The rise of Vladimir Putin

PUTIN by Philip Short (2022)

Vladimir Putin is, in my opinion, the most impressive and significant statesman of our age—impressive in his ability, and significant in his impact on the world. 

That does not mean I find him admirable.  He is an autocrat and personally corrupt.   He fits the Machiavellian ideal, and I do not mean this as a slur.

When Putin came to power, Russia was falling apart.  A group of oligarchs called the Seven Bankers dominated Russia’s economy.  The mass of Russians were even poorer than they had been under Communism.  The death rate exceeded the birth rate.  

Under Putin, the Russian economy has been transformed.  The government is solvent.  Foreign debt has been paid, and foreign ownership of important Russia assets has been pushed back.  Demographic decline has been reversed.  Russia has re-emerged as an economic power and a military power to be reckoned with.

Not all these things are because of things Putin did himself, but the leader of a country deserves credit (and blame) for things they allow to happen as well as things they make happen.

In order to understand Russia’s rise, I looked for good biography of Putin.  Philip Short’s 676-page book is the best I could find.  It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty good.

Philip Short is a workmanlike British  journalist who has written biographies of Mao Zedong, Pol Pot and François Mitterrand.  

He is not a Russia expert and doesn’t. have inside information.  Much of Putin’s life is a mystery to him.  But he has assembled the important known facts of Putin’s life in granular detail.  

While mostly agreeing with the USA-UK consensus view of events, Short made a good faith effort to understand how things look from Putin’s point of view, which few if any other biographers have done.

I think this is the best that can be expected for now.

Vladimir Putin was born in 1952 in Leningrad.  His parents lived in a communal apartment which they shared with other families.  He was spoiled by his parents, ran wild with other boys and was a poor student.

Young Putin (NPR)

Two things changed his life.  One was martial arts, which he took up at the age of 12 and still takes an interest in.  He became proficient in judo and a mixed martial art called sambo, and might well have had a career as a professional athlete if not for his other ambition.

The other thing was his ambition to join the KGB.  To qualify, he enrolledl in the highly-selective Law Faculty of Leningrad State University in 1970.  

His grades weren’t outstanding, but the school had an affirmative action program for children of factory workers, which Putin was.  Short thinks the determining factor may have been his martial arts skills, which helped his school win in inter-collegiate competition.  He may well have had a career as a martial arts competitor and trainer if his life had gone somewhat differently.

He had a habit of getting into street fights.  This continued for a time even after he earned his law degree in 1975 and joined the KGB, even though it would have been grounds for dismissal if known by his superiors.  But he learned to hide his feelings and control his violent impulses.

He had hoped for a foreign KGB posting, but his first 10 years were spent in Russia, monitoring dissidents and then foreigners.  When he finally did get a foreign assignment, it was to Dresden in East Germany, not Berlin or Vienna.

In 1991, he was pulled back to Russia where, still in the KGB, he joined the staff of Anatoly Sobchak, one of his old law school professors, a rising liberal reformer who became mayor of Leningrad.  It’s not clear when or whether Putin ever formally resigned from the KGB.

His six years with Sobchak were an intense education.  He was in charge of Leningrad’s international relations.  He had to deal with American investors, Estonian diplomats, entrenched bureaucrats, local oligarchs and organized crime bosses, and somehow get results.

Putin & Yeltstin (NPR)

When Sobchak fell from favor, he used his contacts to join the Yeltsin administration in Moscow in 1996.   His rise there seems miraculous.  He became head of the FSB (successor to the domestic arm of the KGB) in 1998, then acting prime minister in 1999, then acting president when Yeltsin resigned later that year.  He ran successfully for his first four-year term as president in 2000.  

How to explain his rise?  Putin was known for his competence, hard work and prodigious memory.  He joined no faction, kept his opinions to himself and manifested total loyalty to Yeltsin.  

The thing Putin did that most impressed his superiors, according to Short, was to help his old patron, Anatoly Sobchak, who was under criminal investigation, escape to Paris in a medical evacuation plane.  This was seen as a demonstration of loyalty, decisiveness and competence – all prized and relatively rare qualities.

He was a prodigious worker.  Throughout his career, he typically spent two hours of strenuous physical exercise in the morning, followed by 10 or more hours of desk work.  He said he could not have maintained the work schedule if not for his vigorous exercise program.  

One reason for his heavy work schedule, Short wrote, was that he appointed subordinates as much for personal loyalty as for qualifications.  That meant he felt he had to sign off on important decisions, rather than delegating authority as a Western statesman might.

Like most Russian government officials, Putin supplemented his income with “blat”—what American machine politicians used to call “honest graft.”  That is, he did not take outright bribes, but he accepted gifts from persons whose interests he affected.  This was in moderation during his Sobchak-Yeltsin days, but it grew to the point where he had a billion-dollar personal palace built from the proceeds of graft.

He hardly ever fired anyone.  Short said he preferred to sideline opponents or incompetents in the bureaucracy to jobs where they still had something to lose.  But when someone proved irreconcilable, the person was likely to face criminal charges or die mysteriously.  Machiavelli would have approved.

Putin’s first goal was to restore the “vertical” power of the Russian state over the news media, the oligarchs and the regional governments, all of whom had acquired independent power under Yeltsin.

