“You’re the Puppet” – A Russian journalist challenges the standard view of Vladimir Putin as a supervillain
Tony Wood, in BookForum, December 2016
“In the last few years, even as Russia and the West have become bitterly opposed on one issue after another—Snowden, Ukraine, Crimea, Syria, the hacking allegations—there has been general agreement between them on at least one thing: the absolute centrality of Vladimir Putin. In Russia, he dominates the political stage and the airwaves, and a decade and a half after he first won the presidency, he still enjoys approval ratings that would be the envy of most elected leaders: After the annexation of Crimea, they spiked to over 80 percent, where they have remained ever since. In the West, he has increasingly been portrayed as the most implacable foe of the US and its allies, a malevolent puppet master pulling the strings in a succession of crises and conflicts across the world. (In February 2014, after Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych unleashed the security forces against protesters on the Maidan, The Economist dubbed the ensuing street battles “Putin’s inferno”; this past August, Senator Harry Reid demanded an FBI inquiry into Putin’s apparent plan to tamper with the US elections.) For both sides, this one man has become all but inseparable from the policies and practices of the country he leads, receiving credit or blame in quantities usually reserved for minor deities or superheroes. When one of his advisers asserted, in October 2014, that “Russia is Putin. Russia exists only if there is Putin,” Western policymakers and mainstream media might have objected to his sycophancy, but not his reasoning. Where Russia is concerned, it seems, all roads lead to Putin.
Russian journalist Mikhail Zygar flies in the face of this consensus in All the Kremlin’s Men. “It is widely assumed that decisions in Russia are made by one man and one man alone,” he writes. But for Zygar, “Putin is not one person. He (or it) is a huge collective mind.” In other words, Putin’s decisions reflect not so much the plans or whims of an individual as the outcome of factional battles among an extensive cast of characters. Not only is the focus on Putin himself misguided but, according to Zygar, there is no coherent strategy behind the Kremlin’s actions at all. “It is logic that Putin-era Russia lacks,” he writes. “Everything that happens is a tactical step, a real-time response to external stimuli devoid of an ultimate objective.” Those looking for cunningly woven conspiracies, then, are in for a disappointment: Putin is more puppet than puppet master, his moves dictated by events and people beyond his control.
These iconoclastic arguments aren’t the only reason All the Kremlin’s Men became a best seller when it appeared in Russia last year: Written in a rather flat but accessible style, the book is based on the testimony of an impressive selection of key figures in contemporary Russian politics. (Zygar mentions at the outset having interviewed dozens of people over several years, who “as a rule . . . asked not to be quoted”; this, along with the book’s sparse references, makes it hard to tell for sure where particular pieces of information have come from.) The level of access he seems to have enjoyed is unusual, given that he is hardly a Kremlin insider. A reporter for the business newspaper Kommersant in the 2000s—including spells as a foreign correspondent in the Middle East, Central Asia, and Ukraine—Zygar became the founding editor in chief of the liberal TV channel Dozhd (“Rain”) in 2010 and remained there until 2015. The station is best known for its sympathetic coverage of the 2011–12 protests, in which thousands took to the streets in cities across Russia to call for fair elections and for a “Russia without Putin.” (Since then Dozhd has come under increasing pressure from the authorities, being shut out from the country’s cable networks in early 2014 and evicted from its offices that December.) Zygar’s own sympathies are clear: He speaks admiringly of Yeltsin’s free-market reforms, presenting Putin’s rule as a sad reversal of much that had been achieved in the 1990s. But he differs from many of Putin’s other liberal opponents in refusing to see this turn as the inevitable outcome of a dark KGB-led conspiracy. It was instead, he suggests, a highly contingent process, and one that Putin himself had not envisaged turning out this way.
