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Inside Vladimir Putin’s Mind: Looking Back in Anger

“Civilians are dying . . . in South Ossetia . . . the majority of them are citizens of the Russian federation. . . . We will not leave unpunished the deaths of our compatriots. The guilty parties have brought upon themselves the punishment they deserved.” This announcement about the invasion of Georgia’s territory came from then Russian President Dmitri Medvedev in August 2008. Medvedev was firm, citing the Russian Constitution and federal law, but while it was his lips moving, the words were clearly those of Vladimir Putin.

Medvedev, just installed in the Kremlin as a trusted flunky, was fighting Putin’s war on a personal as well as a political level. Mikheil Saakashvili, the tall and flamboyant pro-Western president of Georgia, had once called Putin a “LilliPutin,” an insult that the five-foot-seven Russian strongman never forgave.

At the risk of sounding simplistic, one comparison still cannot be overlooked in addressing Putin’s vindictiveness, and that is to Joseph Stalin. No one cherished a vendetta more than he; no one inspired more terror in the hearts of those who feared they had offended him. But Putin, while not quite in Stalin’s league in this regard, is also hands-on in the fate of his political opponents. Mikhail Khodorkovsky of the now defunct oil company Yukos, who challenged Putin’s presidential ambitions in the early 2000s, and Maria Alekhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova of the band Pussy Riot, who in 2012 sang an anti-Putin punk prayer, all spent time in prison as a result.

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Ukraine is also an example of how the political is personal for Putin. In 1954, Nikita Khrushchev, my great-grandfather, transferred its jurisdiction from Russia to Ukraine, both republics within the USSR. Many Russians have been upset about it ever since. Yet Putin did something about it not only to right what his fellow citizens consider a historical wrong but also because he felt the Ukrainian people had insulted him personally. In February, they dared to oust President Viktor Yanukovich, his man in Kyiv.

Never mind that already some half a century ago, in his 1956 Secret Speech, Khrushchev unmasked Stalin’s paranoid version of communism—a prison state with sealed international borders, driven by militant industrialization. All these years, Putin has managed to employ similarly extreme Stalinesque tactics to build Putinism. As Carnegie Moscow Center analyst Lilia Shevtsova wrote in the American Interest in April, “Russia’s actions with respect to Ukraine are part of the Kremlin’s preventive doctrine, which seeks to ensure the survival of autocratic rule by restoring militarism and a fortress mentality in Russia.”

However, Marx’s dictum that history repeats first as tragedy and then as farce is not quite true today. Putin’s Russia is tragedy and farce all at once. And while a leader who parades his naked man-boobs in the Siberian wilderness can barely be taken seriously, the man who starts wars only to halt them when convenient, and who sends opponents to prison and unexpectedly pardons them years later, must unfortunately be watched quite seriously.

 

Putin is not, Stalin of course. Not only because Stalin was incomparably more brutal and deadly in his tactics, but also because his goal, as perverse as it may appear today, was to better the future. In Putin’s case, there is nothing visionary in his approach. It is all about the past.

When Pussy Riot’s Alekhina and Tolokonnikova went to the Sochi Olympics in February to speak against the Kremlin human rights abuses, they were attacked by the Cossacks, the unofficial nationalist army, who also claim that to bring Ukraine, the whole Ukraine, into the Russian fold by any means possible is their patriotic duty.

These Cossacks, fanatical descendants of Catherine the Great’s ruthless watchmen, stand for the outdated feudal traditions of the eighteenth century in which Putinism has sought its legitimacy. They may seem similar to the colorful Swiss Guard of the Vatican or the red-and-black Beefeaters protecting the Tower of London, but the Cossacks, in their black capes and tall lamb-fur hats, administer beatings and start violent clashes rather than merely provide a ceremonial presence.

Putin maintains that Russia’s problem today is not that we, the Russians, lack a vision for the future but that we have stopped being proud of our past, our Russian-ness, our difference from the West. “When we were proud all was great,” he said at the Valdai International Discussion Club meeting last September. While he may bemoan the death of the Soviet state, Putin’s search for greatness extends even further back in history, to Byzantine statehood.

Byzantium, the Eastern Roman Empire, which ruled over south and eastern parts of what is now Europe in the first millennium, also attacked Western decadence and hypocrisy and touted its own spiritual superiority. When its capital, Constantinople (today’s Istanbul), crumbled under the encroaching Ottoman Empire in 1453, Russia declared itself the Byzantine successor, a belief Putin has put back into vogue today.

