A Comparison of Machiavellian skills: Putin easily surpasses Brezhnev and even Stalin
By all accounts, Putin has a very good chance of rulingRussiafor the next 12 years, until 2024, and perhaps after. It may seem strange, but even after a decade of rulingRussia, his personality still arouses a lot of controversy. While Sovietologists in general failed to comprehend the nature of the Soviet system, they understood the personalities of the Soviet leaders. This stands in contrast with what we see today, in the way politicians and experts swing in their assessments of Putin.
Some are inclined to view Putin as a straightforward and trustworthy man while others see him as a mafia don, a sort of Batman character from the movie Dark Knight, as we learned from WikiLeaks. The analysis of Putin’s political propaganda sheds a lot of light on the personality of one of the most powerful figures of the 21st century. The juxtaposition between Putin and Stalin, as well as other Soviet leaders, allows us to illustrate how much he stands out as the most Machiavellian leader in Russian history.
Was Stalin less devious than Putin?
As one of the most demonized figures in history, Stalin has been depicted as a highly wily politician whose legacy was marked by cruelty and perfidy. It is true that Stalin demonstrated a high level of political craftiness when he used conflict to oust his rivals Trotsky, Zinoviev, and Bukharin, by first pitting them successfully against each other and then eliminating all of them.
However, after becoming the absolute dictator, Stalin only used very primitive procedures to retain power. For example, he extricated confessions from defendants at show trials by employing the most elementary torture techniques. Meanwhile, Arthur Koestler, in his book Darkness at Noon, (1940), ascribed the use of a complicated and convoluted series of devices to Stalin’s myrmidons; these included subtle philosophical tricks used to persuade victims like the old Bolshevik Nikolas Rubashov to recognize their “guilt” for the sake of the Communist cause. But while the former communist romanticized Stalin’s brutal tactics, the poet Osip Mandelstam had no illusions about the master of the Kremlin. He saw him only as an atrocious oriental despot, saying “the execution of his enemies, it’s a raspberry to him.”
Although there is a tremendous amount of literature on Stalin, there is no indication that he used elaborate political tactics in the last two decades of his life. Besotted with power, Stalin was sure that coercion was the solution to every problem. Indeed, a famous aphorism of his stated that “to eliminate the problem it is necessary to eliminate the individual who creates it.” He arrested the wife of Viacheslav Molotov, who was his close aid, and sent her into exile. He did the same to the children of Anastas Mikoyan, another close aid. He even sent his Minister, Boris Vannikov, to prison as a spy and then freed him a few months later, subsequently appointing him to the same position.
Of course, Stalin’s heirs do not appear to have been as advanced in the ways of the devil. Granted, like Stalin, they blatantly lied when they praised Soviet political order as the most democratic in the world. They also shrouded their geopolitical goals with slogans of socialist solidarity. Also like Stalin, they solidified power by getting rid of their comrades , if they were considered a potential political threat. For example, Khrushchev fired the military commander Marshal Zhukov after he helped Khrushchev to demote Stalinists from the Politburo. Brezhnev, in his turn, hypocritically expressed his love of Khrushchev in public by kissing him at the airport, even as he secretly prepared a plot against him.
Nevertheless, all of the general secretaries after Stalin behaved in a fairly predictable, if frightened, manner, as we saw during the Cuban crisis and the invasions ofHungary,Czechoslovakia, andAfghanistan. In addition, neither written nor oral accounts about the leadership style of these leaders convey the notion that they were cunning and treacherous people (e.g. Khrushchev’s memoir, various post Soviet biographies on Soviet leaders, or Henry Kissinger’s description of Brezhnev). Yet, while Stalin hovers over his Soviet successors in his political sophistry, it is Putin who has surpassed him in duplicity.
Putin’s regime is as undemocratic as Stalin’s was, even if it is, in some respects, milder. It has the same rubber stamp parliament, phony elections, control over major media outlets, obedient court system, xenophobia in official propaganda, and lack of oppositional political parties. Putin has promoted the same sense of a cult of personality, as government offices are adorned with his picture. There are, however, several differences in the ways that Stalin and Putin organized political propaganda in order to suggest that their regimes are democratic.
