The Enigmatic Mr. Putin

Taking the pulse of Russia's president and politics

Photograph by Maxim Marmur, Reuters/CORBIS

Who is Mr. Putin?” The question reverberated in world capitals when Boris Yeltsin called a press conference on August 9, 1999, to introduce Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin as his choice for prime minister of Russia and as his heir when a presidential election rolled around the next summer. Yeltsin accelerated the timetable by resigning on December 31 and decreeing his protégé acting president. On March 26, 2000, Putin won a popular mandate in his own right.

We normally size up a new leader by looking for guidance to his or her biography. In this regard, the Putin story, as lived from his birth in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) in 1952, presented several problems.

For one, he was a late bloomer who had left few tracks in his earlier jobs. Only in 1996 did he relocate to Moscow and only in 1997 did he catch Yeltsin’s attention, one year before being appointed director of the FSB, the successor to the Soviet Union’s security and intelligence agency, the KGB. Putin had not previously headed any organization and had not once run for elective office. And he never aspired to be Russia’s top leader: he was astonished when Yeltsin broached the idea.

Another issue had to do with Putin’s having spent the bulk of his career in the foreign intelligence wing of the KGB, five years of it at the KGB station on Angelikastrasse in Dresden, East Germany. Espionage as a line of work is cloaked in secrecy and oftentimes in deception. It selects for individuals who have the aptitude for these arts and it hones them through training. I have met Putin twice, in hospitable group settings. He shakes hands firmly and makes eye contact, yet blushes slightly and rocks back on his heels as he greets you. The impression telegraphed is of someone disinclined by nature and vocation to give away much about himself.

Extrapolation from his past in 1999 or 2000 would have brought a further discordance—mixed signals. The Putin dossier testified to the KGB entanglement, on the one hand. But on the other, it spoke of a legal education, a credential he shared with Mikhail Gorbachev, and an association with Anatolii Sobchak, one of the better-known Russian democrats of the perestroika era. Sobchak was Putin’s professor at Leningrad State University in the 1970s, and from 1991 to 1996, when Sobchak was the elected mayor of St. Petersburg, Putin was his right-hand man. The reason Putin and his family migrated to Moscow in 1996 was that he was persona non grata in his hometown once his patron lost a bitter reelection battle. When Sobchak then came under attack for alleged but never proven corruption, Putin arranged at considerable personal risk to have him spirited out of the country to Paris in 1997. (Sobchak returned to Russia in 1999 and died in early 2000.)

Once president, Putin soon pursued a public line that, whatever the private yearnings and calculations behind it, set the tone for his administration. Its logic can be summarized in a pair of oft-repeated phrases: ukrepleniye gosudarstva (“strengthening of the state”) and upravlyayemaya demokratiya (“managed democracy”). It obviously was closer in spirit to the demimonde of the security services than to a Sobchak or Gorbachev.

Yeltsin in his day transformed Russia by loosening the apron strings of state control over economic activity, decentralizing, and tolerating criticism in the mass media and a plenitude of organized points of view in the political sphere. The gestalt was closer to what Thomas Carothers of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace dubs “feckless pluralism” than it was to a textbook democracy. But the liberalizing trend was unmistakable. Yeltsin was content to achieve his breakthrough and leave the next generation to perfect the system. The flip side of the coin was government’s loss of steering power and capacity, faults that were spectacularly on display in two successive crises late in his second term: the financial emergency of August 1998, in which many banks failed and the treasury defaulted on its debts; and the launching of a second war over the breakaway republic of Chechnya in August-September 1999, after Chechen fighters raided a neighboring Russian section. It was the Caucasus war that provided Putin with the golden chance to display his leadership qualities in the winter of 1999-2000.


Right after taking the oath of office, Putin took action on a series of fronts to rectify what he saw as the overindulgence of the Yeltsin era, without ever denigrating Yeltsin personally. Having ousted Chechnya’s suicidal separatist government, he used his army to grind down the guerrillas and refused to negotiate with their remnants. He overlaid seven “federal districts” on the 89 provinces of Russia, each with a Kremlin plenipotentiary, and removed the provincial governors from the upper house of parliament. In 2005 he pushed through the abolition of the direct election of governors, who were henceforth to be nominated by the president and merely confirmed by the provincial legislature.

Putin moved with equal dispatch to clip the wings of the “oligarchs,” the upstart moguls who tried to play kingmaker in the late 1990s. Vladimir Gusinskii, owner of the commercial television network NTV, was accused of financial abuses and fled to the United States and Israel in 2000. The flamboyant Boris Berezovskii, who among other things had called the shots at ORT, the main state-owned television outlet, suffered the same fate forthwith and took up residence in London. The heaviest blow was struck in October 2003, when government agents arrested Mikhail Khodorkovskii, the wealthiest man in Russia; he was convicted of fraud in May 2005 and sentenced to nine years in a Siberian prison camp. The main assets of Yukos, his oil company, were redistributed to government-owned firms, paving the way for a widening of the state role in the petroleum sector. The Russian natural-gas industry, the world’s largest, had never been privatized and remained the preserve of a state concern, Gazprom; in the oil industry, second to Saudi Arabia in output, government equity rose to about 30 percent.