In 2007, Nikolai Patrushev, at the time the Russian minister of internal security, insisted—in all seriousness—that the Byzantine-turned-Russian princess Sophia Palaiologina (ca. 1455–1503) had interpreted national security as uniting Russian lands and protecting them from the West’s meddling. Russia should follow in her footsteps, he suggested, by increasing its military might (and indeed it did, stepping up military spending by 4.8 percent over the next five years).

Why is Putin’s idea of going back to the future attractive to Russians? More to the point, why doesn’t Russia follow the West in competing internationally with soft power rather than military hardware?

It is the Gulag of our own minds.

This gulag does not even need barbed wire to keep us penned in as prisoners. We are our own guards, overeager participants in clinging to and reinventing our self-perception of a Great Nation—an empire of enormous size, of almost seven million square miles and nine time zones stretching from Germany to Japan, a land of riches and international influence superior to any other in the world.

With Stalin’s current popularity at almost fifty percent, despite the fact that he killed at least twenty-five million during his Kremlin tenure from 1922 to 1953, and with Putin’s approval rating recently hitting eighty percent, how can Russia be regarded as anything other than a mental prison?

With the talents of our people we should be able to export more than just guns and gas. Those who travel to Russia know that Korkunov candy can take on its Swiss competition, and Miracle yogurt and Village Hut milk put Danone and Chobani to shame.

But our problem is that our idea of greatness doesn’t involve such small stuff. It is extreme, everything or nothing. That’s why Stalinism worked. It offered people a cause greater than themselves; they were told they were saving humanity from the greedy clutches of imperialism through their personal sacrifice. In Russia—because of its large size and its communal religion of Eastern Christianity (whose idea of creating a paradise for all communism savagely parodied)—people want to feel bigger than their private lives, and so the state always comes first.

Even the Sochi Olympics, designed as an attempt at soft power, turned into a desperate attempt to achieve victory. The original idea was to show that Russia was a successful nation up to the task of hosting a first-rate international event even in its remote corners (Sochi is eight hundred and fifty miles southeast of Moscow). But because of the Western media predictions that the games could be threatened by problems, such as attacks by Islamic fundamentalists from the nearby North Caucasus or malfunctions of hastily constructed sporting venues, the Russian press covered the Olympics as if it were a replay of World War II. Athletes were seen as soldiers defending the Motherland; it was Russia against everyone else.

Carrying off the Olympics could have led to an even greater display of soft power at the Group of 8 summit in June. But instead of going for this parlay, Putin immediately veered into Crimea, as if returning the peninsula into the Russian fold was an epic addition to the thirty-three medals the country had just won.

Was scoring patriotic popularity points with his nationals worth alienating the West and turning Ukrainians into enemies for years to come? According to Shevtsova’s “Preventive Doctrine” theory, it is. “One of the key premises of the doctrine stems from the fact that Russia is entering a period of economic recession,” Shevtsova writes in her American Interest article. “This recession has advanced beyond the point at which it could be either dismissed or ignored, and it was running the risk of generating a crisis that the regime would be unable to prevent. The Kremlin team understands this; it hopes to restore militarism before Russians start taking to the streets.”

Making a nation rally round the flag has been a policy that worked for governments for centuries all around the globe. Putin’s annexation of Crimea fits this mold, but its consequences were more dangerous than those of the average wag-the-dog adventure.

The Russian president believes he can act with impunity. And why not? The West had swallowed his Georgian war in 2008, in which he grabbed South Ossetia along with another republic, Abkhazia, and made them de facto Russian territory. Ukraine should be no different, Putin thought. The nations have had even closer ties than Russia had with the pieces of Georgia he peeled away. Ukraine and Russia share a common heritage—Kievan Russia of the 800s. In an independence dispute between, say, Scots and Brits, Russia wouldn’t have a say, so it’s not the West’s business to take Ukraine out of Putin’s traditional sphere of influence.

In 1962, the US exercised its Monroe Doctrine—viewing other nations’ interference in American affairs throughout the Western Hemisphere as acts of aggression—to confront Nikita Khrushchev’s sending rockets to Cuba. Crimea was Putin’s own Monroe Doctrine in action, a doctrine given added force by the sense of victimhood on which it rests.

 

On April 17th, Putin defined the Russian (and his own) psyche in a televised four-hour-long conversation with the nation: “We are less pragmatic than other people, less calculating. But then we have a more generous heart. Perhaps this reflects the greatness of our country, its vast size.”

