Vladimir Putin and the Grand Question

For Russia, the grand question the last thirty years has been what happened between 1917 and 1989. Was Communist rule an anomaly or a continuation of Russian history? For Germany, the grand question has been what happened between 1933 and 1945. Was National Socialism an anomaly or a continuation of German history? Today, the grand question is whether Vladimir Putin was a wolf in sheep’s clothing and a continuation of Russian history.

Those who believe that Putin’s rule has been a continuation point to infamously cruel Russian leaders going back to Ivan the Terrible, the Grand Duke of Muscovy from 1533 to 1547. History books recount how he burned people in frying pans, impaled people to scare his enemies, and killed his unborn grandson by beating the pregnant mother until she miscarried, and then killed his son when he complained about it

Those who say that Putin is an anomaly in Russian history point to two eighteenth-century rulers, Peter the Great and Catherine the Great. Both introduced western Enlightenment ideas of modernization into Russia. Mikhail Gorbachev must also be added to the short list of progressive leaders. His perestroika and glasnost led to the end of the Soviet Union.

And Vladimir Putin? The obvious successor to Ivan the Terrible? The former KGB agent is now being compared to Lavrentiy Beria, chief of the Soviet security, and chief of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD) under Stalin during World War II. Beria was a notorious secret police chief, bearing direct responsibility for the massacres of 22,000 Polish officers as well as thousands of Chechens.

Whether Putin is an anomaly or continuation of Russian history, whether he is a 21st century reincarnation of Ivan the Terrible or the more recent despots Joseph Stalin and Vladimir Lenin, the current narrative is that he is a thug. The chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court has opened an investigation into war crimes committed by Russia in the war with Ukraine and Putin’s accountability.

This is all fine for the present. Putin is a thug. Accepted. But what about his past? Was Putin always a thug who has only now shown his true colors? Or has he radically changed because of continuing provocations?

Russophobes will say that Russia has always had imperial designs. For them, Putin is the latest leader in that expansionist tradition. Forgetting what Obama said about Russia as only a regional power, or the fact that Russia ranks only 11th in world’s economies before the sanctions, those who have anti-Russia genes in their DNA will see Putin as a continuation of evil Russia, the omnivorous bear, and its devious leaders. And there will be no way to change that.

Nor will unconditional admirers of the former Soviet Union and the Russian Federation change either. Their blood will always run red. “I have seen the future and it works,” U.S. journalist Lincoln Steffens boasted in 1919 when visiting the Soviet Union.

So whether you think Putin is “savvy,” Trump’s term, or “evil,” Putin’s biographer Professor Mark Galeotti term, what about those who reached out to Russia at the end of the Cold War? What about people like the deceased Princeton scholar Stephen Cohen who tried to understand the world from Moscow’s perspective at the cost of being excluded from mainstream media? What about the eminent Russian scholar Georges Nivat, now retired from the University of Geneva, who spent his entire career fostering cooperation between the former Soviet Union and the West? Putin as wolf and evil or Putin the changed man because of NATO enlargement? What do intellectual Russian sympathizers think of Putin’s history and now?

In a recent interview in a Geneva newspaper, Professor Nivat described the evolution of his position. Recognized as a world expert on Russian culture and someone obviously opposed to the evil Russia camp, Nivat participated in a recent rally in support of the Ukrainian people at which he read a Ukrainian poem by a Ukrainian dissident who died in the gulag.

What happened to modify Nivat’s mind about Putin? “I did not think we would get to that point,” he was quoted as saying. “Two days ago I received a call from a friend from St. Petersburg. We had often discussed Putin. He was inflamed, he was very opposed to Putin. I was critical, but more measured. I said, ‘Look, I’m thinking again.’ Because this attack, of which I was informed very early on February 24, was a terrible shock for me,” he lamented.

Nivat’s previous response toward the Russian annexation of Crimea had been “measured.” “First, there was not a shot,” he explained. “Here [the recent invasion of Ukraine] we are involved in a massacre. Then most Russians in Crimea were satisfied – my daughter, journalist Anne Nivat, was there and investigating. And then, Crimea, as we know, was given as a gift to Ukraine in 1954 by Nikita Khrushchev.” The annexation of Crimea was acceptable to Nivat; the invasion of Ukraine was very different.

To return to the question about Putin’s history and eventual change, Nivat explained his reasoning and the consequences: “Was Vladimir Putin a despot at heart as soon as he came to power? Rather, I believe that it was forged in this way little by little.” But in the final analysis, Nivat admits that he didn’t see Putin’s true character before: “For me, it’s a disaster, as if everything I have done collapsed. We have to pick ourselves up, but I can tell you that I am doing badly. A whole bunch of colleagues, artists who, for twenty years, said: ‘This is a Hitler on the march’… And I, who put the downside: ‘You have to understand this, you have to see that…’ Now, I have to admit that they were right.”

Putin a wolf in sheep’s clothing? Or Putin someone whose despotism was forged “little by little”? Putin as a continuation of cruel Russian leaders? Or Putin as the natural leader of the continuously hungry bear? All good questions. But do they matter now?

There will be recriminations against those who previously reached out the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation. There will be lots of triumphant “I told you so” from those who were anti-Soviet Union and anti-Russian from the start. Putin is a pariah. Russia has become a pariah, although brave Russians are protesting in the streets while others flee the country.

Inevitably, there will be searches for the next wolf in sheep’s clothing. Inevitably, there will be chest-thumping by those who will cry out for increased military spending and harder foreign policies towards potential adversaries. “We could have stopped him earlier if only…” Monday morning quarterbacks will cry out. Monday morning quarterbacks always win. Déjà vu is always easy. Grand questions are about the past. Tough questions are about the future.


Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.