Putin’s Birthday, Birth Of A Legacy

The latest US-Russia.org Expert Discussion Panel focused on an assessment of Putin’s historical legacy, on the occasion of his 60th birthday. Here I try to answer whether history will see Putin as the “founder of a modern and successful Russia”, or as a tragic figure who threw away his chance of greatness to the “delusion of indispensability”:

While there are several criticisms one can make of Putin’s practice of democracy, his prolonged stay in power isn’t one of them.

As Evgeny Minchenko pointed out, there are many Western examples of very long, but non-authoritarian rule. Canadian PM Jean Chrétien ruled for 20 years, the Federal Chancellor of the FRG Helmut Kohl – for 16 years. Icelandic President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson has been in power from 1996 to the present day (nobody even bothered challenging him in 2000 and 2008). Charles de Gaulle, one of the figures Putin quotes as his inspiration, ruled for 11 years; the student protests against him in 1968, ironically, only ended up increasing support for him. Another of Putin’s heroes, Franklin D. Roosevelt, was US President from 1933 until his death in 1945, and remains a political colossus in the American imagination.

Nor is there anything particularly anti-Constitutional about what Putin did. Unlike in Georgia, where Saakashvili planned to retain power by moving powers to the Prime Ministership (but was foiled in this by an oligarchic coup), or for that matter in the “new democracy” of Hungary, where the ruling Fidesz Party headed by Viktor Orbán recently rewrote electoral law to cement its dominance for what may be many decades to come, Putin has strictly abided by the letter of the Constitution. United Russia did not use its Constitutional majority to extend the number of allowed Presidential terms, transform Russia into a parliamentary republic, or tweaking electoral law away from proportional representation towards majoritarianism (this would have a far bigger effect in consolidating United Russia’s power than low-level electoral fraud – and be much less politically damaging besides).

While one might argue that Putin went against the “spirit of the Constitution” by seeking a third term, that is an inescapably vague and ambiguous concept, one suited only for rhetoric. If we are going to consider the “spirit” of things, would it not then be against the “spirit of democracy” to condemn Putin for returning to the Presidency when he remains by far Russia’s most popular politician, enjoying a 10% lead over Medvedev even during the latter’s heyday?

In 2004, Putin said, “Our aims are absolutely clear: They are a high living standard in the country and a secure, free and comfortable life.” This is not the place to cite reams of statistics, but on practically any socio-economic indicator one cares to mention –  economic, demographic, crime, etc. – the Russia of 2012 is unrecognizable from the Russia of 1999. It’s simply another world. To find historical precedents, one needs to look far, far back. To another Putin hero, Stolypin? But the saplings he planted didn’t survive the Bolshevik winter. Both Peter the Great and Stalin transformed Russia, but in ways that were many orders of magnitude crueller and more bloodthirsty than all but the most deranged of Putin’s critics would accuse him of. Alien ideologies were impressed on Russia in these “revolutions from above”, leading to social stresses and upheaval; Putin, to the contrary, is profoundly a-ideological (and that is surely for the better, no matter the hand-wringing by some over Russia’s no longer having a “national idea” – fact of the matter is, “national ideas” have rarely led it to anywhere good).

Perhaps a more appropriate comparison is to Catherine the Great, who expanded Russia’s borders, made legal reforms, and removed internal barriers to trade. But serfdom was also further entrenched, and Russia kept slipping backwards relative to the developed world; in contrast, under Putin, Russia has gone from being the poor man of Europe to being a country where salaries and personal consumption are now converging with those of the poorer (original) EU members like Greece or Portugal. Maybe his true predecessor is none other than Yaroslavl the Wise, under whom Kievan Rus’ became unified, established links with Western Europe (which is today East Asia), formally codified Russian laws, and ushered in a golden age of culture and civilization. Although one should be careful of making parallels with developments a millennium ago, there are undeniable similarities between Yaroslavl’s achievements and Putin’s project: Consolidating the state, and now moving towards a Eurasian Union; legal reforms that supplanted late-Soviet “understandings” and Yeltsinite chaos; and the ongoing (re)integration into the world economy.

