From his seat in the Kremlin, President Vladimir Putin not only is in charge of shaping Russia's destiny, but he also exerts considerable influence over the development of all newly independent states, especially those in the Caucasus and Central Asia.
In spite of occupying such a position of power, few personal details are known about Putin. Remarkably, Putin has remained a popular politician despite the fact that the Russian military is struggling to contain Chechen insurgents. Stagnation in Chechnya has not prevented Putin's approval ratings from climbing. A poll conducted by the Reuters news agency on August 1 showed that 73 percent of Russians approved of Putin's performance as president. That figure represented a 12 percent increase in popularity from his position in June.
At times Putin has appeared to be a cipher. So far, his record as Russian president has left few definitive clues as to his underlying economic philosophy. The few insights into Putin's mindset that are accessible come from Putin himself, or his loyalists. Their impressions are found in his book First Person, or Ot pervogo litsa, rzgovory s Vladimirom Putinym Russian.
The book is a collection of interviews with Vladimir Putin, his wife, and those who know them. Putin's interview was conducted during the winter of 2000 when he had replaced Boris Yeltsin as acting President and was expected to win the pending elections.
One finds little of substance in the book. In describing himself, Putin acts as a good intelligence officer who says a lot without saying anything of substance. Indeed, most of his interview concerns his childhood, friends, and various episodes from his private life. Yet the interviewer provides hardly a glimpse into Putin's ideological developments, and his positions on the eve of the election.
In the book we find out that Putin planned to join the KGB (Soviet secret police) when he was just a teenage boy. The episode is interesting for it shows that it would be simplistic to assume that all youth in Leonid Brezhnev's USSR were either apolitical drunkards or dissidents. Putin finally succeeded in joining the KGB and was sent to East Germany as an intelligence officer. By that time he, as he confesses, had lost his political innocence. His own personal observations, as well as conversations with other KGB officers, led him to the conclusion that the KGB and the Soviet state were not impeccable. Yet he was not a cynic: he did not believe in socialism, but in the state.
He served the state and the state cared for him. Because of this view, the collapse of the Soviet empire in 1989, and specifically the disintegration of East Germany, came as a great shock to Putin. While he had been ready to defend the interests of the state, and implicitly the party that had been the foundation of the state, he realized the state and party would not reciprocate. He recalls the anguish he felt when Moscow did not respond to his call for help and advice. He felt betrayed and came to the conclusion that from now on everyone was looking out for themselves.
As a matter of fact, he became worried about how he would be able to take care of his family. At that point he went back to Russia, to Leningrad, where he would join the team of Anatoly Sobchak, the elected liberal mayor of the city. He did not know what would be the next step for him, and he admits that only in a "nightmarish dream" could one ever think about the collapse of the Soviet Union. Yet he decided to take the side of the emerging new order and understood that the return of the old regime would entail many problems for him.
So, in the fateful days of August 1991, he was not on the side of his fellow KBG members, who tried to preserve the old Soviet order. He was busy touring Leningrad, trying to rally support for Sobchak, and even distributing arms to government loyalists. After the Soviet collapse following the failed coup, he was apparently convinced that he made the right choice. Even those he had respected, including the former KGB chief Vladimir Kryuchkov, had proven inept.
Putin continued to work with Sobchak until Sobchak was voted out of office, causing Putin to lose his job. He remained unemployed until he received a position in Yeltsin's administration, and proceeded to gain rapid promotion. By the winter of 2000, upon Yeltsin's dramatic resignation, he became the acting President.
Only in the last part of the book, does Putin provide a glimpse as to what his vision of the Russian future is. He states firmly that Russia belongs not just to Europe, but to Western Europe. This would appear to set Putin apart from those who champion the popular notion about Russia's special Eurasian path. Putin apparently believes that the incorporation of Russia into Western Europe would be impossible without private property. He indicates that he could find common ground with Russia's robber barons, known collectively as the "oligarchs." He even admits that he frequently consulted Boris Berezovsky, the most notorious among the tycoons, saying that he possessed "a lively mind."
Putin seems to be a believer in market economic principles. He is also an ardent advocate of a strong state. He clearly is concerned about the possibility of the disintegration of the Russian Federation. For this reason, he indicates the ambitions of the governors, who have behaved as semi-independent rulers, should be restrained. Chechnya, in Putin's view, represents a serious threat to Russian national interests.
He states that if Chechnya were not defeated, the Russian government would reveal itself as weak, potentially starting a chain reaction of separatism. Bashkirs, Tartars and other minorities might agitate for independence. Perceptions of a weak central government could also prompt regions populated by ethnic Russians to seek to enhance their powers. The Russian Federation could thus follow in the footsteps of the Soviet Union.
Putin's actions subsequent to the publication of the book are ambiguous. His moves to curtail the authority of regional governors and concentrate power in Moscow clearly are a response to his concerns about the state's territorial integrity. At the same time, his crackdown on the oligarchs belies the book's assertion that he could coexist with the tycoons. It raises the question of whether Putin can abide an economic system beyond the state's complete control.
Putin apparently wishes to present himself here as a Westernized authoritarian ruler who would like to combine a market economy with a strong state. Semi-seriously, he compared himself with Napoleon. Whether he will succeed in his endeavors remains to be seen.
Dmitry Shlapentokh is a professor of
history at the University of Indiana at South Bend.