A month earlier, in the Crimean annexation speech, he explained how this wonderful and trusting character was maliciously betrayed: “Russia strived to engage in dialogue with our colleagues in the West. We are constantly proposing cooperation on all key issues; we want to strengthen our level of trust and for our relations to be equal, open, and fair. But we saw no reciprocal steps.”

Another famous dictum states that absolute power corrupts absolutely. Putin’s mind has fermented, as Stalin’s did (and, regrettably, Khrushchev’s; at home I often heard that the stubborn Khrushchev of the Cuban Missile Crisis was no longer the reformist Khrushchev of the Secret Speech), during the time he has been the Kremlin’s ruler. Fourteen years ago, stepping into the Russian leadership role, Putin had different, more hopeful ideas. Interviewed by David Frost on the BBC in March 2000, when he was a presidential candidate, Putin insisted that “Russia is part of the European culture. And I cannot imagine my own country in isolation from Europe and what we often call the civilized world. So it is hard for me to visualize NATO as an enemy.”

Eager to sit at the Western table, Putin became buddies with then British Prime Minister Tony Blair, whom he saw five times in 2000, thus announcing Russia’s European orientation. George W. Bush joined this circle of friends a few years later, when he memorably looked into Putin’s eyes and saw his soul. Both religious Christians, the two leaders struck a bond.

The friendship was short-lived. In 2002, Bush and Blair took into NATO seven countries, including the Baltic states. Because he was ignored in this historical reshuffling, Putin felt personally betrayed. As Blair candidly admitted in his memoir, “Vladimir later came to believe that the Americans did not give him his due place.”

The grievance has festered, as Putin showed in the Crimea speech with almost surprising openness: “They have lied to us many times, made decisions behind our backs, placed us before an accomplished fact. This happened with NATO’s expansion to the East, as well as the deployment of military infrastructure at our borders.”

Speaking to Time magazine in 2007, Putin was already lamenting that Russia’s “generous heart” was misunderstood and that instead of empathy there was “a purposeful attempt by some to create an image of Russia” in which Russians “are a little bit savage still or they just climbed down from the trees, you know, and probably need to have . . . the dirt washed out of their beards and hair.”

This humiliation notwithstanding, in 2008 he was still willing to give the West a chance to acknowledge his democratic efforts when he installed Dmitri Medvedev as president. He could have amended the Constitution after his second term to allow himself an indefinite presidency, but he continued to care about the world’s opinion then. In a few short months, the August Georgian war would change that, shattering forever Putin’s hope to be accepted by the West as equal.

What Putin saw as the double standards of this nasty little war confirmed his paranoia. The pro-Western yet unstable President Saakashvili of Georgia recklessly (but not without Russian provocation, mind you) bombed Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia. However, he was deemed a hero, while the Kremlin was seen as a villain for defending the Russian nationals in Ossetian territory.

Vice President Dick Cheney expressed America’s “solidarity with the Georgian people . . . in the face of this threat to Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity” and lectured Putin on the “Russian aggression [that] must not go unanswered.” And that was Cheney, who started his own reckless wars, with no regard for the international outcry against the United States’ almost unilateral invasion of Iraq in 2003.

From then on Putin has been firm in his conviction that the US continually advances its own agenda—“use slogans of spreading democracy . . . to gain unilateral advantages and ensure their own interests.” Just during his fourteen years in power, he, indeed, can cite not only the Iraq War but widespread, invasive National Security Agency spying and the American drone program. In his mind, Russia must be able to pursue its own interests in the same way.

 

Yet for all the West’s inconsistency and even hypocrisy, since the 1991 Soviet collapse we have (for the most part) lived in the world of comfort and civility, not ideological fervor and militant rejection of legal and economic institutions. On a larger scale, this has benefited all. Putin’s Russia will never be able to make the same claim.

Even if his regime succeeded in becoming the new Byzantium by patriotically ignoring the isolation falling like night all around it (and also somehow curtailing all Western influences in its domain), the result would mean the end of Russia as we know it. Putin may be able to turn his post–Cold War grievances into a new Cold War patriotic nationalism, which may even allow him to hold on to power for a while. This ideology, however, offers no future, no constructive formula, no human benefits. It is time to dust off George Kennan’s 1946 views on how to deal with the Soviet Union and apply them to the new Russia, the militant yet victimized Un-West that the country has mutated into in the Putin years. But this will be a challenge unless the United States, too, returns to what Kennan called “the American principles,” to what has always been America’s
strength—“the power of example.”

Nina L. Khrushcheva teaches international affairs at the New School in New York City and is the author, most recently, of The Lost Khrushchev: A Journey into the Gulag of the Russian Mind.

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