20 years under Putin: a timeline

In his recent state-of-the-nation address, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared that only those countries which prevail in the battle for the intellect will survive the global competition. However, according to historian and IMR Advisor Alexander Yanov, the Russian leader’s own intellectual level does not leave the country under his rule a serious chance for success.



We are witnessing an ever more intense competition for resources...
first and foremost for human resources, for intellect.
Vladimir Putin

I see patriotism as the unifying foundation of our politics.
Vladimir Putin



It would be an overstatement to say that Vladimir Putin’s recent state-of-the nation address was enthusiastically received by the online audience. Even former Kremlin advisor Gleb Pavlovsky called the speech ‘sterile,’ in the sense that it did not contain enough specific directives, and was was largely filled with abstract ‘philosophizing.’

I may not be the best judge. I am a historian, but not of presidential speeches; I am rather a historian of Russian thought – that very same intellect, whose importance was highlighted by Putin in the sentence that serves as an epigraph to this article. He said that the future of Russia depends on this intellect. For full disclosure, I used to teach the history of Russian thought in American colleges. And over the long quarter-century of my professorship I got into the habit of meticulously double-checking the logic of the assertions that have been placed upon my desk.

Following my habit, this is what I did with Putin’s address. And here is a glaring logical flaw: since the author claims that the country that he leads can prevail under intense competition only by supplying superior intellect to the rest of the world, it is reasonable to infer that the author has no doubts about the superiority of his own intellect.

Yet the address that he delivered to Parliament sends an altogether different message. The intellect of the messenger is, to put it bluntly, mediocre. Consider what will happen to the country under his leadership. The answer, incidentally, can be found in Putin’s own address: “Those who will become outsiders [in the competition for superior intellect] will lose their independence.” An odd failure of logic.

Be that as it may, I appreciate Putin’s ‘philosophizing’ that so disappointed his critics. It helped me to honestly evaluate his intellectual ability. Someone had to do it sooner or later. I certainly realize that it would be unseemly and irresponsible to throw such an unsparing assessment in the face of a head of state without a very serious and detailed corroboration. I hope that the reader will bear with me, as I am going to prove my case rather meticulously.


The Question of ‘Traditions’

‘Traditions’, together with ‘sovereignty’ and ‘patriotism,’ form the foundation of Putin’s thinking – akin to the infamous ‘triad’ of Sergei Uvarov (the education minister under Tsar Nicholas I), which consisted of ‘Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality.’ There is, however, a problem with Putin’s understanding of traditions (and, for that matter, of patriotism – but more about this later). For some reason, he avoids mentioning any specific traditions – with just one exception: “A characteristic tradition of Russia is a powerful state.” This avoidance of particulars is unsurprising: Russia is home to a variety of traditions, including some that are the polar opposites of each other.

What about ‘the land of slaves, the land of lords’, a classical line of Mikhail Lermontov – does it not shed some light on one of Russia’s key traditions? The same can be said about the famous lines by Alexei Khomyakov in his poem To Russia: “It is blackened by black injustice in the courts, / Tattooed with the stamp of serfdom, / Filled with godless flattery, cunning lies, / And abomination of every kind.” As for the ominous warning by Alexander Herzen, it should be set in stone: “A long history of serfdom is not accidental – it certainly reflects a certain feature of the national character. This element may be subsumed, overcome by other features of a different kind, but it may also prevail.”

From St. Nilus of Sora in the 15th century to Andrei Sakharov in the 20th, Russia’s thinkers always told its people the truth, however bitter it may have been.

These are some of Russia’s foremost thinkers, the bearers of its intellect. No one would dare to suggest that they lacked patriotism – they loved their country from the bottom of their hearts. And yet they challenged it with these bitter words and warnings. They did it because, like Peter Chaadayev, they believed that “above all, we owe our fatherland the truth.”

This is, in fact, the intellectual tradition of Russia: from St. Nilus of Sora in the 15th century to Andrei Sakharov in the 20th, its thinkers always told its people the truth, however bitter it may have been. And in response to the call in Putin’s address that “We should … be and remain Russia,” these thinkers would pose the question: what kind of Russia? The Russia that caused Lermontov to flee, or a free Russia1?

True, Russia also has a very different tradition. But its bearers had nothing to do with the intellectuals. A textbook example of this tradition is the motto of Alexander Benckendorff, the chief of the secret police under Tsar Nicholas I: “Russia’s past is remarkable, its present is marvelous, and its future exceeds anything that human beings can imagine.” This was not an accidental remark by some Griboyedov play character. While Benckendorff was in charge of policing dissent (his organization was a precursor to the KGB), there is enough evidence to show that he was just as knowledgeable as Herzen and Khomyakov about the ‘long history of serfdom,’ and of the ‘black injustice in courts’ that blackened Russia.

The hypocrisy of the rulers is yet another ancient Russian tradition. But it is a tradition of the secret police, not of the intellectuals. This tradition has not produced a single thinker of any significance.