Regardless of the historians’ final verdict, it is now hard to see what Putin can possible do now to compromise the “father of the nation” status he has already gained in the popular consciousness – a status that should survive, based on comparable figures like De Gaulle or Park Chung-hee, even as the “dissatisfied urbanites” and “hamsters” – much like the Parisian student protesters against De Gaulle in 1968 – are relegated to the margins of history. The “democratic journalists” and other Putin Derangement Syndrome sufferers who portray this Goethe-quoting patriot and conservative restorer as a mafiosi thug or neo-Stalinist dictator will be in for endless disappointments as future Russians, just as today’s Russians, will continue to reject their bleak, screed-like denunciations of Putin’s legacy.


  1. Croatia and Russia says:

    Otto von Bismarck – The Iron Chancellor
    Margaret Hilda Thatcher – The Iron Lady
    Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin – The Iron President

  2. I don’t think there is anything remotely tragic or deluded about Putin. He is a formidable and formidably successful politician. The reason he is in power is because Russians want him to be. To be precise he is in power because he wins elections. He wins elections because he repeatedly delivers what Russians want. It takes a particularly crazed mindset (one all too common unfortunately) to hold his success and popularity against him and to blame Russians for voting for him because he gives them what they want.

  3. Interesting essay; couple of nitpicks –

    “Western Europe (which is today East Asia),”

    Huh? Did the continents shift while I was asleep or something?

    “ushered in a golden age of culture and civilization”

    Have to admit I don’t see a golden age of culture and civilization yet: certainly nothing to compare to the Late Imperial/Silver Age period, or even the more creative parts of the Soviet period. IMHO, the true symbol of Putinism is the shopping mall.

    • Come on, it is clear enough. Western Europe in the late middle ages was the most dynamic and fast growing region in the world – just like East Asia today.
      Regarding a golden age, I agree with you. Russia is getting more prosperous and stable, but it is not a golden age. In 19th century Russia was extremely prolific, with many great writers, philosophers, scientists, painters, composers. In the first half of the 20th century, the USSR had a scientific and technological golden age, peaking with the start of the Space Age in the late 1950’s. Contemporary Russia hasn’t performed any similar feat so far.

      • “the most dynamic and fast growing region in the world”

        I figured that was Karlin’s point, but I don’t really agree with it. Yaroslav was an 11th century ruler – not exactly late medieval – and during his time Western Europe wasn’t the most dynamic region, at least in comparison to China or the Islamic world. In fact, the East Asia of Yaroslav’s time was probably…East Asia.

      • Russia won’t perform as well anymore because all the Jews had left. Unless something dramatic happens I can’t imagine they’ll come back…

  4. Patrick Armstrong says:

    I must correct you on a point of detail: Chretien was Canadian PM for about 10 years, not 20. Trudeau got in about 15 years but the all-time winner (and also I believe anywhere where the Westminster operates) was Wm Lyon Mackenzie King how clocked up a total of 21 years in three chunks.
    But the Westminster system allows this: retain the confidence of your party and control the House of Commons and you can be PM for as long as you can get away with it. Politicians (see Thatcher or Diefenbaker) who lose their party can be retired very quickly indeed and, in principle, governments can be defeated at any time on certain issues. And, even, in theory, backbenchers can revolt and the govt can lose. Doesn’t happen all that often these days, given party discipline, but can.
    Personally, I think the Westminster system has worked pretty well for several centuries but I would hesitate to apply it to the Franco-Russian system.

