When Russian President Boris Yeltsin announced in August 1999 that his new prime minister and successor to the presidency would be Vladimir Putin, millions of Russians had no idea who he was. Not even local journalists or many foreign correspondents knew him well. They knew that Putin had been named head of the FSB the year before, that is, chief of intelligence, but they had not had relations with that obscure bureaucrat who had never been talked about until then. In a matter of months, Putin would become president and change Russia.
Vladimir Putin turns 70 today, and although we know a lot about him by now, and books and articles have been written, it remains difficult to frame his political figure and his career. In this regard, roughly two theories are circulating.
Putin, who has been in power continuously since 1999, as president and prime minister, has transformed Russia into a dictatorship, a police state and a revanchist power, which has been trying for years to upset the international equilibrium and which, with the invasion of Ukraine, initiated the first large-scale war in Europe since the Second World War. Some biographers and scholars argue that this was his purpose from the very beginning. That is, that Putin and the power group he represents had always had the goal of bringing Russia back to being the great power of the Soviet era, even at the cost of eliminating the democratic freedoms of recent decades and a clash with the West.
Others argue instead that at the beginning of his political career, when he promised to transform Russia into a democratic state and a dynamic economy, Putin was sincere, and that things gradually changed: that Putin, that is, he became president. authoritarian and expansionist that we only know over the last few decades, and after some specific events.
Currently, Vladimir Putin is engaged in an invasion war in Ukraine which is getting worse and worse for Russia. His regime is internationally isolated and the Russian economy risks a serious collapse in the coming years due to Western sanctions. These increasing difficulties are making his regime more and more fragile, but Putin continues to firmly dominate it: according to various experts, his power is centralized and extremely broad, and after years of regime all democratic counterweights have in fact been eliminated.
The decision to invade Ukraine was his, as could the decision to stop the war: Putin is still the only person in the world who could end the war tomorrow if he wanted to. For this it is useful to know who he is, and how he became the Putin we know today.
Russia before Putin The first part of Vladimir Putin’s life is relatively mundane. He was born on October 7, 1952 in Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, and in 1975 he joined the KGB, the secret services of the Soviet Union. After a period of paperwork in Moscow, he was sent to the field in 1985. Putin knew German, and hoped to be sent as a secret agent to Berlin, which was still one of the great centers of world espionage towards the end of the Cold War, or in any case in a city where he could work actively. Instead he was sent to Dresden, a relatively sleepy city in East Germany, a sign that within the KGB he was certainly not one of the top agents.
There is scant and contradictory news about what kind of work Putin did in the KGB office in Dresden, but it was almost certainly paperwork, although it is possible that he participated in industrial espionage programs.
Putin remained in Dresden until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, when the KGB was effectively forced to leave Germany. When he returned to the Soviet Union, after almost five years, he found it profoundly changed: not only on the verge of collapse, but above all crossed by revolutionary, democratic, liberal thrusts and ideas.
This is a rather important element of Putin’s biography: since he was in Dresden, he never experienced the policies of “glasnost” and “perestroika”, that is, of “transparency” and “reconstruction” that were introduced in the 1980s in the Soviet Union. by President Mikhail Gorbachev and which led above all in Russia to the spread of democratic and liberal ideas, to the relaxation of censorship, and to an ever greater extension of freedom of expression. While the Soviet Union was opening up, Putin was in East Germany, where Erich Honecker’s regime had remained exceptionally closed and backward, and was in many ways more Soviet than the Soviet Union itself.
Moreover, Dresden, being far to the east, was one of the few places in East Germany where it was not possible to receive West German radio and TV.
Also for this reason, according to some biographers, Putin in Dresden remained isolated in a kind of Soviet bubble while the rest of the world went on, and this may have contributed to his dismay once he returned to the Soviet Union of “perestroika”.
Putin returned to St. Petersburg and soon became an assistant to Anatoly Sobchak, a professor of law who in 1991 became the first democratically elected mayor of St. Petersburg. Sobchak, a great speaker and charismatic personality, was one of the most famous Russian politicians of the time, and one of the main animators of the liberal and democratic movement. Putin went to work in the Sobchak administration, of which he became the de facto main collaborator. He was in charge of external relations and began to have significant contacts with foreign companies and leaders.
