Not long after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Vladimir Putin, a former KGB agent and an aide to the mayor of St. Petersburg, portrayed himself as a democrat. He warned, however, that a turn toward totalitarianism was possible. The danger lay “in the mentality of our people,” Putin claimed. “It seems to all of us — and I will admit, to me sometimes as well — that by imposing strict order with an iron fist, we will all begin to live better, more comfortably, more securely. In actual fact … that iron fist would very quickly begin to strangle us.”
In “The New Tsar,” Steven Myers, a New York Times reporter who spent seven years in Russia, sets his informative and judicious biography of Putin in the context of this anti-democratic drift. Myers portrays Putin as clever, calculating and coldblooded. Appealing to the nationalist pride of the military and a large percentage of the population (without embracing the Communist ideology they repudiated), Putin built popular support and boosted morale. He became a formidable adversary to anyone, inside or outside Russia, who dared to oppose him. Putin “did what he did, on his own,” Myers claims, perhaps unfairly, “because the people had ‘entrusted’ him to rule, to be the ultimate leader, the tsar of a simulated democracy.”
Myers describes Putin’s slow and steady rise. A little-known, seemingly colorless functionary who always seemed to be at the right place at the right time, Putin became prime minister of Boris Yeltsin’s disintegrating administration. The Russian electorate strongly supported the way Putin conducted the war in Chechnya, and they elected him president of Russia.
In the first years of his term, Myers reminds us, Putin sought amicable relations with the United States and NATO. But the war in Iraq convinced him that the U.S. wanted “to dictate its terms to the rest of the world.” Putin’s interventions in Georgia and the Ukraine, Myers suggests, were designed to reconstitute Russia’s hegemony in its sphere of influence and re-establish its status as a world power. The Arab Spring intensified Putin’s “dark association … between aspirations for democracy and the rise of radicalism, between elections and the chaos that would inevitably result.”
These days, governors, mayors and presidents of many of Russia’s regions and republics are appointed, as are many members of the Duma, Russia’s parliament. “The Russian people are backward,” Putin told foreign journalists. “They cannot adapt to democracy as they have done in your countries. They need time.”
And Putin seems impervious to the warning of Dmitry Medvedev, his prime minister, that individuals who harbor illusions that they can retain power forever “come to a rather bad end.”
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.