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The Once and Future Tsar

Putin’s past and Russia’s future

Whitney Milam
May 13, 2018 · 12 min read
Photo by Sergei Gunayev/TIME & LIFE Images via Getty

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History has proven that all dictatorships, all authoritarian forms of government, are transient.

— Vladimir Putin (1999)

Over two decades ago, in the post-Soviet chaos of the mid-1990s, the deputy mayor of St. Petersburg gave a cautionary TV interview. “It sometimes seems to us,” he said, speaking of his fellow Russians, “that if we had a firm hand to bring about order, then we would all live better, more comfortably, and in safety.” He paused, seeming to consider his next words before continuing. “But in fact, this comfort would be very short-lived. This firm hand would quickly begin to strangle us all.”

Within three years, that careful, calculating man would become the Russian President — and after almost two decades in power, his relentless grip on Russia has never felt more strangling.

Vladimir Putin’s fourth presidential inauguration was staged last week in a grand, gilded Kremlin hall that had once crowned three tsars: Alexander II, Alexander III, and Nicholas II. (Two of those three, of course, were assassinated — but don’t let that spoil the intended symbolism.) The televised spectacle was sanctified with a blessing from the head of the Russian Orthodox Church: All in all, it was a ritual meant to evoke a consecration from another era, a coronation from another Russia.

Two days earlier, some 1,600 Russian citizens refusing to be cast as Putin’s eternal subjects were arrested while attending demonstrations across Russia. Wearing paper crowns, they chanted a defiant slogan: “He is not our tsar.”

Whatever the title, few living leaders have maintained a stranglehold on power for so long. Since 1999, Putin has seen four American presidents, nine Japanese prime ministers, three Chinese presidents, eight Italian prime ministers, four French presidents, and four British prime ministers. Tony Blair — one of those dozens of Western leaders Putin has outlived politically — recalled accompanying him to a stage show of War and Peace in the first year of his presidency: “People fell back as he approached, a little in awe and with reverence. It was a tsar-like moment, and I thought: Hmm, their politics really isn’t like ours at all.”

Russia, it’s true, has a long tradition of autocracy, deeply entrenched for centuries before the Putinist system of ‘managed democracy’ arrived as the latest incarnation of centralized, personalized state power. Russia’s geopolitical realities, some say, present no other option: how else to rule the largest nation on earth than by the strong, steady hand of a single man, gathering the Russian lands and peoples under a stabilizing, unifying vision? Far from toppling Russian autocracy, the Soviet system merely painted the tsar red: “The people need a tsar,” as Stalin said, “whom they can worship.”

The role of a tsar to be worshipped is a role that Putin — a KGB case officer-turned-bureaucrat accustomed to blending into the background, a man more used to shadows than to spotlights — did not always seem willing to play. He fidgeted in front of cameras and faltered in front of crowds; seemed vaguely repulsed when elderly supplicants kissed his cheek or his hand; spoke coldly and cynically about deaths and disasters while his subjects mourned. With time, though — time, and a dazzling team of ‘political technologists’ shaping narratives and headlines from behind the scenes (and screens) — Putin came to embrace the true demand of his new role: not merely to rule Russia, but to embody it.

According to former Kremlin spin doctor Gleb Pavlovsky, “Power should be in a way mysterious and magic. Especially in Russia. Putin answered that need perfectly.” Pavlovsky — one of those original political technologists responsible for constructing Putin’s public image out of an endless televised parade of staged rituals, choreographed stunts, and performative photoshoots, coding Russia’s visibly strong new leader as symbolic of the renewed strength of Russia itself — was among the first to capitalize on Putin’s capacity for shape-shifting: his uncanny ability to reflect whatever his audience wants to see, to change and combine ideologies like costumes.

Hopes that Russia’s new president would be a democrat were dashed when he promptly dismantled the free press and systematically took control of the media. Hopes that he would be an easily-controlled political patsy were similarly crushed when he won a power struggle with the country’s richest oligarchs by making an example of the richest of them all, throwing Mikhail Khodorkovsky in a cage for a televised show trial. The Russian Orthodox Church was re-empowered, as Putin used a highly visible alliance between church and state to crown his reign with the sort of legitimacy that was not just electoral, but divine.

Once firmly ensconced within the Kremlin — where power could be framed as not just absolute, but sacred—the Soviet spy chief was transformed into the modernized avatar of a much older, more hallowed role. After the arrest of Khodorkovsky, “the words used to address Putin started to change,” remembered Sergei Kolesnikov, a defector from Putin’s first circle of confidants-turned-courtiers. “At first it was ‘boss’ but then more and more would call him ‘tsar’. It began as a joke. Then it became serious.”