He arranged for the Russian government to take over privately-owned TV networks, one by one.  He created a system whereby provincial governors could be removed by the national government.  Foreign investors in major Russian corporations were forced to divest.

Putin famously warned Russian oligarchs that they could keep their money on condition that they not interfere in government.  Two oligarchs, Boris Berezovsky and Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who also were media moguls, defied him.  Berezovsky went into exile after being charged with embezzlement.  Khodorkovsky was imprisoned on charges of financial fraud, but later pardoned and allowed to go into exile.

Putin’s most pressing immediate problem when he took power was the uprising in Chechnya, a breakaway province inhabited by fierce Muslim warriors.  Chechens made  terrorist attacks on Russia itself.  Putin ordered the Russian army to whatever it took to crush the Chechens, no matter what the cost in lives or to Russia’s standing in international public opinion. 

One of the most episodes is how a Chechen leader named Ahmad Kadryov and later, his son, Ramzan Kadryov, governed Chechnya in Russia’s name as Putin’s personal vassals.  

Ramzan Kadryov imposed a version of sharia law on Chechnya that allowed polygamy and honor killings, and imposed the death penalty for homosexual behavior.  All this was illegal under Russia law, but tolerated, although sometimes mildly criticized, by Putin.

Eighty percent of Chechnya’s budget came from Moscow, and up to a third went to Ramzan’s personal use, according to Short.  Ramzan owned a million-dollar collection of vintage automobiles and a personal zoo.  In return, he was loyal to Putin, kept the lid on and made Chechnya an important supplier of recruits for the Russian army.

Putin & Bush (NPR)

In international affairs, Putin’s top concern was Russia’s relationship with the United States.  He took the trouble to learn about Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump, and try to cultivate personal relationships with each one.  

His goal and hope was an equal partnership between the USA and Russia.  He opposed the expansion of NATO and the repeal of nuclear disarmament treaties.  He disliked being lectured by Americans about  democracy and human rights.  But in the early days, he thought he had no choice but to put up with it.

He enabled the USA to supply Afghan troops overland through Russia and Central Asia, supported the UN resolution to suppress Iran’s nuclear enrichment program and agreed to a “no fly” zone for Libya.

Successive U.S. presidents declined to reciprocate his good-will gestures.  As Russia grew more powerful, he gradually gave up on the USA, although without absolutely closing the door on good relations.

Short said Putin in his youth was a hard-line Stalinist, long after many or most Russians had lost faith in Communism.   Then he became a reformer, who wanted Russia to take its place as a respected European country.  Now he has become a strong social conservative and religious nationalist, who despises European and American culture.  

He sees the LBGT+ movement as an example of American soft power, designed to undermine Russian patriotism, religious values and masculinity, and he patronizes nationalist and social conservative movements abroad.

Russia is far from being a model society.  It is still plagued by corruption, organized crime and extreme wealth inequality, as well as racism and xenophobia against non-whites and Muslims.  Russians are still among the poorest white people in the world.

But if you look at Ukraine, you may appreciate what Russia might have been without Putin or a strong leader like him.  

Ukraine was one of the most advanced parts of the old Soviet Union, and Russia and Ukraine were roughly equivalent economically when the Soviet Union broke up.

But unlike in Russia, Ukraine’s economic decline and depopulation were never reversed.  It was bankrupt and a puppet of foreign powers even before the current conflict with Russia began.

Short evidently had largely completed his book before the Russia invasion of Ukraine last February.  He wrote that the most serious issue facing Russia was reduction in old-age pensions.  He said Putin was losing his grip and might be ready to retire when his current term expires in 2024.

This was unlikely.  The Russian Constitution had been amended so that Putin, who is now 70, is eligible to run for two additional six-year terms.  

Short speculated that Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine was taken on the spur of the moment, possibly because of President Biden’s perceived weakness in handling the Afghanistan withdrawal.  To me, it seems obvious that both Putin and the NATO alliance have been preparing for this showdown for at least eight years.

In his conclusion, Short said conflict between Russia and the USA was inevitable.  Russians could never accept being permanently subordinate to U.S. power, and US Americans could not accept Russia as an equal.  

But he also wrote that an eventual reconciliation between Moscow and Washington, and even Moscow and Kiev, cannot be ruled out.  That was in the early months of 2022.   I wonder what he thinks now.

[Afterthought 01/23/2023]  My assessment of Vladimir Putin, for whatever it’s worth or not worth, is that he is the best Russian leader who could have emerged from the ranks of those capable of acquiring and holding onto power in Russia.  If Putin should die or be overthrown, as many in the West hope for, his replacement will not be a peace loving Western-style liberal.


The Good, the Bad and the Befuddling: A Review of Philip Short’s Putin by Natylie Baldwin for [Added 05/19/2023]

Putin: His Life and TImes review – the collapse that shaped the man who would be tsar by Angus Macqueen for The Guardian.

Putin fairly deconstructed: a man, a myth, the state by Anatol Leiven for Responsible Statecraft.

Shorting British, American and Baltic Intelligence – Going Long on Vladimir Putin by John Helmer for Dances With Bears.

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One Response to “The rise of Vladimir Putin”

  1. Author_Joanne_Reed Says:

    Fascinating and a very balanced view point in a world where emotions run high as soon as one mention the name Putin!


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