Is Putin Moving Left or Right? (And Why That's the Wrong Question)

Roundup: Historians' Take

Simon Sebag Montefiore, author of the forthcoming Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, in the NYT (March 14, 2004):

When Mr. Putin diverges from the democratic path — as when he abruptly dismissed his prime minister and entire cabinet last month — Western observers tend to either criticize his authoritarianism or simply declare him"an enigma" (the traditional cop-out for pundits when they do not understand Russian leaders). And we pose the familiar questions: is Mr. Putin a reformer or a hard-liner? Is he his own man or is he controlled by the dreaded siloviki, the former security officials who have become the powers in the Kremlin? Was it the president or the siloviki who arrested the oil mogul Mikhail Khodorkovsky, seized control of the news media from private owners, purged and re-purged the benighted dystopia of Chechnya?

A reforming liberal leader in Russia is the Holy Grail of Kremlinology, but the search for one is as misguided and hopeless as that for the relic of the Last Supper. Believe it or not, some Western analysts in the 1930's insisted that Stalin was a"moderate," controlled by extremists like the secret police chief Nikolai Yezhov. Khrushchev became the next great hope after he denounced Stalin and ended the Terror in the 50's, but his real interests were personal power, state consolidation and Marxist-Leninism. Mikhail Gorbachev was a reformer, but not a liberal — his real wish was to reform, not end, Marxism-Leninism.

So asking if Mr. Putin is a"reformer" is really the wrong question: in Russia, reformers come from many directions. Even Boris Yeltsin, who in the early 1990's did give real power to pro-Western free-marketeers, ultimately understood that achievement in Russia is judged by the ability to control, consolidate and increase the power of the state.

The intrigues of the Kremlin remain so opaque that the Kremlinologists of 2004 are likely to be no more successful than those of 1964 or 1704. But we can still pick up a few interesting nuances in the shadowy dance behind Kremlin walls.

After the arrest last year of Mr. Khodorkovsky, who headed the oil giant Yukos, wishful-thinking Westerners imagined it was a result of principled debate about the course of liberal reform in the corridors of the Kremlin, with the democrats having lost. This was delusional: Mr. Khodorkovsky's downfall came only after he began to shift his interest from commerce to politics, and can best be viewed less as a sudden turn against liberalism than as yet another example of old-fashioned factional infighting. The damage to liberal values was probably accidental, but the incident shows just how selective Mr. Putin's interest in liberal democracy has always been. So much in Russia is part bungle and part conspiracy.

Throughout the cold war, Kremlinologists spent sleepless nights trying to work out which Politburo member was supporting which policy, imagining the party infighting like a debate in the Oxford debating society. Only the great scholars, like Richard Pipes and Robert Conquest, understood the irresistible magnetism of state power and the supreme importance of patronage. Marxism was vital, but within Marxism, connections were paramount. While Stalin was a murderous master of terror, he could also be a surprisingly loyal patron.

When I researched Stalin's private papers in the Communist Party archives in Moscow, I spent months on the correspondence, notes and love letters of the dictator, his henchmen and their wives. The cache proved that power was informal and personal, less about Politburo meetings than late-night vodka binges, secret jealousies and departmental rivalries. Each magnate brought his own friends, families and vassals with him from his home base. Wives got jobs — and helped their relatives. Politburo children even intermarried.

Stalin loathed these"grand dukes," as he called them, because they so often betrayed him when it came to the interests of their entourages, or"tails." He saw any patronage not his own as an obstruction to state-party power (meaning, of course, to Stalin himself). Rarely were there splits based on ideology: everyone was simply fighting for power.

This was true from the 1920's to the 90's — and continues to this day. Except now, without the Marxism, connections are even more important. ...

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