The making of a modern tsar

Sat, Mar 3, 2012, 00:00

POLITICS:The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, By Masha Gessen Granta, 314pp. £20

AS BORIS YELTSIN and his allies set out in the early 1990s to build a new, democratic Russia, one of the tasks they gave themselves was to find a fresh set of national symbols. First the Soviet red flag, with hammer and sickle, was discarded, replaced by the white, blue and red tricolour that had been in use until the October Revolution of 1917.

Yeltsin also wished to change the national anthem, eventually settling on a fine melody by Glinka known as The Patriotic Song.This was a song without words, however, and in spite of a number of public contests no suitable words were found for it. Soviet athletes, it seems, felt the lack of a singable anthem left them at a disadvantage in international competitions, and so, in 2000, they sent a delegation to see President Vladimir Putin, who had just replaced Yeltsin.

Putin’s solution was essentially to reinstate the old 1943 Soviet anthem, which itself had a complicated history. The stirring tune was written by Alexander Alexandrov and the words by the children’s poet Sergei Mikhalkov. Some of these words became an embarrassment after Stalin’s death, however, and for more than 20 years the anthem was played but not sung. Mikhalkov provided a new text in the late 1970s, and this served until Alexandrov’s melody was replaced by Glinka’s.

One can imagine that Mikhalkov, now 87, was more than a little surprised to be approached for a third time in 2000. But the ever-adaptable wordsmith came up trumps again, with this time no reference to Stalin nor even, as in the 1970s, Lenin, just “the wisdom of centuries, borne by the people”.

Many westerners, and in particular the absurd “end of history” people, entertained what now seem like very naive hopes for Russia in the era of Yeltsin and Mikhail Gorbachev. The country would become democratic, open, business-friendly and, of course, prosperous; it would cease to insist on dominating its neighbours; it would not even much mind finding itself militarily encircled by Nato installations.

What actually happened was that its democracy, in spite of the good intentions of many, failed to thrive, its population became impoverished and demoralised, a small number of people became fabulously wealthy very quickly, and government, administration and business remained closed, conspiratorial and frequently corrupt. Unsurprisingly, there was considerable nostalgia for the vanished USSR.

Underneath the misery, however, and long obscured by it, things were beginning to shift. Economic growth, based largely on Russia’s huge oil reserves and significant increases in the price per barrel on the international market, has been impressive. Over the past 10 years GDP per head has almost quadrupled, while unemployment has fallen and pensions and real wages have risen considerably.

The person who is most associated in the mind of the Russian public with these positive changes is Vladimir Putin, president from 2000 to 2008, prime minister from 2008 to 2012 and again almost certainly president after tomorrow’s election.

Masha Gessen, a Russian-American journalist whose family emigrated to the United States when she was a teenager and who returned to the country as a reporter in the early 1990s, traces Putin’s life from his turbulent childhood (he liked fighting) through his not hugely brilliant career in the KGB and on to St Petersburg politics, from which he emerged at the end of the decade as the somewhat unlikely successor to the ailing and increasingly bewildered Yeltsin.

Gessen makes a great deal of the KGB career, even though, unsurprisingly, there is not much that can with any certainty be said about it. But as other biographers before her have found, when you do not know you can always suppose: “Putin loved the Soviet Union, and he loved its KGB, and when he had power of his own . . . he wanted to build a system just like them.”

Just what that system consists of is something that she conveys less by analysis of its structures than by giving an account, often compelling, of its effects: the destruction of independent media; the use of the civil police for routine political repression and of the political police to sow panic about terrorism, act as agents provocateurs and even carry out terrorist acts themselves; the isolation of dissent, and the bullying, imprisonment and even murder of significant political opponents; and the maintenance of political power by a combination of legitimate and illegitimate means. Putin’s economic successes would probably be sufficient to see him elected, but he simply cannot resist putting his hands on the scales, just to be sure.

When, in 2004, Putin told television viewers, “I am convinced that the unity of the country is the main condition of success,” he was thinking primarily of the fight against terrorism, but the sentiment could be taken as a statement of his general political philosophy: to overcome difficulties we must all pull together, and if some people threaten that joint effort then they may have to be crushed.

Many in history have thought, and some still think, that “national unity” – the ability to rule unimpeded by carping criticism – is a precondition of national success. But it is certainly no guarantee of it.

Gessen’s book went to press last December, at a particularly low point in Putin’s political fortunes. Her only slightly tentative conclusion – that the show might well be over for him – reads strangely as the book is launched.

Her account of the fortunes of those who have suffered at Putin’s hands is persuasive and even moving. Unfortunately, she seems to despise the man too much to be interested in giving an adequate account of his policies.

For now, the modernising tsar has been able to please (most of) his people. Whether he will be able to do that forever could depend largely on the price of a barrel of oil.

Enda O’Doherty is an Irish Times journalist and joint editor of the Dublin Review of Books(