    • I think you are right. William Lyon Mackenzie King was probably the longest serving prime minister under the Westminster system at 21 years. After him I think the one serving the longest consecutive time would be Robert Walpole of the UK (but at the time it wasn’t really the same system as in place today since the post of Prime Minister wasn’t official. Another long serving prime minister under the Westminster system is Sir Robert Menzies who governed Australia for 18 years in 2 chunks (with one of those chunks being 16 years). Assuming Putin decided to run for another term in 2018 then at most he would have been President for 20 years in 2 chunks. Sure it is long, but there is nothing wrong with it.

  5. Jennifer Hor says:

    Iceland has only had five Presidents since it became independent of Denmark in 1944. Asgier Asgeirsson (1952 – 1968) and Vigdis Finnbogadottir (1980 – 1996) served as presidents for 16 years each. Kristjan Eldjarn (1968 – 1980) lasted 12 years and Svein Bjornsson (1944 – 1952) served the shortest time as he died in office. So it’s not unusual for Iceland’s Presidents to keep going and going. The position of President of Iceland is analogous to the Queen of Denmark and parts of Iceland’s constitution were copied over from the Danish constitution. The President really doesn’t have much power at all and it’s the Prime Minister and cabinet who exercise the executive power in Icelandic politics.

  6. Kekkonen of Finland served 25 years from 1956 till 1981. During the last years of his reign he was not in his full capasity due to senility.

  7. Article pretty much covers the main points of divergence the west has with Russia.


    Putin’s legacy is like that of Tito in Yugoslavia who achieved a degree of success and prosperity outside of the US/British/Soviet orbit and kept the country united through state sanctioned organisations, propaganda and domestic intelligence and police but ultimately the foundations where built on a house of sand as when Tito died the system and ideology that get the country together based on a strong central character started to fragment along ethnic lines that ultimately lead to civil war.

    “Putin, to the contrary, is profoundly a-ideological (and that is surely for the better, no matter the hand-wringing by some over Russia’s no longer having a “national idea” – fact of the matter is, “national ideas” have rarely led it to anywhere good).”

    He’s not a-political although he is not political in the sense of a central universal idea like Fascism, Communism, Islamism or Neo-Conservatism but he has failed to really create a Russia state ideology or that of the Russian aligned spheres of influence as example of Dugin Forth Political theory rather just mixing a series of past Russian political movements supported by Kremlin money with pan-Slavism among Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, promotion of the Orthodox church aligned with the state like under the Tsars and Stalinist national Communism with heavy enthuses of promotion of WW2 and Kremlin backed anti-fascist youth movements.


    • “that held the country” not “get”. Error when editing my comment.

    • That foreign policy articles also shows why the West has divergence with Russia in the first place: the implicit assumption that what the West wants is what Russia should want. Note in the very first paragraph the writers take the view that the USAID was actually only involved in advising private groups on democracy (which is not what it tended to do but rather aided groups in stirring up protests under the banner of democracy; but democracy is far more than just simply protesting and what many of the groups supported by USAID were trying to do (attempting to topple a government that you don’t like (even if the plurality or majority of your country men actually voted for it)) was NOT democracy). And in paragraph 8 they list out a string of events which attempt to paint Russia’s motives in a negative light. Note they refer to Russia invading Georgia, yet the truth (as acknowledged even by NATO and the EU) is that Georgia provoked the war and the resulting Russian operations into Georgia proper by attempting to capture all of South Ossetia and using indiscriminate rocket fire on South Ossetia’s capital city in the process. What they have done would be little different than saying that the US invaded Iraq in 1991 without giving any context as to the reason for Operation Desert Storm. It’s just plain dishonest. They also refer to the Bushehr reactor coming on-stream as if Iran doesn’t have a right to pursue nuclear energy; (newsflash for the West: it does! If they don’t want Iran to acquire nuclear weapons then they need to go about their business far differently than they are now because the methods used over the past couple of decades means Iran has little incentive to comply since compliance only results in further demands and threats should those demands not be met) and they refer to the situation in Syria as if Russia is wrong for supporting a government which the entire world previously viewed as legitimate and which actually had attempted to make concessions to the protesters before the whole thing went way beyond protests and into civil war.

