We know nothing about him

Who is Vladimir Putin? To begin with, quite a lot of people thought they knew. When George W Bush met him for the first time, the American president said afterwards that he had looked his Russian counterpart in the eye, and “was able to get a sense of his soul. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy.”
Following a visit to Moscow in November 2000, Tony Blair described him as “someone who wants to do the right thing by himself and the world”. In due course, Bush invited Putin to his house in Texas, where the two had a barbecue and told jokes to the press corps. Last year, the Prime Minister and his wife went to the opera in St Petersburg with the Putins, and the four were photographed taking long walks in the woods. Across the West – but particularly in Britain and America – Putin was lauded for his supposed pragmatism, his alleged devotion to democracy and free-market economics, and his support for the war on terrorism.
More recently, the Anglo-American-Russian love affair has grown chillier, following a series of what the Blair and Bush governments perceived to be changes in the atmosphere of internal Russian politics.
Some years after the fact, Western officials noticed that the Russian press, notably boisterous in the early 1990s, had grown strangely supine. Given that most big newspapers and all national television had been taken over by Putin’s men at the Kremlin, this was hardly surprising. Others noticed that the second Chechen war, launched by the then-prime minister Putin on the eve of his first presidential election, had gone on longer than it was supposed to, and involved mass human rights violations. Putin’s much-touted “free market reforms” never fully materialised. Nor did Russian democratic institutions evolve as they were meant to: as he heads for re-election on March 14, President Putin is virtually unopposed. Political opposition remains legal in Russia – but only so long as opponents of the president remain weak. Anyone who looks likely to gain any real power is destroyed, as was Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russia’s wealthiest businessman, who was arrested last autumn and remains in prison.
The altered perception cannot be attributed to Putin himself, as Peter Truscott demonstrates in this book, which might best be described as a very early draft of the Russian president’s biography. For it is not that the man has changed, but rather that his Western admirers fell, once again, into the trap of thinking that a Russian statesman who appeared “Western” on the surface actually shared their values. Truscott describes the Russian president’s family, who had been servants in Stalin’s Politburo; his childhood, at first “hanging around with a group of undesirables”, later obsessed with martial arts; and his recruitment by the KGB. The book doesn’t add much to what is known about Putin’s life before he entered politics, but it does provide a useful summary of what has already been published.
Truscott does not, however, attempt to delve much deeper into the nature of the Putin administration. Most of the time, he writes about Putin as if he were an independent actor, taking at face value Putin’s stated belief in Russia’s “historical mission” in the Caucasus, accepting the idea that the “policy of reining in the overmighty oligarchs” was the Russian president’s own. But it is also perfectly possible that Putin’s policies reflect a larger struggle between different Russian business groups, or between different factions in the secret police and army. To speak of the Russian president as if were merely an elected politician acting out of conviction is to make the kind of mistake about Russia that American and British leaders have made for so long.
The truth is that we don’t really know much about the internal operations of the Kremlin. Last week, out of the blue, Putin dismissed his entire government, failing to explain why. Kremlinologists, as we must once again begin to call them, came up with many theories but no answers. Some attributed the president’s decision to electioneering, some thought it might reflect the victory of security and military factions over “westernisers”. But the larger point is that we don’t really know. Because democratic institutions in Russia are so weak, the system remains opaque, to Russians and foreigners alike. For that reason alone it is a bit too early to attempt a true “biography” of the Russian president, tempting though this fascinating and still unfinished story may be.

Scroll to Top