Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin both resemble fictional characters more than real people, which may help explain Trump’s repeated assertions that he understands the Russian president and would get along with him. “In terms of leadership, he’s getting an A,” the putative GOP frontrunner told Bill O’Reilly, while essentially endorsing Putin’s current campaign to prop up Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, a major factor in the mounting tensions between the United States and Russia. So far the bromance has been one-sided, thankfully. Putin is nothing if not a shrewd operator, and whoever in his inner circle has been tasked with making sense of the Trump phenomenon has no doubt advised him to steer clear.
But if Putin and Trump seem like satirical or symbolic figures out of novels or movies, they come from different kinds of stories and, more to the point, from radically different fictional traditions. Trump is a larger-than-life caricature taken from a Sinclair Lewis novel or an early Frank Capra film, a vicious and merciless plutocrat-turned-politician who appeals (as I have previously suggested) to deep, ugly currents within human nature and American history. Putin may look like a similarly blunt instrument from this distance, an old-time Russian strongman who invades neighboring nations, imprisons political opponents and causes voices of dissent to die or disappear under mysterious circumstances.
But the man who consolidated power in post-Soviet Russia 15 years ago with startling rapidity – in a process that has been much investigated but never entirely explained – is a subtler and more shadowy creation than that outline suggests. He’s a character out of a postmodern, metafictional work by Don DeLillo or Philip K. Dick, about whom so little is certain that the reader begins to suspect he does not exist. Certain facts about Putin’s life and career can be ascertained, but the more you examine them, the more they seem like “facts” in quotation marks, or come to resemble the constant Russian media images of Putin fighting forest fires in Siberia, diving beneath the Black Sea in a submersible or riding a motorbike with the Russian equivalent of the Hell’s Angels. I mean, he really went to those places and put on those uniforms, right? Those are facts too.
Clear across the American political spectrum, from those eager to cast Putin as an unhinged, power-mad tyrant who is singlehandedly relaunching the Cold War to those on the radical left who halfheartedly try to cast him as a hero standing up to the American empire (i.e., because he is singlehandedly relaunching the Cold War), our problem is that we think we have Putin figured out but we don’t. We don’t understand Putin because we know almost nothing about Russian society or Russian political history, and we don’t understand him because the invented or self-invented character called “Putin” is not meant to be understood. If those sound like contradictory proposals, well, welcome to Putin-land.
When I waded into “Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin,” a whopping volume by the Brookings Institution scholars Fiona Hill and Clifford G. Gaddy that is viewed as the authoritative work on Putin in English, I did not suspect that the American foreign policy establishment would embrace this sort of literary or philosophical ambiguity. Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden are all said to have read this book, which was expressly intended to provide Western policy-makers and bureaucrats with a psychological and historical framework for understanding this most perplexing of contemporary world leaders.
But you barely get five pages into “Mr. Putin” before Hill and Gaddy start to sound like bright liberal-arts undergrads who just got stoned and read Jacques Derrida or Slavoj Žižek for the first time. “Attempting to write about Vladimir Putin,” they observe, presented challenges they had not noticed or imagined until they were well into the project. When you “delve into his hidden aspects, whether in the past or present, you are playing a game with Putin. It is a game where he is in charge. He controls the facts and the ‘stories.’” They could not afford to “take any story or so-called fact at face value when it comes to Vladimir Putin,” they continue, because “we are dealing with someone who is a master at manipulating information, suppressing information, and creating pseudo-information … after 15 years, we remain ignorant of some of the most basic facts about a man who is arguably the most powerful individual in the world, the leader of an important nation.”
Very little is known about Putin’s childhood in Leningrad (as it was then called), and almost all the so-called information comes either from stories he has told himself or official campaign biographies. Putin was married for more than 30 years (he is now divorced) and has two adult daughters, but his wife and children “are conspicuously absent from the public domain,” as Hill and Gaddy put it. During the latter stages of the Soviet era, he was a KGB officer for about 15 years, a fact often reported as if it explained anything. But Putin was nowhere near the top of the Soviet bureaucracy, and there are any number of onetime KGB officials and Communist Party apparatchiks among the ruling elite of contemporary Russia. Only one of them rose to undisputed control of the entire country.
How that happened is the great mystery of Putin’s career, one he appears to have purposefully clouded in doubt and one that “Mr. Putin” makes only tentative efforts to unpack. Somehow or other, Putin went from being the deputy mayor of St. Petersburg in 1996 (who was nearly brought down by a local corruption scandal that threatened the city’s food supply) to becoming the acting president of Russia on the last day of 1999, following Boris Yeltsin’s abrupt resignation. He has run the show in Moscow ever since, and whether that outcome resulted from a coordinated backroom coup d’état or represents the unintended consequence of a chaotic chain of events remains a huge unanswered question.
