkeeper whisks Mr. Benn into a changing room. Mr. Benn puts on a costume that has already been laid out by the shopkeeper, walks out a secret door, and assumes a new costume-appropriate identity, as if by magic. In every episode, Mr. Benn solves a problem for the people he encounters during his adventure, until summoned back to reality by the shopkeeper. At the start of every episode a spinning wheel stops at the costume and adventure of the day.The Mr. Putin(s) pinwheel we use for the book cover is a tribute to the opening sequence of Mr. Benn. Like his cartoon analogue, Mr. Putin, with the assistance of his press secretary, Dmitry Peskov (mustachioed but without the fez), and a coterie of press people, as if by magic embarks on a series of adventures (some of which oddly enough overlap with Mr. Benn’s). In the course of his adventures, Mr. Putin pulls off every costume and performance with aplomb, a straight face, and a demonstration of skill.
Vladimir Putin and his PR team—which closely monitor the public reactions to the Mr. Putin episodes—are aware that these performances lack universal appeal and have sparked amusement at home and abroad at their elaborate and very obvious staging. But Russian intellectual elites, the Russian political opposition to Mr. Putin, and overseas commentators are not the target audience. Each episode of Mr. Putin has a specific purpose. They are all based on feedback from opinion polls suggesting the Kremlin needs to reach out and create a direct connection to a particular group among the Russian population. Press Secretary Peskov admitted this in a meeting with the press in August 2011 after Mr. Putin dove to the bottom of the Black Sea to retrieve some suspiciously immaculate amphorae. Putin himself has asserted in biographical interviews that one of his main skills is to get people—in this case the Russian people, his audience(s)—to see him as what they want him to be, not what he really is. These performances portray Putin as the ultimate Russian action man, capable of dealing with every eventuality. Collectively, they have been one of the reasons why Vladimir Putin has consistently polled as Russia’s most popular politician for the best part of a decade.
As the PR performances underscore, the political system Putin has built around himself as Russian president and prime minister is highly personalized. Its legitimacy and stability are heavily dependent on Putin’s personal popularity. The Russian economic and political systems are private and informal. A small number of trusted figures around Mr. Putin, perhaps twenty to thirty people, make the key decisions. At the very top is an even tighter inner circle of about half a dozen individuals, all with close ties to Putin, who have worked together for twenty years, beginning in St. Petersburg and continuing in Moscow. Real decisionmaking power resides inside the inner circle, while Russia’s formal political institutions have to varying degrees been emasculated.
Within the system, Mr. Putin has developed his own idealized view of himself as CEO of “Russia, Inc.” In reality, his leadership style is more like that of a mafia family Don. Everyone is interdependent, as well as dependent on the informal system, which provides access to prestigious positions and a whole array of perks and privileges, including the possibility of self-enrichment. The enforcement of rules and norms is based on powerful reciprocal ties and threats, not on positive incentives. Core individuals collect and amass detailed compromising material (kompromat in Russian) that can be used as leverage on every key figure inside and outside government. Mr. Putin the CEO has not been the executive of a transparent public corporation. He has operated in the closed boardroom of a privately held corporation, with no genuine accountability to anyone outside the inner circle. The corporation’s operating style is now in question, however. Since the Russian parliamentary (Duma) elections in December 2011, members of the public have taken to the streets of Moscow, St. Petersburg, and other cities to assert their rights as stakeholders and demand that Putin the CEO be held accountable for the failings of Russia, Inc.
After Putin first became president in 2000, the tight inner circle around him created an array of mechanisms—like Putin’s PR stunts—to construct a feedback loop with Russia’s diverse societal and political constituencies and keep a close eye on public opinion. Putin and his political system derived legitimacy from periodic parliamentary and presidential elections, but otherwise the Kremlin closed off political competition. The Kremlin did this by aggressively championing a dominant political party, Yedinaya Rossiya, or United Russia, by controlling opposition parties and by marginalizing especially charismatic independent politicians or other public figures. Mr. Putin also deliberately usurped the agendas of nationalist and religiously motivated political groups that could provide alternative means for public mobilization.
Reprinted from Mr Putin: Operative in The Kremlin by Fiona Hill & Clifford G. Gaddy: Brookings Institution Press