The Long Read: Russias role in Trumps election has led to a boom in Putinology. But do all these theories say more about us than Putin?
Vladimir Putin, you may have noticed, is everywhere. He has soldiers in Ukraine and Syria, troublemakers in the Baltics and Finland, and a hand in elections from the Czech Republic to France to the United States. And he is in the media. Not a day goes by without a big new article on Putins Revenge, The Secret Source of Putins Evil, or 10 Reasons Why Vladimir Putin Is a Terrible Human Being.
Putins recent ubiquity has brought great prominence to the practice of Putinology. This enterprise the production of commentary and analysis about Putin and his motivations, based on necessarily partial, incomplete and sometimes entirely false information has existed as a distinct intellectual industry for over a decade. It kicked into high gear after the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014, but in the past few months, as allegations of Russian meddling in the election of President Donald Trump have come to dominate the news, Putinology has outdone itself. At no time in history have more people with less knowledge, and greater outrage, opined on the subject of Russias president. You might say that the reports of Trumps golden showers in a Moscow hotel room have consecrated a golden age for Putinology.
And what does Putinology tell us? It turns out that it has produced seven distinct hypotheses about Putin. None of them is entirely wrong, but then none of them is entirely right (apart from No 7). Taken together, they tell us as much about ourselves as about Putin. They paint a portrait of an intellectual class our own on the brink of a nervous breakdown. But lets take them in order.
Theory 1: Putin is a genius
Its simple: while the world is playing checkers, Putin is playing chess. He seized Crimea from the Ukrainians with barely a shot fired; he got back Yalta, the favoured beach resort of Chekhov and the tsars, and all he faced as punishment were some minor sanctions. He intervened on behalf of the Assad regime in Syria, after the US, Turkey and the Saudis spent years supporting the rebels, and in short order turned the tide of the war. He has been instrumental in undermining the pro-EU consensus, financing the Eurosceptic right and, where convenient, the Eurosceptic left aiming apparently to dismantle the postwar international order and replace it with a series of bilateral transactional relationships in which Russia can, for the most part, be the senior partner.
Finally, he interfered in the US election, the election for the most powerful post in the world, and managed to get his man in the White House. And what were the consequences? A few diplomats expelled from the United States is a small price to pay for a potential end to US sanctions, a renewal of economic ties and joint oil-drilling in the Russian Arctic, and the de facto acknowledgment of Crimea as part of the Russian Federation.
Domestically, Putin has managed to silence or coopt almost all opposition. The liberals squabble among themselves on Facebook and emigrate; the far right, which hates Putin for his refusal to go full fascist and, for example, take Kiev, is kept on a tight leash; and the democratic socialist left, hobbled by the massive pseudo-left authoritarian Communist Party of the Russian Federation, is so tiny Putin can hardly even see it (and he has many eyes).
Putin during his first two terms enjoyed immense luck in the form of a worldwide commodities boom, but he could have blown that luck. Instead, he husbanded it, and Russia grew rich. Now the closest thing to a rival to Putin within his inner circle is his prime minister, the pudgy and diminutive Dmitry Medvedev, who has distinguished himself primarily as a man who enjoys playing with his iPad. The lone domestic politician who has mounted a plausible threat to Putin is Alexei Navalny, a talented Moscow-based digital populist of variable political convictions, whom the Kremlin is keeping busy with various criminal charges and house arrests.
Putin-as-evil-genius is, unquestionably, the primary theoretical view in the west of the Russian president, whether by his multitude of critics or his smattering of admirers. Those who take a more jaundiced view of Putins political, intellectual, and military capabilities President Barack Obama, for one are treated as naive, soft on Putin: the sort of people who play checkers, not chess. Meanwhile, most Russian observers of Putin tend to be surprised at the western awe of his overwhelming strategic prowess. Garry Kasparov, for example, the great chess champion and not-so-great opposition politician, finds the whole thing insulting to chess.
In any case, one does wonder about this genius business. Was it really worth international isolation, increasingly bothersome sanctions and the eternal enmity of the Ukrainian people to seize a beloved but past-its-prime resort area that Russians dont even really visit any more? There was fear that the post-Maidan government of Ukraine might cancel the lease on the large Russian naval port in Sevastopol, but surely a genius might have handled the threat through something short of seizing the entire peninsula?
As for Syria, Putin may bask for now in the glory of rescuing the Assad regime, but who will celebrate this glory with him? Certainly not Sunni Muslims, whom Assad has been slaughtering some of those who survive will soon return to their homes in the Caucasus and Central Asia, newly angry at the Russian bear. As for the disintegration of the EU, which Putin seems to seek almost above all else, is this really a winning formula for Russia? The Hungarian Putin, Viktor Orbn, is so far well-disposed toward Russia, but what we might call the Polish Putins of the Law and Justice party are committed Russophobes. And, as one shrewd commentator has pointed out, should Putin ever succeed in installing a rightwing nationalist leader in neighbouring Germany, that German Putin may well decide to go to war with the original Putin, as German Putins have always tended to do in the past.
