Russian strongman Vladimir Putin has a past and an ideology. He is the head of a mafia-like association of thugs, mountebanks, and experts in manipulation, often described as “political technologists.” In other words, in spite of the masterfully crafted image of “The Man Without a Face,” to use the title of Masha Gessen’s gripping biography, Putin is not the elusively enigmatic individual propelled by anonymous forces to the rudder of the Russian boat in one of the most turbulent periods of the country’s history. Putin is the offspring of the political culture of the Soviet secret police and inherits from that constellation of passions, emotions, and phobias his political techniques and the deep contempt for individual rights.
In his book “Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell In and Out of Love with Vladimir Putin” (Yale University Press, 2013), journalist Ben Judah succeeds admirably in deconstructing the origins, dynamics, and ramifications of the Putin regime, from the early days in Sankt Petersburg, when the teenager “Putka” was a street bully, through the KGB career, to the transmogrification into a supporter of Anatoly Sobchak, the flamboyant advocate of glasnost in the morose city on the river Neva. Not that Sobchak was a choir boy: he rose to prominence in association with the visible and invisible authoritarians in that city and engaged in reckless populism and shady economic deals. He relied on the former KGB lieutenant-colonel Putin and Putin found in Sobchak a man intimately associated with Boris Yeltsin’s bid for power, a consistently supportive patron. Judah mentions several times that Putin is fiercely loyal to those who are faithful to him. In fact, he showed this psychological feature in his relation with Sobchak.
In addition to the Sobchak group. Putin benefited from the enthusiastic trust bestowed upon him by the Machiavellian, power-thirsty tycoon Boris Berezovsky, the driving force in the Kremlin during Yeltsin’s second, agonizingly inept presidency. What Berezovsky needed, and Putin seemed to offer, was a disciplined, self-effacing, ascetic leader, able to restore a certain sense of hope among the increasingly disillusioned Russians, sick and tired with corruption, cynicism, and rampant plundering of the state. Nothing in Putin’s past suggested his cupitdy, greed, even rapaciousness. His KGB past indicated admiration for such paragons of austerity as the Cheka founder, Feliks Dzerhinsky, and the orgaization’s head during the persecution of the dissidents in the 1970s, Yuri Andropov. He seemed malleable and, most important, controllable. Berezovsky was terribly wrong, he misread Putin’s mind and paid for this huge mistake. Putka was interested in both power and money. He saw the oligarchs as a means to achieve these two objectives. Those who accepted his iron fist continued to thrive. Those who, like Brezovsky, did not understand that Yeltsin’s times of senile debauchery were over, were forced into exile. Putin’s nemesis, billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky, paid with years of labor camp for the reckless ambtion to challenge the new czar. Power for Putin is indivisble and unsharable.
The best chapters in the book deal with Putin’s circle and his views on state, history, and Russia’s role in the world. Obviously, he is not a sophisticated doctrinaire. His main ideas come from dubious sources such as the maniac of Eurasian imperialism, Aleksandr Dugin. Judah mentions Dugin, but only passingly. In fact, it has been Dugin who articulated, in most virulent terms, the doctrine of imperial conservatism that Putin adopted wholeheartedly. Add to this the bizarre fascination with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s vision of a resurrected Russian empire that would necessarily incorporate the Russian Federation, Ukraine, Belarus, and northern Kazakhstan. Ironically, the same Solzhenitsyn, a main voice of Soviet dissent in the 1970s, the author of “The Gulag Archipelago,” chose to endorse Vladimir Putin as a genuine Russian patriot. He accepted honors from Putin that he had rejected when offered by Boris Yeltsin. The former dissident was thrilled to see the former KGB officer espouse his nationalist ideas and anti-liberal ideals.
Understanding Putin’s behavior in recent years, including his repudiation of the Ukrainian Revolution in 2014 and the invasion of Crimea, means to grasp his authoritarian mindset, including his conviction that might creates right. His values are macho-like, vertically-authoritarian, militaristic, opposed to tolerance and diversity. He despises the democratic opposition (people like Boris Nemtsov, Gary Kasparov, and Aleksey Navalny) and deeply distrusts intitiatives from below, civil society, and Western liberalism. Helped by immensely cynical operators like Sergey Markov and Vladislav Surkov, a cult of Putin’s personality has emerged as a pillar of this authoritarian-kleptocratic system. Judah documents impressively how the promise of a “dictatorship of law” evaporated into a cronyist system with an ideological camouflage reminiscent of Fascism.
Is there any light of this somber tunnel? Can one hope that democratic parties and movements will one day, sooner or later, prevail and create a state based on rule of law? Putin’s panic-ridden and fiercely aggressive reaction to the Ukrainian Revolution shows that he is aware of the deep trends within the Russian society. He knows that his quasi-dictatorial regime, based on lies, intimidation, and scorn for civic values, can be overthrown by a popular revolution. Judah concludes his brilliant book with these foreboding words: “There is paranoia everywhere and a presence in Putin’s office, one whose shadow is so huge that encompasses everything to the point it cannot be seen. The ghost of Boris Yeltsin. All Putin’s career has been about not being Yeltsin.” (p. 329).
Revolutions happen suddenly, swiftly, and unpredictably. One day, Putin may wake up and realize that all his impersonation of imperial grandeur has turned out to be another Russian mirage, a fatally bankrupt effort to derail his country’s advance toward democratic normality. As I write this review, analogies with Stalin, Hitler and Mussolini abound. From Zbigniew Brzezinski to Hillary Clinton, a consensus seems to coalesce regarding Putin as a new totalitarian dictator. Ben Judah’s book is a perfect companion in any endeavor meant to explain Putin’s seemingly absurd actions. He does not live in a non-real world, as Angela Merkel put it, but rather in his own reality, haunted by conspiratorial obsessions and driven by messianic delusions. He sees himself as Russia’s redeemer and indulges therefore in fervid fantasies of salvation.
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