Putin' it straight

Much has been said of Vladimir Putin, but with opinions so polarized, it can be difficult to discern fact from fiction. What is it about him that inspires both the superhuman and super-villain characterizations of him? And to what extent do these images affect relations between Russia and the West? Oksana is joined by journalist and author of "The Putin Mystique", Anna Arutunyan, to cut through the fog.

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Oksana Boyko: Hello and welcome to Worlds Apart. He's been decried as one of the worst aggressors of our time and nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, ostracised by counterparts and embraced by his compatriots. Love him or hate him, Vladimir Putin leaves very few people ambivalent. What makes him so polarising? Well, to discuss it, I'm now joined by journalist Anna Arutunyan, author of the book: "The Putin Mystique". Anna, thank you very much for being here.

Anna Arutunyan: Thank you, thank you for having me.

OB: Now, your book is called "The Putin Mystique: Inside Russia’s Power Cult", and I wonder, why did you choose this title, what is so mysterious about Vladimir Putin?

AA: Um, I think mystique is, uh, I mean what I believe this connotesuh, we're not talking about a mystery but an aura. We're talking about somebody who reflects what people want him to be and that, that's essentially what mystique is.

OB: And I think we can draw an obvious parallel here with Betty Friedan's, "The Feminine Mystique", which essentially described the mystique as the problem which has no name. Essentially by, you know, submitting women, forcing women to comply with this very ambiguous and simplistic social construct, and by extension, you are suggesting that Vladimir Putin was essentially forced to mould himself into the leader that Russian people want him to be.

AA: I don't think he was forced, but I think he was moulded, willingly, he was complicit in this process, but yes, the feminine mystique also reflects this, uh, kind of aura, this need to conform to a certain image, to conform to a certain role, that people do inadvertently.

OB: What do you think Russian people are looking for in their leader?

AA: Uh, this is very complicated and very multi-faceted.

OB: - you wrote a whole book on that! -

AA: Yeah, yeah [laughter] so it's not just a dictator, I don't want to say that Russians will always be looking for a dictator but that's a very big part of that equation, and the reasons for that are very complex and multifaceted. It's not because Russians need a strong hand to rule them. As I describe in the book, there are a lot of objective, geographical, historical, geopolitical factors that converge to create these patterns that rulers have to conform to.

OB: Well, you just mentioned the word "dictator", which is obviously a very loaded

AA: - strong -

OB: - word, but there are many other ways to describe this yearning that you have just described. One way would be by appealing to paternalism, and I think Putin himself complained on a number of occasions of this paternalism, that he has to essentially be the leader who covers all the bases, for his citizens. But I wonder if it is so unique to Russia, because if we look at many societies, especially transitional societies around the world, take Turkey, take many of the Arab states, take China for example, they all had this longing for a very strong, sometimes iron-fisted leader who would deliver, so is that so peculiar to Russia?

AA: I don't think it is peculiar to Russia actually, and I, while I was writing my book, I was always tempted to compare. Yes there are comparisons to be made, but we have to understand that this is a universal, very basic yearning. Everybody has it, everybody wants it, depending on what kind of crisis a society is going through, it might find itself appealing to that sort of rule, but, uh, the, the difference is, we're talking about two different states that rule the country: a patrimonial state, and a legal, rational state. Russia is unique in the sense that it's tried to balance these two states and uh, sometimes, usually, the patrimonial state takes the upper hand.

OB: Well, I would like to take an issue with that, because I think there is this implicit suggestion in your book that Putin essentially is pretending that we are living in this legal state, but that's really what it is, pretending, that when push comes to shove, you know, all pretences are gone. But if you look at his policies and his statements, he's actually very meticulous, very particular about upholding the law. Take this change of power back in 2008, he could have easily changed the constitution, he had public support for that, but he didn't do that. Take the recent events in Crimea, it would have been enough for him to just cite historical or moral reasons, but he went, in his speeches, into great details, speaking about why it was legal and why Russia wasn't, in his view, violating international law. So it seems that he indeed pays a lot of attention to making sure that the law is respected in Russia.

