Much writing on Russia stems from a simple proposition: to understand autocracy, you need understand the autocrat. Because autocrats have an outsize influence on politics, it is essential to know what makes the leader tick. A Putin adviser coined the memorable phase “No Putin, No Russia,” but for many Western observers, “Know Putin, Know Russia” might be more appropriate.
As a never-ending stream of profiles suggest, Putinology makes great copy. Who doesn’t love to read and write about Vladimir Putin: the bare-chested man on horseback who brought order to Russia? Yet our obsession with Putin’s personality and background warps our view of the country’s complex politics. Putin governs a country of 146 million stretched across 11 time zones. To get things done, he must motivate a corrupt bureaucracy, keep potential elite challengers at bay, and prevent a well-educated, urbanized public with a declining standard of living from taking to the streets. Reducing Russia’s politics to Putin’s temperament and background is not only an analytic mistake, it also unwittingly plays into the hands of the Kremlin.
Much popular writing on Russia assumes that Putin is motivated by a core set of unique beliefs that are consistent over time, but this assumption is hard to sustain. Some say he is a gambler after Russia annexed Crimea. Others say he is cautious and point to his decision to build massive reserve funds for the state from the oil boom of the early 2000s. Some claim he has a long-term plan to undermine international institutions that he sees as biased against Russian interests. For others, he is an opportunist who responds to circumstances as they arise—as in his decision to broker a deal to remove chemical weapons in Syria when President Barack Obama balked at using force in 2013. Some argue he primarily seeks personal wealth as witnessed by the enormous riches of his oldest friends (who presumably are willing to share the spoils). Others contend that he is at heart a Russian nationalist given his proselytizing of the controversial philosophers Ivan Il’in and Aleksandr Dugin. One of the best biographies of Putin suggests that there are six Putins: the statist, history man, survivalist, outsider, free marketeer, and case officer. Identifying a consistent through line in Putin’s worldview is more difficult than the conventional wisdom suggests. For Putin, a willingness to adapt strategies to circumstances appears to dominate any deep ideological commitments.
His policy preferences have also changed over time. Putin is often seen as a statist to his core, yet his economic policies have veered wildly, although a tolerance for corruption runs through his rule. In his first three years in office, he introduced sweeping economic reforms, but when oil prices remained high, he promoted natural resource development. After oil prices fell in 2014 and sanctions took hold, Putin made taxpayer-funded state projects the cornerstone of his economic policy. Putin’s preferences are more flexible than Putin-centered approaches suggest.
Attempts to capture the essence of Putin by exploring his intellectual influences typically fall short. Timothy Snyder argues that Putin is under the sway of Ivan Il’in, who in the first half of the twentieth century emphasized Russia’s unique civilization and cultural superiority, while rejecting liberalism and communism in favor of autocracy and Mussolini-style fascism. Putin may have a soft spot for Il’in, but how do we know that Il’in’s writing and not some other factor is shaping Putin’s behavior? Putin reads many books and mentions other Russian thinkers far more frequently. Putin’s rare Il’in references are generally garden-variety cultural statements and do not touch on his more controversial political positions, yet the notion of Il’in as Putin’s intellectual guru persists. Moreover, Putin may like Il’in’s ideas because they fit his preexisting beliefs—in which case Il’in’s writing are not causing Putin’s behavior at all. Consider the counterfactual. If Putin had not read Il’in, would Russian politics look much different?
Identifying Putin’s core values is complicated by a lack of evidence. Those writing about Putin have little access to the man and none to his notes, and his close advisers won’t reveal much of interest. When Putin blames the West for Russia’s problems and appeals to Russian Orthodoxy as a source of national identity, is this political posturing or a deeply held belief? My guess is the former, but it is hard to know. Putin’s oft-cited biography and public speeches tell us more about Putin as he wants to be seen than as he is. Former Kremlin insiders fallen out of favor can provide valuable insights into Putin’s decision making, but these accounts merit scrutiny given the political and economic motivations that frequently lie behind them. The dearth of evidence gives observers much room for speculation about what Putin “must have been thinking” at any given moment—an exercise that is generally fun, but usually reveals more about the observer than about Putin.
One of the most commonly cited influences on Putin’s behavior is his KGB background, which observers have used to account for Putin’s penchant for repression and anti-Western outlook. But identifying whether Putin’s policy choices are due to his KGB background and not some other factor is not easy. One need not have worked in the KGB to value an assertive foreign policy, favor repression of political opponents, or be skeptical of the West.
Indeed, anti-Westernism seems to be a function of modern nondemocratic rule as much as a feature specific to Putin. When faced with domestic discontent, leaders with backgrounds as diverse as Erdoğan in Turkey, Orban in Hungary, Chávez in Venezuela, and Mohamad in Malaysia have also used criticism of foreign interference, fifth columns funded by foreign opponents, and the evils of Western liberal values to rally their supporters.
Putin’s KGB background has not prevented him from cooperating with the United States when it suits his interest. For all his current bile toward Washington, Putin was the first leader to call President George W. Bush after the attacks on the World Trade Center, and helped secure U.S. efforts to provide supplies to NATO soldiers in Afghanistan, ensure Iranian agreement for a deal limiting Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, and reduce U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons in the New START Treaty. Moreover, Putin was just as much a former KGB officer during the period 2000–2013 when Kremlin policy toward Ukraine was far more accommodating than it became after the fall of the Yanukovych government in February 2014.
