The name of Vladimir Putin has been on a lot of minds this last year. Everyone knows who the Russian president is. And yet, in many ways- many specialists might even say most ways- no one really knows him at all.
Journalist and Putin biographer Masha Gessen provided us with the following anecdote.
‘I remember in 2005 I was asked to write a piece about Putin as a threat to Russia’s newborn democracy. I said you’ve missed the story – he’s not a threat, there is no democracy. And then I realised that the real story was to try and explain who this man was. Because really, nobody knew.’
It is the opinion of sources more venerable than Millennial Democrats that if you know your enemy, and know yourself, you will fight without danger through many battles. We are therefore going to be taking a look at this enigmatic Russian leader, and the strange set of circumstances that installed a complete outsider on the very top floor of the Kremlin.
Let us first say this- Russian politics are highly unpredictable. The court of Peter the Great resembled a carnival sideshow more than it did the orderly court of Queen Anne of Britain. Right down to dwarves and giants.
A certain amount of uncertainty in Russian society should therefore not be viewed, as some early Putin apologists used to argue, as a product of the idiosyncrasies of Boris Yeltsin’s personality. Nor should fault for it be laid completely at Putin’s door. It has been a part of Russian life since the days of Kievan Rus and before.
In 1999, Washington Post writer Daniel Williams referred to Putin as “an all-but-unknown figure, an uninspiring speaker with no known political program — in short, a faceless apparatchik.” He came from nowhere and indicated no interest in politics until just before taking power. But, it’s Russia. So it’s not a total anomaly.
Vladimir Putin was born in 1952 in Leningrad (now St Petersburg), a city still traumatized by the aftereffects of the Second World War.
After graduating from Leningrad State University, Putin began his career in the KGB as an intelligence officer in 1975. Putin rose to the top ranks of the Russian government after joining President Boris Yeltsin’s administration in 1998, becoming prime minister in 1999 before taking over as president.
The young Putin boasted to his official biographers that he was ‘a real thug’. One is reminded of Trump, boasting of having punched his music teacher in the eye in second grade.
Putin was one of a generation of young recruits brought into the KGB by chairman Yuri Andropov in the 1970s. Andropov was largely attributed to spearheading the KGB’s efforts to annihilate political dissent. He was also key in the creation of the notorious network of psychiatric hospitals that prominent dissidents were often dispatched to “for treatment.”
In the newborn Russian Federation, Putin was the third prime minister in a row with an intelligence background. It was an early sign of Putin’s predatory tendencies that he rapidly managed to become the head of his former employer, i.e. of the FSB.
One aspect of his rise was predictable. The institutional mechanics that granted his elevation were ripe for someone like him to step in and take over.
The Yeltsin system was held together purely through nepotism, and political succession hinged on his prerogative as the incumbent leader. It was disorganized and corrupt. Excellence is not the term one would choose when describing the Yeltsin regime. He publicly declared Russia to be the “superpower of crime” and the “biggest mafia state in the world”.
The Russian economy performed horribly throughout the 1990s. From 1991 to 1998, Russia lost nearly 30% of its real gross domestic product (GDP). Numerous bouts of inflation decimated the savings of Russian citizens, who also saw their disposable incomes rapidly decline. Capital left the country in a flood, with close to $150 billion flowing out between 1992 and 1999.
The post of prime minister became a sounding-board for potential successors and the security apparatus was the source of its candidates. Three of the four prime ministers appointed in the last 18 months of Yeltsin’s rule came from security.
Yeltsin was not unrealistic in fearing for the future. After all, he and his immediate circle were about the only ones in the country doing well. They had become the new bourgeoisie. Their embezzlement of public property was nothing short of extreme. The people were angry.
Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov threatened to build additional prisons, so the Russian business elite could be incarcerated should he come to power.
Following the initial idea of the notorious businessman Boris Berezovsky, known as the “Rasputin of Modern Russia”, the Yeltsin circle- known as the “family” -created a new party, called Unity (Yedinstvo) in order to stymie Primakov and promote another candidate.
Primakov was sacked in May of 1999. By August, Vladimir Putin was handed the keys to the Kremlin.
Putin’s rise to power was intimately tied to Yeltsin’s fear of Primakov, who as prime minister famously played the part of Heel to Putin’s Hero. The narrative proved of vital importance to Putin’s media manipulation, so much so that he has often been referred to as the “TV president.
Unity party campaign-leader Ksenia Ponomareva said the party seemed to have no ideology and no program whatsoever except promoting Putin. And she continues: “Our problem wasn’t only that we supported Putin, but that we actually created him!”
In this fortunate position, free to do whatever propaganda tricks he wanted against the weakened and scattered opposition, he easily won the March 2000 election with a final support of 52 %. We’ve been stuck with him ever since.
Most of the world believed that the outrage of the world would be enough to inspire the people of Russia to rid themselves of him, but here again, Putin enjoys an advantage peculiar to Russia. Corruption has been a fact of life in Russia for centuries. Most Russians hate it, of course, but life and dour circumstance has taught them to accept it as normal.
Former world chess champion Garry Kasparov had the following to say in his new book on the subject, Winter Is Coming.
“Back when Putin first took power in Russia in 2000, the question was “Who is Putin?” By 2007 it had changed to “What is the nature of Putin’s Russia?”
The solving of this riddle is one of the most pressing questions addressing the human race at this time. This is no Donald Trump we’re dealing with. Putin really is what Trump is only playing at- a billionaire tyrant, willing to crush with violence any and all who oppose him. He’s got his claws in us, and he is kicking with all his might to bring us crashing down. In order to prevent his plan to destabilize the global order, we will need to answer Mr. Kasparov’s question.