AA: He believes that, he wants that, he wants that to happen. He does have a very firm - I mean, he said so himself, on many occasions, "the dictatorship of the law". I think this is sincere; however, what this shows is that you cannot impose a legal, rational state by the will of one person. That's a dictatorship, that's not how, how -

OB: - ok, but you can help your people grow this respect for the law, isn't that -

AA: - he's trying to do that, but he's, I think, I don't know what he himself is thinking, I can't get inside his head, but I think he, um, I think he recognises on a lot of occasions that ruling a country so huge where the belief in the rule of law is not essentially ingrained, he's going to have to resort to other mechanisms of governing and there's really not a lot he can do about that. He can talk all he wants about rule of law, but when it comes to a lot of decisions, he, I think, has to recognise for himself. Now he can't say this out loud, because that then undermines his authority in the West, that undermines his legitimacy, but these are issues that he has to, that I think he addresses to himself.

OB: Now in your book you state that, quote, after twenty years of transitioning to democracy, there's little doubt that democracy hasn't really happened in Russia. That's quite a statement to begin with. But then you go further, calling Russia a "neo-feudal world, where the Sovereign" - capital "S" - "is perceived as both divine and demonic", and I guess we can disagree on how democratic or undemocratic Russia really is, there’s quite a discussion on that within this country, but don't you think that calling Putin “the Sovereign” and his people the subjects, is just a little bit hyperbolic, I mean, just a couple of weeks ago we had mass rallies, protesting Putin's policies on Crimea, and I don’t recall having those mass rallies in the Middle Ages, and people rallying against their masters.

AA: Absolutely, absolutely, this is hyperbolic, and I did this intentionally, um, to, the problem here is that it's very difficult to sometimes use the, um, words out of the legal-rational lexicon, like "president", "opposition","parliament", uh, when we're essentially seeing a society that is grappling with a lot of feudal elements. Now neo-feudal, as I said in the beginning, this is not necessarily unique to Russia, Russia's not predestined for this kind of state of affairs, it's just, it's just more predisposed, it's not a deterministic view, that this is all Russia has...

OB: Well, obviously Russia, like all other societies, changes, and it changes over time and that's why I think I would question these historic parallels because it is one thing to compare rulers in the Middle Ages, but it's quite, it's something different to, you know, apply that historical rationale to something that is happening now, because Russian society has changed just in the matter of the last ten years and people's expectations of their leaders would have changed as well.

AA: Of course, and what we're seeing is a lot of these modern elements, like protest rallies, like communication, they're changing that initial construct. Now, I, the thing is, when we make these hyperboles, when we make these parallels, very often we tend to draw a moral parallel as well; I try not to do that. I think that to say that this is out of the Middle Ages, to say that this is a neo-feudal structure, I don't, I think that we have to step back, and maybe this is good, maybe this is bad, but I just want to examine these elements that exist in society, for what they are.

OB: The main thesis of your book, as we discussed earlier, is that Putin moulded himself into the kind of leader that people want to see and when you think about Putin, this idea of self-restraint and self-discipline, really comes to the fore, at least for me, I mean. His liking of sports, sports requires a lot of self-discipline, his not being given to the typical Russian vices, like his predecessor was, Boris Yeltsin, I think it was the Time magazine a couple of years ago which also wrote about Putin even blinking less frequently than other people, so this idea of self-discipline, self-restraint is really out there, so I wonder if that doesn't make him very different from all the Russian rulers and Russian people in general, because Russians are not very keen on discipline and yet Putin, with all his meticulousness, with all his pragmatism, with his self-discipline, he really comes across as more of a Western figure to me at least, than your typical Russian.

AA: Um, this depends, this is absolutely true, but I think that the kind of power structure, power cult, if, if what I refer to in my book that we're talking about, doesn't stem from, doesn't come from the leader as much as it comes from below, and I think that in Putin's steeliness, this, this image that he puts across, it reinforces a lot of those yearnings, inadvertently, maybe that's not what he's trying to do, or maybe it is, we don't know, but I think essentially, what, at heart, at the heart of the matter is, if we go back to the question of rule of law and the legal, rational state, the question is really about, is there a critical mass of the population that really believes in the law, as opposed to the personified rule of certain people and I think that's the distinguishing factor here. You can place 80% of your faith in the law and 20% of your faith in the person who is going to guarantee that, but in Russia, I think, we have a different situation, where we place our faith in the person, where that person has to be steely, he has to be, he has to be above himself, in order to remain in power.