Stalin and Putin in creating the image of pluralism
While both Stalin and Putin aim(ed) to create the appearance of political pluralism in their country, Stalin did so in a very primitive way. In 1936, he organized open national debates. Even today, some Sovietologists believe these debates—I vividly remember how one of these meetings was organized on my residential block inKiev—were “open,” because they took place in a climate of growing mass terror. According to official Soviet data, 623,334 meetings were held; over 42,000,000 people attended them; and some 169,739 proposals, comments, and prospective amendments were generated. However, Stalin did not use these debates to show the existence of diverse opinions within the country to the world. All of the proposals were absolutely loyal to the regime.
Putin’s respect for Stalin is well known. However, it is apparent that Putin does not want to be a blind disciple of his icon, since he has surpassed Stalin’s tactical abilities. Putin certainly does not dismiss Stalin’s primitive strategies. Recently, for example, Putin pulled off a public relations stunt by meeting with the workers of the Magnitogorsk Iron and Steel Works in July of 2011 and answering their well-prepared questions. The incarceration of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a serious potential rival, demonstrates how Putin is always ready to apply simple Stalinist instruments to stymie political threats. In addition, his recently founded “Popular Front” movement—which is a direct reincarnation of Stalin’s “The Block of Communists and Non-Party Members” movement of the 1930s—shows how he strives to gain legitimacy over his rivals by, supposedly, representing the will of the people.
However, Putin is not satisfied with such archaic propagandistic techniques, especially since he wants to gain the support of both the country’s intelligentsia and the West. The arsenal of ideas used by Putin to mislead public opinion is much richer than that used by Stalin. In fact, Putin’s ability to design a complicated political game makes Stalin look like a mediocre apparatchik in comparison.
A brilliant PR idea: Create a long political show about the conflict between Putin and Medvedev
The objective of Putin’s show is to create the appearance of rigorous political debates in the country, and to deflect the public’s attention away from the growing critiques of opposition candidates. Unlike the bland debates organized by Stalin and his successors, the Kremlin wanted to create drama between these two outstanding politicians, who supposedly oppose one another. Its goal was to drag people into the phony debates, make them try to guess the end of the play, and force them to forget about the last remaining mouthpieces of free political thought in the country: Boris Nemtsov, Vladimir Ryzhkov, and Mikhail Kasianov.
The producer and the director
During his time with the KGB, Putin acquired the first-rate skills he would need to become the author and producer of his own show. Professionalism within the KGB was measured by one’s ability to deceive. This included the ability to trick future KGB recruits, informants, and potential and current prisoners. What is more, KGB agents prepared each one of their operations very carefully, whether it was to recruit agents, steal information, arrest people, or kill targets. Their plans consisted of several stages, requiring the coordination of many people. One need only read former KGB general Pavel Sudoplatov’s autobiography Special Tasks (1997) to understand just how meticulous KGB officers were in planning their sophisticated multi-staged operations. Thus, Putin’s experience with special tasks has provided him with the invaluable skills necessary to meticulously design and coordinate his complicated show.
Certainly, as any producer inHollywoodknows, it takes a great director to create a great show. Putin targeted Vladislav Surkov, an indisputably leading ideological guru of the Kremlin. Surkov’s position within Putin’s regime parallels the position held by Mikhail Suslov in the regimes of Khrushchev and Brezhnev. Nonetheless, from a cultural perspective, the difference between Suslov and Surkov is enormous.
The “gray cardinal of the Kremlin”—such was Surkov’s nickname in Moscow during the 1970’s—was the epitome of the archaic and rigid Soviet ideologists, who were absolutely impervious to flexible propagandistic devices. While Suslov ignored 20th century Western writers, Surkov claims to have read Ulysses; a serious feat for even the most educated people. His office in the Kremlin is full of the most refined books. He has also written lyrics for rock groups and authored journal articles about art. In 2009, under the pseudonym Nathan Dubovetsky, he published the novel Close to Zero. With his thoughtful and educated approach, this work showcased the author’s ability to understand the true state ofRussia in the 2000s.
The target population for the show
A good Hollywoodproducer and his/her director always define the target, in this case, well-educated Russians and an international audience. There are many people in Russiaand the West who, for various reasons, yearn to see Russiaas a democratic society. Indeed, they are ready to ferret out any plausible evidence that supports this wishful thinking. Many Sovietologists have easily swallowed the ludicrous “evidence” of democracy in the Soviet Union. What is more, they have often talked about the dissension inside the Politburo. Many of them went on to describe Soviet leaders, even Stalin, as having been besieged by his (their) enemies there. One Sovietologist went so far as to publish a book titled Stalin embattled (1978). Now, with a much more sophisticated set of propagandistic material, the chances are even higher that the next generation of Russian experts, a special target audience for the show, will be even more inclined to swallow this false picture of Russian political life than were their predecessors.
