Putin's True Face

UnknownRichard Lourie
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I was a bit shocked by the photograph of President Vladimir Putin that the Financial Times ran on the front page of its Oct. 21 edition. The photograph showed Putin with a contemptuous sneer on his face. It was no doubt chosen out of the many available, a selection having clear editorial intent that might not be immediately obvious to the paper's readers.

A photograph can have the illusion of objectivity, but a caricature never can. The one of Putin in the Nov. 22 New York Review of Books, which accompanied the article "Why Putin Wins" by long-time human rights activist Sergei Kovalyov, depicts a lugubrious tsar with bear-like claws for hands and a missile for a scepter. For some reason, Putin's nose is bulbous and dark like an alcoholic's and would seem rather to belong on the face of Boris Yeltsin, the W.C. Fields of Russian rulers. Thus, the caricature attempts to include all of our standard cliches -- tsar, bear, vodka, etc. The only thing missing was a snow-covered cupola.

The tsar motif appears again, verbally not visually, in a long New Yorker profile of Garry Kasparov, "The Tsar's Opponent."

Putin's image is clearly deteriorating in the West. This makes him the exact opposite of Gorbachev and Yeltsin, who were popular abroad and detested at home.

The image of Putin that emerges in the articles is, of course, more complex and nuanced, but they do tend to the maximalist, a tendency the Russian intelligentsia shares with the rest of its countrymen. Kovalyov, for example, opens his article by declaring Putin "the most sinister figure in contemporary Russian history." Later, he even stoops to an unworthy ad hominem attack by calling Putin "a homely colonel with fishlike eyes."

Having served time as a Soviet political prisoner and believing he had lived to see the dawn of Russian freedom, Kovalyov has to be a bitterly disheartened man. I respect his pain, but the kitchen table and the public press are two different things. One of the functions of the Russian intelligentsia in the Soviet and post-Soviet period has been to offer up alternative interpretations of Russian reality to the outside world. When the voice of the intelligentsia turns too harsh and absolute -- even if the reality it's describing is itself becoming more harsh and absolute -- a certain portion of the audience, those who know reality is always more layered and complex than it at first appears, will be lost.

In fact, today's Russia is new, complex and interesting. It cannot be adequately described by the old templates, whether domestic or foreign. There are actually several Russias all jostling each other: politically repressive Chekist-cum-state-capitalist Russia; the Russia where the law and the Constitution play an increasing role in people's mentality and behavior; and the Russia where people are free to worship, open a business and leave the country. If the president elected in March serves two terms, he will leave office in 2016 -- just as the first generation born after the fall of the Soviet Union turns 25. It's still early in the game.

An unhelpful dynamic tends to exist between the Russian intelligentsia's tendency to exaggerate for effect and the U.S. proclivity for simple-minded explanations. On the one hand, we have Kasparov saying: "The Cold War was based on ideas, like them or not. Putin's only idea can be concentrated into the motto 'Let's steal together.'" On the other hand, there's U.S. Senator John McCain saying that he's looked into Putin's eyes and saw three things: K.G.B.

Putin has succeeded in remaining inscrutable and unpredictable after nearly eight years in office -- no mean feat. But we will see his true face when he makes the choice history has thrust upon him, one worthy of a Russian opera: either obey the will of the people and stay in power, or honor the Constitution and leave the stage.

Of course, he will try to do both.

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