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who is putin?
photo of Boris FyodorovBoris Fyodorov

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He is a former Russian Finance Minister (1993-1994).
It's clear that most people hope that he [Putin] will be different, and it's very natural. First, he is 47, not 70. He's not ill. He's healthy. He's in office on a daily basis. The other guy was not in the office. This person worked for many years with foreign investors in St. Petersburg, dealt with country things, the nitty-gritty of day-to-day work. ... It's clear that people should hope, but they know perfectly--and they don't like to talk about it--that Mr. Putin was created by Yeltsin. He's part and parcel of his group, the product of the family. Most people understand that once Putin is strong, he probably will try to get rid of most of this family. But it doesn't mean that anybody today in Russia thinks that Putin is a great reformer, that Putin is a great democrat, an ideologically motivated idealist, or anything. Because clearly he's not. But compared to Yeltsin, he's a huge progress.

...It's clear that nobody is fearing Putin to close down the country, to really dismantle democracy and so on, despite some of the talk which is always in the press.

I read recently that you had analyzed his ideology based on his KGB background.

I think we should not be wearing any kind of pinkish glasses looking at Mr. Putin, because if a person decides voluntarily to serve in KGB, he's of a certain type of mind. He is part of the Soviet system, but he was not working in KGB during the Stalin reprisals. He spent a lot of time in the GDR. So I would say that given his background, he's clearly not an ideological reformer, democrat or anything like that.

It's clear that he is much more in favor of strong state and law and order, which is good, because that's what people really want today. It is clear that he... has seen enough in the past 10 years, not to be willing to go with the Soviet methods of ruling the country, economy and so on. But we should not forget that if the person served in a certain type of body to expect too much of him. It would be just stupid.

... You have to wait and see. He will be going generally in the market economy direction and basically democracy. But to call him reformer at this stage, that's too much.

photo of Yevgenia AlbatsYevgenia Albats

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She is an independent journalist and the author of KGB: State Within a State.
Who is Vladimir Putin? Why was he chosen as Yeltsin's heir?

Mr. Putin is a career KGB officer who spent 16 years of his life in the KGB. ... He graduated from then Leningrad State University from the law department, that like many things didn't prepare laws--since law didn't exist at the time of the Soviet Union--but prepared governmental bureaucrats. So he was well prepared for this job.

...Putin joined the KGB at the end of his study and first he worked in Leningrad in so-called intelligence from the territory. It's not a pure intelligence in the Western meaning of this word, it's the sort of the work where KGB guys were looking after foreign businessmen and tourists.

He probably was pretty good. Since he was able to get a promotion and to get a year-long study in the famous intelligence academy now named after Andropov. For someone with his background in the class sensitive Soviet Union, it was extremely difficult to get this promotion because intelligence as a whole and this institute in particular was a designated place for the elite of the Communist society, for those sons of the Central Committee of the Communist Party employees and generals of the KGB.

Probably one of the reasons he got this promotion ... he was very loyal to his superiors through his entire life. And second, Putin was very capable to suppress his individuality, whether he had and has one or not. In the Soviet Union, the rule of the game was if one wanted to make a career one had to obey the following saying: "Never stick your head out of the tram window."

...In 1995, he got an assignment in the second biggest KGB intelligence office, in East Germany, in Dresden. ... He wasn't very successful despite of all the stories that you often can read in the foreign press.. I mean Putin never been a sort of James Bond. And got another set back. For the third time in his life intelligence didn't invite him to join its ranks. And he got a position as assistant to the Dean of the Leningrad University, the kind of position that was usually assigned for the resigned KGB colonels. I mean it meant his career in the KGB was over.

At the same time, Anatoly Sobchak, the very well-known politician of this new wave of Russian politicians fromsort of democratic circles, he became a mayor of St. Petersburg, then Leningrad. Legend goes that Sobchak asked Putin to help him because Sobchak knew Putin since the time he was a professor at Leningrad University and Putin was his student.

I don't buy this legend. What is known that back in 1989, 1990, KGB internal regulations required its officers to penetrate new civic situations. And, in fact, if you talk to those who worked in the mayor's Subchak office of the time they will tell you that all of them were perfectly aware that Putin was assigned to this new democratically-elected mayor to watch after him, to advise him...

However, those who worked with Putin at the time in St. Petersburg say that he was very effective manager and he was the one who was capable, unlike many others, to make a decision. ... Putin has a reputation of an honest guy--something very rare for one who made a career inside the Russian bureaucracy. ...

