How Putin Became the Bogeyman
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When Putin started out, he was seen as a pro-Western, reach-across-the-aisle type.
This week, a Russian ruling party member proposed a constitutional amendment to “reset” President Vladimir Putin’s presidential term, which could help him stay in power until 2036. Putin’s already the second-longest-serving leader in modern Russian history, trailing only Josef Stalin. During those 20 years, Putin has become a bugbear to the Western world, positioning himself as one of its top geopolitical and ideological foes. Some politicians and commentators have even gone so far as to accuse the Russian president of waging a global crusade to undermine the very foundations of Western liberal democracies.
But Putin wasn’t always regarded as someone hostile to the West or liberalism. In the years immediately following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Putin worked as a deputy for one of Russia’s most notable reformist politicians: St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak. The future president’s work helping foreign investors endeared him to Western diplomats and businesspeople in the city, who viewed him as a sympathetic problem solver.
Thus Putin spent several of the most transformative years of his country’s recent history building bridges with the West and fighting a return to the Soviet past. There is at least some evidence to suggest that his actions were backed by belief. In his first-ever interview, in 1991, a 39-year-old Putin spoke passionately in defense of democracy.
“It seems to all of us, and I sometimes think this way as well, that if someone with an iron hand would institute a firm order, then life would become more comfortable and safe,” Putin said. “In reality, this comfort would disappear very quickly because the iron hand would very quickly begin to strangle us, and we would feel this very quickly on ourselves and our family.”
In 1990, a year after the Berlin Wall came down, Putin returned from years of work with the KGB in East Germany to his hometown of Leningrad. That’s where the young intelligence operative connected with Sobchak, one of his former law professors, a colorful opponent of the Soviet system and the first democratically elected mayor of Leningrad.
That August, hard-liners within the Soviet government — supported by the KGB and military — launched a coup in a final attempt to reverse the incremental political reforms that had been undertaken by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Sobchak and Putin swore to resist the atavistic tide, and together they organized a massive rally in St. Petersburg protesting the coup, using local TV stations to provide a more moderate view on otherwise hard-liner airwaves. Both Sobchak and Putin gave speeches. In the end, the pro-democracy side won — a politically risky move had paid off. A few months later, the Soviet hammer and sickle flag was lowered over the Kremlin for the last time as the empire dissolved into nation-states.
As St. Petersburg entered a new era, Sobchak made Putin responsible for attracting foreign investment to the city. It was in this role that Putin developed a good relationship with the Western diplomats and businesspeople in St. Petersburg. “It seemed to us that Putin understood that the old system was finished for good and that a new Russia was being built,” says John Marshall Evans, who served as U.S. consul general in St. Petersburg from 1994 to 1997. “The American businessmen that we knew uniformly said that Putin was trustworthy, that he didn’t ask for bribes, that they felt he was a solid person.”
But while Westerners in St. Petersburg were enthusiastic about Putin, the city’s voters were considerably less thrilled with his boss. Sobchak found himself increasingly under fire over St. Petersburg’s mounting economic woes and rising crime. In 1996, the voters showed both Sobchak and Putin the door.
Putin did not find himself out of work for long, though: He was offered a job in the Kremlin and rapidly rose through the ranks. Now the man who once echoed standard liberal talking points derides liberalism as “obsolete.” As president, Putin has strengthened the role of the state in the economy and in political life, with critics accusing him of rolling back civil liberties and concentrating wealth in the hands of a few.
So what changed his mind? Blame the ’90s. Putin admitted years later that the city’s experiment with parliamentary democracy had “turned into a horror without end,” as legislators endlessly squabbled among themselves. As for his pro-Western leanings, early in Putin’s presidency, he attempted to build a partnership with the United States based on a shared interest in combating terrorism. But by the mid-2000s he had reportedly grown disillusioned with the Bush administration’s exit from a major arms control deal, the Iraq War and NATO expansion. As the U.S. supported pro-Western, anti-Kremlin governments in former Soviet states, Putin’s attitude changed. Being a Western ally wasn’t working to his advantage anymore.
Russia’s tumultuous economic reforms during the 1990s saw many Russians — not just Putin — grow disillusioned with laissez-faire capitalism, says journalist Vitaly Tretyakov, founder of the influential Nezavisimaya Gazeta. But Tretyakov also concedes that it’s possible Putin had misgivings about Russia’s transition to market capitalism and democracy from the very beginning — and chose not to voice them.
“An agent who finds himself among the enemy should work to achieve the highest possible rank within the hostile system,” Tretyakov says, considering Putin’s KGB training. “To do that, you have to work for this system and do something useful for it to be promoted within it.”