Putin’s KGB persona is in part a creation of Kremlin spin doctors. He was a midlevel officer in East Germany and rose to power less through his KGB connections than through his relationships with liberal politicians like Saint Petersburg mayor Sobchak. His most important promotion came from President Yeltsin, who was naturally skeptical of the security services. Yet the idea of Putin as “Stierlitz,” the fictional spy from Soviet-era movies who outwits the Germans during World War II, is a useful one for the Kremlin, and a persona that is cultivated with great care by his public relations team.
Putin’s background in the KGB is important. He increasingly draws on advisers from the security services, his view of politics as driven by the basest motives is consistent with a KGB background, and the security services are his most important base of support. But drawing a line between Putin’s work experience in the KGB and his policies is not so straightforward. Many Russians have become cynical nationalists without having served in the KGB, and autocrats from diverse professional backgrounds have made the security services a bulwark of their regime. Indeed, Putin’s heightened repression in recent years is a common tactic for all types of autocrats when other tools to legitimate their rule falter.
Further, to the extent that Russian politics follows the patterns of other nondemocracies, one can question the importance of Putin’s background and temperament on Russian politics. For many observers, Putin’s KGB past has been critical to the creation of a crony capitalist economy that allows elites to strip assets at home and park them abroad. But autocrats from Central Asia, the Middle East, and Asia are no worse at preying on their economies and laundering their reputations abroad even without the benefit of a KGB past.
Similarly, many analysts have credited Putin’s long term in office—21 years and counting—to his personal guile, ruthlessness, and roots in the security services. This record is remarkable given the many predictions that Putin quickly would be swept aside by powerful oligarchs and regional governors who then held enormous sway. But compared to other rulers in nearby former Soviet republics, Putin’s tenure is par for the course. Karimov ruled Uzbekistan for 27 years and Niyazov ruled Turkmenistan for 16 years. Nazarbayev held power in Kazakhstan for 28 years before resigning in 2019. Lukashenka has ruled Belarus for 26 years and counting while Rahmon has been in power in Tajikistan since 1992. These leaders come from different backgrounds and have different personalities, yet they have all achieved long stays in office.
It should surprise no one that Putin pushed through constitutional rules to extend his term in office last summer. Each autocrat in the former Soviet space has done the same when faced with an approaching term limit, as did Presidents Erdoğan in Turkey and Chávez in Venezuela. Putin’s personal characteristics may have helped him carve out a long tenure, but these comparisons with other countries suggest they are far from the full story.
Putinology makes for an easy tale to tell. A former KGB man behind dark sunglasses seizes power and changes Russia for better or worse. This view not only often leads us astray, it also reinforces a great man version of Russian politics that is near and dear to the Kremlin. Putin’s team works hard to encourage the notion that their president is all-powerful, that political opposition is minimal, and there is no future for Russia without Putin. Underlining the notion that Putin and the Russian state are one and the same distracts our attention from the difficult tradeoffs that confront Putin as he balances two constituencies with competing interests: a Russian society whose views are increasingly out of line with Putin’s and is increasingly frustrated with slow economic growth, and potential elite challengers who want to extract as much rent as possible from a shrinking pie. To understand Russian politics, we need to look beyond Putin and consider how Russian society and Putin’s cronies both buttress and challenge Putin’s rule.
Most importantly, focusing on Putin’s supposedly unique worldview obscures the many similarities that Putin’s Russia shares with other autocracies. While the Kremlin touts Putin’s Russia as the unique construction of a supremely talented leader, Putin faces all the same tradeoffs that other autocrats face: use corruption to reward your cronies, but not so much that the economy collapses and sparks protest. Manipulate the media, but not so much that people stop watching. Use anti-Westernism to rile the base, but not so much that you provoke a conflict. Cheat on elections to ensure victory, but not so much that you signal weakness. Strengthen the security services, but not so much that they can overthrow you. Repress your political opponents, but avoid a popular backlash.
This is not to argue that Putin’s background and experience are of no consequence, or that any randomly selected Russian who landed in the Kremlin would behave like Putin. The debate on whether great individuals make history or history makes great individuals is long and inconclusive. But our national discussion on Russia has overplayed the individual at the expense of other factors—a bias that has not only distorted our view of Russian politics but has also bolstered a key Kremlin talking point—the indispensability of Putin to Russian politics. To better understand Russian politics, we need to shift our gaze from Putin, identify Russia’s commonalities with other autocracies, and probe the difficult tradeoffs that confront the Kremlin on issues from election fraud and repression to propaganda and foreign policy.
WEAK STRONGMAN: The Limits of Power in Putin’s Russia by Timothy Frye. Copyright © 2021 by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission.
Timothy Frye is author of Weak Strongman: The Limits of Power in Putin's Russia. He is the Marshall D. Shulman Professor of Post-Soviet Foreign Policy at Columbia University and a research director at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. His books include Property Rights and Property Wrongs: How Power, Institutions, and Norms Shape Economic Conflict in Russia and Building States and Markets after Communism: The Perils of Polarized Democracy. He lives in New York City. Twitter @timothymfrye