20 years under Putin: a timeline

The question of “Who is Mr. Putin” continues to interest Western Russia watchers. Political analyst Maria Snegovaya contrasts two recent books about the Russian leader, “Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin” by Fiona Hill and Clifford G. Gaddy, and “The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin” by Masha Gessen.



Since the beginning of his never-ending presidency, the question, “Who is Putin?” has bothered Western scholars. While there is clearly no lack of pictures of Putin’s physicality (on a horse, in the sea, wearing a hat, holding a rifle), what remains to be exposed are his personality, his values, and his goals. More than a decade later, Putin’s inner life is still an enigma, due to his complex, evasive nature as a former KGB leader.

The undying interest in Putin’s personality among scholars, journalists, and writers contradicts their declining interest in Russia. Despite serious limitations (when it comes to Putin’s early life, for example, we know only what the former secret agent himself decides to tell us), the last two years have featured the publication of at least six English-language books about Putin and the political system he has created: State Building in Putin’s Russia, by Brian D. Taylor; Vladimir Putin and Russian Statecraft, by Allen C. Lynch; The Return: Russia’s Journey from Gorbachev to Medvedev, by Daniel Treisman; The Strongman: Vladimir Putin and the Struggle for Russia, by Angus Roxburgh; The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, by Masha Gessen; and Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin, by Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy. The two last publications adopt strikingly opposite approaches. While Hill and Gaddy make an effort to distinguish among six separate faces of Putin, Gessen writes of “a man without a face.” So does Putin have, in fact, six different identities or none at all?

Gessen, a Russian and American journalist, writes of a selfish and ordinary man, “aggressive, incapable of controlling his temper, and vengeful,” with a lust for money, whose accidental rise to power exposed the most unpleasant features of his seemingly primitive nature. Hers is the exemplary approach of the Russian civil rights defender, with its attendant limitations—few internal sources of information (no current government official gave Gessen an interview), a progressive bias, emotionality, and a strong dislike of Putin—and advantages—detailed knowledge of Russia’s repressive political environment, a personal acquaintance with various victims of the Putin regime, and strong opposition sourcing. All of Gessen’s heroes are described in bold and coarse strokes, which—while oversimplifying the matter—make the book an easy and engaging read. On the negative side, Gessen provides little new data to a reader roughly familiar with the topic. However, her book is an excellent read for a person unaware of the unpleasant realities of today’s Russia.

The “grey, ordinary man” without any articulated political vision or identifiable political ambition of Gessen’s story is almost the complete opposite of Hill and Gaddy’s character.

Hill and Gaddy aim to reverse Putin’s evil image. The authors’ goal (both are from the center-left Brookings Institution; Hill is a former national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia at the National Intelligence Council) is to advise U.S. policymakers on how to deal with the unpredictable Russian Bear. Contrary to Gessen’s harsh stance, theirs is a more conventional and predictable view, with a strong inclination to avoid judgments. Rather than picturing Putin as an incredibly lucky mediocre man with sadistic inclinations (the portrait painted by Gessen), they try to see the world through his eyes by linking his rhetoric and observed behavior to several fundamental (and/or assumed) features of his background and personality. Toward that end, they generate “multiple real Mr. Putins,” a combination of six identities that constitute his personality: (1) the Statist, (2) the History Man, (3) the Survivalist, (4) the Outsider, (5) the Free Marketer, and (6) the Case Officer. The authors base each identity on his personal life (his humble family origins and thuggish adolescence, for example) and career in the KGB and state bureaucracy.

Approaching Putin’s personality through the lens of multiple identities could have provided an interesting perspective if the attempt to look at the world “through Putin’s eyes” didn’t result in a somewhat artificial framework. Their discretionary selection of six “faces,” some of which seem redundant, lacks any theoretical basis. Despite thorough background research, the limited and highly censored information on Putin that Hill and Gaddy possess can hardly be substantively increased by a few random meetings with the Russian leader during the Valdai Club discussions (p. 266). The main framework relies on the assumption that Putin’s six identities (each of which implies some set of values and worldviews) are more or less fixed. However, fitting Putin’s behavior and experiences into these six separate groups is often a stretch, since Putin is by no means a consistent character. Gessen’s approach is just the opposite: she writes a biography of a man who lacks any ideology or strongly held views, and whose values, though influenced by Soviet and KGB experiences, have largely been shaped while in power.

