Inside the mind of Vladimir Putin: two takes on the Russian president

Shaun Walker charts Putin’s mission to fill the Soviet void; Michel Eltchaninoff traces Putinism

Russian pride: Vladimir Putin at naval exercises in 2000. Photograph: by Laski Diffusion/Getty

Russian pride: Vladimir Putin at naval exercises in 2000. Photograph: by Laski Diffusion/Getty

 

One of the best-known accounts of the fall of the Soviet Union comes from the vantage point of a middle-ranking KGB officer who in 1989 was stationed in the East German city of Dresden. The 37-year-old lieutenant colonel looked on with alarm as angry crowds attacked the Stasi complex in the city that December. Having overrun the secret-police headquarters, the protesters made their way towards the inner sanctum of the complex: the KGB building, home to vaults full of surveillance reports, informant lists and personnel files.

From inside the building the Russian official made an urgent call for armed support to protect the staff and their sensitive files. They could act only on orders from Moscow, came the voice on the line. “And Moscow is silent.” Having to improvise, the official went outside and told the crowds he had heavily armed men waiting inside who would shoot anyone who tried to enter. They bought the bluff. The crowd dispersed and the staff had time to shovel their papers into a wood-burning stove.

It would be another two years before the Soviet Union collapsed, but in the official’s telling that was the moment he realised the empire he served was unravelling, and in the most humiliating fashion. It would remain seared in his memory. “I had the feeling that the country was no more,” he said. “It had disappeared.”

That 37-year-old was Vladimir Putin. As Shaun Walker notes in The Long Hangover: Putin’s New Russia and the Ghosts of the Past (Oxford University Press, 288pp, £20) Putin would do exceptionally well out of the post-Soviet years, rising rapidly through the KGB ranks and eventually emerging from the shadows as Boris Yeltsin’s anointed successor as president of the Russian Federation.

Whatever pangs of regret he felt at the demise of the Soviet Union were hardly the product of ideological fervour; like most of his compatriots by the early 1990s, Putin was a less than committed communist. Anyone who didn’t regret the passing of the Soviet Union had no heart, he later said, but anyone who wanted it restored had no brain. Yet his anger and hurt over the manner of the superpower’s disintegration, which he experienced as a “moment of personal trauma”, as Walker puts it, are vital to understanding how he would run the Russia that emerged from that implosion.

Russian pride: Vladimir Putin on holiday in Siberia in 2009. Photograph: Alexey Druzhinin/AFP/Getty
Russian pride: Vladimir Putin on holiday in Siberia in 2009. Photograph: Alexey Druzhinin/AFP/Getty

Walker’s excellent, acutely observed book is not a biography. Nor is it an anti-Putin polemic or an apologia for the Kremlin’s policies. Instead it charts Putin’s mission “to fill the void left by the 1991 collapse and forge a new sense of nation and purpose in Russia”. Drawing on extensive travels across the former Soviet Union over more than a decade, Walker, the Guardian’s Moscow correspondent, excels at accounting for a central plank of that effort: the distortion and manipulation of history, pressed into service to create a powerful rallying point for the new Russia.

Pride in the defeat of Nazism had been used by the later Soviet leaders to buttress the regime’s legitimacy, and “Putin would once again draw on the war victory as the key to creating a consolidated, patriotic country”, Walker writes. But Putin drew on a selective view of the war. Millions of Russians did indeed fight heroically against the Nazis, but the glorious, good-versus-evil portrayal advanced by Putin’s regime was vastly reductive. We know that Stalin received numerous warnings of an impending attack but ignored them all. Nor did the official narrative leave room for the weakening effect of the purges, the mass deportation of ethnic groups to other parts of the union or the fact that returning Soviet soldiers who had been captured by the Germans were sent to labour camps.

The success of Moscow’s attempts “to curate historical memory” could be seen in attitudes to the Gulag. On a visit to Kolyma, one of the most notorious outposts of the Gulag system, Walker finds little local interest in remembering, still less commemorating, that history. One teacher in Magadan tells Walker she teaches the Gulag by dividing the blackboard into two halves; on one side she would write the “military and industrial achievements” of the Stalin era, on the other the “unfortunate side effects”. Pupils could then make up their own minds.

Putin’s biographers face daunting, perhaps insurmountable, obstacles. As one of them, Masha Gessen, observed, Putin has been able to exercise greater control over what is known about him than almost any modern western politician. He spent most of his career in a secret institution, after all. But we do have his words. In Inside the Mind of Vladimir Putin (Hurst, 192pp, £12.99) the French philosopher Michel Eltchaninoff mines the Russian president’s speeches and public utterances over two decades in power in search of the philosophical trajectory of Putinism.

The book’s strength is less its attempt to divine Putin’s inner thoughts than its mapping of the wider intellectual climate in which Putinism has thrived. But Eltchaninoff manages to sketch an evolution in Putin – or at least in Putin’s self-portrayal – from westward-looking moderniser to unapologetic conservative, a shift traced through the increasing presence of chauvinist, anti-western thinkers in his writings.

If history, as Walker shows, is one way of creating a sense of national purpose, then ideology, Eltchaninoff suggests, is how you mobilise it. Putin, he argues, has used “the nationalist and pseudo-scientific elements of Russian philosophy” to give the country back its “international ideological vocation”.

For Putin, he suggests, the populist wave in Europe was a predictable response to the permissiveness of European societies, particularly with regard to immigration and gay rights. And in the rise of the right across the continent he sees an opportunity to address himself to a wider audience. “The Russian conservative turn . . . must be exported, and Putin sees himself as the harbinger of that anti-modernist movement.”

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