Yesterday the BBC broadcast a documentary exploring the time Russia’s President Vladimir Putin spent in Dresden as an officer of the KGB. According to the writer, Chris Bowlby, this was “The Moment that Made Putin”. Josh Black isn’t so sure.
In 1989, Vladimir Putin found himself powerless to defend the offices of the Soviet Union’s intelligence service against crowds of demonstrators a million strong, united by their desire to end the communist government in East Germany and the malign influence of the Soviet Union. He rang for military back-up, and as he later told biographers, received a response that presaged the end of Soviet influence in Eastern Europe. “We cannot do anything without orders from Moscow,” Putin was told. “And Moscow is silent.”
Putin-watchers have drawn the conclusion that the origins of Putin’s determination to fashion Russia into an anti-enlightenment bulwark lay in this moment. It was the moment that “made” Putin, endowing him with an appreciation of the power of crowds, a determination not to let Russia stand idly by on the sidelines, and even “gave him ideas for a model society”, according to Chris Bowlby.
As the European Union and NATO struggle to counter Russian influence in Ukraine, that is a striking image. But how useful is it to understanding the actions of the Kremlin today?
There are, I think, four reasons why we should be careful not to overdo the argument that Russia’s politics have been determined by one man’s experience in the collapse of the Soviet Union; first, that Putin has tried to repair relations with the West since becoming President, second, that this ignores the liberal experiment under Dmitri Medvedev, third, that Russia’s politics are not that different from other countries in the post-communist space, and finally, that Putin’s actions in Ukraine have other motivations than the mere fear of contagion from what political scientists have called “Colour Revolutions”.
None of this is meant to deny that Putin and his government are deathly afraid of mass political movements. But historical reductionism often says more about the way we see Russia’s rulers than about how they see themselves.
When Putin became president in 1999, Russia had recently been on the brink of war with the West over Kosovo, culminating in a mad dash to seize Pristina’s airport. Instead of playing an obstructive role, even as mass demonstrations toppled Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia, Putin made it his mission to re-establish relations with the West, an ambition which only soured with the Iraq War in 2003 (and in select bilateral relationships lasted much longer). Indeed, as Bowlby notes, Putin’s “special relationship” with Germany continued until the election of Angela Merkel as Chancellor; her grasp of Russian and his of German ensuring that this is still the primary line of contact between Russia and the West.
The thesis that Putin was irredeemably shaped by what happened in Dresden also ignores a period of liberalisation in Russia between 2008 and 2011 that is now at best forgotten and at worst considered a cynical ploy. True, the Kremlin did not liberalise Russian politics so that elections were fully competitive again. But this period was marked by an experiment that future historians will have to explain in more depth than the current assumption that it was a bait-and-switch manoeuvre.
Today, Russia has become a much more repressive country, admittedly in response to huge protests that shook Moscow and some regional cities in 2011 and 2012. One of the organisers of those protests was assassinated in Moscow just weeks ago, while another bounces between jail terms and periods of house arrest. But the anti-populist politics of Russia’s elite do not vary greatly from those of any authoritarian government in the post-communist space, which are marked by an obfuscation of what is really at stake in public protests. Moreover, there are grounds for arguing that changes in the Kremlin’s politics are better explained by competition between internal cliques than by any guiding philosophy.
More importantly, Putin’s aversion to the change of government in Ukraine is not exclusively down to his fear of the Russian people catching the same bug. At stake in Ukraine is more than just the orderliness of the post-Soviet states. Without a friendly Ukraine, Russia’s Black Sea fleet, Eurasian Economic Union, gas transit and investments are all at risk. By moving to take Crimea, Putin has not only secured some of these interests, but also made himself incredibly popular in Russia.
What sort of place history has in politics is a long and complicated debate. Putin’s famous dictum that the collapse of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century” is oft-repeated without ever really being understood. No doubt there will be more repression over the coming year, but as EU leaders attempt to negotiate a peace treaty to end the civil war in Ukraine, it is hardly helpful to posit Putin as a latter-day Paul I. Putin does not want an Iron Curtain to descend. Instead, it is worth considering what sort of international order Russia wants to be a part of.