Regarding Putin as a strategist who deliberately aimed to become president, Hill and Gaddy picture him as someone who through “monopolizing information at the GKU [the Main Control Directorate at the Presidential Administration] . . . had also acquired a great deal of power and leverage. He had maneuvered and moved his way up to the top of the Russian state” (p. 209). He then, according to the authors, chose the role of an outside arbiter for the “oligarchs” who were fighting among themselves (p. 207). In Gessen’s view, Putin is not a self-made president in any way. To her, he is more of a puppet vigorously promoted by Boris Berezovsky amongst “the family,” and initially against Putin’s own wishes. “The family,” she says, was looking for somebody to guarantee Boris Yeltsin’s safety, but “they were looking at people who by definition were unsuitable for the job. And Putin was one of those people.”1 Lacking any political skill, the “grey, ordinary man” without any articulated political vision or identifiable political ambition of Gessen’s story is almost the complete opposite of Hill and Gaddy’s character.

According to Hill and Gaddy, Putin’s rule was a reaction to the Russia of the 1990s, which they regard in somewhat of a clichéd way as a weak, bankrupt, humiliated country with economic policies dictated by Western financial institutions. In their book, Putin successfully restores Russia’s former prestige and “sovereignty” through the force of his ideology, his metaphysical perception of the state as a thing in itself, and a lucky coincidental upsurge in oil prices. They come up with three hardly distinguishable identities to explain this part of Putin’s mindset: the Statist (the rebuilder of a strong state), the History Man (a history lover with strong convictions about his own important role in Russia’s history), and the Survivalist (a person with a personal history of survival that shapes his tactics of state preservation). In their book, Putin is a strategist who “has channeled, manipulated, and ultimately used these parallels and concepts to his own ends in forging and legitimizing his system of governance, ‘Putinism’” (p. 76).



Gessen, on the contrary, shows the lack of consistency in Putin’s political views. To her, Putin is a tactician, not a strategist. A one-time mid-ranking official, he came to power without his own ideology, with an ostensibly democratic platform influenced by “the family” and a conservative macroeconomic agenda (he hired Andrei Illarionov, a well-known classical liberal economist, as his economic advisor). Later, however, his policies significantly changed. Gessen shows that independent media and free elections were eliminated almost immediately, while his 2012 “election” (with its many social promises) and the slowdown of economic growth in 2013 signaled the end of economic conservatism and a move to eliminate any remaining civil liberties. According to Hill and Gaddy, “in May 2012, Vladimir Putin presented himself as the modern standard bearer of a program of all-encompassing reforms for the Russian state that stretched far back into imperial history” (p. 77). The “all-encompassing reforms,” however, resulted in lavish social spending and a harsh prosecution of the opposition, in accordance with Gessen’s predictions.

Putin’s economic stance is covered in the chapter “The Free Marketer.” This title is somewhat ironic—by no means do the authors think that Putin is a real free marketer. Hill and Gaddy argue that while supporting the free market ideologically, Putin lacks the technical skills and background to actually create a well-functioning free economic system. The way he understands the system is that a mighty individual (“the main enabler,” p. 163) gets all the profit, and thus the economy is reduced to “personal connections with regulators.” They do emphasize, though, Putin’s preaching of “an orthodox version of fiscal policies” (p. 147). But if true of an earlier Putin, this assumption does not align with the Russian president’s latest economic policies, with their increased spending, unbalanced budget, and ruined budget rule.2 Regardless, the authors stress that Putin improved the economy by making “sure that Russia’s own new class of capitalists did not predate on each other and in the Russian state. He was to try to harness them to be ‘bigger and better’ and make more money in the service of Russia—not just for themselves” (p. 166). And thus “Putin didn’t reverse the course of Russia’s 1990s privatization process” (p. 147).

