Vladimir Putin’s Russia

Editor’s Note: In an interview on BBC Radio 4’s “Start the Week” with Anne McElvoy, Fiona Hill discusses her new book on Vladimir Putin, his personal life and Russia’s political system. Read an excerpt below and listen to the full discussion online.

Anne McElvoy: Fiona, you characterize Putin as a Mr. Benn-type figure, with the various roles that he plays in public life, when it suits him or when he needs the votes. Who’s the real Putin?

Fiona Hill: Well that’s a good question, and I don’t think we’ll ever really know who is the real Putin. Maybe not even after some time has elapsed, if he ever leaves the political stage. There are so many uncertainties about elements of his biography. But just like Mr. Benn, who’s my favorite cartoon when I was a kid, here in the UK – not everybody outside of the UK quite grasped the Mr. Benn concept – but I think if anyone listening today remembers that from the ‘70s and ‘80s. Remember Mr. Benn was somewhat of a faceless cartoon figure, but then he assumed these great identities with everyday as a new adventure in the magic costume shop. And Putin has done exactly the same: he’s been a blank slate for the Russian people because there’s so little known about his real background. He has been able to assume sometimes these rather fantastical guises. He’s been, like Mr. Benn, a firefighter, he’s been a deep-sea diver (though we actually now know that he didn’t dive quite so deep when he was retrieving an amphora from the bottom of the Black Sea, it was apparently only about 10 feet or something like that, a few meters). But nonetheless, he’s really got into the spirit of this. And the question is, why? Part of it is to create this very vigorous political image, it’s been a way of showing everyone that he’s the “action man” for Russia, that he’s the person that can really do everything, that he’s a really indispensable figure. But it’s also part of mobilization of the population.

McElvoy: I noticed that there’s one website that had 39 different images of him, including calming a tiger, hunting bears, any possible demographic really.

Hill: Yes, tugging whales, anything imaginable. The things that you just picked up on, that’s conservation, that’s taking pride in its vast territory and its nature. He’s trying to mobilize the Russian population behind various causes, not just in support of him. He actually says that he himself selects many of these roles that he plays. And of course this just further obfuscates what is the real “Mr. Putin.”

McElvoy: But what would you then make of the announcement of the divorce from his long-standing, and possibly long-suffering, wife? Because that was a case where he was putting himself out there as a man like any other with family troubles – albeit quite controlled – that’s a different side of a Russian leader. They often don’t like to be seen as having weaknesses or family turmoil.

Hill: You know, it’s very interesting that he’s done this, because he’s really put his private life off-limits. One of the things that has been extraordinarily difficult before this announcement was actually to find any details out about Lyudmila and his two daughters. His daughters are conspicuously absent from this incredible array of public imagery. Lyudmila hadn’t been seen with Putin for years, in fact. There were even rumors in Russia that she’d been sent to a nunnery, you know, which is rather medieval even in the Russian context. And I think in many respects he stepped forward because he’s obviously now in the process of re-crafting his public image again. Something that Putin has done is engage in this perpetual political campaign. And every time there’s a sense of trouble, which is one of the junctures where we are now, he comes up with some new invention of self. And as I said, because we know so little about him, now we know he’s divorced or in the process of divorcing (certainly that he and Lyudmila have formally separated), the idea that he’s now about to go on to a second stage, and everyone in Russia is waiting to see what’s going to be the second act.

McElvoy: What interests me, apart from Putin himself, is what it says about the political system. Does it all revolve around him, whether or not he’s being Mr. Benn on Monday and Mr. Putin on Tuesday?

Hill: Well unfortunately since he said he was coming back, and using the Hollywood imagery like Arnold Schwarzenegger who always seems to come back and reinvent himself from The Terminator or whatever movie he’s in now, Putin has made the system all about him. I think we could actually say that during this strange dual-monarchy or the tandem of Medvedev and Putin, that it wasn’t quite like that. For four years, we actually had – and that’s what everyone was really reacting to when there was a bit of a rise in the opposition movement in 2011 and 2012 – was the idea that the system was widening out and that for once, it wasn’t really about one man or one particular clique. It seemed to be that with nominating Dmitry Medvedev as president for four years, he was sort of stepping back a little. And he himself said that it’s not healthy for a system to have everything in the hands of one man. And then he said, “Oh! I’m coming back again and picking it up, and here I am!”