Putin has always said that when he went to work for Sobchak, he resigned from the KGB. However, various journalistic reconstructions have argued that Putin actually resigned years later, and that throughout his time in St. Petersburg he had maintained extensive ties and loyalty with intelligence.
In those years, the Soviet Union collapsed.
After the failed coup in August 1991, Gorbachev was forced to hand over power to Boris Yeltsin, and within a few months the entire Soviet Union fell apart. What remained, the Russian Federation, was hit by an unprecedented economic crisis, caused in part by the incompetence and unpreparedness of the Russian ruling class, and in part by the bad advice of Western economists hired by the government to transform the economy. Soviet dirigiste in a market economy.
Western economists supported a so-called “shock therapy”, which consisted, greatly simplifying, in liberalizing the whole economy as soon as possible, renouncing gradualism and caution. The “shock therapy” had been a success in Poland and other former Soviet countries, but in Russia it was a disaster, also due to the corruption and resistance of the local political and economic class.
The result was an overall impoverishment of all of Russia. Millions of people lost their jobs overnight, inflation rose dramatically and the country found itself in the midst of a food crisis, which in the early years risked leaving part of the population without food. Local governments were so desperate that they traded valuable raw materials, such as oil and minerals, for fresh food. Moreover, Putin was the person who organized these exchanges in the city of St. Petersburg, and according to accusations never fully confirmed he took the opportunity to enrich himself personally with acts of corruption.
The 1990s were terrible for Russia: the population became impoverished and the country lost its status as a world power.
Boris Yeltsin remained president for the whole decade, and although he was probably a sincere Democrat, he was completely unable to lead the country at the most difficult time, also due to the progressive deterioration of his health conditions and the corruption of his family and his entourage. In that decade, the class of so-called oligarchs was born, that is, entrepreneurs who, taking advantage of the economic crisis, corruption and the complete abandonment of the state, accumulated enormous wealth and ample political power.
In 1995 in particular, the Yeltsin administration put in place the scheme known in English as “loans for shares”, ie “loans in exchange for shares”. According to this scheme, the oligarchs invested extremely modest sums to support the budgets of the state which was in danger of going bankrupt (and to finance the campaign for the re-election of Yeltsin in 1996), and in exchange received the ownership of some of the most important public companies. of the country.
In this way people like Boris Berezovsky, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Roman Abramovich and Vladimir Gusinsky, among others, obtained control of televisions, newspapers, mines, gas reserves, oil wells at bargain prices. At the same time, they also obtained enormous political power, and the ability to determine, with their influence and their assets, the action of Yeltsin.
A surprising rise In this context, in which economic empires and top political careers were being built in a very short time, Putin’s career was exceptional. When Sobchak lost the elections for a second term as mayor of St. Petersburg in 1996, Putin moved to Moscow and immediately entered the national government, where he made a very rapid career: in 1996 he was appointed deputy head of the department for presidential property management. that is, the department that managed state property in Russia and abroad; in 1997 he joined the staff of President Yeltsin and in 1998 he was appointed head of the FSB, the secret services heir to the KGB. In two years, he would replace Yeltsin as president.
It has never been entirely clear how Putin was able to make this career so fast, which while not completely out of the ordinary – especially in a tumultuous period like the 1990s in Russia – remains extraordinary.
His biographers agree that, with the end of his second term as president, Yeltsin and his influential family (which in Russia was known at the time as “the Family”) were looking for a replacement who could guarantee their economic interests and their status. In those years, however, various judicial investigations were launched against the alleged corruption of the president and various members of the Family.
There have been many people who, over time, have boasted of having “discovered” or even “created” Vladimir Putin. Among these the oligarch Boris Berezovsky, who owned ORT television (today Canale one, the most important in Russia) and who claimed for years that he was the one who favored Putin’s rise. According to Financial Times reporter Catherine Belton, author of Putin’s Men , another key figure was the oligarch Sergei Pugachev (who is the main source of her book).