OB: Um, given what I mentioned earlier, and tell me if you disagree with that, you know this somewhat German nature of the Putin character, why do you think the West finds it so difficult to accept him, because on the surface it would seem that dealing with him, given his pragmatism, his rationalism, his cynicism even at times, he seems to be a person who has internalised this rational way of doing things that the West is so familiar with, why do you think the West cannot accept Putin for what he is or what he tries to present.

AA: Because I think this is a role that he plays, very expertly, very well, but I think that looking at him and looking at the way things are in Russia, it's very easy to recognise that what we're dealing with is essentially a patrimonial situation. This is not, this is beyond Putin, this is not something he can like easily wish away, this is not something that anybody can wish away, and I think the West recognises this, because it's, it's recognising it on a personal, irrational level.

OB: So what you're saying is that in rejecting Putin, the West is essentially rejecting Russia, with all its unruly ways of behaviour.

AA: I think the West looks at this patrimonial situation and is deeply scared by it, because they do realise on some human level that this is something they have as well, that these are certain forces that everybody shares but that Russia is just, living with that. It's as though they feel they've overcome that, because they've built, uh, they have rule of law, they have democracy, but I think maybe on some level, we in the West, or we or they in the West, I don't really know whether to make that distinction, are afraid: what if we revert back to this more basic state of governing ourselves?

OB: Some primal fears here.

AA: Yes.

OB: Anna, we have to take a very short break now, but when we come back: this idea of the Russian civilisation has made its way into many of Putin's speeches recently. Should Russians be allowed to chart their own course? Well, that's coming up on a few moments here on Worlds Apart.

OB: Welcome back to Worlds Apart, where we are discussing Putin's mystique with journalist and author, Anna Arutunyan. Anna, just before the break, we were discussing these fears of Russia that the West has and we you did an analysis of western coverage of policies - there're quite a number of very common metaphors that make references to brute force; for example, "flexing of muscles", "bullying", "political machismo", "aggressiveness" and while I would agree that it is important for both Putin personally and Russia as a country to project a certain amount of force, I think Russia's aggressiveness has, at least historically, has always been driven inward, it has always been of an internal nature, against its own people, rather than attacking other countries, so I wonder if in fearing Russia, the West has anything to go by, essentially.

AA: Yes, I think that's true, what you just pointed out, that Russia's aggression is directed inward, uh, that's very fair, but then again, you look at that from the Western standpoint, people don't understand - "how is that"? European aggression, Western aggression was directed outward at the Other - Russian aggression was directed inward - how is that? This is also something that they're threatened by, because from the outside, it's really hard to, I guess, not be threatened by that. I mean "if this is what they're willing to do to their own people", historically, then what can we expect outside of its own borders?

OB: Well, I guess to check on that you could, simply, study history. What strikes me about the Western narrative about Putin is, he's usually portrayed in very negative terms, and that's fine, I mean, you can dislike him as long as you have some arguments to support your point, but the Western coverage strikes me as extremely simplistic and lacking any nuances, and I wonder why that really is, because western journalism has a very long analytical tradition, and yet, when it comes to Putin, there seems to be too little analysis and too many emotions.

AA: Um, yes, that's also true, I think to some extent however, Putin almost benefits from this, he, again, he's almost playing this Hollywood villain. This is very beneficial for him on the international stage. Like before the Ukraine crisis, we saw this with the Syria agreement, we saw that Americans essentially said that Putin was handling the situation better than Obama. This, um, this plays into his hands a lot; this kind of emotional response to what he looks like, rather what he's actually doing.

OB: But do you think he's really so concerned about his image, I mean, think about it, he is one of the most powerful men in the world, in fact, Forbes magazine last year named him the most powerful man in the world - why would he care about what, you know, some people think about him on some subconscious level?