Obviously, I don't think that's a good idea to judge Putin just by his KGB past. Because that's the way KGB used to judge us, Soviet citizens, just because we are not party members or had wrong last name or belonged to wrong nationality or religious confession. I do believe that people are capable to change. And that 10 years in the democratic circles did make a certain impact on Putin.

I have no doubt that his own experience both in East Germany--and he frequently traveled to West Germany--as well as his experience in Leningrad made him a believer in the market economy. If you talk to the intelligence officers who were stationed abroad, the absolute majority of them say that market economy is much more effective way of running the country than the type of economy and regime that existed in the Soviet Union.

So, I'm not concerned about whether he's going to conduct the market reforms or not. I'm more concerned about his approach towards democracy, human rights and personal freedoms and liberties.

The mentality of the KGB officer is such that they were taught to be an extreme statist. In Russian language it [is] derzhavnik--by saying derzhavnik, we mean those who believe in the Russian greatness, in the Russian imperialistic notion of being a great empire. That's the kind of mentality that was taught and developed inside the KGB. And we clearly can see that Putin is that sort of extreme statist. For him, as for many of those who worked in the KGB, the state always goes first.

Everything else--democratic institutions, personal liberties, personal freedoms, individuality, human rights--everything else is after this. Therefore, I'm afraid that if, if this notion of creating strong Russian state demands from Putin to crush democratic institutions he won't think twice before doing that.

To make the long story short, for Putin democracy in Russia is not an end. He doesn't have personal stakes in that like, for instance, Yeltsin had. For him, democratic institutions are the means. [If] sometimes effective means, then he will use them. Sometimes not effective, then he will screw them up.

..I think that Putin is a pretty much pragmatic guy. He does understand that Russian economy cannot survive without the help from the West. On the other hand, he does know that Russia is lacking the capabilities to blackmail the Western countries with its nukes. Therefore, Putin will try to do his best in order to save this democratic face, in order to receive Western help.

He also understands that for ...those foreign businessmen who are afraid to come to Russia now but who are looking to the Russian market, they do want to have a stronger state in Russia. And it's true that the kind of state that exists now in Russia is pure chaos. And therefore, we do need to strengthen the State and those institutions who are responsible for law and order in the country.

My concern is that Putin may choose order without law. However, I do think that he's smart enough and he does understand the Treasury will be unable to sustain market reforms without help from the Western countries. Therefore, I think that he will preserve some sort of a democratic face, at least for the foreseeable future.

....

Russia is a very infantile society. We got accustomed to having a state that was responsible for everything in our lives--medical care, schools, you know, even the way we made kids. The State was responsible for everything; the State got involved in everything.

Compared to the sick and incapable Yeltsin, Putin has this image of the guy who is ready to give you his hand and lead you in the bright nice future. And all you have to do is just to grab this hand and say, "guy, take me in this bright future. I want to go there with you, whatever it takes. And if on your way to this bright future, you need to create another Gulag, that's fine with me, as long as, you lead me."

He has this image of this big father, who is ready to take care and that's definitely had and still has a great impact on Russians.

photo of Lilia ShevtsovaLilia Shevtsova

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The author of Yeltsin's Russia: Myths and Reality, she is senior associate in the Carnegie Endowment's Russian and Eurasian Program, and a former deputy director of the Moscow Institute of International Economic and Political Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences.
Before Yeltsin resigned, you had written that no one wanted to go through Yeltsin's next 'resurrection.' You were writing about all of Yeltsin's ups and downs ... Is Putin that next resurrection?

Putin can very well be the next reincarnation of Yeltsin. He can be the man who saves the elected monarchy, having replaced Yeltsin, and the man who prolongs its life. He can clear the stage of extra furniture, of favorites, oligarchs, give a new hope to the masses -- a new faith in a new, strict, fair czar -- and thus he can save the monarchy. Thus he can be a new czar, he may be a stricter czar, but he can also be just like Yeltsin, a weak monarch who pays for his power by giving it away and simply sitting, satisfied, in the Kremlin. This may happen.

But Putin has one chance, a very small chance. He has a chance to personally carry out a constitutional political reform. And to get rid of this elected monarchy, to get rid of this type of power that generates all our problems: favorites, corruption, oligarchs, and a czar ruling over us. Whether he will do this or not, it is hard to tell. So far he is not interested in doing this. So far he is saying that there is a presidential republic and that he wants to strengthen it. Maybe soon he'll realize that it is impossible to strengthen this republic, without reverting back to Yelstinism. Because there cannot be effective leadership without responsibility. Our president is floating over, dominating our society, without any responsibility for anything. And he can survive only with the help of recurrent revolutions. Overthrowing cabinets, changing favorites, and delegating power to the regions, to the oligarchs and barons. This is how this government can function. And if Putin does not understand this, everything will roll back.