In any case, at some point between 1997 and 1998 the oligarchs and the Family became convinced that Putin, a humble and seemingly malleable bureaucrat, would be the right person to replace Boris Yeltsin. Putin found the way to the presidency effectively cleared.
In August 1999, Yeltsin appointed Putin (then a complete stranger) prime minister and said he considered him his designated successor. The presidential elections would have been within a year, in July 2000, and Putin immediately entered the electoral campaign, having the position of prime minister and the full support of the oligarchs (who controlled all the media) and the state apparatus.
Immediately after Yeltsin’s announcement, Russia was hit by a series of attacks.
In Moscow and other cities, between the end of August and September 1999, powerful bombs were placed in the cellars of residential apartment buildings, which killed hundreds of people and terrorized the population. The handling of this terrible crisis by Putin’s government, which was decisive and reassuring, greatly increased its popularity. The authorities immediately blamed the Chechen separatist guerrillas for the terrorist attacks, and Putin took the opportunity to declare the Second Chechen War, which he waged with extreme brutality (after the first was lost by Yeltsin).
The apartment attacks also generated enormous suspicion. Many respected and respected analysts believe (with some arguments in their favor) that it was not Chechen terrorists but FSB agents who planted the bombs, with the intent to give Putin popularity and start a new war.
This hypothesis is treated in Russia as a conspiracy theory but in the West it has a certain following and various journalists and historians believe it to be plausible. In at least one case, in the city of Ryazan, FSB agents were actually caught by a tenant placing explosives in a building, but then FSB chief Nikolai Patrushev, a close ally of Putin, said it was of a drill and that the explosive powder found in the building was actually sugar.
Thanks to the decisive handling of the apartment attacks and the war in Chechnya, and with all the media deployed, Putin’s popularity grew exceptionally, reaching almost 80 percent. But to secure electoral victory, the Family used one last ploy.
On December 31, 1999, in his annual end-of-year address, President Yeltsin surprisingly announced his immediate resignation, even though his term was to last until spring. In this way Putin obtained two advantages: since he was prime minister he was appointed interim president, which gave him enormous possibilities to maneuver in the electoral campaign; furthermore, the elections were brought forward by five months, from July to March, which prevented the opposition from organizing.
The speech of Yeltsin’s resignation was actually quite touching, and at least partially rehabilitated the president in the eyes of many Russians. Yeltsin, now faltering due to his health problems, apologized for the economic, political and social disaster that had been the nineties in Russia, and above all for having shattered the hopes of modernization, democracy and well-being that millions of Russians had cultivated. after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
I want to ask your forgiveness. For the dreams that didn’t come true, and for the things that seemed easy but turned out to be terribly difficult. I am asking your forgiveness for failing to hold up the hopes of those who believed in me when I said we would go from a gray, stagnant totalitarian past to a bright, prosperous and civilized future. I believed in that dream. I believed that we would overcome the obstacle with just one jump.
We did not succeed. In some things I was naive, and the problems turned out to be much bigger than we thought. We have advanced between mistakes and failures. Many people have been devastated by these times of upheaval.
I want you to know – I have never said this before, and I want to say it now – that the pain of each of you has been my pain, the pain of my heart. I spent sleepless nights, fretting about what could be done to make life easier for people, even a little. […] Now I’m leaving. I did everything I could.
It was the last time a Russian leader apologized in this way.
President Putin Putin won the presidential elections in March 2000 by a very large margin, and has never left power since. It is also at this moment that the two theories on Putin’s life diverge.
In his first months (and then years) as president, Putin presented himself as a modern and liberal leader who wanted to transform Russia into an accomplished democracy and a thriving and thriving market economy. During his first term, he retained most of the ministers and liberal advisers of the Yeltsin administration in their posts. In foreign policy, above all, he gained a lot of support in the West when he was the first and most sensitive supporter of the United States after the attacks of 11 September 2001 in New York and Washington (it was an interested position, however, because Putin was engaged in a speculation ” war on terrorism “in Chechnya).
