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)