German Chancellor Angela Merkel famously said that President Vladimir Putin lives ‘in another world.’ Putin was delusional, out of touch with reality, and perhaps even crazy. Some observers have since argued that Putin believes his own propaganda. But to think that Putin is delusional or even crazy is more a projection of our assumptions, our fears and our world onto Putin. In fact, argue Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy in their newly-expanded portrait Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin, Putin sees the world fundamentally different than his American and European counterparts. Putin’s world is a combination of the lineages of Russian history and culture, and his personal experiences, and the contexts that have shaped them. These provide the circumstances for Putin’s motivations and actions. Figuring out what drives Putin to act the way he does is essential, Hill and Gaddy insist, because to not do so will lead to gross miscalculations on how to confront him.
Who is Vladimir Putin? It is a question often posed, perhaps too often, in numerous books and articles. Uncovering the Putin mystery has become more acute since the crisis in Ukraine, when to many, Putin has become erratic, unpredictable, and dangerous. There are enough Putin books to form their own academic niche, Putinology. In most of these texts, Putin always plays the villain, a vile, corrupt, and power-hungry figure who seeks to expand and maintain his singular grip on power, to restore the Russian empire and even the Soviet Union. In these renditions, Putin appears as a caricature of a super villain, an image, one suspects, Putin secretly enjoys.
Mr. Putin fits uneasily within this canon. Putin is the singular focus, and his life, world view, and actions epitomise the system as a whole. What is refreshing about the narrative is that it lacks the gory details of the ‘Putin regime.’ Moral pontifications and condemnations are absent. Also missing are retellings of already well-worn information about the various conspiracies involving Putin and other drumbeats of authoritarianism. Other Putin biographers have done this service. In addition, many of these episodes in the Putin narrative speak more to our concerns than uncovering Putin’s motivations. When Hill and Gaddy address scandals involving Putin, like the infamous food scandal in St Petersburg in 1992, they try to figure out what Putin learned from these events, and how they influenced his future perceptions and actions. It’s an invitation into Putin’s world.
Still, Putin is a hard nut to crack hence all the speculation about his biography. The information we have about his early life, time in the KGB, as an agent in Dresden, Germany, his days in St Petersburg in the 1990s, and his improbable, yet quick, rise to power, has been tightly packaged. As are his personal habits, public appearances, and publicity stunts. Putin and his team are masters of the image successfully turning the brand Vladimir Putin into a construct where the spectator fills the content. Putin can be anyone and no one: a KGB agent, a free marketeer, a populist, a nationalist, a muzhik [regular guy], and never really be any of these. To pin Putin with one identity only evokes a slew of contradictory identities. Hill and Gaddy liken him to the British cartoon favourite Mr Benn who dons one character after another or as Masha Gessen titled her anti-Putin screed, he’s the man without a face.
Yet these are the texts biographers have to work with, replete with their many narratives and meta-narratives. To make matters even more difficult, much of the Putinist texts are not constructed to represent the truth or reality. They are packaged to illicit a response with which Putin analyses and judges. The key to understanding Putin is to recognise how he uses information to tell him who we think he is and how that communicates who we are, what we want, and what our interests are. For Putin, the goal is to not to represent himself, but to be represented. Putin is the ‘ultimate international political performance artist.’ I would call him the ultimate postmodernist.