At the same time, however, in addition to the liberal ministers, Putin brought a series of other figures to the Kremlin, almost all fellow soldiers and collaborators from St. Petersburg, many with a past in the KGB, who became his closest and most trusted advisors. Inside the Kremlin, during Putin’s first mandate, the clashes between the liberal component of the administration and the more conservative and security-conscious one, made up of the St. Petersburg group, were constant.
The idea that many scholars have made is that at the end of the nineties, while Putin was making his exceptional career that would lead him to the presidency, in addition to the oligarchs and the Family there was another entity that was taking care of his growth: what remained of the KGB, which had begun to see in that lower-middle-level bureaucrat a possible resource for returning to power.
Those who argue that Putin did not have an illiberal and authoritarian turn, but that reconstituting a regime was his goal from the beginning, recall precisely how the ties of the Russian president with the apparatuses of the KGB first and of the FSB then – that is, of the more conservative, nationalist and nostalgic than the Russian establishment – they never really stopped.
A much-cited episode dates back to December 1999, when Putin, recently appointed prime minister by Yeltsin, gave a speech before FSB officials in Moscow. Remembering his past as a KGB agent he said, “The goal of infiltrating the highest levels of government has been achieved.” It was a joke, and everyone laughed, but in retrospect, in later years, many took it more seriously.
Putin’s first two major acts as president (soon after he granted Yeltsin and the Family complete immunity from all judicial inquiries) concerned the media and oligarchs.
Within a few months, using unorthodox and coercive methods, Putin took over the Russian media, especially television, which was dominated by the two oligarchs Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky. Both had openly supported Putin during the election campaign for the presidency, but within a few months they found themselves accused of crimes that were not always very solid, threatened to end up in prison (Gusinsky spent a short time there) and finally forced to flee abroad. Both gave their TV channels and other businesses to entrepreneurs loyal to Putin, or to easily controllable state companies.
The second move was against another oligarch, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who at that time was the richest person in all of Russia. During the period of “loans for shares”, Khodorkovsky had bought the oil company Yukos for a bargain price, which in a short time he had transformed (also thanks to investments and the introduction of Western managerial techniques) into one of the most important oil companies of the world. Bought for just $ 300 million, Yukos was worth tens of billions in just a few years. Khodorkovsky had become a famous public figure, and had begun to gain more and more political influence.
As soon as Putin came to power, the Russian state launched a series of investigations against Khodorkovsky for tax evasion. The trial that followed was heavily followed and effectively rigged against the oligarch, who was dispossessed of all his companies and sentenced to nine years in prison. The trial against Khodorkovsky was a warning to the other oligarchs, who from then on would no longer challenge Putin, and a signal that the new president, in a few years, had already managed to bring the judicial system under control.
The process was followed with scandal in the West, but with much more tranquility in Russia, where the oligarchs were hated and held partially responsible for the economic turmoil of the 1990s.
This does not mean that Putin has always been confident and perfectly in control of the situation. During his first years as president there were two very serious crises (the sinking of the Kursk nuclear submarine, in which all 118 people on board died, and the hostage crisis at the Dubrovka Theater in Moscow, in which nearly 200 people died from of a disastrous rescue attempt) in which he proved hesitant, indecisive and ineffective, and was accused of bad management.
But Putin’s first term was a huge success, especially from an economic point of view. His administration had some important and necessary reforms passed, and he benefited from the exceptional increase in the price of oil that occurred in those years. The Russian economy, after a decade of crisis and stagnation, began to grow rapidly again and a large part of the population gradually recovered a certain well-being, after the many hardships of the 1990s.
Putin easily got a second term as president, in 2004, with 71 percent of the vote.
Putin’s second term was the one in which things began to change. Before long, most of the liberal advisers who still held some power were sent away and replaced by Putin’s trusted men, the Petersburgers and former KGBs.
