Why Russia's Vladimir Putin confounds the West
Neil Macdonald talks to Putin's biographer, and to former CIA boss Michael Hayden
It's unfashionable nowadays to include physical appearance in the assessment of a public figure. But Russia's Vladimir Putin invites it.
He in fact almost demands that the world gaze at his relatively short, thickening figure and sagging pecs.
The former KGB colonel has had himself photographed taming savage beasts, besting opponents on judo mats, leaping across streams, boarding a fighter plane, skiing, fishing, playing hockey, handling an assault rifle, firing a pistol, even descending beneath the Gulf of Finland in a deep-sea submersible, and always wearing the same flat, unaffected expression.
That he would put on such a swaggering public display, often shirtless, has to say something about this man who has confounded the Western powers, frightened Ukraine into submission, and left just about everyone asking what he will do next.
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No other leader of a world power feels compelled to do such things. (Imagine, say, a semi-clad Angela Merkel or Francois Hollande on horseback, high-powered rifle in hand.)
"He wants to be feared," says the expatriate Russian journalist Masha Gessen, who two years ago wrote a very unauthorized Putin biography, The Man Without A Face. "He equates respect with fear."
In the images he stages, Gessen says, "he's always at the controls. He has been photographed controlling every large animal found in Russia from even the polar bear to the Siberian tiger.
"He's king of the jungle. It's very important to project all of these images of potency."
Man of anger
Gessen's views are receiving wide attention at the moment, given the anxiety Putin is inspiring in the U.S. and worldwide.
I interviewed her at length recently in New York. The next day, I sat down with Michael Hayden, the former director of both the CIA and the electronic spies at the National Security Agency.
The two have studied Putin from vastly different perspectives: Gessen, an openly gay, leftist Russian intellectual, and Hayden, a four-star U.S. Air Force general and certified high priest of the secret American state.
And yet on Putin, their views are not terribly different.
Gessen has done the most research; she spent years interviewing acquaintances and associates going back all the way to Putin's childhood in the post-Second World War hellscape of Leningrad.
The picture she assembled was of a man who is not terribly complex, or even very compelling. Putin, she says, is "a run-of-the-mill, mediocre dictator," chosen by the system rather than the other way around, much like Joseph Stalin decades before.
"There are a lot of mediocre men who have become tyrants and he's one of them."
Putin's time as a KGB officer, she says, left him with a "deep-seated and permanent resentment against the people who destroyed the Soviet Union," meaning the West, reformists in the old Soviet politburo and agitators within the USSR and its satellites.
That anger, she says, informs just about everything the Russian president does.
Gessen readily admits she despises him. For crushing Russia's fragile post-Soviet democracy, for basically eliminating a free press, for persecuting critics, for looting her country's wealth and for scapegoating minorities. Particularly gays.
Gessen says Putin has extended his rather crude notions of Russian manliness to mandate contempt for and demonization of people he regards as sexual degenerates.
He's pushed through anti-gay legislation, and uses the word "tolerance" as a pejorative; tolerance, he sneers, has led to an abandonment of Christian values and a moral crisis elsewhere in the world.
The spymaster's take
Gays, says Gessen, have in fact become Putin's shorthand for Western decadence — an integral part of the nativist campaign he's been leading to restore Russia's confidence in itself.
In that vision, she says, Russia will become the world's conservator of traditional values, a light in the moral darkness.
In fact, says Gessen, American evangelical Christians are now invited to speak at the Kremlin and the Duma, Russia's parliament, and have permission to distribute anti-gay material in Russia.
Putin, says Gessen, intends to remain president for life. She predicts his regime will eventually implode, but concedes it is showing no sign of doing so: "It's getting a lot worse."
Hayden, the ex-CIA director, takes a more antiseptic view of the Russian leader.
Putin's macho nationalism, he says, is strategic — part of establishing a theme around which he can rally Russians who feel nostalgic for their supposedly glorious past.
Putin, he says, is "thoroughly KGB," with a worldview that sees natural dynamics of global commerce or international relations as malevolent anti-Russian conspiracies.
He concedes Putin acted "with consummate skill" in moving to absorb Crimea.
"He acted with purpose, he acted with speed, and frankly took advantage of, you know — pick the word — gaps in American policy, pauses in American policies, uncertainties in American policy."
Nonetheless, says Hayden, Putin is first and foremost a product of the KGB, and "the danger in that is he does something stupid. The danger in that is he does something that's really not warranted by external reality, but driven by this incredibly narrow view of the world."
Hayden and Gessen agree most completely on one central point:
Putin has not given Russians democracy, and he has not given them a wonderful economy.
All he has given them is the illusion of a return to greatness.
As Hayden puts it, "he has to some extent gotten Russia back into the game."
But back in as what?
As U.S. President Barack Obama noted last month, Russia no longer leads a bloc of nations, as it once did. Nor does it any longer stand for an ideology that for better or worse inspired the poor and subjugated worldwide.
Putin is instead more like a 19th century Russian monarch — draining the public's wealth, building lavish monuments, making his courtiers rich.
He is the embodiment of Russian history, though he may be taking the country backwards.