With the established goal of the show formulated and the target audience identified, producer Putin and director Surkov focused on casting. It was not surprising that Putin chose himself as a cast member, since he was the ideal candidate to fill the role of the strict and sober leader who knew everything that was going on inRussia. In this role, Putin claimed that he had realistic views of the character of the Russian people, democracy, the West, and capitalism. He also embodied characteristics that ideally suited the charisma demanded by the role (e.g. machismo, courage, sports skills and vulgar humor).
For the role of antagonist, the show needed a guy with obvious liberal credentials; a person who could appeal to the Russian intelligentsia. Unlike Putin, who hung out on the streets with criminal gangs during his childhood, Dmitry Medvedev’s pedigree consisted of growing up in a professorial family that socialized with refinedPetersburgintellectuals. In addition, he has a penchant for using the latest electronic gadgets to communicate with people (e.g. blogs, Twitter, and Facebook). Thus, Medvedev’s mild mannered, ironic, and self-deprecating style was an ideal contrast for Putin’s abrasive and commanding ways.
The offspring of highly educated people would be expected to avoid the locutions used in gang slang in his speech, instead offering citations of famous scholars, including the 17th century Dutch law authority, Hugo Grotius, and Seymour Lipset, the 20th century American political scientist. Would it even be possible to see Putin talking with great warmth about a subtle author such as Anton Chekhov? Is it possible to imagine Putin adorning his site with a long proverb, not in Russian but in Latin (“Quid bonum, felix, faustum, fortunatumque sit!” or “Be good, happy, lucky, and fortunate!”)? (It is unlikely that any of the Western leaders, knowing how snobbish it would make them appear, would even dare to publish something like this in their public documents, for fear of looking ridiculous). Dmitry Medvedev fits this role perfectly. It was indeed an excellent choice.
Together, these two actors are a perfect match for appealing to the realistic sensibilities and sophistication of the target audience (i.e. well-educated Russians and the international media).
Keeping balance between the two actors
Keeping the audience interested in the confrontation between the two leaders requires them to appear to be of the same political weight, in the same way gripping sporting events are played between equals. Thus, according to the requirements of the script, the major TV channels (basically, the single source of information for the majority of Russians) were obliged to give each leader equal representation. Equal representation pertains to other things as well, such as the portraits hung in the offices of officials, where both men are prominently displayed. The authors of the script were also conscious that the office of the president needed to retain respect, and made sure that all major statements and actions related to foreign policy and the military were made by the president, as required by the constitution.
The denial of differences
To deepen the intrigue of the show, its architects did something that would rival a John Le Carre spy novel. On the one hand, the script focuses on the fissure between the two leaders, by showing their differences through official declarations, press conferences, meetings with various people, official sites, blogs, and Twitter tweets. On the other hand, the script also includes the leaders declaring that there are no substantial differences between them—even when it is clear that stark contradictions have been made, such as when the two leaders expressed opposite views on Khodorkovsky’s case or on the war inLibya.
The motor of the show: Medvedev’s verbal activity
It’s remarkable that the authors of this charade have been able to sustain this drama for over three years. Only shows like the long run of Dallas—and certainly the suspense of “who shot J.R.?”—can claim superiority in holding an audience’s attention. The spellbinding nature of Putin’s show can be credited to Medvedev’s critiques of Putin’s policies; some were openly defiant, but most were thinly veiled. Each one of these statements intensified the drama of the show, since they immediately generated a new wave of debates inRussia and abroad, regarding the size and depth of the growing fissure between the two leaders.
Essentially, Medvedev created an air of being the maverick that would break the country from its old ways. Indeed, he has often professed his love of freedom, democracy, law, and modernization. For example, on February 18, 2008 he declared, to the stupefaction of the whole country, that “freedom is better than non-freedom.” From then on, Medvedev regularly announced “Urbi et Orbi” as a way of showing his admiration for liberalism. He did it, for instance, in September of 2010, when he solemnly declared atYaroslavl’s forum that “there is no democracy if man personally feels non- freedom and injustice.”