He lied on purpose, for ‘educational’ reasons, believing that lies were more useful than the truth for ‘national integrity and sustaining the spirit of the people.’ He spread ‘cunning lies,’ to quote Khomyakov, because the hypocrisy of the rulers is yet another ancient Russian tradition, with roots just as deep as that of Chaadayev. But it is a tradition of the secret police, not of the intellectuals. For the followers of this tradition, the question of what kind of country Russia should be – a free or an enslaved one – does not exist. This tradition has not produced a single thinker of any significance, only mediocrities – such as Benckendorff in the 19th century or Yury Andropov in the 20th.

As for Putin, is he on the side of the intellectual tradition of Russia, or of the tradition of the secret police? He may well have never heard of Khomyakov or Chaadayev, let alone St. Nilus of Sora. But he certainly did read Lermontov and thus he cannot be unaware of the core challenge that inspired Russia’s entire intellectual life for many centuries. He has, therefore, made a conscious choice in favor of the tradition of the secret police.


The Question of ‘Patriotism’

I must admit that, at this point, I was ready to give up on Putin as an intellectual capable of securing Russia’s independence in the global competition ‘over the intellect.’ I was ready to write a thick letter F (“fаilure”) under his speech. However, I was dissuaded from this by his vigorous polemic against nationalism. His argument against it is, of course, far from the devastating sarcasm of philosopher Vladimir Solovyev, who once wrote: “No doubt, nationalism is indeed related to nationality, but only in the same way as pest or syphilis.” Putin’s argument is more bureaucratic and prosaic, and yet...

Nationalism is an ancient scourge of Russian life. It has led to Russia’s biggest catastrophes, such as the 17th century failure of Muscovy with its “Russian God, who belongs to no one else and is understood by no one else” (to quote historian Vassily Klyuchevsky,) or Russia’s participation in the First World War, which led to the downfall of Petrine Russia and gave us three generations of Bolshevik dictatorship. By questioning nationalism, Putin suddenly grew in my eyes, to the point of merging – even if just for a moment – with the Chaadayev tradition.a

Alas, Putin’s intellectual deficiency let him down yet again. He failed to notice how difficult it is to differentiate the patriotism that he favors so much from the nationalism that he detests. Since Nikolai Danilevsky and Mikhail Katkov in the 1860s, nationalists call themselves – and only themselves – the genuine patriots of Russia. As a result, there is a dangerous confusion, and it is unclear who should be ‘unified’ with whom.


Vladimir Putin has made a conscious choice in favor of the “tradition of the secret police.” In December 1999, while he was still prime minister, Putin returned Yuri Andropov's memorial plaque (which had been dismantled in 1991) to the FSB building.


Even worse, Putin has no idea about how long, starting with the aforementioned Vladimir Solovyev, has Russian thought been grappling with the task of differentiating between these two key yet incompatible notions. It seems that the most precise differentiation between the two was offered by philosopher Georgy Fedotov: “The main passion of contemporary nationalism is hatred for anything foreign, not love for one’s own country.” But I have yet to find a single nationalist who would not consider himself to be a patriot.

Putin has exacerbated this confusion by referencing nationalists as putative ‘classics of patriotic thought.’ Take, for example, Mikhail Lomonosov with his famous Ode on the Capture of Khotyn, in which Peter the Great addresses Ivan the Terrible with the words “Your and my exploits were not in vain, So that the entire world would fear Russians!” Was Lomonosov a patriot or a nationalist? And what about Lev Gumilev, who proclaimed that “the defense of national independence necessitates a war against Western aggression?” Was he a patriot or a nationalist?

Putin did not reference Alexander Prokhanov, the patriarch of modern Russian nationalists – though Prokhanov certainly views himself as foremost among patriots, even if his statements clearly prove Fedotov’s definition. Here are some excerpts from one of his Jeremiads: “America is ridiculous, America is abominable… Its soldiers are cowards. Its politicians are womanizers and hooligans. Its actors are sodomites. The writings of its authors breathe AIDS.” Of course, at the same time Prokhanov writes, along the lines of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, about ‘organic patriotism’; and, like Putin, about ‘the unifying elements of the national spirit.’ All these are sensible words, but his real passion – the passion mentioned by Fedotov – reveals his true self: in his writings, love for his own country pales in comparison with his hatred for all things foreign.

Forget about a ‘unifying foundation’: Putin is unable to sort out this long-lasting source of confusion. In his comments on the Magnitsky case during his latest press conference, he kept referring to the Guantanamo prison (even though that is a place of detention of terrorists who were captured with weapons, while Magnitsky’s case is a story of an extrajudicial murder of a peaceful lawyer who had uncovered a huge swindle by Putin’s cronies.) Judging by these comments, Putin himself is not immune to the nationalist passion as defined by Fedotov. His intellect, therefore, is not up the challenges posed by such difficult issues. They cannot be resolved at the level of a Benckendorff or an Andropov. This is not for the mind of a secret police officer.


* * *

What, then, is the outcome? By stating that in the modern world, the standing of a country is determined by its intellect, Putin seems to have driven himself into a corner. For in this case, the leader of a country must possess a first-rate intellect. Meanwhile, as I hope this analysis has demonstrated, Putin’s intellect is merely mediocre. Just on the borderline between pass and fail.


1 “Perhaps beyond Caucasian mountains /
I’ll hide myself from your pashas,
/ From their eyes that are all-seeing,
/ From their ever hearing ears” (Mikhail Lermontov, Unwashed Russia)