The reassertion of clout was no less pronounced in politics. The elimination of Gusinskii and Berezovskii was followed by the imposition of a uniformly pro-regime line in the television news. In the electoral realm, Putin gave his blessing to a “party of power” named United Russia, designed to represent the ruling group at all levels. In the 2003 parliamentary election, it captured almost 40 percent of the countrywide vote and two-thirds of the seats in the State Duma, the lower house of the national legislature. Provincial governors were now expected to join United Russia as a token of their loyalty. Other Russian parties have been subjected to elaborate and intrusive regulation, while barriers to entry by newcomers have been stiffened. In 2005 the Putin government instituted parallel restrictions on nongovernmental organizations of every stripe.

The final application of Putinism is to foreign policy. Russia with him at the helm has been a more demanding partner in dealings with the other world powers. In relations with the United States, new strains have emerged in Putin’s second term (which began eight months before George W. Bush’s second term), and old ones have been exacerbated. In its former imperium in Eurasia, with Russia pushier and testier than was the case under Yeltsin, spats over energy pricing and transport, military bases, and incorporation into the Western alliance have been regular occurrences. Even President Aleksandr Lukashenko of Belarus, the most pro-Russian of all the ex–Soviet republics, is barely on speaking terms with Moscow.


In pondering these developments, it is essential to keep in mind their provenance, their boundaries, and the forces nurturing them. It would be a gross oversimplification to say they sprang from the head of one man. Putin’s previous experiences and personal preferences, as noted, were quite complex. Like any effective leader, he responds to circumstances and empowers subordinates to flesh out shared goals. Having recruited many subordinates with backgrounds akin to his, he receives a steady diet of advice that reinforces his own predilections, or aspects of them.

He was motivated to formulate his program, aside from his anxiety about the weakness of the state, by a natural desire to differentiate himself from his predecessor. Boris Yeltsin, do not forget, handpicked him as heir. He did so because he detected in Putin qualities he lacked and judged him competent not only to maintain key gains of democratization but to correct its excesses. Putin, needless to say, has excelled more in the latter task than in the former. Moreover, he has improvised along the road. This applies, for example, to the landmark decision to put an end to the election of governors. That followed a horrendous attack by Chechen terrorists on a secondary school in Beslan, North Ossetia, on September 1, 2004, which resulted in the deaths of about 350 people, half of them children. The Beslan tragedy emboldened Putin to extend his grip and biased both rank-and-file and elite Russian opinion in his favor.

Although the authoritarian drift is beyond denial, it has had its limits. United Russia is a coalition of opportunists and hangers-on, not a purposive or disciplined force. The Putin team sets priority targets: television, political parties and elections, and uppity businessmen. Outside that zone, the vise has been tightened less or, on many points, not at all. For instance, there has been no attempt to encumber interpersonal communication or access to information networks. Cellphone penetration has surged to 60 percent countrywide and to 80 or 90 percent in the big cities, and 25 million Russians are estimated to have surfed the Internet unimpeded in 2006, in contrast to China, where the government screens websites. Nor has there been serious infringement on intellectual and cultural life, which by all indicators has been rebounding from a low point during the economic hard times after 1991. In the vast majority of court cases that are nonpolitical, the judiciary functions better than in the 1990s, and jury trials have been made compulsory for the most severe crimes. Economically, private capital still predominates, despite state inroads in the energy field. As for the business class, it has made far more money during Putin’s reign than it did during Yeltsin’s. Forbes magazine registered not a single Russian billionaire in 1999 or 2000, in the aftermath of the 1998 crash. In 2006 it listed 33, the third highest total in the world (behind the United States and Germany), and their net worth had soared from $91 billion to $172 billion during the preceding year.

Putin’s hybrid regime has drawn sustenance from three underlying forces. The first and foremost has been economic. High oil and gas prices, combined with the long-term benefits of the Yeltsin economic reforms and with investment-friendly decisions since 2000, have brought Russia a sustained boom; this comes as an immense relief after the decade of contraction and hardship under Gorbachev and Yeltsin, during which the economy shrank by more than 50 percent—worse than the Great Depression in the United States. The World Bank reckons that gross domestic product (GDP) increased by an average of 6.2 percent annually in 2001 through 2006; the real disposable income of the population surged by 11.2 percent per year from 2002 to 2006. Among other boons, the recovery has filled the coffers and greased the wheels of the state machine. The federal government has a primary budget surplus and a huge currency stabilization fund and has poured billions into paying down the national debt, rebuilding the military, and social services.

Economic strength has fed political strength. Putin’s aura, however, goes beyond GDP and family incomes. His approval ratings have been flat at the 70 to 80 percent level since his inauguration, remarkably impervious to failures and embarrassments. He won reelection with 71 percent of the vote in March 2004, or 18 percentage points more than he polled four years before. Electoral fraud accounts at best for a tiny fraction of this showing. Rightly or wrongly, the average citizen lauds Putin for his businesslike style and for bringing the country order and self-respect. His reputation sails miles above that of his policies: polls consistently show large minorities or pluralities doubting specific decisions on, say, inflation or corruption while keeping the faith in the architect of those policies.