In the grand tradition of political science doorstops, “Mr. Putin” includes considerable wonky dissection of power struggles within the Russian oligarchy and the contributory factors behind specific policy decisions of the Putin era. I particularly enjoyed the detective work that leads Hill and Gaddy to conclude, purely on circumstantial evidence, that Putin’s strategic thinking was shaped by an American business-school textbook from 1978 that was apparently in vogue at the KGB academy when he studied there. On a more substantive level, the book offers a succinct account of how Putin came to feel increasingly disrespected and undermined by both the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations between 1999 and the Iraq invasion in 2003, and moved from a generally pro-American position to the view that the United States was a fatally arrogant and grossly incompetent player on the world stage. You don’t have to like the guy to concede that he had a point.
But even amid the mind-melting forest of details compiled by Hill and Gaddy’s years of Putin-spelunking, they never move far from the idea that to understand Putin even a little we need to struggle with Russian history and the concept of “Russian-ness,” and that those things come heavily loaded with contradiction, mystification and doubt. I had already come up with the conceit of describing Putin as a literary character (I swear!) before discovering that Hill and Gaddy had done it too. Their example is funnier: Putin’s attitude toward Russia and its history, they argue, resembles that of Oleg Komarov, a “pseudo-colorful” Russian émigré who teaches at a small American college in Vladimir Nabokov’s 1957 novel “Pnin.” Komarov is both reactionary and pro-Communist: His ideal Russia, Nabokov writes, is an incoherent blend “of the Red Army, an anointed monarch, collective farms, anthroposophy, the Russian Church and the Hydro-Electric Dam.”
Whatever violence and brutality and repression Putin inflicts on Russian dissidents, disagreeable ethnic minorities or neighboring nations, at least according to the central thesis of “Mr. Putin,” is done in the Komarov spirit. He channels the Russian people’s historical memory of repeated invasion, war and privation, and their collective desire to reclaim the lost greatness of both the Russian Empire that crumbled in 1917 and the Soviet colossus that collapsed in 1991. Putin is a “man of the state,” as signified by the untranslatable Russian word gosudarstvennik – a term no American political figure would willingly embrace even if it clearly fit (as it would, perhaps, for Biden or Hillary Clinton).
In our peculiar political discourse the word “American” carries a double meaning; as either a noun or an adjective, it does not signify the same thing when spoken on Fox News or on MSNBC, by Donald Trump or by Bernie Sanders. That’s just one small example of the way English lacks the fine distinctions of Russian. Hill and Gaddy make the important point that even as Putin has capitalized on resurgent Russian nationalism as a pillar of his political base, he has also positioned himself as a bulwark against its most extreme varieties, a reasonable man trying to hold an unreasonable country together.
Putin consistently uses the more neutral term Rossiyskiy to describe Russian identity – again, a word associated with the Russian state – instead of Russkiy, which is associated with Slavic Russian ethnicity, the Russian language and the Russian Orthodox Church. (In other words, with what we would call racism, although the term does not precisely apply in the Russian context.) Putin waged an extended, bloody and expensive war to subdue the rebellion in Chechnya, while facing a campaign of domestic terrorism many times worse than 9/11. Throughout that period he resisted the calls of Russian nationalists for ethnic cleansing in Chechnya, or systematic discrimination against Muslims and ethnic Chechens living in Russia. Putin’s record on human rights and civil liberties has been dreadful and should not be whitewashed, but every decision has been framed in terms of the Russian state’s historic destiny, rather than narrower conceptions of nationality or race.
Both Putin and Donald Trump have risen to power and prominence as national archetypes of strength and as “self-made men.” But Trump is a self-created grotesque, a reality TV star constructed to be more shocking and outrageous than any Kardashian, any celebrity gender reassignment, any mass shooter, any accordion-playing YouTube kitty. Putin, on the other hand, was constructed to disappear into a vague idea of Russian greatness and a purposefully generic cloud of “pseudo-information.” He has all but erased his own identity to become the semi-divine avatar of his nation-state, as Stalin and Peter the Great and a long line of others did before him. Not for nothing did journalist Masha Gessen call her 2012 Putin biography “The Man Without a Face.”
No doubt it's true that Putin and Trump reflect related global strains of populism and nationalism, and that both appeal to the deep-seated human yearning for a strong male leader or father figure. But the social and historical currents that created them are so different that the comparison is almost meaningless in practical terms, and for good or for ill the reality of a Trump presidency – dreadful as that is to contemplate – would look nothing like Putin’s presidency.
Trump’s charismatic and/or repulsive persona is rooted in the American myth of the sovereign individual, the John Wayne or Clint Eastwood figure who stands free of laws and social conventions and who views government as a big hoax inflicted on suckers by pencil-pushing pantywaists. Whether you think that archetype is more or less sinister than Putin's gosudarstvennik, the abstract embodiment of a collective identity, is a matter of interpretation. But it is even more contradictory, and far less functional. Trump can only gaze across Europe longingly and dream of the kind of power wielded by the faceless, characterless man in the Kremlin. As fundamentally screwed as our country is, we should be thankful that he’ll never have it.