Unlike the true tsars — born into holy privilege, raised to rule from birth — Putin clawed his way to power out of the rat-infested slums of post-siege Leningrad, where frequent beatings by bigger, tougher children drew young Vladimir Vladimirovich to judo. Armed with the knowledge of how to use his tormentors’ superior strength against them, the origin story goes, he began fighting back with a vengeance. The idea of this thuggish, poverty-stricken childhood is a crucial piece of Putin’s personal mythology: he leveraged the popular appeal of a rags-to-riches backstory (heightened by his performative use of street thug slang) to create the persona of a natural protector and defender of ordinary people, a sort of commoner king.

“Before the collapse of the Soviet Union,” noted Sergei Pugachev, another one-time member of Putin’s inner circle, “he lived most of his life in communal flats. He was 40 before he began to work in the mayor’s office. This is why he can’t give up all this now — he wants all these palaces and riches — because where he came from before he had nothing.” At the start of Putin’s presidency, Pugachev drove the newly-appointed tsar to his presidential residence outside Moscow — surrounded on all sides by 20-foot-high walls, with an enormous glittering swimming pool. “His eyes went so big and round,” Pugachev remembered, thinking Putin’s awe at such previously unimaginable riches meant that he would never want anything else in life. “I thought this would be the limit of his dreams. But it turned out absolutely differently. His appetite was unbelievable.”

Having now spent decades exploiting state resources to accumulate vast personal wealth, financially enrich a close-knit cabal of cronies who pay fealty to the Kremlin, and build a global network of illicit money havens on an arguably unprecedented scale, Putin has reached inimitable heights of kleptocratic corruption: by some accounts, he is the richest man on the planet, with an estimated net worth of $200 billion (only $23 billion less than the net worths of Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates combined). With that much at stake, is it any wonder Putin has continued to cling to power at the expense of his country, at the expense of his own standing on the international stage, at the expense of anything, everything else?

“I am ready to do whatever it takes, whatever sacrifices I need to bear,” a younger Putin once claimed, “to restore the country. I define that as the main point of my whole life.” But it is the Russian people who have had to sacrifice their freedoms, their finances, and frequently their lives at the altar of Putin’s power. Putin’s proclaimed vision for Russia — a grand historical heritage of reconciled tsarist and Soviet greatness, a resurgent power rebuilt from the ruins of two empires — relies on what he calls “patriotic self-sacrifice” from its people, a willingness to give up individual rights and comforts for the good of the Russian state… and these days, the Russian state is synonymous with Putin.

As decades have passed — as countless other presidents, prime ministers, and autocrats have come and gone — the kleptocrat-in-chief has stayed untouched and unchallenged in the Kremlin, year after year and term after term, alone on his gilded throne. The distinctive dour lines of Putin’s face have smoothed and shifted with time and cosmetic surgery, hardening and solidifying into something cold, metallic: an unsettling and increasingly impenetrable mask. “He looks emotionless, as if nothing really touches him, as if he is hardly aware of what happens around him,” a former Kremlin interpreter recalled. “He has spent so long as an icon… He is isolated, trapped.”

Trapped is a fitting word for a supposedly all-powerful leader who knows he cannot leave power — not without forfeiting those alleged billions in stolen assets and, perhaps, his life. He has fashioned together a clean historical line of state inheritance, but his intolerance of genuine competition and pitiless suppression of dissent have ensured there is no one to inherit that state when he is gone; no heir or successor or viable alternative; no official ideology or party to carry on without him; no conceivable Russia without Putin.

“The tsar of corruption owns everything and nothing,” says Russia’s only true remaining opposition figure: the frequently harassed, jailed, and assaulted anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny. “Putin understands far too well that when he steps down, for real, he will be prosecuted. He has no political — or physical — future.” The ‘he is not our tsar’ demonstrations were Navalny’s brainchild, of course, and they ended with his fourth arrest in the past year alone — a year that also saw him lose 80% of his sight in one eye after an unknown assailant threw antiseptic chemicals in his face for a second time. Navalny’s own political and physical future remains very much in doubt.

As Russia ages alongside its ruler — more than 1 in 10 Russians are, like Putin, over 65, and the working-age population is set to plummet by a further 10 million over the next 15 years — its future, too, looks increasingly grim. The birth rate continues to decline and the standard of living continues to fall. The best and brightest are killed, or leave. Russia is dying, and its latest personification of state power is as mortal as that revolutionary leader whose embalmed corpse is still displayed outside the Kremlin, or the executed tsar whose exhumed bones remain unburied to this day.

Putin, an avid reader of historical biographies, has grown increasingly preoccupied with his own historical legacy. “When Putin first came to power in 2000, he was concerned with resolving concrete issues,” explains a political consultant who once managed state TV for Putin. “Now, he believes he is writing history. And the lives of individual people have no meaning when you are a historical figure, rather than a mere president.”