AA: I think, yes, the extent to which he cares is obviously exaggerated. I don't think he cares that much, but what he doescare about is Russia's, that is, I mean, up until the Crimea gambit, which he was willing to, which despite the sanctions and despite the threat of sanctions, I think that for him, uh, up until a certain point, it was very important for him to be a part of the Western club. This was an economic motive primarily, because he recognised the need for foreign investment, he recognised the need to be part of the global community in order to improve Russia's economy; to that extent it was very important what people in the West thought of him and that's another reason why he was very careful about insisting about rule of law, insisting on democratic procedure.

OB: Now I would like to touch upon this issue of physical strength and one of the images we often see of Putin in the West is this um, you know, almost iconic photograph of him riding on a horse bare-chested, and you suggested in your book that this image accords to an old Russian trope, described by a Russian religious philosopher, Nikolai Berdyaev, who compared the Russian people to this sort of submissive woman who is waiting for her bridegroom. And I wonder if you aren't reading too much into this, you know, simple photograph because the man just took a vacation five years ago, he had his pictures taken there, for some reason, they made their way to the press, and ever since then, the entire world has been analysing it and trying to put some symbolic meaning into it; haven't you put your own vacation pictures on Facebook?

AA: Actually I agree with that, I think that picture has been overly promoted, I don't think it was, um -

OB: I don't think it was promoted, because it is being ridiculed in the West; every time we have a discussion about Russia, we have this picture of Putin without his T-shirt, again, taken once, five years ago, it's not like he is going around Moscow bare-chested, I mean, he usually dresses quite conservatively.

AA: Well, there's two things going on here I think. One is that, yes, this photograph was, it showed the West what power, [giggles] - naked power, if I -

OB: Mmhmm

AA: - because, again, they're not used to that, this is drawing on that whole primal aspect -

OB: They're not used to what, seeing leaders without - ?

AA: No, they're used to seeing them without their shirts -

OB: Obama had -

AA: - exactly -

OB: - the series of pictures -

AA: what this embodies is brute force, for them. Now the picture was overused, I don't think it's really that significant in showing this process.

OB: But you also used it, and you cited Berdyaev to that point of saying that Putin was essentially playing into this, um, you know, narrative or trope, and I wonder if it's not the problem with Russian or Western punditry, of essentially seeing too much into or putting too much and assigning symbolic meaning into every little thing that Putin does and turning him into this larger than life figure.

AA: That's because this picture - it's not just this picture. If it was only this picture, then you'd be absolutely right, this picture's completely exaggerated, it doesn't mean that much. In fact in my book, I don't really focus on the picture itself, I focus on other aspects, and I look at uh, pro-Putin fan-clubs, the way that pro-Kremlin youth groups feel about Putin, the kind of projects that they've themselves put together to glorify their leader.

OB: - But it's a normal part of celebrity culture, I mean, some people, some teenagers are fascinated with Justin Bieber, others are fascinated with Vladimir Putin; somebody else is fascinated with Obama - so what?

AA: Right, but the difference is, Justin Bieber doesn't hold the monopoly on the use of force, that's...

OB: But President Obama has a lot of followers on Facebook and a lot of very, very eager fans, and that was actually one of his achievements back in the 2008 campaign, being able to mobilise that teenage and youth force through novel means. So it's not like Vladimir Putin is, uh, you know it's not even like he is doing that himself, it's just people responding to him in various ways.

AA: - And this is exactly what I'm looking at, again, you have to understand that the power cult is not an inherently Russian phenomenon, it's a very ancient phenomenon. Some societies are able to mitigate it with, um, institutions and basically abstractify power. Russia does it to a much lesser extent and therefore we get what we get; it's a social phenomenon, it's not something that Putin does, he really benefits from it, he tries to play it sometimes, he tries to distance himself from it, but it's there, we have this in our history.