In 2004, liberal economist Mikhail Kasyanov, who had been Putin’s prime minister throughout his first term, resigned in controversy with the president’s economic policy. Russian journalist Mikhail Zygar, author of the book All the Kremlin’s Men , recounts an apocryphal episode in which Igor Sechin, Putin’s long-time assistant since St. Petersburg and central figure of the regime, said to Kasyanov immediately after his resignation: “Thank you for showing us how the country is governed. Now we’ll take care of it ».
The second term was also the one in which Putin’s attitude in foreign policy changed. Putin was now convinced that the West was not showing Russia the respect it deserved, that it was treating it as a minor power and that it was actually taking advantage of her weakness to expand its influence.
In February 2007, at the annual Munich Security Conference, Putin delivered a famous speech that surprised everyone present and put an end to the idealized and all in all positive image that many world leaders had of him. In front of an audience that included German Chancellor Angela Merkel, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates and other international dignitaries, Putin accused the United States of wanting to create a “unipolar” world in which “there is only one master, one sovereign “. He also condemned NATO for welcoming several former Soviet countries into the alliance, an “expansion” that Putin saw as a direct provocation against Russia.
These arguments would become well known in the following years, and gradually expressed with greater radicalism and gloom.
When Medvedev Was a Reformist Towards the end of his second term, as the Russian constitution prevented him from running again, Putin began planning a way to stay in power. He decided to entrust the presidency to one of his trusted collaborators and to keep the office of prime minister for himself, so that he could continue to control the country and then be able to reapply for president after four years.
Dmitri Medvedev was chosen, who was not a former KGB (he is a lawyer) but was nevertheless a former college friend of Putin, and a member of the group of Petersburgers. He easily won the 2008 election, with 70 percent of the vote.
Early in his tenure, Medvedev found himself embroiled in a swift but violent war with Georgia, which in retrospect was seen as the first phase of Russian expansionism.
Georgia, at the time led by pro-Western leader Mikhail Saakashvili, invaded the separatist and pro-Russian republic of South Ossetia in August 2008 in response to bombing by the Ossetians. Russia then falsely accused Georgia of genocide, and invaded the country in what it called a “peacekeeping” operation. It all lasted a few days: the Russian army arrived near the Georgian capital Tbilisi and forced Saakashvili to sign an onerous ceasefire, which required, among other things, the withdrawal of Georgian troops from South Ossetia.
The war was considered a very serious episode, which deeply damaged relations between Russia and the West, but although Medvedev had already been president for some months, and it was he who met the foreign leaders who went to Moscow to negotiate, the responsibility and the outcome of the whole operation was correctly attributed to Vladimir Putin, who still managed the bulk of power from the post of prime minister.
The fact is that Medvedev at the time was not the rabid nationalist he has recently become. On the contrary, he had an overall submissive personality and tried to present himself as a moderate leader, who spoke openly about political rights and the need for reform. He had a clumsy but all in all nice passion for technological gadgets, with which he tried to convey an image of modernity. His administration was filled with young and reformist officials, in contrast to the nationalism and conservatism of Putin’s advisers. The United States, where in the meantime Barack Obama had become president, invested heavily in Medvedev, hoping to find in him an ally after breaking off relations with Putin.
Above all, the middle and intellectual class of Moscow and St. Petersburg, tired of Vladimir Putin’s increasingly accentuated authoritarianism, began to hope that, in the following elections in 2012, Medvedev would not agree to give way to Putin, and would come back. to the elections with a reformist and modern program. Medvedev made some timid attempts in this direction, but they were quickly stifled by Putin. In September 2011, Medvedev formally announced that he would not re-run, and that he would support Vladimir Putin in the next year’s presidential election.
The regime In the 2012 elections Putin won 63 per cent of the vote: less than the dull Medvedev had obtained four years earlier, a sign of considerable disappointment at his return to the presidency. Credible allegations of electoral fraud were so widespread that many considered the vote a farce. Since the fall of the previous year, the certainty that Putin would return as president had sparked huge protests, the first really substantial against the government since 1999.
The 2011–2012 protests are one of the key moments in Putin’s political career. They were exceptionally well attended, especially in Moscow and other large cities, and showed that the middle class in the city above all was by now tired of Putin. In Moscow and St. Petersburg, the white ribbon symbol of the protesters became practically a fashion in those months, and was worn by everyone on the street and in the workplace (Putin compared it to a condom).