Two historical figures in particular reportedly occupy a weighty, cautionary place in Putin’s mind: Mikhail Gorbachev, the final leader of the Soviet Union, and Nicholas II, that murdered final tsar. Each abdicated power and relinquished an empire. Each, from Putin’s perspective, sentenced Russia to collapse. The long shadow cast by 1917 and 1991 — two kinds of Russian revolutions in a single century — spotlights Putin’s darkest fears. Collapse will come again, says history; it always does. For as long as he reigns, Putin will do all he can to prevent another collapse by any means necessary. And if he can’t — if, despite his best attempts to stave off the inevitable fall of his regime, chaos engulfs Russia once again — well, then this time, Russia’s head of state is ensuring he’s prepared.

In mid-2016, Putin demanded the creation of a new National Guard, specifically designed to protect him from popular uprising or revolution. This military force of nearly 400,000 troops is under the command of Putin’s longtime personal bodyguard and loyal to only one person: Putin. The National Guard may arrest without a judicial order, shoot without warning, and disband any organization considered dangerous to Putin. Last year, when 60,000 people took part in Navalny-organized anti-corruption rallies in more than 80 Russian cities — including Putin’s own St. Petersburg, where thousands gathered to chant “Down with the tsar!” on the Palace Square just as a different crowd had done exactly one century ago — the National Guard made its public debut, brutally manhandling and arresting at least 1,000 demonstrators (including, again, Navalny).

“Look,” Navalny says, “of course the regime will fight back. But all autocratic regimes come to an end. Who would have thought in 1985 that the Soviet Union would all come to an end before long? Nobody.” The youngest generation of Russians — those who weren’t even alive in 1985, those most regularly watching Navalny’s YouTube videos and participating in his protests—have no memory of life before the Soviet fall, no memory of the political, social, and economic tumult that followed, no memory of any other leader besides Putin.

By 2024 — the final year of Putin’s ostensibly final term — those born in the first year of his first presidency will be 25 years old, having lived their entire lives under Putin. The political system designed to control their parents and grandparents — by manipulating the media; by degrading the truth; by convincing them that all governments are corrupt and all democracies are ‘managed’; by ensuring Putin’s supposed popularity has never been put to the test in a free, fair, and competitive election; by casting them not as participatory citizens of Russian civil society but as passive subjects of a neo-tsar — will survive only as long as ‘Putin’s children’ can be intimidated into tolerating it.

Last September, Khodorkovsky — Russia’s one-time richest man, now a pro-democracy activist living in Switzerland after ten years spent in prison for crossing Putin—wrote a compelling diagnosis of the core dilemma facing Russia:

Modern Russia has never properly digested or discussed 1917 or 1991. To avoid the mistakes of the past, we need to determine why Russia’s two attempts to establish democracy in the 20th century led to new authoritarian regimes. In both cases, having overthrown one tyrant — the tsar in 1917 and communism in 1991 — Russia ended up handing over power to another. The challenge facing democratically minded Russians therefore isn’t simply to remove Mr. Putin from power; it’s to replace the authoritarian system he personifies.

Beyond Russia’s recently expanded borders, authoritarian systems are ascendant. Other autocrats — actual and aspiring — see Putin as a role model, or claim him as a patron. It is fitting irony that Putin, whose hatred of chaos and revolution is so personal, has spent the past several years spreading and sponsoring chaos around the world, sparking a global revolution of sorts: upheaval of the international order. In a time of so much global uncertainty, who can say where the world itself will be by 2024? Much can happen in six years. Putin, of all people, is well aware of that.

As he begins his fourth term four years after the invasion and annexation of Crimea — with a costly, bloody war still raging in eastern Ukraine — Putin has no new patriotic narrative to offer Russia, no new unifying national story to tell. He has only his vast empire of corruption, and his determination to maintain it at any cost: the restoration of Russia is no longer the goal so much as the preservation of Putin.

“I realized that Putin is not the tsar,” concluded Kolesnikov, that defector from Putin’s long-ago St. Petersburg circle. “A tsar cares for his people. I realized that Putin is a dictator… and in the end, all dictators end the same way.”

Further Reading

  • Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell In and Out of Love with Vladimir Putin by Ben Judah
  • All the Kremlin’s Men: Inside the Court of Vladimir Putin by Mikhail Zygar
  • The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin by Steven Lee Myers
  • The Putin Mystique: Inside Russia’s Power Cult by Anna Arutunyan
  • Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin by Clifford Gaddy and Fiona Hill
  • I’m Going to Ruin Their Lives: Inside Putin’s War on Russia’s Opposition by Marc Bennetts
  • Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia? by Karen Dawisha
  • The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin by Masha Gessen

Whitney Milam

Written by

Digital Communications at National Security Action. http://whitneymilam.com

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