Are there any signs that you have seen that he is a democrat?

I have no information that would confirm that he is a democrat. Yes, we have information that proves that he is a market supporter. That he would prefer that Russia had more fair, equal rules. And that the government did a better job preserving the order. That the state were stronger. But whether he wants to achieve all this through democracy, through checks and balances, through giving the power back to the government, to the parliament -- I am not sure at this point.

And most likely he himself is not sure what he wants. He is only writing his first sentences on the board. He does not know who he is yet. He hasn't been born yet. Thus he can go in many different directions and maybe we'll have to pay for his mistakes. If he gets to believe that this country needs to be ruled through a conveyor belt by ordering from the Kremlin when to turn the lights on in the Far East. And maybe he'll soon realize that you can't do this, that Russia needs a different approach. Russia needs to be steered out of the dead end.

Even though no one knows much about him, he is extraordinarily popular, at least at this moment. How do you explain his popularity?

It is very easy to explain this popularity. It is first of all explained by one paradox. Being an heir and a successor to Yeltsin, Putin is received by the society as an alternative to Yeltsin. The most interesting thing is that Putin is viewed as a dynamic, strong, honest, civil, modest and adequate leader, which is everything that Yeltsin wasn't.

He is a blank page and we are writing whatever we want on it. Those on the left are writing what those on the left want, those on the right are writing what they want. And he avoids answering. He is not answering any of the questions. He wants to be liked by all, he wants to be a President of all Russians.

These are the two factors. He is an heir and he is an alternative to Yeltsin. And he is a nobody right now. And everyone wants to make him his own.;

And how much does this war in Chechnya have to do with his popularity?

The war in Chechnya created Putin. It proved that there is someone on stage who can be decisive. ... Now his main source is hope. Everybody hopes that things won't get worse, that he will ensure that there is order, salaries are paid--even though they are horrendously low salaries, that he will ensure order. People don't expect anything else from him. They expected a lot from Yeltsin: miracles, life just like in the United States. From Putin they don't expect anything. People want order and stability for the future. They want very little.

These hopes create a Catch-22 for Putin, because no one in Russia can meet all the hopes and aspirations. Very soon he will have to deal with disappointments. Regardless of how he performs. Maybe he will be the most effective leader with respect to the economy, but he won't be able to realize all the hopes. It is impossible to restore order in Russia tomorrow. And this disappointment is going to be a very serious trial for him.

Jonas Bernstein

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He is a senior analyst for the Jamestown Foundation and writes from Moscow on Russian domestic affairs. He was a writer with Voice of America and has worked as a business columnist with The Moscow Times, and as Moscow representative and program officer for Freedom House.
Why does Putin seem to appeal to so many people at this point in time?

I think Putin's appeal is less a function of his personal qualities than the situation which he inherited. It's partially a function of his personal qualities, the main quality being that he is a career KGB officer, a member of the state security apparatus. That's a plus in the current environment, and the reason is because of the events of the fall of 1999. When the second conflict in Chechnya started, [it] really changed the direction [of popular opinion]. It was sort of a watershed in the direction of Russian public consciousness, if you like. A lot of things which had been brewing around became crystallized then. A desire for a firm hand, rallying around an external enemy. And this was skillfully played up by the people who put Putin in power. Therefore, he's become sort of the rallying point for this new, more nationalistic, and I would say more authoritarian, direction of society.

But that seems to be, at least at this point, being welcomed by a majority, or close to a majority.

I think it's welcomed by a majority. Unfortunately, again, much of it is because what the average Russian person saw in terms of "democracy." What they were told was Western style or American style democracy and the market system, didn't do anything for them. Therefore, there's an obvious rejection of that on the part of a lot of Russians.

Secondly, the events of last fall, which led up to the second Chechen war, I think galvanized a lot of the public--those were the apartment building bombings--and that served as a sort of watershed to crystallize this more nationalistic, somewhat more anti-Western and more authoritarian direction.

Who are the people who put Putin in power?

One has the sense, and one gets the sense of this from Russian reporting and the media, that he was the choice of at least parts of the political and business elite, the oligarchs, members of the Kremlin inner circle, the inner circle of his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, which became known last year as The Family. That these guys finally sort of landed on him as the guy who could be the person to guarantee what one of them . . . refers to as "the continuity of power." They were looking for a figure who could guarantee [continuity of power]. I don't think all of them necessarily agreed on [Putin] as the figure. There was a lot of fighting over that, but he became the default choice.

