20 years under Putin: a timeline

After 13 years of Vladimir Putin’s rule over Russia, scholars are still pondering over the real persona of the Kremlin leader. IMR Advisor Boris Bruk analyzes the various studies dedicated to this subject, and draws his own conclusions.



During the early 2000s, many in the West did not understand what the new Russian president stood for. One notable attempt to answer the question “Who is Mr. Putin?” was the book Vladimir Putin: Where Is He Steering Russia? written in 2004 by Boris Reitschuster, Moscow correspondent for the German magazine FOCUS.  According to Reitschuster, in Putin “each person will find the president he or she wants to find1.”

Similar conclusions can be found in other books published on the eve, or at the beginning, of Putin’s second presidential term. Among them are Putin as Celebrity and Cultural Icon, a collection of articles written by a group of Russian affairs scholars, and Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin by Brookings Institution Russia experts Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy. The major unifying theme of these two books is the examination of Vladimir Putin’s image, which, as some believe, has become “the best-known brand, surpassing in recognition and influence anything else in the post-Soviet space.” According to Helena Goscilo, editor and co-author of Putin as Celebrity and Cultural Icon, Putin has had “incredible popularity” for a very long time and remains one of the leading personages in the world media.

In the late 1990s, only a few would have thought that the Russian president could achieve such esteem. Nor is it likely that those who made the decision of “enthroning” a faithful and reliable KGB officer expected it2. As Masha Gessen pointed out in her book The Man without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, it seemed that Putin was an ideal candidate, who would execute the orders in an obedient and disciplined manner, and that “everyone could invest this gray, ordinary man with what they wanted to see in him3.” In reality, however, everything turned out to be so much more complex that today, in the words of Hill and Gaddy, one may speak about the existence of “multiple Mr. Putins.4

The incorporation of “heroic” qualities into the image of the “father of the nation” has been repeatedly and actively promoted by the leading Russian media outlets.

The current image of the Russian leader is unconventional and multidimensional, the result on the one hand of a “collaborative effort” among PR-agencies and the mass-media, and, on the other, – as might seem surprising at the first sight – ordinary Russian citizens. In many respects, the image of the Russian head of state of the early 2000s was to become the reflection of then unsatisfied demands and expectations of Russians to see in their ruler a new “hero” who would differ fundamentally from his predecessors. Putin’s image, which became a new “cultural icon,” emphasizes the contrast between the past and the present. The incorporation of “heroic” qualities into the image of the “father of the nation” has been repeatedly and actively promoted by the leading Russian media outlets5.

The image of Vladimir Putin that is presented to the public is that of the savior of the state, a wise and decisive leader, brave conqueror of the sky and the mountains, successful athlete, personification of male sexuality, a person who loves children and animals, and more. Perhaps, as depicted on the jacket of Putin as Celebrity, the picture of “Superman Putin” rushing to help those in need is the best demonstration of the image of the almost mythological figure, for whom many had been impatiently yearning in the early 2000s.

The Russian political leader of the new type is talented “in all respects,” and unique. Depending on the situation, a particular component of Putin’s image can be successfully highlighted by the media, and the corresponding type of hero emerges in front of the delighted public. However, despite the heroism and uniqueness of the leader, his identity is quite ordinary, and at the same time, universal. In this respect, Hill and Gaddy compare Putin to Mr. Benn, the main character from a series of British children’s books and TV series6. On the one hand, the audience is presented with the image of a “hero,” who after putting on a new costume and magically finding himself in a new world, helps to solve a problem. On the other hand, “the hero,” in essence, is “Mr. Ordinary”, in whose features everyone can see his or her reflection.

The “reflecting capacity” is one of the most important characteristics of the Russian leader’s image. Citing eminent Russian sociologist Yuri Levada, Helena Goscilo points out that in Putin, “everyone, communist or democrat, sees what he wants to see.7” Political scientist Michael Gorham offers a similar finding: “Everyone sees in him whatever he/she wants to see.  Putin is a mirror;” and despite his lack of “exceptional oratorical prowess,” he is a brilliant communicator, who effectively uses a “chameleon-like style of communication8.”

Because of his ability to skillfully manage and manipulate his style of communication, Putin can easily and effortlessly change the structure of the dialogue and tune into the same frequency as his interlocutors. The latter quickly develop an impression that Putin is “one of us.” According to Hill and Gaddy, in communication, Putin effectively deploys populist language and sometimes uses very crude jokes, and this attracts a large part of the audience to support him.


