Daniel Treisman is a professor of political science at the University of California, Los Angeles, and director of the Russian Political Insight project.
A generation after the Cold War ended, Russian fighter jets are again probing NATO’s defenses in the skies around Norway and Portugal. Russia has dismembered one of its neighbors, annexing part of its territory. A McCarthyite frenzy has gripped the country’s elite as investigators target an imaginary fifth column of national traitors.
The vehemence of Russia’s recent turn against the West has shocked observers and prompted a scramble for explanations. Marvin Kalb, a veteran foreign correspondent and Russia hand, believes the key to the current crisis lies in the region’s history, specifically the interwoven pasts of the countries now called Russia and Ukraine. In “Imperial Gamble,” he provides a primer on the important events and personalities of the past 12 centuries. His narrative ranges from Mongol invaders to Kiev’s pro-Europe protesters, from the facade villages of Grigori Potemkin to the ersatz democracy of Vladimir Putin.
In this part of the world, as Kalb reminds us, territories, cultures and languages have melted into one another over time: One can cross empires without leaving home. Consider Crimea, which, before ending up in an independent Ukraine in 1991, was passed from the Byzantines to the Mongols, Ottomans, Russians and Soviets. This intertwined past, in Kalb’s view, made Putin’s land grab in Ukraine in 2014, if not inevitable or justifiable, at least understandable: “There is no escaping history.”
Of course, a history of intimacy does not preclude separation, as divorce lawyers can attest. And the two countries had been “divorced” for 23 years, even signing a Friendship Treaty in 1997. If Putin found this unacceptable, he had many previous opportunities to act and more promising paths to integration, through either diplomacy or covert subversion. Why he struck when he did — and how, uniting most Ukrainians against him and speeding Kiev’s flight to the West — is hard to deduce from the distant past.
The eminent scholar Walter Laqueur suggests in his book “Putinism” that the Russian leader can be understood by looking at the history of ideas. To explain current policies, one must examine the strange mix of philosophers and polemicists that Kremlin officials have been reading.
Laqueur singles out two writers in particular. Alexander Dugin, a onetime neo-Nazi and now a sociology professor, is the new prophet of the doctrine known as Eurasianism. Originally hatched among anti-Soviet emigres in the 1920s, Eurasianism posits an irresolvable conflict between Russia, the center of a “timeless steppe empire,” and the “Romano-Germanic” West.
A frequent guest these days on Moscow talk shows, Dugin certainly has admirers in the Russian elite. But it is not known whether Putin is among them. Laqueur does not claim this, suggesting only that Dugin’s ideas are popular among the country’s military planners. In fact, Dugin may have become too extreme for the Kremlin. He was fired from his university job in June 2014 after posting a clip encouraging Russians in Ukraine to “Kill, kill, kill!” He has accused Putin of “pathological wavering.”
A second philosopher, Ivan Ilyin, is a known favorite of Putin’s. The president has quoted his work, told regional governors to read his books, even arranged his reburial in a Moscow monastery. A refugee from the 1917 revolution, Ilyin was horrified by Bolshevik totalitarianism and equally so by the “mechanical, quantitative, formal” democracy of the West.
Putin clearly admires Ilyin’s writing, but it’s unclear what in that writing he admires. Ilyin’s ideals were eclectic, embracing both autocratic monarchy and personal liberty. What resonates might be the philosopher’s warnings of a German project to dismember Russia — a notion perhaps less strange right after Hitler than it is today. But such warnings are not what Putin quotes in his speeches. What he recited to the parliament last December was Ilyin’s impassioned plea for “freedom for the Russian people, freedom for all of us: freedom of faith, of the search for truth, creativity, work, and property.”
Laqueur is right to note the authoritarian tone of current political discourse. The chairman of the Constitutional Court regrets the passing of serfdom. The head of the Central Electoral Commission speaks wistfully of monarchy. A pro-Kremlin newspaper prints a column praising the “good” early Hitler. Meanwhile, the Duma is busy banning American adoptions, homosexual propaganda and synthetic lace panties. It seems like parody, but no one is laughing.
With a connoisseur’s eye, Laqueur dips into the murk and fishes out evidence of dark trends: zapadophobia (fear of the West), confabulation (believing impossible things), messianism. Yet how seriously should we take all this philosophical posturing if, as Laqueur notes, most Russians “are not motivated by ideology; their psychology and ambitions are primarily those of members of a consumer society”?
