The 3 Vladimirs

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It seems both timely and premature to assess President Vladimir Putin's eight years in office. Timely because he is coming to the end of his two-term presidency and premature because his likely upcoming stint as prime minister can do much to alter his legacy. As it is, he's an ambiguous figure. Is he the man who saved Russia from chaos or strangled its democracy in the cradle?

One way to begin that assessment is to compare Vladimir Putin to his other two great namesakes in Russian history, Prince Vladimir, who brought Christianity to Russia in 988, and Vladimir Lenin, who brought communism to the country in 1917.

A mix of Viking and Slav, with a great appetite for sex and slaughter, Vladimir even had his own brother put to death in the struggles for power. In 988 he converted Russia to Christianity. His motives were in part political and economic -- the Byzantine Empire, from which Russia took its form of Christianity, was the main power in the region. But there was also a definite spiritual component for Vladimir, whose own conversion led him to be more compassionate and charitable. In the end, he was sainted.

Prince Vladimir was also the first great Russian iconoclast. He ordered the idols of the pagan gods to be whipped, burned and thrown in the river. Then he had the whole city of Kiev come to that river at dawn for baptism, saying anyone who failed to appear should "consider himself my foe."

Vladimir Lenin was the antithesis of Prince Vladimir. Lenin hated God and religion, which he saw as no more than primitive superstition and an instrument used by the ruling class to retain power. Like Prince Vladmir, Lenin and the Soviets were great iconoclasts -- burning religious images, killing priests, turning churches into warehouses (when not destroying them entirely).

Lenin and his followers failed to kill Christianity and replace it with a new, lasting faith. Still, he changed the course of history, and Soviet influence will remain strong for generations. And though most of the statues of Lenin and the other leaders of the Soviet Union were torn down in the heady days of the early '90s, Lenin himself --mummified and iconic -- remains in a glass coffin in his tomb on Red Square.

The third Vladimir -- Putin -- inherited a world in which Soviet and Christian elements were still alive, but neither had the power to shape the worldview, identity and mission of the new Russia. It is his challenge to combine those two elements from the past with those of the present -- technology and globalization -- to create something new.

In the 17 years after Russia's baptism, Christianity spread widely throughout Kievan Rus. In the 17 years after Lenin's revolution of 1917, communism spread widely throughout Soviet Russia. But in the 17 years since the end of the Soviet Union in 1991, no new idea, no new ideology and no new sense of life or national purpose has taken hold in the country. The pursuit of wealth and the restoration of prestige is not a vision.

Putin's principal achievement so far has been the creation of stability, but if he wants to go down in history with any of the luster of his namesakes he will have to construct something grand on that platform of stability. In his years as prime minister, Putin could make sure that Dmitry Medvedev's hand is steady on the presidential wheel while Putin spends more time charting a new course. Maybe it's a super-science society creating breakthroughs in nanotechnology and other new fields that will propel Russia to the forefront of nations.

If the new Russia is to be anything more than a mix of cronies and commodities, there must be some new idea to excite the nation's energies. If Putin can come up with it, he will ensure Russia's greatness -- and his own.

Richard Lourie is the author of "A Hatred For Tulips" and "Sakharov: A Biography."