Once again, they are looking to preserve the status quo.

I think that's absolutely the case. There's a lot of arguments that Putin [will not preserve the status quo] because of a lot of things he's declared in the run-up to the election on March 26th--that he may change the rules of the game, he's going to make it one set of rules for everybody, the oligarchs are not going to have any special favors anymore--but I've heard this tune a million times, and it doesn't strike me as particularly realistic.

Individual oligarchs may get thrown by the wayside for sort of a popular gesture, for reasons of internal political maneuvering, but my sense is that the system will not fundamentally change, and that Putin represents an attempt to preserve the status quo....

I have no information about this whatsoever, per se, but it strikes me as almost an obviously logical necessity, that when they were looking for someone to serve as Boris Yeltsin's successor, they had to find someone who somehow had a weakness, or was somehow dependent upon them. So my question is what do they have on him? Because I simply cannot believe that the very, very, very smart power brokers who have been climbing to power over the last 10 years, would have [put] Russia's very powerful chief executive position in the hands of someone that they didn't have something on. Because for them, power's too important to hand it over to just anybody .

photo of Pavel VoschanovPavel Voschanov

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He was Boris Yeltsin's press secretary from 1991-1993 and was a journalist with Komsomolskaya Pravda.
Why is Putin so appealing to the Russian public? Because he acts and makes statements that reflect the feelings of the people who are weary of reform. It's not because the people are so bad. The nation has lost its political idealism over these years. Hardships have been many, while successes have been so few... If we had had more victories, if people felt that their lives had become better, they would think differently. Their ideas would be different.

Look at how Putin is building his strategy. He is two-faced: on the one hand, he supports reform and innovations; on the other hand, he pleases those who want to see in him something from the past - he shows them something from the old life. He appeals to nostalgia for the past. He is from the KGB, which means he supports a strong state. He is against corruption. ...

photo of Strobe TalbottStrobe Talbott

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He is U.S. Deputy Secretary of State and has specialized in Russia affairs in both his government and journalism careers.
Many people are arguing that President Putin's extraordinary rise is due almost entirely to his prosecution of this latest war in Chechnya.

I don't think there is any question whatsoever that President Putin rode the issue of the war in Chechnya from a position of relative obscurity to a position of ultimate executive power in Russia. I can remember very vividly when President Yeltsin made Mr. Putin, who was then head of the National Security Council, the Prime Minister. There was a lot of skepticism, among experts on Russia, among Russians, in the United States government, very much in my own head, about whether Prime Minister Putin would indeed be able to make it through the electoral process, to succeed President Yeltsin.

But he did. And the issue, over all others, that allowed him to demonstrate that he was tough, and was going to crack down on terrorists and criminal elements, was the Chechnyan war. And he has therefore a particular responsibility to face up to the ugly and brutal facts about the way in which that war has been conducted, and to lift this cloud over Russia's standing in the eyes of the world that Chechnya has created.

......

I agree with you that Putin's ascendancy and now election to the President, was "constitutional." But there are lots of Russian commentators who have written that it was not exactly democratic. Snap elections were called, the Kremlin and/or oligarchy-controlled media ran an all-out campaign, the war in Chechyna,which we've already talked about. Yes, Russians went to the poll and put their ballots in boxes, but during Soviet times Russians went to polls and put ballots in boxes for whom they were supposed to vote for.

... As for the process that resulted in President Putin's now being inaugurated there were rules, there was a constitution, there was a nationwide election with 75% turnout, that international observers judged to be basically free and fair. Was it perfect? No. Was it flawless? No. But was it democratic? Yes. And I think that's the standard that we should use.

But we can't keep that standard in a vacuum. We've got to look at it in the context of what's gone before, what will come next, and what's happening in society as a whole, including the issue of whether civil society is strengthening, whether the free press is getting freer and stronger, or not.

And President Putin needs to understand that the international community's ability to help him succeed in making Russia a strong country, is going to depend in large measure on how he defines strength. Will he define strength in the terms of the 20th century and the 19th century and the 18th century, which is strength equals force? Or will he define strength in 21st century terms, in which strength means your ability to plug into the global economy, and be a full and vigorous participant in the international community.

And you've talked about the phrase that he's used--"the dictatorship of the law"--and that one should pause, I think you said, in parsing that phrase.

Yes, I'd like to be a little surer than I am where the accent is--on the word 'dictatorship' or on the word 'law.' I think the term of art that's more common in the West, in the United States, is rule of law ... But maybe ...his vocabulary is evolving along with other things in Russia.

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