John McCain, the senior US Senator from Arizona, outspoken member of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee and Barack Obama’s opponent for the presidency in 2008, calls Vladimir Putin ‘an unreconstructed Russian imperialist and KGB apparatchik’. Agree with it or not, this represents the most common way of explaining Putin to people in the ‘West’. It’s a curiosity that McCain and so many others insist with such obsessive repetition that Putin is the straightforward product not only of his own past but of centuries of his country’s history. But how much does Russian history really explain Vladimir Putin?
In a compelling book, The Putin Mystique, Anna Arutunyan probes the historical antecedents and contexts of Putin’s presidency. With charm and skill, she describes a contemporary Kremlin which is medieval not only in its architecture. She contends that Putin has successfully generated a religious mystique around himself. He has drawn on one of the traditional attributes of the Russian autocrat: his capacity for eliciting the religious obeisance of his subjects. This unmediated relationship between Putin and each Russian person is a feature of a society that is atomized, that lacks robust civil organizations. So it has always been.
Meanwhile, one of the world’s leading historians of the Stalin period, Professor Arch Getty of the University of California at Los Angeles, has recently drawn a political line between Muscovite and Putin-era Russia. He emphasizes ‘the persistence of practice’, drawing attention to weak institutions, patrimonial ties, clan politics, and, above all, the eclipse of law by informal connections and shadowy decision-making. They might not all have been equally violent, but Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, Stalin and Putin have all been doing politics the same way, and Gorbachev never stood a chance.
Such arguments ultimately point to Russian exceptionalism. As the biggest country in the world with unique problems and opportunities, Russia no doubt is exceptional. But many of its characteristics are shared in different forms and combinations by other leading powers. And Russia is also part of the world around itself (and, many of us would maintain, part of the West, not the anti-West). Study of the longue durée of Russian corruption and autocracy shines a bright light on the framework of Putin’s presidency. But the light is not strong enough to illuminate the details or to indicate the future. Russia’s contemporary reality is also the result of the flawed international politics of the post-Cold War years, of the personalities of Gorbachev and Yeltsin, of the shifting opinions of particular advisers, of the obscure details of big business transactions, of the accumulation of countless unrelated decisions that in themselves were often trivial. Historians are usually convinced that the past has created the present. But they generally recognize that it has done so in a chaotic way. For sure, the keys to understanding Putin’s presidency are historical. The problem is that historians, those best qualified to talk about the past, will never be sure which key really fits the lock until Putin himself is history.
(Image from March 2015: http://thebricspost.com/putin-echoes-chinese-president-warns-against-distorting-history/#.VjYtZes7Y5Q)