Putin fairly deconstructed: a man, a myth, the state
Philip Short has achieved something that in present circumstances might almost be called miraculous: a fair, balanced and insightful biography of Vladimir Putin. It should make very uncomfortable reading for Putin, in the unlikely event that he ever reads it; but it should be no less concerning for many of the Western commentators who have written about Putin and Russian policy over the past 30 years.
That no doubt is why most of the reviews so far have concentrated very much on the portrayal of Putin, and much less on the Western actions that have helped to shape his policies. The British title is Putin: His Life and Times, and it is indeed one of the best books to have been written on the modern history of Russia and Russia’s relations with the West.
Short is a former BBC journalist who reported from Russia and has published highly regarded biographies of Chairman Mao, Pol Pot and Francois Mitterand. His work on Putin’s biography took him eight years, and this is reflected in the depth and intense detail of its research. It is mercifully free of the wild speculation and the cod-psychology (“Is Putin insane?”) that has marred so much Western analysis.
The character of the book changes considerably as it progresses. The first half, dealing with Putin’s early life, KGB service, ascent to power in the 1990s, and first years as president, contains many fascinating vignettes of Putin and events surrounding him by people who knew him well. These include an interesting portrait of Putin’s difficult marriage to Lyudmilla Shkrebneva, which ended in divorce in 2014. If Putin’s perennial lateness has been an affront to foreign leaders and Russian officials who have called on him, just imagine what it must have been like for his wife.
The second half of Short’s biography is drawn more from public sources — though it is still full of acute analysis. Interestingly, while there are numerous references in the book to his wife, there are only two to Alina Kabayeva, the gymnast who is generally believed to have been his girlfriend for most of the last two decades.
This shift from private to public sourcing obviously reflects the drastic reduction in the number of people around Putin still willing to talk about him; and this in turn reflects Putin’s growing autocracy and the progressive narrowing of the circle of people on whom he relies — a key contributory factor both in the launch of the Ukraine war and in the incompetence with which it has been conducted by the Kremlin.
The portrait that Short draws is of a man with strong, even violent emotions, which are most of the time rigidly suppressed but occasionally break out with intense force. This extreme self-discipline, reflected in his early career as a sportsman, enabled his rise from the Leningrad slums and created his reciprocated attachment to the KGB. As Putin has himself acknowledged, it would have been very easy for him to have taken the path of so many of his adolescent friends and ended up as a criminal — a role in which he would have doubtlessly also excelled.
One of Putin’s most attractive characteristics is loyalty to his friends and comrades. On occasions, this has led him to take considerable risks on their behalf. It has also, unfortunately, contributed to his willingness to turn a blind eye to their crimes and the immense fortunes that many have amassed at the expense of the state.
Putin has changed greatly in the 23 years since he was chosen by President Yeltsin as a successor. As Short writes, and in Putin’s own self-image, he came to power as a conciliator of differences in the elite, and as a chairman rather than a dictatorial leader.
He was also surprisingly willing in the early days to listen to unwelcome advice (far more so than Yeltsin) from a wide range of sources. His administration contained a considerable number of patriotic liberals as well as hard men from the security services. As I can testify myself from hearing him speak over the years, he was extremely well-informed with a quite remarkable memory and gift of detail.
The transformation of Putin in recent years is partly the result of something that affects us all: advancing age, leading to ossification of thought, and a narrowing of one’s circle of acquaintance. He appears to have become bored with the details of government, and has tolerated clashes and overt criminality among top officials that he would formerly have suppressed.
The grotesque leadership cult created around him by the state media must also have had a certain effect, even though, according to Short, Putin’s role as “Tsar” was initially something that was expected of him by his staff and society, and he himself was uncomfortable with it. With time though, to an almost cliched extent, Putin has come to display many of the stereotypical features of the aging dictator, and his planning of the war in Ukraine reflected this.
Putin has always been loyal to the state and the idea of Russia as a great power. In later years he has come to identify the state more and more with himself personally. Then again, over the past two generations the question of state loyalty has been a very complex one in Russia, given the astonishing transformations that the state has undergone.
One of the very few areas that Short does not adequately examine is the nature of Putin’s nationalism – an issue of crucial importance for Russia’s future. On the one hand, Putin has tracked much of Russian society in general in his rediscovery of pre-communist and anti-communist Russian thinkers. His hostility to Lenin and the Bolsheviks appears completely sincere, and as Short writes, his attachment to Russian Orthodoxy may no longer be entirely for show.
On the other hand, Putin has inherited from the USSR (and elements of the old imperial tradition) a multi-ethnic concept of the state, albeit with Russian as the core culture. His regime has always contained non-Russians in leading positions, and he has never tried to exploit the anti-semitism lurking in the darker corners of Russian culture. If as a result of the war in Ukraine he is now turning to a more ethnic version of Russian nationalism, this would be a disaster for Russia.
Putin (like most of the Russian establishment in general) has always been deeply committed either to keeping Ukraine within Russia’s sphere of interest or returning to Russia the areas which (in the view of many Russians) were unjustly transferred from Russia to Ukraine under communism. Short records episodes going back to 1993 in which Putin exploded over these issues.
Short is however at pains to bring out the fact that the changes in Putin’s ideology did not take place in a vacuum, and reflected (as well as shaped) much wider changes in Russian attitudes. The repeated willful disregard for Russian views and Russian interests displayed by Western governments not only helped to produce a catastrophic backlash in Russian foreign policy but also contributed greatly to the growth of illiberalism at home. Short quotes Sir Francis Richards, former British diplomat and head of GCHQ (the British equivalent of the U.S. National Security Agency), on the West’s failure to reciprocate the gestures of support and goodwill made by Putin after 9/11:
“We were quite grateful for Putin’s support after 9/11, but we didn’t show it very much. I used to spend a lot of time trying to persuade people that we needed to give as well as take…I think the Russians felt throughout that [on NATO issues] they were being fobbed off. And they were.”
As Short indicates, Putin’s help to the Bush administration, and that administration’s subsequent abrogation of the ABM Treaty and advocacy of NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine led to “a growing feeling in the Russian elite that Putin was being played.” This domestic embarrassment most likely contributed to the ferocity of Putin’s approach to the Ukraine issue.
Short’s ultimate conclusion is a profoundly pessimistic one: that largely irrespective of individual leadership on either side, American determination to pursue unilateral global leadership (and European acquiescence in this) was bound to bring America and Russia into confrontation, given Russia’s determination to remain one pole of a multipolar world. “America, the global power, believes that its role is to lead. Russia refuses to be led.”
For this reason alone, Short should be read by U.S. policymakers — because if Washington repeats the same approach with regard to the vastly more powerful Chinese state, the result could be the end of civilization.