And even our new American Putin, Donald J Trump, may not be as much of a boon to Russia as he seems at first glance. For one thing, Trumps apparent romance with the Russian president has ignited a storm of Russophobia in the US, the like of which has not been seen since the early 1980s. For another, Trump is a fool. It is not the way of genius to hitch your wagon to a fool.
On the domestic front, Putins genius now seems equally suspect. In 2011, he made the momentous decision to return to the presidency after ceding it for four years to Medvedev. The decision, announced in a humiliating manner by Medvedev himself, was soon followed by the largest protests in Moscow since the early 1990s. Putin was impressive in waiting the protests out. He did not make the mistake that Viktor Yanukovych made two years later in Ukraine by first overreacting and then, perhaps, underreacting to the situation. Instead, Putin let the protests lose steam and then picked off the protest leaders one by one with surreptitiously videotaped provocations and phony criminal charges, while Moscow itself underwent a kind of urban renaissance, complete with public parks and bike lanes, to assuage some of the anger of the creative class. But Putin did nothing to address the substance of the criticism coming from the opposition that his political regime was corrupt, unresponsive, and that it had no vision. Instead, with the invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent nationalist mobilisation, he doubled down on the worst aspects of his reign.
Had Putin retired after 2008, as he said he would, and become a grand old man of Russian politics, there would have been statues built to him throughout the country. Under him, Russia had emerged from the chaos of the 1990s into a relative stability and prosperity. Now, however, with low oil prices, a collapsed rouble, risible counter-sanctions in place on European cheese, and a demoralised opposition, it is hard to imagine an end to the Putin era that is not violent, and whose violence does not lead to more violence. If this is genius, then it is of a very peculiar kind.
Theory 2: Putin is a nothing
The first sight many Russians got of Vladimir Putin was on New Years Eve, 1999, when in a remarkable turn of events, a clearly ailing Boris Yeltsin, with six months left in his term, used his traditional televised end-of-year address to announce that he was resigning the presidency and handing the reins to his recently appointed, younger and more energetic prime minister.
Then Putin came on. The effect was startling. Yeltsin had looked confused and sickly. His speech was so slurred that he was hard to understand. He sat bolt upright as if wearing a brace. But this? This homunculus? Putin was tiny compared to Yeltsin, and though younger and healthier, he nonetheless managed to more closely resemble death. He spoke for a few minutes, promising on the one hand to keep Russian democracy strong, but on the other hand issuing various warnings to those who would threaten Russia an incongruous performance. Many people didnt think it was likely that Putin would last very long in this august seat. For all his faults, Yeltsin was at least a someone: tall, with a booming voice, a former member of the Soviet Politburo. Whereas Putin? He was, people suddenly scrambled to learn, merely a colonel in the KGB. He had been sent abroad, but only barely to the East German backwater of Dresden. He was short and had a squeaky voice and his hair was thinning. He was a nonentity even among the nonentities who remained after Yeltsins perpetual clearing-out of his cabinets.
In a world where most people are convinced that Putin is a genius, this theory of Putin as a nobody deserves a second look. There really is an everyman quality to Putin. One of my favourite observations about him comes from a man who knew him back in St Petersburg in the 1990s. The man became a whistleblower after the successful medical supplies company he ran was asked, not long after Putin became president, to divert a portion of its earnings into the fund for Putins Palace, a huge complex going up on the Black Sea. But he had an interesting take on the president as he had known him before, as he told the British journalist Ben Judah:
He was an absolutely average man His voice was average not tough, not high. He had an average personality average intelligence, not especially high intelligence. You could go out the door and find thousands and thousands of people in Russia, all of them just like Putin.
This cant be entirely right: Putin was above average in at least a few respects (he was the judo champion of Leningrad, for one). But there is insight in these words. It was part of Putins charm that he didnt stand out. During his first interviews in office he stressed how much of a regular guy he was, how he had struggled financially during the 1990s, how much tough luck hed had. He knew all the same jokes, had listened to all the same music and seen all the same movies, as everyone else of his generation. It is a testament to the power of Soviet culture, to both its egalitarianism and its limitations, that when Putin mentioned a line from a quasi-dissident song or movie of the 1960s or 1970s, almost everyone knew exactly what he was talking about. This did not put him out of the mainstream. He was the unremarkable only child of an unremarkable working family from Leningrad. It was almost as if the Soviet Union had coughed up, from the great mass of its humanity, this average exemplar, with his average aggressiveness, his average ignorance, his average nostalgia for the way things were.
Accounts of Putins early years in office tend to confirm that he was something less than a colossus. He was impressed by the might of the American empire and awed by George W Bush. He was aware, too, of how limited his domestic power was. Russian politics during the Yeltsin era had been dominated by a small group of oligarchs, oil and banking titans with their own private armies. These were led not by short, skinny former colonels like Putin, but by barrel-chested former generals of the Interior Ministry and KGB. Whats more, some of the oligarchs were brilliant strategists they had survived the ruthless 1990s and emerged victorious, while Putin had muddled along as the corrupt deputy to a one-term mayor. Putins early popularity was based on his tough attitude towards Chechens and oligarchs. He had succeeded in levelling Chechnya, but could he really win in a showdown with the oligarchs? He had no idea.
Read more here: http://www.theguardian.com/us