Putin’s Slide From The People’s Champion To A Ruthless Ruler

May 07, 2015 at 8:33 AM ET

Vladimir Putin strode into the lavish surroundings of the Kremlin Grand Place, through halls packed with applauding guests, and along a seemingly neverending red carpet, to his date with destiny. It was May 7, 2000, and this former security services chief was about to be installed as Russia’s new president. It would be, as Boris Yeltsin, the ailing, outgoing president, pointed out, the first democratic transfer of power in all of Russia’s 1,100-year history. “Take care of Russia,” intoned Yeltsin.

The Putin era had begun, with the new leader announcing to all, his vision for a new Russia.

“We want our Russia to be a free, prosperous, rich, strong and civilized country, a country of which its citizens are proud and which is respected in the world,” Putin said in his presidential speech.

It was a message Russians had longed to hear. The Yeltsin years had been an unqualified catastrophe for Russia, as a people cast adrift from the safety nets of the Soviet system floundered in the rough waters of the free market. Sights that had been unthinkable under Soviet authorities became the norm during the Yeltsin presidency. Pensioners selling their household possessions piece by piece in filthy underpasses. Crippled soldiers back from the war in Chechnya begging for money to drink away the day. Highly educated people _ professors, lawyers, physicists _ forced to moonlight as taxi drivers to supplement their meagre, or often non-existent, official salaries. The former superpower was visited by a host of humiliations, and the often buffoonish, frequently drunken figure of Yeltsin seemed to encapsulate Russia’s many woes. Putin offered hope of change.

“It seems strange to say now, but I really liked Putin when he first came to power,’ recalled Yevgenia Chirikova, a bitter Kremlin critic who fled Russia last month. “I remember how I used to cringe whenever they showed Yeltsin meeting foreign politicians. I’d think, ‘Oh no, he’s going to embarrass us again.’ But Putin didn’t drink, and that was important. He was young and he seemed very capable.”

Others were more wary.

“On one hand, Putin promised to support democracy,” Boris Nemtsov, the Yeltsin-era deputy prime minister, gunned down near the Kremlin walls in February 2015, told me when I spoke to him at the start of Putin’s third term. “On the other hand, of course, he was from the KGB.”

Putin knew what his fellow citizens wanted and he intended to deliver. “Russians have had no sense of stability for the past ten years,” he told state television in an interview shortly after taking office. “We hope to return this feeling.” By May 2008, towards the end of Putin’s second term, Russia, on the surface at least, had been transformed. Its major cities, from the Pacific Coast to its European borders, were almost unrecognizable. Salaries were not only being paid on time, but they were also higher than ever before. The disastrous war in Chechnya was as good as over and the devastated republic’s capital, Grozny, was being reconstructed from scratch. Its central thoroughfare would soon be renamed “Putin Avenue.” The Kremlin strongman may have ridden roughshod over post-Soviet democratic reforms and been aided immensely by rocketing prices for oil—Russia’s main export and the linchpin of its economy—but there was no denying that Russians had ever had it so good.

And so Russians stayed, for the large part, silent as independent media was strangled, the courts and parliament tamed, and money that should have been used to build up vital infrastructure was often siphoned out of the country. Yes, public health services were dangerously unfit for purpose, but at least you could choose from a dozen types of pizza, or cheaper and more available than ever vodka, at the new hypermarket. For the majority, it became a case of making the best of a bad deal; opinion polls regularly indicated that the vast majority of Russians felt they could have no influence on political developments. So why not take the sweeteners Putin was offering? A 13 percent flat income-tax rate introduced early on in Putin’s first term did nothing to dissuade the tiny middle class that this unspoken agreement with the Kremlin was one worth sticking to.

“People agreed on a pact with the devil,” said Oleg Orlov, the veteran head of Memorial, Russia’s oldest human-rights organization. “They said, ‘We will stay out of the social and political process and concentrate on our private lives—just don’t touch us and leave us a small slice of the profits from your oil booty.”’