OB: It's interesting that you say that, because I heard from one Kremlin official recently that over the last year or so, Putin was really taken by all the historic literature; he normally reads quite a lot but they say that he was really reading a lot of nineteenth, twentieth-century philosophers - one of them we already mentioned, Nikolai Berdyaev - all of them essentially developing this idea of the Russian civilisation, the Russian world, and this is something that already made its way into a lot of his speeches, he talked a lot about that, and in the West I think it is also perceived like all of those appeals and intonations - it is taken with a great degree of scepticism and sometimes even fear. Do you think that this idea of Russian culture or the Russian civilisation is ultimately at odds with Western values? Does the West have anything to fear here?

AA: There is nothing to fear but fear itself. This applies here - I think what we're talking about is a very, very deep, very old, long-running historical and maybe religious issue. I would take this back to the split of the Roman empire and the Byzantine tradition versus the Western, Holy Roman Empire tradition and the Byzantine tradition with the Orthodox Church did have this essence of exceptionalism, this essence of the one true faith, and this faith that basically assumed the rule of one emperor over the Church and over the Christian people, and in Russia, that issue, that building heaven on earth - it recurs again and again. Interestingly, in the twentieth century the biggest, probably, manifestation of that idea was communism, although it was atheist, so Russia is certainly kind of not predestined, but predisposed to these issues; I think largely because it's such a huge country and it takes a lot of energy to unify people who are spread out over such a large territory.

OB: You just mentioned this idea of Russian exceptionalism, and I think you can find a hint of that in many of Putin's speeches but when you consider it, what Russian exceptionalism is really about is essentially saying "we are different, and we have the right to be different, we have the right to develop in our own pace and in our own direction." If you compare that to the American exceptionalism, which says that "we are different and therefore, we have the right to change others", it is quite a difference there, there is quite a contrast there.

AA: Well, I think in the United States there is, uh, the American messianic idea of changing the world, it's essentially a belief in the rule of law which they have inside and which they want to spread outside. In Russia, there's more cognitive dissonance here because one the one hand, and we're seeing this especially during Putin's rule, he's shown in the last, in his first two terms, his first three - as prime minister as well - that he kind of wants to be part of the global, western community - "we're looking towards the West but we're also different" - the West is deeply confused by that. It's like he shows one face to the outside world and a different face to his own audience.

OB: I think again, the point that Putin makes all the time is that you can wonder all you want about Russia, what Russia will do, you just need to look at your own record before accusing Russia of potential crimes. You know, the situation in Iraq, the situation in Afghanistan - this is something that has already happened, this is something that the West has already committed, regardless of all those pronunciations about the rule of law and the human rights and what have you, so isn't that ultimately a bit hypocritical to hold Putin to such a high moral standard without living up to it themselves?, I mean, I'm speaking about western officials.

AA: Yes, there is, there is a hypocrisy there but if we acknowledge that we are dealing with different types of society, not because Russia's special, but because any society is essentially special, then we have to - this paradox comes up, especially now, and that is that the double standard that the West judges Russia with, if you look at it -

OB: - and Russia, charges the West with -

AA: - charges the West with, there is a double standard, I think it stems from the fact that Western societies, let's say, America, behaves outside of its borders the way that Russia behaves inside of its borders and vice versa. Inside America's borders, we're really talking about very strong rule of law, I mean, yes, there's corruption, there are violations of that, as in any society, but we're talking about a critical mass of the law being sovereign essentially. Uh, in Russia, where that is not the case, the western communities cannot accept - like - they get to do this because they have rule of law inside their societies so this is what they believe, but Russia doesn't get to do that because it doesn't and that's, I'm just explaining their rationale.

OB: I remember, I think it was a German politician who said that the West has the deficit of empathy towards Russia, failing to understand that Russia is a very troubled society, a society with very turbulent history, a society that has been through a lot, not just in the last couple of centuries but over the last couple of decades, so that may be one of the reasons why this rule of law is not up to the western standard, and I think that, as we discussed previously, Putin may be, for all his wrongs, he may be trying to change that, but Anna, unfortunately we have to leave it here, thank you very much for being here, and to our viewers: please keep the conversation going on our Twitter, Youtube and Facebook pages; I hope to see you again, same place, same time, here on Worlds Apart.