Czar Putka’s Imperial Delusions

putinRussian 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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  • Hktony

    America’s strongman Odumbo has a past and an ideology. He is the head of a mafia-like association of thugs, mountebanks, ..:….and the deep contempt for individual rights.

  • joe

    I’m confused. Is this book about putin or obama?

    • DontMessWithAmerica

      Good line. Found me bursting out in a laugh. To improve the world, a double hanging might be appropriate. Or perhaps greater punishment would be to deport them to a modern Devil’s Island to have nothing but each others’ company.

    • Ellman48

      About both!

    • jesse s. pierce

      upto I looked at the bank draft that said $5621 , I did not believe …that…my neighbours mother woz like actually erning money parttime on their apple laptop. . there aunt has done this for under six months and a short time ago paid the debts on their appartment and got themselves a Ariel Atom . straight from the source
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    • Tom von Mises

      Both Puttie and his little brother.

  • ConcernedCitizen999

    Interesting analysis of Putin. Sounds like Putin himself and the Russian people largely are a nation without God. Isn’t that why Lucifer was cast out of Heaven, because he wanted to exalt himself above God?

    • Igor

      If you want to know Russian relation to religion it is summarized in the following saying:

      If you do not sin you cannot confess
      If you do not confess you cannot be saved
      So go and sin. You can always confess later

  • Gamal

    Under Glastnost Islamic regions such as Chechnya started making war on Russia. I think Putin saw this as well as the crumbling of Russian power and so became against Democracy. He concluded that the West was using Democracy to undermine Russia. The turmoil in Ukraine with Western Ukrainians wanting to join NATO he must have seen as a threat to Russia stirred up by the West. His answer was to stir up Russian separatists in the Ukraine. Now I don’t know if there ever were Russian separatists in the Ukraine. This may all be somehow manufactured by Russia. In some ways he is a Russian patriot but he is also totalitarian and deprives Russians of their freedom. The comment that he wants a nation without God is wrong he actually came out for the importance of Christianity.

  • DaCoachK

    Putin and Russia’s rise could be a good thing. It could start a new cold war and make America a serious nation again, with little time to dedicate to such foolishness as making homosexuals feel like normal people.

    • The Mad Jewess

      I agree. All of the hate Putin madness is tiring

  • Johnnnyboy

    Perhaps the book referenced to is a good read. The comments over at Amazon seem promising. But this write up is little more than condemnation through inflammatory language.

  • josepxicot

    Todos podemos tener un pasado,pero lo que vale es lo que se hace y Putin de
    muestra que es un patriota y que respeta las creencias religiosas,siempre que estan no sean totalitarias.En lo relacionado con occidente,Rusia hoy dia es un
    referente moral que nos llevaa decir que tal y como estan las cosas en esa Euro
    pa que sufrimos,Rusia sea no solo un referente moral,es lo que yo creo,y no soy
    el único,la reserva espiritual de occidente.

    • Atikva

      Putin, este producto perfecto del KGB, seria ” … un patriota.. que respeta a las creencias religiosas…un referente moral” ? Vaya broma !

  • Nabukuduriuzhur

    Putin’s certainly changed, hasn’t he?

    Like Democrats in the Senate like Reid, if a 20 year old version met the older, the younger wouldn’t even recognize the older person.

  • Nabukuduriuzhur

    Much of the article needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Very significant is how in the last several months, Putin suddenly changed how he dealt with people and other nations.

    Something happened, and no one seems to want to say what it was.

    A person’s behavior patterns don’t change overnight without something major happening.

  • Ellman48

    Maybe the title of the book should have been “A Street Thug Moves Into the Kremlin”. But then, has the Kremlin ever had anything but thugs since the Russian Revolution in 1917?

  • bettyjwidner

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  • rae


  • RMThoughts

    Putin is a despot. For years the Western media has demonized Putin. However, Putin knows that a strong empire is built upon the most fundamental social structure: the nuclear family. Returning the Russian Orthodox Church to its former glory and unashamedly promoting Christian values is his method of forging a new Russian Empire to balance the uni-polar American Empire

    As the Soviet Union showed, you can hold an empire of dysfunctional slaves together by force of arms, but it is always on the verge of collapse because its people cannot care for themselves.

    Whether it is just form or real I can’t look into his eyes and see his soul…but….it seems Putin sees himself in the tradition of the Tsars and promised to “defend” persecuted Christians worldwide in a speech to Russian hierarchs this summer.
    Last year, Putin gave his word to the Church that he would make the protection of Christians a foreign policy priority.
    As Russia’s leader, Putin has installed “Orthodoxy 101″ of which Russian children are taught the Orthodox Christian Faith in the nation’s public schools.
    Putin has also: Banned homosexual parades; forbids the dissemination of homosexual propaganda; shut down gambling casinos; and has proclaimed Russia’s adoption of the Orthodox Faith in 988 AD as a national holiday.
    If words and symbols mean anything, it means something.

    I have yet to see a profession of Christian faith from any of Ukraines new leaders and you might say the exact opposite of our Obama.

    Puin is the “Reagan” of the USSR. He is doing to the world exactly what Reagan did in his time. The Soviet empire collapsed, due to economics. The US is now collapsing in the same way. Plus the US is totally divided on everything from race, to “handouts” to education and especially in politics. The US will come apart the same way that the USSR did–economically.
    If we are honest and have the strength to face reality, we will realize that the Soviet Union did not collapse. It simply moved, along with Mao and Pol Pot, to Washington and London.

  • chelmer

    Putin is Russian, so stop being surprised that he is brutal. he didn’t rise to the top by organizing walks for humanity. He also wants to save Mother Russia from imploding after 70 years of communism. That may or may not be possible. He won’t be worried about our opinion: he will take our actions into account. Unlike Obama, Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, he is not an idiot. Russian politicians pay for mistakes with their lives. Our politicians pay for their mistakes with our incomes.