During the protests, new opposition leaders emerged, most notably Boris Nemtsov, who had been deputy prime minister in Yeltsin’s time, chess champion Garry Kasparov and most notably anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny. The opposition presented the Putin regime as a corrupt kleptocracy, which was turning Russia into a retrograde dictatorship.
Putin responded with extreme harshness. Over the course of a few months, all the main opposition leaders were jailed on false charges, like Navalny, or forced to flee abroad, like Kasparov. Boris Nemtsov, who would remain in Russia for years to oppose, partly protected by his past institutional career, was killed in 2015 in Moscow, a stone’s throw from the Kremlin palace, in circumstances that have never really been clarified. Navalny also suffered well-known assassination attempts.
After the protests, Putin’s rhetoric became darker, and the state propaganda more aggressive. The few independent media that still remained active were almost all closed, and new illiberal laws were enacted that reduced the right to protest and expression. Russia was effectively transformed into an accomplished dictatorship.
Taking advantage in part of the scandals created by the Pussy Riot group – who sang a “punk prayer” in a Moscow church with the refrain “Madonna, deliver us from Putin” – the Russian regime’s propaganda came very close to the religious right. The West, Putin began to argue, was not to be condemned only because it threatened Russia’s place in the world, but also because it promoted a debauched and corrupt lifestyle, contrary to traditional morality and dominated by homosexuals, foreigners and other minorities.
Putin surrounded himself with pseudo nationalist intellectuals who saw in Moscow the “third Rome”, after the Rome of the Roman Empire and Constantinople: the last bastion for Christianity and tradition. It was in this period that the relationship between Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church, which had always been very close, became practically indissoluble.
Putin began to spread these alleged values abroad as well, supporting (often financially) far-right and ethnonationalist parties throughout Europe.
Crimea, and Russia today The story of Putin and Russia in recent years is better known. In 2014, following the pro-European protests in Ukraine, Russia invaded the Crimean peninsula, and then militarily aided and supported the pro-Russian militias in the Donbass, fueling a war that ultimately resulted in a total invasion of the country this year. .
Putin had already dealt with Ukraine in 2004, when the so-called “Orange Revolution” first brought a pro-Western government, led by Viktor Yushchenko, to power in what was one of his first foreign policy defeats. . Since then, in his eyes, Ukraine has become something of an obsession, and controlling it, directly or indirectly, the fundamental condition for his project of restoring Russian greatness.
Furthermore, since 2014 Putin set the conflict in Ukraine as a direct confrontation with the West, and above all with the United States, which favored the spread of an increasingly belligerent propaganda but also contributed to the diplomatic and economic isolation of Russia. .
The attempts to subvert and destabilize the “world order” he denounced in Munich in 2007 were not limited to Ukraine, and have multiplied over the years.
Recently, Russia has actively intervened in some conflicts especially in the Arab world, such as those in Syria and Libya. It also influenced the 2016 US election in favor of Donald Trump with some success, and played a role in the rise of far-right parties in Europe.
This expansionist and revanchist policy has come at a cost. After reaching its peak in 2013, the Russian economy has been in decline or stagnant for nearly a decade. Contrary to what Putin did in his early years in power, the Russian regime has reinvested the enormous profits from the sale of raw materials not in the growth of the economy, but in projects of military expansionism with questionable success.
A decade ago, the economy was in full swing, Russia was part of the BRICS, the exclusive club of high-growth countries that would dominate the world of the future (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa), and the government promised that Russia would have become the fifth largest economy in the world by 2020. That would have been the case if the country had maintained the excellent growth rates of Putin’s early years, but the Russian president took a different path: today Russia is the 11th economy in the world (Italy is ninth) and risks falling further as the effect of the sanctions for the war in Ukraine is felt.
Economic growth had been one of the most important reasons for Putin’s consensus in the early years. This consensus – which remains extremely high – is today fueled solely by bellicose and nationalist propaganda. But the war is also getting worse for the Russian president.