This is Part II of my profile of Russian leader Vladimir Putin, trying to put him in historical context which few journalistic efforts to explain him do. Part I, chronicling Putin’s early life up until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, is here.
Putin’s first big score came in 1992 as he was serving as a chief adviser to St. Petersburg mayor (and his friend and law professor) Anatoly Sobchak. Putin was in charge of efforts to bring foreign investments to the city. The sudden absence of Soviet power meant disruptions in all segments of society, and in that year St. Petersburg was starving. But, its factories and banks still held significant deposits of precious metals that the fledgling central Russian government hadn’t taken control of. Putin got on the phone and made some deals to trade $93 million worth of these precious metals to foreign companies in exchange for food aid to the city. However, the food never arrived. Putin seems to have manipulated the contracts. An investigation recommended that Putin be fired, but he dismissed the conclusions, saying people were “making things up.” Essentially Putin cheated the people of St. Petersburg–his longtime neighbors and friends–out of badly needed food while they were starving.
This incident is telling both of Putin’s political style, and the situation in which he and Russia found themselves after the collapse of Communism. The USSR, however imperfectly it functioned, was at least a somewhat stable system and its government owed some shred of fealty to an egalitarian ideology that was supposed to benefit the people. The post-Soviet system, however, was not moored to any specific ideology and there was no stability or accountability. St. Petersburg in the early 1990s was the Wild East, and Putin had exactly the personality, outlook and experience to recognize the immense opportunities for graft and take advantage of them. No one incident in Putin’s past is, I think, more revealing of his manner of operations and the conditions that fostered his rise to the top.
Boris Yeltsin, the transitional leader between Communism and the Putin era, was forced to obey the democratic process. He famously danced a rally during his 1996 election campaign in an attempt to appeal to young people.
That rise continued throughout the 1990s. In 1996 when Sobchak was defeated for another term as St. Petersburg mayor, Putin dropped him like a hot potato. He only had time for patrons who could help him. That same year Putin was called to Moscow to head up an office that managed former Soviet state property. This was the year that Boris Yeltsin, the Russian leader who took over for Gorbachev, won reelection despite a drinking problem, persistent corruption allegations and terrible health difficulties. Putin had to know Yeltsin wasn’t going to last long, and he quickly began to position himself to leapfrog ahead if and when Yeltsin died, was defeated or forced out by his political enemies. I find it hard to believe that Putin did not have, by the mid-1990s, an express intention to become the leader of Russia at some point.
Here is where some lessons from Russian history are instructive. Sometimes after a powerful tsar died or was forced off the throne, there was a sort of “interregnum,” a placeholder ruler who held power weakly until more powerful forces eventually seized control. An example of this was the short reign of the infant Ivan IV who was proclaimed tsar in 1740, after the death of Anna. A Kremlin power struggle had frozen out Elizabeth, daughter of Peter the Great, who came back in 1741 and took part in a palace coup that put her on the throne. In the 1990s, the powerful Communist “dynasty” had been forced out, and there was a period of chaos following its fall. Putin may have viewed Yeltsin as sort of a transitional placeholder, presiding over the chaotic aftermath of the end of Communism, before more powerful forces seized control. This is at least one way to look at it.
Yeltsin resigns on December 31, 1999. Putin, his successor, is at left.
While he was working in Yeltsin’s office, somehow Putin managed to find the time to work on a doctoral dissertation at the St. Petersburg Mining Institution. (Russian officials sometimes completed an advanced degree at mid-career). There arose some question, however, as to whether the dissertation Putin defended was really his own. For one thing, it was about a totally different subject than the one he was supposedly studying. For another, it seemed to have been written by someone very knowledgeable and enthusiastic about free market principles. It didn’t seem to match what Putin is known to have said about market economics. And finally, Putin got this degree in only a year, when normally it takes three. Although his office vehemently denies accusations of plagiarism and trickery, reporters have never been able to look at his actual dissertation.
In 1998 and 1999 Putin’s rise achieved meteoric trajectory. He was made head of the FSB, the successor to the KGB in the post-Communist era, which may have been one of his career objectives. In the same period he also occupied various other offices in increasing proximity to the ailing Yeltsin, who increasingly began to see Putin as his deputy and successor. By now the Duma, Russia’s legislature, was locked in a never-ending battle to impeach Yeltsin, and he’d already had a quintuple bypass operation. Putin made himself Yeltsin’s indispensable consiglieri, and in doing so put the final lock on his own destiny. On the last day of 1999 Yeltsin made a surprise announcement that he was resigning. His office would devolve to the Prime Minister: Vladimir Putin. At last the former KGB spy who grew up brawling in the streets of St. Petersburg attained full power.
During his 2000 election campaign, Putin adopted a “tough guy” image involving projecting military and diplomatic strength. He posed in a fighter jet–almost exactly as U.S. President George W. Bush would do 3 years later.
It wasn’t quite over yet, though. Under the Russian constitution Yeltsin’s resignation triggered a Presidential election within three months, several months sooner than his opponents planned. Putin was well-positioned as Acting President, and without an official party; his main opponent, Gennady Zyuganov, was a Communist and the party was still unpopular. Putin made great use of the war that was then going on with Chechyna, using the fear of Chechen terrorists to scare up (literally) votes. A series of bombings right before the campaign was blamed by state media on Chechen terrorists despite serious questions of who was really responsible for the attacks. A potent force on Russians’ TV screens night after night, Putin effectively dominated the airwaves, drowning out his competitors. When the election was held on March 26, 2000, Putin won 53.4% of the vote. Though I doubt he cared much about a popular mandate, Putin now held power more or less legitimately, and it would be four years before he had to worry again about political legitimacy.
Most profiles of Putin written in the West adopt a “he came out of nowhere” narrative. From my reading of Putin’s history this is demonstrably incorrect, and may stem simply from the fact that Putin wasn’t very visible to Western observers until, at the earliest, 1998. In reality the reason why Putin kept a low public profile was because he very much wanted it that way. He was a spy; that was his career and livelihood, and thus secrecy and unobtrusiveness were part of his job. In the political free-for-all that was Russia in the 1990s, it was much more prudent to remain under the radar than to foster a splashy public career that would only encourage his public enemies to fixate on him as a potential target. Putin was certainly not the cubicle-bound desk jockey that some Western observers would have you think he was until 1998. On the contrary, he was for a very long time a tsar in the making, an insurgent carefully planning his ultimate seizure of power. Now, after 2000, Russia was Putin’s to command. The big question: what would he do with it?
In Part III of the series, I’ll profile Putin’s career as the leader of Russia, and how his rule represents continuity with the Russian past at the same time as it poses an unusual outlier in modern geopolitics.