The international environment has been the third big prop for the president and his system of power. Russians appreciate their nation’s resurgence in world politics, and the leader they credit for this revival. Opinionmakers attuned to Putin share two deep grievances that in turn resonate with the mass audience. Toward the West, there is rancor at what they view as the indifference to Russia’s plight in the first postcommunist decade, when the country was at a low ebb and NATO, overriding protests from Yeltsin, expanded into eastern Europe. This resentment dovetails with anger at American unilateralism under President Bush. Whatever lingering receptivity the Russian elite had to U.S. moralizing about peace and democracy was done in by the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Russia’s indignation over American plans to base missile-defense units near its borders are but a first taste of what is likely to come in the arms-control domain. Toward the former Soviet republics, Putin’s Russia betrays a welter of emotions, but prime among them are nostalgia for empire, a sour resentment at perceived ingratitude, and a determination to block further incursions by third parties. On all these points, Putin is if anything more moderate than the average member of the apparatus he heads.


The enigmatic Mr. Putin insists that he is about to leave center stage, and so Russians and Russia watchers are forced to think of the future. The second consecutive term allowed by the 1993 constitution expires next spring, and Putin has repeatedly declared his opposition to a constitutional amendment enabling him to serve longer. The authorities have already scheduled the presidential election for March 9, 2008. Putin has said he will recommend a candidate during the campaign, and the odds surely favor voters going along with his preference, as they did with Putin himself eight years before. Kremlin strategists have coined a new slogan for the pre-election interval: defense of Russia’s suverennaya demokratiya, or “sovereign democracy”—in other words, maintenance of the Putinist status quo.

Whoever prevails in the short term—the current betting is on either of two first deputy prime ministers, Sergei Ivanov and Dmitrii Medvedev, but dark horses lurk—the Russian political environment dictates that we will not know much more in advance about the victor’s inner world than we did about Putin’s in 1999-2000.

Looking five or so years out, the enigmatic Mr. X will have one continuity-enhancing variable to cope with that Putin did not have: namely, the presence on the scene of a relatively young, healthy, and admired predecessor (Yeltsin was elderly, unhealthy, and unloved). Putin has hinted that he will play a significant role after he steps down. This could be an informal one, not unlike that of Deng Xiaoping as China’s senior statesman in the 1980s and 1990s, or a more formalized role, such as chairman of United Russia or conceivably prime minister (Putin could hold this office without constitutional amendment). But the trouble with looking over another’s shoulder, as the parents of teenagers inevitably discover, is that it does not guarantee compliance—and may indeed be counterproductive.

Fact is, Russia’s incoming leader, with an eye to self-assertion and to his place in history, will have the same incentives to separate from the outgoing leader that Vladimir Putin had. In theory, Mr. X could, of course, change the country for the worse by intensifying the illiberal tendencies of the Putin years. Alternatively, he could nudge it in the opposite, more liberal direction.

We should not dismiss the possibility of a more liberal course. The combination of economic dynamism and political inertia is not always a viable one, as the democratization of countries such as Spain, South Korea, and Taiwan goes to show. Significant segments of the Russian elite, while mostly respectful of Putin’s contribution to stability, chafe at the prominence of ex-KGB functionaries, at the infantile state of the news media, and at the curbs on political competition, and harbor a fear that, without more ironclad protections for individual rights and private property, they, too, are in danger of going the way of Khodorkovskii. In personal terms, Mr. X will have difficulty equaling Putin’s rapport with the grassroots, and slavish adherence to the Putin program would make the new man look all the paler by comparison. Then there is the international factor. It will not be decisive on its own, but in combination with domestic factors it may make a difference. We will have a modest chance to influence Russia’s developmental choices if, this time around, we can imagine a place for it in the global community in which its worst instincts are restrained and its best instincts encouraged.


Feldberg professor of government and Russian studies Timothy J. Colton is the director of Harvard’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies and the author of the forthcoming Yeltsin: A Political Life (to be published by Basic Books in 2008).

You might also like

Steven Pinker on Apple’s Vision Pro

Professor of psychology on the science and history behind the Vision Pro.

The State of Black America

Harvard African American scholars take stock of a difficult moment. 

Threats Foreign and Domestic

Joseph Nye discusses geopolitics and Harvard’s challenges.

Most popular

Murphy Time

Harvard’s greatest football coach—and one of the best anywhere

Harvard Files Amicus Brief in Graduate Student Unionization Case

The University argues that the relationship between graduate students and universities should remain academic, not managerial, and student labor unions would “damage private sector graduate education.”

Labor Litigator

Attorney Shannon Liss-Riordan takes on the app economy.

More to explore

Photograph of Winthrop Bell 1910

Winthrop Bell

Brief life of a philosopher and spy: 1884-1965

Illustration of people talking to each other with colorful thought bubbles above their heads

Talking about Talking

Fostering healthy disagreement

Vacationing with a Purpose

New England “summer camps” for adults