Zygar provides a chronological narrative of the years from 2000 to 2015, structured around a series of individuals, with one personality dominating each chapter. We get pen portraits of notorious (and less well-known) members of Putin’s inner circle: the former chief of the presidential staff and close confidant of Putin, ex-spy Sergei Ivanov; the Kremlin strategist who orchestrated Putin’s rise in the first place, Alexander Voloshin; the Machiavellian manipulator Vladislav Surkov, a reader of postmodern theory who has fabricated entire political parties on the Kremlin’s behalf; Viktor Medvedchuk, once chief of staff to Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma, and described here as “the last Ukrainian to enjoy Putin’s trust”; and many others. (The book opens, in somewhat daunting Tolstoyan fashion, with a twelve-page “list of characters.”) Zygar briefly retells the familiar story of Putin’s ascent to the presidency, from his time as assistant to the mayor of St. Petersburg in the early 1990s to his astonishingly rapid rise through the ranks of government in the capital. By July 1998 he had been appointed head of the FSB, successor agency to the KGB. Over the course of the following year, Yeltsin’s coterie became increasingly anxious that the incumbent might be prosecuted after leaving office and began to cast around for a dependable heir. Might Putin—then a gray functionary, almost entirely unknown to the public—fit the bill? Aside from competence, the qualities that marked him out for promotion were precisely his ordinariness and loyalty to his superiors, rather than any personal authority, vision, or charisma. In August 1999, Yeltsin surprised everyone by designating him prime minister. Putin’s popularity skyrocketed after he invaded Chechnya, which instantly gave him an air of menace and gravitas. Still, it came as a shock when Yeltsin resigned on New Year’s Eve, making Putin acting president.
The bulk of the book is devoted to capturing the changing character of his rule since then. Zygar divides it into four phases, each given a tongue-in-cheek regal title. “Putin I the Lionheart” covers his first term in office (2000–2004), in which he attempted to continue the neoliberal thrust of Yeltsin’s administration. As Zygar reminds us, his efforts met with hearty approval from Western governments at the time, especially those of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair: The former applauded his bombardment of Grozny as a “liberation,” while the latter rushed to visit Putin in Russia two weeks before he was actually elected, treating a campaigning candidate as if he were the established leader. Yet it was also in this period that Putin definitively subdued the parliament and began to push the media into line. “Putin II the Magnificent” describes his second term (2004–2008), which was marked by sustained economic growth, but also by what many critics saw as a turn away from his earlier commitment to neoliberal principles—signified above all by the gradual dismemberment of Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s oil company, Yukos. There was also growing mistrust of the West, stirred by NATO’s eastward expansion and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine.
A third section is devoted to the four-year presidency of Dmitry Medvedev (“Prince Dmitry”), characterized on the one hand by a liberalization of the political climate, and on the other by spreading economic woes in the wake of the global financial crisis. The first stirrings of protest had appeared in the mid-2000s, but now small signs of social discontent began to multiply—with the corruption of the ruling United Russia party a focal point for popular anger. There was also a sharp worsening of relations with the West over the August 2008 war with Georgia—and those tensions only increased with Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012. After a winter that brought the largest antigovernment demonstrations of the post-Soviet era, he nonetheless secured an easy victory. The fourth phase of Putin’s rule (predictably labeled “Putin the Terrible”) brought a more stridently nationalistic rhetoric, accompanied by affirmations of Russian Orthodox spirituality; that new official ideology, emphasizing a “civilizational” difference between East and West, has hovered in the background of the country’s confrontations with the US and its allies in recent years. It played a crucial role, for instance, in the persecution of Pussy Riot, whom the Putin government portrayed not only as blaspheming against the Orthodox faith, but also (and by the same token) as betraying the motherland. Those criticizing the government increasingly risked being tagged as a “fifth column” amid a broader clampdown on dissent, especially from the radical Left. It was in this already polarized climate that the Ukraine crisis unfolded, giving another boost to the repressive elements of Putinism, and narrowing the space for meaningful opposition still further.