It was, as the Russians like to say, a simple case of “sausages in exchange for freedom.” Sausages, predictably, won out. “What good is freedom of speech if my fridge is empty?” an elderly woman asked me in the central Russian city of Voronezh, midway through Putin’s second term. I wasn’t sure what to reply, so I mumbled something about how, in an ideal world, she would have both. My answer didn’t impress her. “Both?” she asked incredulously. “Who is going to give me both?”

It’s hard to imagine today, with ties between Russia and the West at their lowest since the Cold War, that there was once a time when Putin made what most analysts believe were genuine overtures towards the United States and Europe. “I want Russia to be part of Europe,” Putin told NATO chief George Robertson early in 2000. Shortly after this, the ex-KGB man even reportedly held discussions with then German Chancellor Gerald Schroder on the possibility of Russia one day joining the Western military alliance.

“For several years, Putin wanted to be part of the new world that was being constructed by the West. He realized that the West was stronger and did not dispute this. He just wanted Russia to be respected,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, the Kremlin-connected chairman of the Moscow-based Council on Foreign and Defence Policy. “But after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, he came to realize that the United States would do whatever it wanted, irrespective of Russia’s opinion. Subsequent events in Libya and Ukraine have merely reinforced this view. Putin now believes that the West and Russia have gone finally their separate ways.”

Putin also set about restoring national pride, which had been battered by the loss of Russia’s superpower status. For a people who had been brought up on stirring patriotic songs that proclaimed “The Red Army is the strongest,” Russia’s near impotence on the international arena throughout the 1990s was an unheralded disgrace. Under Yeltsin, the Kremlin was powerless even to prevent NATO from bombing Serbia, Russia’s Orthodox Christian ally, in 1999.

Much of what Putin did was cosmetic, such as the resumption of flights by strategic bombers over the Arctic, Atlantic and Pacific oceans in August 2007, but there was also a bite to the president’s bark. In August 2008, Russian forces defeated the former Soviet republic of Georgia – and its US military advisers – in a five-day war over the breakaway republic of South Ossetia. “Putin’s Plan for Russia is Victory!” had read the propaganda posters in the months before fighting broke out, and, for many, the destruction of the Georgian military in the South Caucasus was mere confirmation that the “national leader” was a man who delivered on his promises.

Putin’s successes earned him praise from unlikely quarters. “Putin inherited a ransacked and bewildered country, with a poor and demoralized people,” said Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Nobel Prize-winning chronicler of Soviet gulags. “And he started to do what was possible – a slow and gradual restoration. These efforts were not noticed, nor appreciated, immediately.”

Solzhenitsyn was not the only fan. “I want a man like Putin, full of strength / I want a man like Putin, who doesn’t drink / I want a man like Putin, who won’t offend me / I want a man like Putin, who won’t run away,” went the lyrics to an infectious hit by a female pop duo.

Putin’s greatest ally during his long rule has been television, the main source of news for some 90% of Russia. It was national television that built his image of a hard-talking, tough-acting leader after his appointment by Yeltsin, and it is national television that could destroy him. “Putin’s rise was like a miracle,” said Marat Guelman, a former Kremlin spin doctor who was the “political overseer” at Channel One, Russia’s main television station. “He went in a matter of months from being this complete unknown to having approval ratings of around sixty to seventy percent. But, because his ascent was so sudden, he and his team were terrified that things could just as easily go the other way again, and just as unexpectedly. That’s why television was so important for Putin.”

Yeltsin may have been ruthless when it came to his political opponents, but he had taken no steps to reel in on-air critics, or even the comedians who frequently and cruelly mocked him on national television. Putin wasted no time in taming the media. One of his first targets was NTV, the only national television channel not under the Kremlin’s control. Founded by tycoon Vladimir Gusinsky in 1993, NTV was a slick, professional channel renowned for its uncompromising reporting of the First Chechen War. If this wasn’t enough to earn the ire of the new man in the Kremlin, NTV’s Kukly (Puppets) programme, a political satire show inspired by the UK’s Spitting Image, had quickly come up with a latex caricature of Putin. In perhaps the programme’s most infamous scene, Russia’s new diminutive leader was portrayed as an evil, infant gnome.