Gessen, on the contrary, chronicles Putin’s remarkably peculiar relationship with material wealth. Since the wealth of his early years (a luxury wristwatch, a car his parents won in the lottery, wasteful and careless spending of earnings from summer construction jobs in the Far North) and that of later in his subsequent career, Putin has had difficulty distinguishing between what is and is not rightfully his. In line with this peculiarity, which Gessen defines as pleonexia (“the insatiable desire to have what rightfully belong[s] to others”), are the results of a 1992 St. Petersburg City Council investigation headed by Marina Salye that concluded that Putin, as the city’s deputy mayor, embezzled or helped embezzle some $100 million from the city budget. Viewed as such, the corruption that dramatically expanded under Putin’s rule and the numerous scandals of the past decade (for instance, the Super Bowl ring belonging to Robert Kraft that Putin took for himself) are more easily explained. In Gessen’s perspective, Putin’s system actually led to a reversal of Russia’s privatization process through a redistribution of the country’s main assets to the new elite—Putin’s closest bureaucratic circle with a KGB background.

Putin’s system led to a reversal of Russia’s privatization process through a redistribution of the country’s main assets to Putin’s closest bureaucratic circle with a KGB background.

Gessen’s stance on the Russian leader as someone who, in Berezovsky’s words, is “devoid of personality and personal interest” comes into conflict with the Putin of Hill and Gaddy’s chapter “The Outsider.” In Hill and Gaddy’s view, Putin has always been different from the establishment. However, references to Putin’s “real thug” image as a kid (pp. 129–132) do not strengthen their point, since “thuggish” is the most common behavior of a typical “cool” Soviet adolescent. The “thug” image appeared in Putin’s biographical interview published just before his 2000 election and was a PR attempt to connect with the broader population. Hill and Gaddy agree that the “thug” identity, together with the use of populist language, helped Putin attract the generation of men now in their 50s and 60s (p. 138). Thus it hardly corresponds to the image of the Outsider. Likewise, contrary to Hill and Gaddy’s argument, Putin can hardly be viewed as an outsider to the KGB (p. 116). Though, as the authors stress, he did not rise to the top of the KGB apparatus, he did stay in the system for 16 years and spent only 8 years outside the KGB before taking power in the country. Where Hill and Gaddy concur with Gessen is that, having entirely missed the inspiring perestroika period and the values of liberty and citizenship that were spread around the nation during that time (he spent those years working for the KGB in Dresden), Putin should have felt a stronger resentment over and frustration with the Soviet collapse.

Overall, however, the two books provide strikingly different perspectives of Putin’s personality. The question that arises is, Which approach is more helpful for understanding the current president of Russia? The answer is, perhaps, whichever approach allows us to make more accurate predictions regarding his future policies. Hill and Gaddy end their book on a positive note, hoping that Putin will find ways to open up the system and ensure a peaceful democratic transition. Gessen, who is far more pessimistic, argues that Putin most likely will not be able to resist his natural urge to punish the opposition and “tighten the screws” in the hopes of preventing further protests.3 Unfortunately, current events (such as the ongoing prosecution of the opposition, a ban on U.S. adoptions of Russian orphans, and a series of laws limiting civil liberties) have supported Gessen’s prediction to such a degree that the writer herself was recently forced to escape Russia. We are left to hope that Hill and Gaddy’s scenario will also, at some point, be realized.


1 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/vladimir-putin/9100388/Vladimir-Putin-the-godfather-of-a-mafia-clan.html
2 Since this pattern accelerated after Kudrin left the government, the real person behind Putin’s free marketer image is likely the former Minister of Finance, rather than Putin himself.
3 http://harpers.org/blog/2012/03/_putin-the-man-without-a-face_-six-questions-for-masha-gessen/

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