During the Cold War, the Soviet Union was for almost half a century one of the two seams of world power. When it dissolved in 1991, Russia found itself losing its relevance.
Russian President Vladimir Putin was a young KGB officer at this time, and the events of that time influenced many of the steps he took during the early years of his administration, in an effort to regain prominence in the world that the Soviet Union used to hold. – and restore Russian pride.
Putin’s personal trauma after the fall of the Berlin Wall
The transition after the Soviet collapse proved brutal for most of the Russian population. And although Putin quickly rose through the political ranks following this, he had his own personal trauma associated with the fall.
As a 37-year-old KGB lieutenant colonel stationed in the East German city of Dresden, Putin watched nervously as angry mobs stormed the sprawling Stasi compound in December 1989, just weeks later. that the fall of the Berlin Wall marked the end of Soviet control in Europe. Invading the offices of the East German secret police, crowds headed for its inner sanctum: KGB headquarters. Putin called for an armed backup to protect employees and the sensitive files hidden inside, but was told no help would come. “Moscow is silent,” said the voice on the line. He had no choice but to come out and lie to the crowd that he had heavily armed men waiting inside who would shoot anyone who tried to enter. The bluff worked, the crowd dissipated, and KGB files on informants and agents remained safe.
Putin felt like he was watching one of the greatest and most powerful empires the world has ever seen come undone in the most pathetic and humiliating way. “I felt the country was no more,” he later recalled in a series of interviews published in 2000. “It was gone.”
He seemed to mourn not the human cost or the material tribulations, but the national humiliation of a powerful state that simply implodes. He later claimed to have felt for some time that the collapse of Soviet power in Europe was inevitable. “But I wanted something different to rise up in its place. And nothing different was offered. That’s what hurt. They just dropped everything and left.
To restore Russia’s ‘first tier’ status, Putin invoked its history
During the 1990s, Putin rose from a middle-ranking cog on the periphery of the KGB to become deputy mayor of St. Petersburg, and then in 1996 was called to Moscow to work for President Yeltsin’s Kremlin. He saw first hand how weak the new Russia had become. In 1998, when Bill Clinton called Yeltsin to tell him that the United States was considering airstrikes in Serbia, Yeltsin was furious. He yelled at Clinton that was unacceptable, then hung up. The bombings still took place.
Putin was determined that this could not continue, and it was immediately clear that his style was going to be very different from Yeltsin’s. When Bill Clinton’s right-hand man on Russia, Strobe Talbott, first met Putin in the late 1990s, the US official found his style completely different from the histrionics or lectures he was used to. from Yeltsin and other Russian officials. Talbott was struck by Putin’s “ability to convey self-control and confidence in an understated and gentle way”. And the future president also used a number of tricks from his KGB past to show he was in control, making sure to name the poets Talbott had studied at university to show he had read. Talbott’s file. “I could imagine him debriefing a captured spy who had already been softened up by the tougher guys,” Talbott recalled in his memoir.
A few days before becoming president, at the end of 1999, Putin wrote an article in the Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta, describing his task as he saw it. “For the first time in the past 200 to 300 years, Russia faces the real danger of being relegated to second or even third place among world powers,” Putin warned. He called on Russians to unite to ensure the country remains what he called a “first-tier” nation.
To achieve this, Putin turned to history. Russia’s recent past has been contradictory, painful and bloody, but Putin was determined to make Russians proud of their history. Victory in the Second World War, still known in Russia as the Great Patriotic War, has become a kind of national founding myth of the new Russia.
“Thanks to you, we have become accustomed to being winners,” Putin told veterans on his first VE Day, two days after his inauguration in 2000. Each year, the narrative of victory grew more pronounced. Questioning the darker sides of the Soviet war narrative, such as the deportation of 2 million Soviet citizens during the war, or the ruthless tactics of the Stalinist regime on the eve of the conflict, has become increasingly taboo. Putin was determined that Russians would not feel guilty about their past.
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Putin has restored his badass image
Putin’s personal image has evolved to reinforce the narrative of a newly reborn country. He won over the Russians with his calm, no frills approach and tough talk. Over time, Kremlin spin-docs highlighted his macho credentials, resulting in a series of photo opportunities that seemed to get more and more absurd: Putin at the controls of a race car and from a fighter plane, Putin on horseback bare-chested, Putin piloting a microlight with a herd of rare cranes. There was even a rumor that Putin wanted to be launched into space to orbit the earth. But the idea was apparently rejected by Kremlin security, who deemed it too dangerous.
As Putin’s constructed image approached that of a superhero, his style of government also changed. The circle of real decision-makers around Putin has shrunk, leaning towards people with a background in the security services. Putin prides himself on loyalty above all else, and many of the people around him are those he has known from his KGB days, or at least from the 1990s in St. Petersburg.
These people almost never talk to reporters, making it difficult to get reliable information about the inner workings of the Kremlin. Putin is a cloistered ruler, who hardly ever uses the Internet and receives information mainly in briefing notes handed to him in red folders by Kremlin aides. While he cultivated a man of the people image, he increasingly rarely came into contact with “real Russians”, and more often in carefully scripted encounters.
Even his then-wife, Ludmila, in a rare 2005 interview with Russian newspapers, painted a portrait of a taciturn and authoritarian householder. She said you could only ask him questions (never about work) when he came home late at night and drank a glass of kefir before bed. And Ludmila said she quit cooking because her husband never praised her food. “He has tested me throughout our life together. I constantly feel like he is watching me and checking that I am making the right decisions,” she said. The couple have announced a divorce in 2013.
Over the years, Putin has become synonymous with the new state, extending his presidency for more than two decades. Meanwhile, Putin’s use of World War II has been enriched with other secondary historical figures and victories, as Putin has attempted to weave a narrative of Russian glory, beginning with 10th-century Prince Vladimir. , founder of Kievan Rus – and ending with the Vladimir currently residing inside the Kremlin.
Shaun Walker is Central and Eastern Europe Correspondent for The Guardian and author of the book, The Long Hangover: Putin’s New Russia and Ghosts of the Past, published by Oxford University Press. Follow him on Twitter at @shaunwalker7.
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