His supposed support of liberal pragmatic initiatives are aimed at reforming the legislative system, transforming courts into independent bodies, liberalizing elections, and creating conditions to fight corruption. In addition, he gives directives to various governmental institutions to work well, not steal, be kind to people, cure them in hospitals, support young families, strengthen the defense of the country, battle terrorism effectively, and so on. He has been known, for example, to sternly reprimand officials, demand investigations, and issue recommendations to improve “ government responsiveness” after national disasters (e.g. in the aftermath of the fires during the summer of 2010, the sinking of a pleasure boat on the Volga River in 2011, and acts of terrorism). In a speech he made at the economic forum inPetersburgin July of 2011, he was so critical of the government that one journalist sarcastically noted that he would not be surprised if the president fired the premier minister; a good gesture for a “reality show,” though not for this one.
A particularly useful device for the show is when Medvedev goes into a nearly direct confrontation with Putin. This often revolves around foreign relations. Within this showdown, Medvedev takes a friendly position toward the West while Putin takes an aggressive, almost xenophobic, position. Such a confrontation played out recently, as Medvedev supported Western actions against Khadafy, while Putin vehemently did not.
The supporting actors: Prokhorov and others
Despite the importance of Putin and Medvedev as the main actors and central focus, the show’s authors deemed it necessary to include other actors, in order to add to the show’s intrigue. Indeed, as anyHollywoodfan knows, a consistently good show requires the addition of fresh personalities from time to time. Thus, in May 2011, Mikhail Prokhorov, a famous mogul and Putin’s stooge, was introduced as a new “supporting actor”. Prokhorov presented himself as an independent man who decided to be the leader of the “Right Cause” party, which apparently had to represent liberalism in the State Duma. Prokhorov started to imitate Medvedev, with his appeals for democracy and liberalism, and the veiled critique of his patron.
The imaginary clans
In order to enhance the veracity of the show, its authors suggest that each leader has his own clan standing behind him, to support him in their fight. The authors of the show make no attempt to cover up the fact thatRussia’s bureaucracy and “Power Ministries”—especially the FSB and the army—stand behind Putin. They have, however, persistently alluded to energetic supporters of Medvedev. For example, Igor Yurgens and Evgenii Gontmakher, the director and leading economist of the Institute of Contemporary Development (INSOR), which is considered to be Medvedev’s think tank, gave talks and published articles that had an aggressive tone against Putin, while praising Medvedev as a prominent Russian reformer who would saveRussiafrom Putin’s morass. The bravery of the people who work for the regime is incomprehensible, unless you suppose that they are simply following the script; providing evidence of “the rift” between the two leaders.
The jewel of the show: Guess who will be the next president?
The trick the authors pulled off with Prokhorov was good, but the idea of keeping the world in suspense over who the presidential candidate for the 2012 election would be was brilliant. Since the beginning of 2010, there has not been one press conference or public meeting where the leaders have not touched upon this uncertainty; this is despite the flurry of issues that could be addressed regarding the state of the country. Following the logic of a good detective, the authors of the script suggested that both actors avoid direct answers and, instead, gave cryptic hints and gestures, thus raising curiosity. Several interpretations and theories would emerge from these highly publicized events. The artificially created frenzy regarding which of these two men would be the future ruler of Russia left practically no room for journalists to ask questions about other opponents, or about how elections are going to be fair and honest, or about the numerous problems of Russian life.
The success of the show
In general, Putin’s show has successfully produced the intended results. Indeed, those who yearn for a democratic Russiahave largely bought the idea that their “good” hero will rise up to fight the “bad” dragon. Even some liberal Moscowanalysts have bought into this charade. In the last two years, Radio Moskvy, the most critical outlet inRussia, has devoted the lion’s share of its programs to the interminable guessing game of who will be president. In addition, Russian intellectuals have continued to implore Russian citizens to believe in Medvedev’s mission and support him. Despite the experience of the past three years, they continue—as they did in their “Letter of the intelligentsia,” published in July—to beg Russians not “to permit” Medvedev’s departure from the political scene, as they see him as the savior of democracy.
Most of the Western media, including prestigious newspapers such as The New York Times and Le Monde, have also bought into the show—hook, line, and sinker. Indeed, they regularly publish articles that scrutinize the words and actions of the two leaders, in order to divine who has a better chance of controllingRussia in the coming years.
