Putin and the Uses of History in Russia

At the 2011 Valdai Discussion Club, the annual Moscow session where Russian leaders meet with Western journalists and academics, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin made clear he would issue no apologies for his recent maneuver to reclaim the Russian presidency from his protégé, Dmitri Medvedev, and dominate his country’s politics for perhaps the next dozen years. Responding to one question, he declared, “I do not need to prove anything to anyone.”

Such defiance reflects two central elements of the Putin persona: his firm conviction that his personal destiny is intertwined with that of his country; and his resolve to fashion the Russian destiny through slow, methodical decision making over a long period of time. In past public appearances, Putin has made repeated references to one of his Russian heroes, Pyotr Stolypin, the reformist prime minister under the last czar, Nicholas II, who also favored measured, evolutionary change; and to his American model, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who brushed aside the unwritten two-term presidential limit that had guided all U.S. executive leaders up to his time. At one point at the recent Valdai conference, Putin was asked directly about these references to Stolypin and Roosevelt, both of whom, noted the questioner, “did not survive to see their projects through.”

Putin did not miss a beat. “Well,” he interjected, to a smattering of nervous laughter, “don’t go planning my funeral just yet.” Clearly, he does not conceive of the next phase of Russia’s history moving forward without him.

Putin is back, or almost assuredly will be back, as Russian president in 2012. Notwithstanding all his time as Russian president or as the stealthy power behind the presidency, Putin remains a shadowy and inaccessible figure. This is not by accident, given that he has invested extraordinary efforts into hiding his true identity. There are large discrepancies in his official narrative—not surprising, perhaps, for a former KGBcase officer adept at masking his real self as well as, sometimes, his very existence. His KGB role, including his East German service in Dresden, remains a mystery. Little is known even of his activities as deputy mayor of St. Petersburg. So little, in fact, that to our knowledge there may be only one published photo of the man from this important period of his official career. This is a striking contrast to his more recent penchant for projecting his political persona widely through photographs.

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