Russian President Vladimir Putin's actions in Crimea have left Western leaders scratching their heads. To them, his actions seem so counterintuitive, so risky, that they might as well be those of a madman. Angela Merkel's not out invading France to reclaim Alsace-Lorraine after all. Nor is the U.S. annexing Canada. The unfortunate fact is that Putin's actions are not at all a surprise; they fit squarely into his worldview. With an understanding of that worldview his invasion of Ukraine could have been expected, if not predicted. Based on that same analysis, it's very possible that a broader invasion of Ukraine could follow.
Even though it's been a decade and a half since this little man with an oversized ego gained the world stage, we're still stuck asking the question heard so often in the first year of his reign: Who Is Putin? His actions continue to surprise us, his remarks never fail to confound. So what is it that makes Putin tick? Why does he do what he does and think what he thinks? In this short piece I will do my best to take you into the opaque, befuddling mind of Russia's supreme leader, to explain his worldview and his most deeply held beliefs in order to, in turn, explain his actions in Crimea.
I am able to do this because I spent a total of 12 years living and working in post-Soviet Russia. I speak fluent Russian, married a Russian woman, and generally consider myself knowledgeable about the culture. Embarrassingly enough, over time I even became somewhat Russified, especially in the quantity of vodka I was able to imbibe and my approach to that confounding gray area between right and wrong. I eventually embraced the gray and stole from a Russian oligarch. But despite my misdeed, I never truly became Russian. The fact is, I would not want to be. For the one thing that I, and all foreigners living in Russia, quickly realize, after we get over certain outward similarities in appearance, is that Russians do not think like us, not at all.
You enter risky waters, of course, whenever you try to generalize the actions and beliefs of an entire society, an entire culture. Cultures, after all, are made up of individuals, each with his or her own thoughts and beliefs. But over my many years abroad I came to the realization that it is possible to identify certain beliefs and traits that are prevalent enough to set a culture apart. The purpose of this article, however, is not to make grand, sweeping statements about Russian society as a whole, but rather to delve down into the worldview of one particular subset: the apparatchik. This, the club of the apparatchiki, is Putin's fraternity, his consort. It is what shaped his worldview and their beliefs are what explain his actions.
We all know by now that Putin came of age in the waning days of the Soviet Union. He served in the KGB and was reportedly posted to Germany, although his time abroad does not appear to have enlightened him in any significant way. He came along early enough to have undergone a full indoctrination into the Soviet system. By all accounts he loved it: the order, the power, the chauvinistic Russian nationalism at the heart of the Soviet system. In short, he adopted the idea, and the ideal, of empire, an empire with Russia at its heart, benevolently ruling the backward subjects around it.
What is useful to us is not to understand his views at the time but how they have changed over time. For what sets this group of apparatchiks apart, the driving force of its development, is their members' reaction to the fall of the Soviet Union and the disarray that followed under Yeltsin's benevolent but disorganized reign. Putin is the exception amongst the apparatchiks in that, early on, he appeared to have embraced some liberal principles and managed to thrive in this new system. Many of his cohorts initially suffered as their privileges crumbled and they struggled to adapt to the new ways.
But whether successful or not, these men (and they are almost all men) adapted their belief in empire and Russian destiny to fit the new times. They watched in horror as the Soviet Union crumbled and shrank. They longed for a day when Russia would reassert its dominion over the Baltics, Central Asia and Ukraine, peoples they believed rightly subservient to Russia.
They came to view the West as decadent and morally bankrupt, not to mention self-interested and hypocritical. As is typical when empires fall, the apparatchiks mourned their loss and dreamed of restoring Russia's former glory. These views, in turn, influenced their foreign policy: the West, they believed, would mouth the words of democracy and freedom but lacked the fortitude to transform their empty words into boots on the ground. Hence their willingness to reclaim their lost empire, through invasion if necessary.
Culturally, the apparatchiks views are expressed in what we here in the U.S. would describe as 'family values' of the type expounded by the Tea Party and the far right wing: condemnation of 'others' (gays, liberals, minorities, immigrants), a focus on conformity, an ingrained anti-Semitism, an alliance with conservative religious leaders to expound traditional ways and beliefs.
But where the right-wingers in the U.S. at least mouth the words of individuality and freedom, here the apparatchiks diverge. To them, these words, these beliefs, are anathema, a symbol of the inherent inferiority of democracy. Apparatchiks, in fact, disdain democracy as weak, messy and inefficient. Their view of society, with beliefs that stretch all the way back to the Russian Empire of the Tsars, emphasizes conformity, autocracy and force. Their ideal is that of a top-down society ruled form the center focused on the collective, not the individual.
So this is Putin, this is his worldview, for Putin is the embodiment of the apparatchik, it's spiritual and temporal leader. Putin believes that might makes right. Putin believes in Russia's manifest destiny as an imperial power. Putin believes in undemocratic government with a harsh, strong center. Putin believes in the restoration of Soviet glory through the reemergence of Russia as a world power. Putin believes in conservative 'family values' focused on traditional religion and the condemnation of others. Putin, in short, is a Russian chauvinist.
Imagine, if you will, an evening with Putin over borsch and vodka and caviar. The sad fact is that if you or I, as progressive, enlightened Americans, were to sit down for an honest chat with Putin or any one of his ilk, we would, at the least, leave convinced that the man was deranged, if not outright crazy. At first, his geniality would enthrall us, draw us in, in the same way a psychopath lures its victims. We might think that this guy is not so bad, maybe even misunderstood.
But then, inevitably, he would make a quip that let slip his inner beliefs. Maybe he would condemn the Jews as devious, grasping thieves who control financial centers from behind black curtains. Maybe he would remark that gays corrupt the culture. He might extoll the virtues of Russian imperialism or wax nostalgic over the Soviet Union. Most certainly he would denounce Russia's minorities as troublesome interlopers intent on destroying Russian culture and morality. He would undoubtedly denounce the Ukrainians as untrustworthy, recalcitrant children. He would tell you in all seriousness that Russians are like children in need of a strong hand.
You would begin to slam the vodka, to clear your mouth of the bad taste and rising bile. You might manage to get a word in edgewise, to defend democracy or minorities or gays. But he would not listen: his view was formed, solidified, in the waning days of the Soviet Union. But his beliefs actually stretch back in a historical continuum to those of the Tsars.
Does this make Putin crazy? I don't know. It certainly makes him different, a man unburdened by the enlightenment ideals so widespread in the West. And it also explains his actions in Crimea. The entire Ukraine could very well be next. I have had many conversations with men of his ilk, members of the apparatchik minority, conservative leaders. Their certainty in their righteousness, their refusal to consider other viewpoints, their harsh social conservatism, their emphasis on conformity and force: all of these things never fail to astound me, to frustrate me, to leave me gnashing my teeth. Maybe, come to think of it, it's not Putin that's crazy but those of us who have to put up with him.