The trouble with history — whether of nations or ideas — is that its lessons are ambiguous. The opposition leader Vladimir Ryzhkov, a historian by training, told me recently of an exchange he had with Putin in late 2013. Russia’s past showed, Ryzhkov told the president, that “when you tighten the screws too much, it leads to revolution.” But Putin has a different take, as Ryzhkov discovered when the Russian leader retorted: “To me, Russian history shows something else — that if you give too much freedom, it leads to chaos and instability.”
Knowledge of the past illuminates what happens. By itself, it cannot reveal why it happened. To Kalb, for instance, events from Mongol autocracy to Catherine the Great’s conquests set the stage for Putin. But history sets many stages. Only later do we find out which of them we should have watched.
Besides the histories of nations and of ideas, the stories of individual leaders may hold clues. Steven Lee Myers’s “The New Tsar” is not the first biography of Putin, but it is the strongest to date. Judicious and comprehensive, it pulls back the veil a little from one of the world’s most secretive leaders. What is most striking, given the aura of steely consistency that Putin cultivates, is how he has changed over the years. Myers reprints the famous picture of Yeltsin leaving the Kremlin in December 1999. Putin stands beside him, so pale he looks as though he has food poisoning. It is hard to imagine this nervous apprentice galloping bare-chested across the steppes, as pictured some years later in Kremlin publicity shots.
Even as he brings national television and the oligarchs under his control, he surprises advisers with his economic liberalism — slashing tax rates, paying down debt, husbanding oil revenue. Myers sees Putin as genuinely committed in the early years to a rapprochement with the West. This is the Putin who races to commiserate with George W. Bush after 9/11, closes military posts in Cuba and Vietnam and overrules his defense minister to accept American bases in Central Asia, the first U.S. troops in former Soviet territories since World War II.
He even appears to accept NATO. “We do not see a tragedy in its existence,” he said in 2001, and suggested that Russia should be allowed to join. Later, he disregarded communist protests and established a NATO supply route to Afghanistan through Russian airspace.
Putin seems to have believed he had a personal chemistry with Bush — “My God. This is beautiful,” he gushed when the president showed him the Oval Office — at least enough to feel betrayed when Bush dumped the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and embarked on a global crusade to spread democracy by force. Then came the angry years. Myers shows how Putin grew bitter as he aged, undergoing plastic surgery, divorce and rounds of increasingly dubious elections. His circle narrowed as he weeded out independent thinkers, replacing them with athletes, washed-up Western celebrities, Silvio Berlusconi and old friends from St. Petersburg or the KGB, who became wealthier by the year.
In Russian, one says of a politician who has grown arrogant and remote that he has become “bronzed,” like a statue. Putin’s mentor, the liberal St. Petersburg mayor, Anatoly Sobchak, implored him, “Voldya, don’t become bronzed.” But Putin did. “He has a good sense of humor,” Sobchak’s widow told a newspaper interviewer, looking for something nice to say. “At least, he used to.”
Myers leaves the covert invasion of Crimea as the climax of his book. He is convinced the decision was sudden: “Putin had not planned to take his country to war,” he writes. “Nor had he prepared his country for it.” Throwing caution to the wind, he started making decisions “alone and off the cuff.”
Myers misses one important detail. Putin apparently did not oppose the late-night, European Union-brokered deal under which Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych promised to step down early. Yanukovych, a Putin ally, had been resisting demands from pro-Europe protesters that he resign. According to then-Polish foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski, who was there, it was a call from Putin that persuaded Yanukovych to agree. When the Ukrainian opposition leaders and their E.U. supporters failed to implement this agreement, resulting not in early elections but in the chaotic collapse of the regime and the flight of Yanukovych to Russia, Putin felt he had been tricked.
The great strength of Myers’s book is the way it shows how chance events and Putin’s own degeneration gradually cleared the path to the Ukraine crisis. All the troubling tendencies were there from the start, but it took years for Putin’s resentment and frustration to explode in February 2014.
Putin emerges as neither a KGB automaton, nor the embodiment of Russian historical traditions, nor an innocent victim of Western provocations and NATO’s hubris, but rather as a flawed individual who made his own choices at crucial moments and thereby shaped history.
By Marvin Kalb
By Walter Laqueur
Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s.
271 pp. $27.99
By Steven Lee Myers
Knopf. 572 pp. $32.50