      It’s quite easy to envision a world where the West and Russia can cooperate on a great many issues including Iran and Syria. The problem is that the West seems to believe that cooperation does not involve compromise between the two parties but compliance on the part of other parties with its own preferred agenda. What if the West had supported the concessions made by Assad early on during the Arab Spring and genuinely worked with Russia and China to make the UN attempts in Syria work? Perhaps today we wouldn’t be seeing a replay of 1980’s Lebanon in Syria. Maybe we would instead be seeing something along the lines of Kenya or Zimbabwe where two or more political groups share power (even if one is still slightly dominant as is the case in Zimbabwe) and the country muddles through on the long road of change. Instead we are seeing a civil war, minor Turkish involvement as a result of incidents along the border and the prospect of a Western bombardment of Syria. Considering that even an imperfect power sharing deal as one finds in Zimbabwe or Kenya would be infinitely preferably to the current and prospective alternatives if only because hundreds if not thousands of human lives would be saved, it’s rather shocking that the West seems to assume otherwise and indicates what kind of value they place on the lives of non-Westerners. And it certainly isn’t as if Assad would have thrown in the towel without Russian support. Lebanese factions fought for years in Lebanon without the major (not I said “major”) support of the West or USSR. And it wasn’t as is Gaddafi was close chums with Putin during the Libyan Civil War. By the time that started Gaddafi had already undergone a rehabilitation with the West in terms of relations. Russia even ended up supporting intervention there only to find that it went beyond what had been sold to the audience at the UN.

      Quite simply the “reset” failed because it attempted to reset relations without resetting Western governmental assumptions and behaviour. The reset would probably be a major achievement today if the West was willing to compromise on various issues such as missile defence, Syria, USAID’s modus operandi, etc.Naturally the hawks in the West would paint each compromise on these issues as a defeat even though compromise on missile defence (such that it would involve any Middle Eastern state that was interested and Russia and maybe make use of the facilities in Azerbaijan as suggested by Russia) would make an Iranian nuclear capability irrelevant and probably go a long way towards ensuring Iran simply doesn’t bother with acquiring nuclear weapons and it would go a long way towards ensuring Western acceptance of Iranian nuclear energy (since the West would no longer have anything to fear from an Iranian nuclear arsenal) which in turn would go some ways towards allowing Iran to feel more willing to comply with inspections of its nuclear facilities. Such an outcome is only a negative or a defeat if one starts from the assumption that killing lots of people over the issues (via bombing Iran and assassinating scientists) is a desirable outcome. I don’t share that assumption and I doubt very many people around the world (including civilians in the West) share it either.

      • Dear John,

        As someone who was a frequent traveller to Yugoslavia in Tito’s time I see no similarity between Tito and Putin at all. Nor do I see any similarities between Yugoslavia and Russia or between Tito’s foreign policy and Putin’s.

        Tito was a dictator who maintained himself in power by creating around himself a kind of controlled anarchy which included the intentional weakening of the country’s central insitutions and administration lest they pose a challenge to him. That is not what Putin has been doing in Russia where the whole trend has been towards institution building and strengthening the authority of the central government and administration.

        • Tito created a largely successful model for Yugoslavia given the history of the country, the post war geo-political alignment of Europe and Yugoslavia that runs on a geo-political fault line and ethnic make-up of the country.

          What institutions? Like Tito who maintained a united Yugoslavia based around his own central authority Putin has created a system largely created around him and his party that is bolstered using state media and resources rather than creating a viable and authentic multi-party system.

          He created a more centralised system so Russia could be a governable nation and not become like Iraq and Pakistan aligned with Oligarch financial and regional interests but has not fundamentally in any real sense changed or tackled the oligarchic structure of the Russian economy and society who has just incorporated it into his own system as long as they are loyal to the Kremlin.

          He has centralised regional authority so much that make any meaningful reforms impossible without involvement in state bureaucracy and corruption.