Op-Ed

Vladimir Putin’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

Clifford G Gaddy and Fiona Hill

Vladimir Putin, the man of so many guises, has added yet another: author. Three articles have been published under his name so far this past month. There will be more to follow, we are promised. We won’t spend time dissecting the pieces themselves. Others have thoroughly analyzed their content, criticized their style, and questioned their originality. We just want to ask one question: Are there no limits to Putin’s obsession with history? A few weeks ago, we wrote an article entitled “Putin and the Uses of History” that described Putin as “a student of Russian history who is moving increasingly into the dangerous territory of writer, manufacturer and manipulator of history.” His fascination with historical figures (and historians) is generally well-documented. Even so, we’re astounded by how these references only seem to grow with every article Putin writes and appearance he makes. The names and allusions keep coming back — Pyotr Stolypin, Alexander Gorchakov, Ivan Ilyin. (We’re still waiting for mention of Putin’s original role model, Count Alexander von Benckendorff, founder of the Tsarist-era secret police.) Does Putin think he has his own Russian Time Machine? He keeps dipping into Russia’s past to find a group of superheroes that can be transported into the present to guide Russia’s trajectory forward and point to answers for tough issues. It’s like the group of unlikely literary characters gathered in the comic book series (and later film), The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

Take one of these extraordinary Russian gentlemen, Alexander Gorchakov, for instance, from whom Putin borrowed the title of his Izvestiya article, “Russia is Concentrating” (or, as it is rendered on the official government website — presumably to better suit the contemporary Putin image — “Russia Muscles Up”). What’s so great about Gorchakov? He was a contemporary of Germany’s Iron Chancellor, Otto von Bismark, and Bismark’s rival for title of most influential European statesman. Gorchakov was greatly respected in both France and Germany, the orchestrator of multiple international treaties, the man who completely turned around Russia’s Great Power reputation after the Crimean War (although he also dragged it through the debacle of the Russo-Turkish war), and he proposed numerous Russian domestic reforms, including ways of approaching the emancipation of the serfs. A true Russian hero of his time.

If Putin really could dip into the past, he’d have Gorchakov and all the others on his team with specific assignments. As he can’t, he appropriates a fantasized (modified and manipulated) version of them. He tries to assume their mantle and thus legitimize his actions cloaked with their past success. Assuming all of these historic identities is in many respects no different from Putin’s other appropriations of contemporary action figure roles: outdoorsman, deep sea diver, and so on. They’re all done for political and PR purposes to burnish the brand. So essentially we have a whole range of Putin figures — historic as Stolypin, contemporary as “Action Man.”

The problem is, Putin can no longer really be many of the historic characters he tries to play. Putin is no longer the outsider trying to save and reform the system; he is now the system. He is not Stolypin. He is the Tsar. In 1999 when he was still prime minister, and not long since the “outsider” from St. Petersburg who came into Moscow to help whip things into shape, he could have been Stolypin or von Benckendorff advising the Tsar. Now in 2012 he is most demonstrably the Tsar, with others having to assume those roles to try to persuade and to advise him.

Who is it now who plays the roles? Here’s where a historical analogy really is useful. If Pyotr Stolypin were around today, he would best be reincarnated as Alexei Kudrin. Both had clear, tough, personal visions of what needed to be done to save and reform the system and Russia. They weren’t afraid of using hard power measures to reach their goals, which they never lost sight of, inside or outside government. Kudrin wants to ensure that Russia doesn’t veer off the economic policy course he worked so hard to put it on. He needs a tough guy like Putin to push through his fiscal program and maintain austerity measures if Russia is going to weather the global economic crisis and spillover from the Eurozone. Kudrin — out on the streets canvassing the opposition (like von Benckendorff, Gorchakov, Stolypin) — is trying to figure out just what will have to be done keep things together. Kudrin’s big challenge is then to persuade the Tsar of what he needs to do next.

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