Of course, there are many people inRussiawho do not believe that Medvedev is an independent crusader. Rather, they are confident that Putin is in firm control of the country. They believe that Medvedev is Putin’s puppet. Thus, the imaginary conflict between the two leaders is merely a ploy to pave the way for Putin’s return to the presidency. Those who do not take the fabricated political drama on official TV channels at face value are mostly ordinary people, alien to the political sophistry of Putin-Surkov. In July, 68 percent of them were confident that Putin is the real master of the country. In contrast, only 19 percent of Russians cherish the view, together with the intellectuals, that Medvedev is an independent politician.
Putin’s show is a new genre in PR
At first glance, Putin’s show can be categorized as a typical reality show, but it is not. Within this so called confrontation between the two leaders, Medvedev can only talk; he cannot even make a modest practical move in accordance with his declarations. Over the past three years, there have been several occasions for him to prove that he was serious about the liberal harangues with which he inundated the country. For example, he could have abolished the Moscow 2009 elections, which were ostensibly falsified. He also could have released Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was sentenced to another term of imprisonment in 2011. Or, he could have punished the official responsible for the murder of Sergei Magnitsky in aMoscowprison in 2009. Not once has Medvedev made a serious move—other than his usual flow of words praising democracy and law—to put his “power” to the test and assert his political authority. While it is true that Medvedev fired several officials, there was no attempt to send them to the courts to be tried for their corruption. It was obvious to the country that all these administrative actions were initiated by Putin, and assigned to Medvedev, who implemented the premier’s decisions.
The world has been presented with an extremely sophisticated and cunning politician in Putin. We do not know if he read Machiavelli—Stalin’s library contained The Prince—but one cannot help but recognize the resemblance between his actions and the real behavior of the ideal ruler described by the Florentine. By these standards, the ideal Machiavellian prince did not respect anything, not even powerful religious ideologies. Only tools that can bring about deception, fear, and rivalry were honored in the struggle for political survival. Historical Machiavellian heroes were those rulers who hid their intentions in order to deceive ordinary citizens, nobles, foreign enemies, the clergy, and especially those who helped bring them to power.
The fact that Putin has held no ideology—he has never claimed to be a communist or a nationalist, let alone a democrat—has only made it easier for him to deceive people. In fact, he is not even an admirer of authoritarianism, if by this we mean the consideration of the state as the most efficient instrument for the achievement of the well-being of the nation. Instead, he appears to be a straight-up cynical power-grabber from the times of Borgia. Thus, he is totally absorbed with his narrow personal interests of seeking and protecting his own power and accumulated wealth, as well as protecting the interests of those whom he needs (e.g. the bureaucracy, the secret police, and the army). Of course, like the Machiavellian prince and Soviet leaders, he wants the country that he rules over to prosper so he can strengthen his personal power.
Although Putin is Machiavellian in many ways, he deviates from the model of the ideal hero, as he follows the mafia code of loyalty to those who support him. This stands in stark contrast to Machiavelli’s advice of never taking personal relations too seriously, so one can easily betray people if and when necessary.
While the Machiavellian mind is indeed deviousness, the trickery needed for “Medvedev against Putin” would require the courage to take some risks. By all means, this essentially fictional show could, theoretically, be turned into a reality show at any moment. As a matter of fact, liberal Medvedev supporters in Russia and abroad, who were confident from the very beginning that the duel was indeed real, could wake up one day with the breaking news of the firing of the premier by his formal master (the president of the Russian federation). While this could indeed happen, Putin certainly calculated all possible outcomes, including the possibility of being fired, from the very start and was brave enough to believe that he could control the situation.
Putin, who raised Medvedev from political nonexistence to the presidency of one of the most powerful countries in the world, protected himself by making a pact with Medvedev, as Yeltsin did with the leader he chose as the next Russian president. But aside from the pact, Putin provided himself with insurance: the cult of national leader; a State Duma totally under his control; the position of the head of the governmental party; control over TV; and, of course, retained control over all entities such as the FSB, the army, the whole of the bureaucracy, and loyal oligarchs who would all lose their property and power if Putin were to be ousted from power. Medvedev, in fact, has no other choice but to remain a personage of the semi-fictional show and dream of being endowed with some honorable and lucrative position after the 2012 elections. Of course, he will need to please his master by making sure that he does not depart from the script, or act too arrogant, in order to secure his future.
Ultimately, when an American politician meets with Putin, he or she should not forget the brilliant show he has organized on the eve of his return to the presidency. The West has a formidable adversary in Putin: smart, cunning, and dangerous.