“Putin has never been a Western-style politician and our cruel caricature made him hysterical with anger,” Viktor Shenderovich, the writer who dreamed up the scene, told me. “He took it as a personal insult. He has a serious problem with self-irony. We were informed by several sources that he hit the roof. There is no such thing for him as a free press or satire.”

Just four days after Putin’s first inauguration as president, the Moscow headquarters of NTV and its parent company, Media MOST, were searched by masked tax police and armed FSB officers. A month later, Vladimir Gusinsky, the channel’s owner, was arrested and charged with embezzlement. He later said he was only released from custody after agreeing to hand his stake in NTV over to the state-run energy giant, Gazprom. Putin had laid down a marker. The man in the Kremlin would no longer be mocked.

But it was the protests of 2011-2012 that witnessed the final transformation of Russian state media into little more than a crude propaganda machine. When tens of thousands of Russians took to the streets to protest alleged vote-rigging at the December 2011 parliamentary elections and call for Putin’s dismissal, the Kremlin’s spin doctors set to work. Protesters were labelled agents of the West, with one infamous “documentary” alleging they had been paid “cookies and cash” by the US State Department to attend anti-Putin demonstrations. Another program saw on-air death threats against a vocal Kremlin critic, while the opposition figurehead, Alexei Navalny, was compared to Hitler. In 2015, the very notion of disrespect towards Putin on national television is unthinkable.

“Putin was terrified of being overthrown by the protests, and he really believed the demonstrators were Western agents,” said Oleg Kashin, an opposition journalist who in 2010 was beaten to within an inch of his life by suspected pro-Kremlin thugs. “I believe he was terrified of sharing the fate of [Libyan leader Muammar] Gaddafi.”

By 2013, the once promising white ribbon protest movement was on its knees, its leaders either behind bars, under house arrest, or having fled the country. When protesters based in Kiev, Ukraine, toppled their country’s pro-Moscow president, Viktor Yanukovych, in February 2014, Putin turned the screws even further at home, calling domestic critics “national traitors” and a “fifth column.” Pro-Kremlin groups took to the streets in support of the president: less than a week after tens of thousands of them had marched through central Moscow calling for the destruction of the opposition movement, Nemtsov was shot dead. The Kremlin denied any connection to the killing.

Putin has now ruled Russia for longer than anyone other than Leonid Brezhnev or Joseph Stalin. By the end of his current term, he will have drawn level with Brezhnev. And there is little sign that Putin is considering stepping down anytime soon. And, if the opinion polls are to be believed, there is no indication that Russians are tiring of their long-time leader. Despite an economic downturn that was partially brought about by Western sanctions against Russia over the Kremlin’s support for pro-Moscow rebels in Ukraine, Putin’s approval ratings are today in the high eighties. It’s a popularity that is largely the result of the upturn in patriotism inspired by Russia’s annexation of the Crimea in March 2014. Gifted to Ukraine from Russia by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1954, the return of the Black Sea peninsula was viewed by many Russians as the righting of an historical wrong.

“When he first came to power in 2000, Putin was concerned with resolving concrete issues. Such as the war in Chechnya, economic growth and so on,” said Gelman, the onetime Kremlin political consultant. “In 2015, he believes he is writing history. And the lives of individual people have no meaning when you are a historical figure, rather than a mere president.”

It is an opinion echoed by Stanislav Belkovsky, a former Kremlin insider who is now an opposition sympathiser.

“The difference between Putin in 2000 and Putin in 2015 is very simple,” Belkovsky said. “In 2000, Putin was unsure of himself. He felt like a humble official who had accidentally become the president of Russia. Today, he sees himself as one of the greatest leaders on the international stage. He believes he is a man for who there can be no limits.”