With Vladimir Putin back in power in Russia, understanding him is more important than ever. Two recent books attempt to unravel the mystery, adding new insight into the Russian leader's life and rule. But by trying to comprehend Putin through his personal history, they miss the true heart of the story: the state he built.
On the morning of May 7, Vladimir Putin glided through the empty streets of Moscow in a dark limousine, his motorcade making its way toward the Kremlin for his inauguration as Russia's president. There were no supporters lining the streets, no hecklers, or even curious passersby, for that matter; the police, fearful of protests, had virtually quarantined the city. The picture was of a man isolated in the soothing, if illusory, cradle of supreme power. As Putin took the oath to become president, an office he first occupied more than 12 years ago, he said, with a somber face, that serving Russia was "the meaning of my whole life."
During the Putin era, Russia has changed considerably. The country has doubled its GDP, paid off its foreign loans almost four years early, built up a one-party façade of democracy, deployed its energy resources as a means of coercive diplomacy, reasserted its regional influence, and fought a war against Georgia.
Yet Russia's antigovernment protests, which broke out last December, have challenged Putin like never before. For the first time, he could not claim that those who opposed him were a marginal, ineffectual force. And although he may have prevailed in the presidential election last March, the underlying factors behind the mass opposition to his rule — namely, a rising middle class that increasingly demands political representation and respect — will only grow.
With Putin again in command, understanding him is more important than ever, both for those inside Russia who seek to challenge his rule and for those abroad who must navigate relations with Moscow in his new term. What ultimately lies behind Putin's drive to consolidate power? Is it the need for control for its own sake, the assemblage of wealth and influence, the pursuit of wresting Russia back to greatness, or something else entirely?
The full text of Pulitzer Center grantee Joshua Yaffa's essay can be found on the Foreign Affairs website (paywall protected).