Putinology considered harmful: the many legends we tell ourselves about Vladimir Putin

Russian emigre -- and Putin opponent -- Keith Gessen writes at length and very well about the different guises that Vladimir Putin takes on in the imaginations of western political writers: genius, nothing, secret stroke survivor, KGB agent, killer, kleptocrat, a man with the suspicious name of "Vladimir."

None of these are a thorough accounting for who Putin is; as a genius, he's certainly prone to some pretty dumb mistakes; as a nothing, he has done rather a lot; as a super-ninja KGB spook he's certainly no more Machiavellian than the average EU leader; as a killer, his body-count owes much to apparently rogue underlings; as a kleptocrat, he is certainly willing to risk his pals' billions. He is, however, named Vladimir.

After reading Gessen's piece, I think kleptocrat comes closest, with all the short-sightedness that implies. As Gessen writes, for a genius, Putin has certainly failed to secure his own peaceful succession: "it is hard to imagine an end to the Putin era that is not violent, and whose violence does not lead to more violence" -- thus, "[Putin]'s palace is, in a way, the most hopeful thing that Putin is building – a promise of his eventual retirement, and under circumstances where he is not torn from limb to limb by a mob that has entered the Kremlin and overpowered his personal guards."

With Putin the killer, we reach something like Putinology’s conceptual blind spot. What we seem to be dealing with, in Russia, is neither a failed state, where the government has no power, nor a totalitarian state, where it has all the power, but something in between. Putin does not order killings, and yet killings happen. Putin ordered the takeover of Crimea, but, as best as anyone can tell, he seems not to have ordered the invasion of eastern Ukraine. That invasion appears to have been undertaken as a freelance operation by a small group of mercenaries funded by a well-connected Russian businessman. Real Russian troops came later. But if Putin isn’t in charge of everything – if there are powerful forces operating outside of Putin’s say-so – what’s the point of Putinology? On this point, Putinology is silent.

The absolute worst crime of which Putin has been accused is the bombing of several apartment blocks in Moscow in 1999. In September of that year, with President Boris Yeltsin ill, presidential elections just around the corner, and a relatively unknown Putin recently moved from heading the FSB to running the government as Yeltsin’s prime minister, two large apartment buildings blew up in Moscow, killing nearly 300 people. A few days later there was another building explosion, this time in the southern city of Volgodonsk. And a few days after that, in a bizarre incident, some men were caught by local police planting what appeared to be explosives in the basement of a building in Ryazan – the men turned out to be from the FSB. They quickly removed the apparent bomb and declared the whole thing a “training exercise” meant to test the vigilance of the populace and the police.

Killer, kleptocrat, genius, spy: the many myths of Vladimir Putin [Keith Gessen/The Guardian]

(via Naked Capitalism)

(Image: Pussy Riot - Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, painted portrait, thierry ehrmann, CC-BY)

Notable Replies

  1. Articles like this are strange. Interesting information, but by taking on a series of straw men, they fail to do justice to any of the issues brought up.

    It's like trying to address the treatment of LGBT people in Russia, and saying "is Putin a queer basher? Putin only presides over and promotes anti-gay laws, presides over a nation whose state controlled media engages in hateful anti-LGBT propaganda and promotes extreme anti-LGBT stereotypes, and speaks about the need to purge Russia of homosexuals, while regular citizens engage in the beatings of LGBT people, and it's not Putin, but the police and state authorities who imprison gay people, remove children from gay parents, and attack them, not but Putin who doesn't personally bash any gays, so clearly he is not a gay basher."

    Rather than discussing the issue of hundreds of journalists critical of Putin and his administration dying (typically at the hands of an oligarch and state-connected mafia), he just works to absolve Putin of direct responsibility. Rather than discussing Putin running a regime that props up some of the most radical income inequality in the world with a handful of unelected oligarchs (who also can also wind up dead if they displease Putin) controlling vast power through their wealth and mafia connections, with that wealth granted to them by the state, he says since we don't know Putin's net-worth we can't say he's a kleptocrat. It's helpful in pointing to how systemic Russia's issues are, but absolves a figure who was involved in the creation of that system and who maintains it.

  2. Orb says:

    I'm reading this as apologetic for or slightly dismissive/ downplaying of Putin's shenanigans. Am I the only one?

    IMO he's a walking skin bag of dominator human garbage. A liar, a propagandist, a murderer and oppressor. I don't know why you'd downplay that. Sure maybe giving too much credit when it comes to murders of his dissidents etc etc, but why go soft and understate the threat Putin represents? "No more Machiavellian than your average EU leader?" Sure... out of the ones that want you dead when you go against them... sure. I must be misunderstanding the point.

  3. I agree with a lot of what you are saying here. It seems that the entire article is a lead up to the final paragraphs, where the writer takes aim at their real target. The whole thing seems to be saying "Look, blame Putin all you like, but you can't explain away the root cause of the rise of 45 by pointing abroad. Regardless of any manipulation, millions of people still voted for day-glow Mussolini."

  4. The outcome was consistent with the polling. If Trump won marginally, the fact there was that thin a margin points to some serious non-Putin problems that we need to solve yesterday. Because Putin can die tomorrow and I still have no clue what 2018 is going to look like.

  5. It is an odd piece indeed. The intent behind segregating the various criticisms of Putin into distinct "theories" is to highlight their failings in a predictive capacity: you can't simply replace the question "what will Putin do next?" with "what would a KGB agent do?", or "what would deter Putin?" with "what would deter a kleptocrat?". His motivations and methods aren't that straightforward (though neither are they ineffably complex, as the idea of "Putin the chess master" would suggest). That is a legitimate point worth making.

    But the way it is presented - interspersing inarguable facts with more contentious arguments that the author then refutes, or with outright silliness (like the Vladimir bit) - makes the whole piece come off as some low-key advocacy for Putin. The author states a sizeable number of legitimate criticisms that he does not challenge directly, but they are nonetheless weakened through the context. You could quite easily add a lot more punch to the piece simply by changing the order in which the arguments are presented.

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