The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Gleb Pavlovsky, Putin image adviser who became harsh critic, dies at 71

Gleb Pavlovsky in the newsroom of the Dozhd TV channel in Moscow on Oct. 27, 2021. (Denis Kaminev/AP)
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Gleb Pavlovsky, a former Soviet dissident who was sent into exile and then reinvented himself as a political spinmeister in post-Cold War Russia, helping craft the public image of President Vladimir Putin before breaking ties and decrying Putin’s authoritarian grip, died Feb. 27 at a Moscow hospice center. He was 71.

A statement by Mr. Pavlovsky’s family did not give a cause.

Many analogies were used to describe Mr. Pavlovsky’s trajectory from Kremlin adviser to oracle-like outsider. He was called Putin’s version of GOP uber-strategist Karl Rove, trying to frame Putin’s heavy-handed rule as necessary in troubled times, and was part of the Kremlin team at a time when it was producing macho memes such as a shirtless Putin in the wilds.

Mr. Pavlovsky was later portrayed as a penitent who was dismayed at the political system he helped create.

He saw himself somewhere in between. Mr. Pavlovsky felt that Putin, a former KGB operative, had the right mix of old-school gravitas and digital-age potential to lead Russia after the wild ride of the 1990s amid the wreckage of the Soviet Union.

After turning against Putin in 2011 over moves to keep him in power, Mr. Pavlovsky channeled his regret. He became a guide into Putin’s mind. In interviews and essays with international outlets, Mr. Pavlovsky sought to explain Putin — including his paranoia that drives crackdowns on opposition in Russia and his nostalgia for the Soviet empire that led to war in Ukraine.

“It’s like those who work on designing a weapon,” Mr. Pavlovsky said in 2012, describing his onetime role in boosting Putin’s image and policies. “These weapons can end up in the wrong hands or be used the wrong way. Are you responsible because you made the weapon?”

Even as Putin systematically targeted his critics — including the jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny — Mr. Pavlovsky knew what lines not to cross. He was able to remain active with foreign journalists and keep his own blog going because he did not openly challenge Putin. Instead, he analyzed what made Putin tick and why his cult of personality, which Mr. Pavlovsky helped make, had such staying power.

Mr. Pavlovsky sometimes called Putin’s Russia a “jazz state” where rules and goals are in a constant state of improvisation. The full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year was a miscalculation that left Putin appearing weak and with shrinking options, he said.

“The previous Putin would not have done this,” Mr. Pavlovsky said shortly after the invasion. “He was a very sane-thinking person. But this has all vanished now. He has an obsession about Ukraine that he didn’t previously have. He is reacting now to the pictures in his own head.”

How Putin became Russia's only political brand

Putin and Mr. Pavlovsky were a Kremlin odd couple. While Putin was deep in the Soviet fold in the 1980s, Mr. Pavlovsky spent three years in internal exile in the sub-Arctic Komi Republic after conviction for anti-Soviet activities that included links to publications calling for political reforms.

During his 1982 trial, Mr. Pavlovsky gave testimony against some associates, a decision that soiled his reputation in dissident circles. He claimed he only gave evidence against people outside the country. He also pleaded guilty — something almost never done by Soviet political prisoners.

“My courtroom ‘repentance’ was of course a terrible blow to our group that broke people close to me,” Mr. Pavlovsky told the Russian news and culture site in 2015. “And I was affected by it too. I had broken an ethical taboo.”

Ukraine roots

Gleb Olegovich Pavlovsky was born March 5, 1951, in Odessa, a Black Sea port then part of the Soviet Union and now in Ukraine. His father was a design engineer and his mother was a meteorologist at the state-run weather station.

He graduated in 1973 from Odessa State University with a degree in history. During his studies, he became involved in Marxist groups.

Later in Moscow, Mr. Pavlovsky joined other dissidents, including historian Mikhail Gefter, and helped publish an underground newspaper starting in the late 1970s. During a trial of a fellow Kremlin critic, Mr. Pavlovsky said he hurled a brick through a courthouse window in a “fit of madness” and broke his leg while escaping over some roofs.

After returning to Moscow in 1985 from exile in Komi — where he worked as a house painter and other odd jobs — he became involved in reformist groups influenced by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s era of glasnost, or openness. The fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 brought Mr. Pavlovsky into the orbit of Boris Yeltsin, who became Russia’s first president.

At the time, many former Soviet republics, such as Ukraine and the Baltic states, were looking to U.S. and European political consultants to help steer efforts at democracy. Mr. Pavlovsky made a niche in Russia as a homegrown adviser through his group, Foundation for Effective Politics, which was among the first in Russia to recognize the potential political influence in the emerging internet.

In 1996, during Yeltsin’s successful bid for a second term, Mr. Pavlovsky was his political image maker. Putin took notice. After Yeltsin appointed Putin prime minister in 1999, Mr. Pavlovsky was brought onto Team Putin. Yeltsin then resigned at the end of 1999, making Putin acting president.

Mr. Pavlovsky dubbed himself a “political technologist” who could address issues of governance as well as the salesmanship of politics. Putin became the first fully merchandised Russian leader: T-shirts, calendars, coffee mugs and imagery such as playing with dogs or riding bare-chested atop a horse through the Russian forest.

“We intensified Putin’s mystery on purpose,” Mr. Pavlovsky told The Washington Post in 2018. In a political system in flux, Mr. Pavlovsky added: “You need to create an image of power.”

Putin’s early years became known as “managed democracy,” which critics said lowered expectations and reduced accountability to allow Putin to turn Russia into an effective one-party state. Mr. Pavlovsky, meanwhile, was able to further shape Putin’s brand as host of a weekly TV commentary show, “Real Politics,” from 2005 to 2008.

Mr. Pavlovsky’s first fissure with Putin came in 2008 after calling for the Kremlin to allow more political voices on TV public affairs shows. Russian TV news, he said, was “a drama with only one character.” Putin left the presidency in 2008 because of term limits, but was made prime minister under President Dmitry Medvedev.

In 2011, Mr. Pavlovsky stepped down from his Kremlin roles after criticizing a political deal that allowed Putin to run for the presidency for a third term. Putin won back the presidency in 2012 and then pushed through changes that could keep him in office until 2036.

“I didn’t want his presidency to become a caricature of itself,” Mr. Pavlovsky told PBS’s “Frontline” in 2017. “I had to leave. And I was watching the rest of it from the outside.”

Mr. Pavlovsky never married. Full details on survivors were not immediately available.

In 2012, after taking part in an anti-Putin rally in Moscow, Mr. Pavlovsky looked back on the political world he helped construct. It was not expected to last. Mr. Pavlovsky said he flatly misjudged Putin and his ability to clamp his hold on power.

“The system was supposed to be temporary … But the further it went, the more human passion came into play,” Mr. Pavlovsky told Toronto’s Globe and Mail. “I should have read more Plato.”