Zygar’s is a conventional enough account of the past fifteen years of Russia’s history, albeit one enlivened by some unusual details. (For example, many of the Kremlin’s inner circle apparently refer to Putin as telo, “the body”—perhaps a reference to the president’s obsession with his physique, though there’s also the embalmed corpse of Lenin lying just the other side of the Kremlin wall; either way, the metaphor seems to illustrate Zygar’s claim that Putin is not the all-powerful autocrat he may appear to be.) There are moments when the reader might wonder how much trust she is supposed to place in Zygar’s sources: Are the various snippets of dialogue between Putin and his entourage included here being reproduced verbatim? But perhaps even more problematic than the way he presents his material is his emphasis on the contingent, improvised nature of developments under Putin, his insistence that they did not unfold according to any underlying logic or cause. One difficulty here is that the impression of contingency is to some extent a product of Zygar’s own preoccupation with a collection of individuals at the top of Russia’s political hierarchy. Keeping a close eye on the Byzantine intrigues of rival Kremlin factions makes it that much harder to bring the larger picture into focus.
Given the challenge Zygar presents to the standard image of Putin as puppet master, it’s ironic that he should then offer no credible sense of who or what might be pulling the strings instead. This crucial bigger picture is what’s missing from Zygar’s book: an understanding of the system over which Putin presides, one that could actually help us make sense of the Russian leadership’s actions, both individual and collective. The figures Zygar interviews may plot and scheme in all manner of complicated ways, but they are not doing so for the fun of it, nor is it all that difficult to trace a logical pattern in their machinations: They are fighting to defend the material interests, assets, and privileges they have acquired over time. In that respect, their motivations are little different from those of elites in other countries, even if the specific methods they use may be cruder. (Among Russian biznesmeny, for instance, “hostile takeovers” have sometimes involved actual private armies facing off against each other.) What’s particular to Russia is the closeness of the relationship between private wealth and the state. That relationship, often depicted as one of domination by the Kremlin over capital, is in reality closer to a symbiosis, in which political and economic power are intertwined—and mostly concentrated within the same small group of people. After the fall of Communism, the Yeltsin administration rushed to privatize large chunks of the economy, transferring factories, mines, oil fields, banking licenses, and so on to a select few individuals. The state played the decisive role in creating this new class, as the beneficiaries have readily acknowledged. Banker Pyotr Aven—currently ranked No. 317 on the Forbes list of billionaires—once observed that “to become a millionaire in our country it is not at all necessary to have a good head or specialized knowledge. Often it is enough to have active support in the government, the parliament, local power structures and law enforcement agencies. . . . In other words, you are appointed a millionaire.” For most of the 1990s, the oligarchs created by the state seemed to have the upper hand, with figures such as Boris Berezovsky all but dictating government policy. But the 1998 ruble collapse and ensuing economic crisis weakened the oligarchs’ position, while the rise in global commodities prices from 1999 onward suddenly sent floods of tax revenues into state coffers, strengthening the hand of the government. The tide now turned the other way, and state officials began to exert more pressure on business. The 2003 attack on Khodorkovsky confirmed the shift, and sent a signal to the other oligarchs that new rules were going to apply. But in neither phase did the idea of private profit-making as the governing principle come into question—only the distribution of the rewards.
Though Zygar, like many others, depicts him as having undone the free-market reforms of the Yeltsin years, Putin has in fact worked to consolidate the system that was put in place, providing continuity and stability at its center so that the business of business can keep going. The state controls strategic sectors such as oil and gas, but a large proportion of the economy is left to the play of market forces, allowing the elite to keep piling up substantial fortunes. In 2000, Putin famously boasted that the oligarchs would “cease to exist as a class,” and yet the actual effect of his rule has been to multiply them: When he took office there were no Russians on the Forbes list, but today—despite Western sanctions and a steep economic downturn—there are seventy-seven. Putin’s role throughout has been to stand as guarantor of this system, and in that sense, Zygar is partly right to describe him as constrained by wider forces. But those forces are far from random: They are rooted in the specific form capitalism has taken in post-Soviet Russia, of which Putin is the domineering figurehead.
Tony Wood is a writer living in New York and a member of the editorial board of New Left Review.”