For the sake of maintaining his public image, Vladimir Putin is willing to go up into the sky and dive to the sea bed.


Hill and Gaddy point out that despite frequent change of costumes and styles of communication, in the portrait of the “real” Putin one can find six main personas: the Statist, the History Man, the Survivalist, the Outsider, the Free Marketeer, and the Case Officer9. These specific features of Putin define his political agenda and the operation of the political system as a whole. Examining each identity, the authors conclude that one should understand that Putin is, above everything else, a Statist, one who has an unshakeable belief that the interests of the state, rather than the interests of the individual, should be the primary concern. The interests of the state, intertwined with the principles of “national pride,” must determine key political decisions, while the individual has to be subordinated to the country’s interests. As Hill and Gaddy suggest, the creation of a “strong state” is critical for Putin, who has declared that, “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 change10.”

Being a statist, who considers himself an “expert in human relations,” Putin became accustomed to participating in staged events11. Thus, if he has to engage in a dialogue with the representatives of the opposition, “he just cannot [do it],” since he is unprepared to participate in unrehearsed scenes, especially before a hostile audience12. Dr. Lara Ryazanova-Clarke from the University of Edinburgh, a coauthor of Putin as Celebrity, offers a good example of a staged performance. By examining “the spectacle of the Direct Line with the President,” Ryazanova-Clarke tells how during the “performance” the key characteristics of national identity and the roles of the president take shape, including those of a “military commander,” “competent technocrat,” and a “cult figure13.”

If in previous years “idolization” of Putin dominated, now society is much more skeptical about the “superman.”

Boris Reitschuster, the author of the aforementioned book Vladimir Putin: Where Is He Steering Russia?, offers another interesting example of a staged performance organized long before Putin came to power. According to Reitschuster, the following story was told by Putin himself:

In the 1970s, dissidents planned to lay a wreath at the monument to Peter [the Great] in Leningrad and invited foreign correspondents. KGB agents dressed up as dissidents laid a “fake” wreath in front of the foreign observers. The real dissidents were not arrested; they were just told there was construction work under way and there was no way they could approach the monument. The foreign correspondents left disappointed. The cordon was immediately removed and the real dissidents were told, “Please, now you can lay the wreath.” But there was no longer any point.

The current situation in Russia is quite in line with this story: in the grandiose spectacle being played out in the country, it is often unclear, which “wreaths” are phony and which ones are real. Similarly, with respect to the head of state, “very little information is definitive, confirmed, or reliable14.”

The world-famous sociologist Erwing Goffman made an interesting comparison between the social world and theatrical performance15. In his classic book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Goffman writes about the division of the stage into a front region, where the actor is before the audience and plays a role, and the back region, where the actor can be himself. The skillfully crafted image of Mr. Putin, which, to a significant extent, reflects public expectations, is what we see in the central part of the front stage. The “real” Vladimir Putin, who “has invested extraordinary efforts into hiding his true identity”, remains out of view backstage. As a result, the question “Who is Mr. Putin?” is still unanswered. According to scholars, the masses, lacking any other alternative, still keep the faith in the “kind tsar.” However, if in previous years “idolization” of Putin dominated, now society is much more skeptical about the “superman,” who is increasingly incapable of “respond[ing] adequately to the needs of the Russian people16”.


1 Reitschuster, B., Wladimir Putin. Wohin steuert er Russland?

Verlag Rowohlt Berlin, 2004

2 Gessen, M, The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin. Penguin Group, 2012.

3 Ibid. pp. 15, 22

4 Hill, F & Gaddy, C. G., Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin. Brookings Institution Press, 2013, p. 9

5 Goscilo, H. (Ed.), Putin as Celebrity and Cultural Icon. Taylor & Francis, 2013, p. 65

6 Hill, F & Gaddy, C. G., Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin, p. 4

7 Goscilo, H. (Ed.), Putin as Celebrity and Cultural Icon, p. 20

8 Ibid. p. 83

9 Hill, F & Gaddy, C. G., Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin, p. 9

10 Ibid. p. 36

11 Gessen, M, The Man Without a Face; Hill, F & Gaddy, C. G., Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin.

12 Hill, F & Gaddy, C. G., Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin.

13 Goscilo, H. (Ed.), Putin as Celebrity and Cultural Icon, pp. 104, 121

14 Hill, F & Gaddy, C. G., Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin, p. 3

15 Goffman, E. (1959). Presentation of self in everyday life. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.

16 Hill, F & Gaddy, C. G., Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin.