The alpha tragedy of the beta male


The announcement of the Putin divorce was unexpected and unprecedented for a Russian leader. What made him decide to do it now, when the marriage apparently broke down years ago? Was it an act of alpha courage or a politically disastrous beta move? Daniil Kotsyubinsky looks at the ramifications.

Daniil Kotsyubinsky
19 June 2013

Public reaction to the Putin divorce has been universally sympathetic in the media both at home in Russia and abroad. 

‘The divorce makes Putin human,’ was the heading that Pilar Bonet, one of the most influential Western journalists working in Russia, gave her piece in Spain’s El Pais. And this is indeed the case:  a politician who publicly admits that his personal life is far from ideal becomes less monumental and more like Joe Public. Whether this ‘humanisation’ is right for Putin the politician is another matter.

Russian media comment

The overwhelming majority of commentators are convinced that Putin’s behaviour was correct, both as a man and a politician. Some of the Russian political experts, however, have adduced quite fanciful arguments to the effect that, ‘now the President is seen as a man who works for his country, thinks about it constantly, he is as it were married to it’. Another wrote that his divorce will ‘make Russian women more interested in Putin and should have a positive effect on his popularity ratings;’ and a third wrote that this step is ‘in keeping with the image of Putin which has emerged over the last 2 years - an older and wiser man who takes the correct decisions.  Divorce is, after all, much better than driving someone to suicide, which is what happened with Stalin’s wife….’

However, even the most loyal commentators generally concluded that the decision to divorce was an act of courage, which suggests that Putin must have had some very powerful reasons for not divorcing.  What were they? Not considerations about his family, because the Putins’ life together had de facto come to an end some time ago, and the whole country had been visually informed of this fact a while ago.  During the period 2009-12 (with the exception of pre-election year 2011) he made a point of being seen at the Easter service, which was relayed on TV, without his wife Lyudmila.

So, if this divorce will not lead to any family fallout, then what is it that makes the President’s action so courageous? The answer is clear, it seems to me, because it is not only not good for his image, but could actually prove quite dangerous for it.

Who will the next First Lady be and when might she appear?  

However much the political commentators might fall over themselves to be positive, the fact is that divorce never makes a politician more popular and, indeed, for a period, often has a negative effect on his image. During a divorce he is no longer quite the person that the voters elected: they chose a married man, looking carefully at the First Lady and drawing conclusions about their family etc. Now it seems that these conclusions and observations are no longer true. The ruler has to some extent become another person, less familiar.  But the main question arising surely is this: who will the next First Lady be and when might she appear?  How will she be received?  This gives rise to a kind of neurotic tension, which stems from the personality of the leader. In such conditions his image is not only not strengthened, but faces a very severe test of its durability. 

One of them has decided to re-marry. 

Nevertheless, Putin has divorced, and it is quite clear that he has embarked on this risky path not because he wants to regularise a situation which has existed for some time, as commentators would have us think.  The matrimonial troubles of Vladimir and Lyudmila Putin didn’t start yesterday, or even the day before that, but at least seven years ago.  All that time Putin has preferred to remain married.  If spouses who have de facto separated, don’t live together, but don’t cause each other any problems either, then why should they go for a formal divorce? Especially if this could have a negative political outcome for one of them; and, indirectly, for the other partner also? There is only one reason and that is that one of them has decided to re-marry.

But before moving on to this aspect of the matter, which is without doubt the most important for any conversation about the political outcome of the Putin divorce, I should like to indulge in a short lyrico-political digression.

Alpha or beta?

Putin is not an alpha male, but a beta male who has managed to step into the shoes of an alpha male.

Thanks to the good graces of Julian Assange who published the classified correspondence of a Western diplomat, Vladimir Putin acquired the unofficial title of ‘Alpha male of Russian politics;’ with Dmitry Medvedev taking the understudy role of ‘beta male’..  Russian men of state are, of course, not actually gorillas or chimpanzees to be seriously described in such terms, but these definitions stuck and became part of the public vocabulary. However, they are incorrect, because Putin is not an alpha male, but a beta male who has managed to step into the shoes of an alpha male.

Until the moment when he spread his presidential wings to the full, Putin’s whole career was typical of an eminence grise – a clever, cunning, cynical and calculating adviser to the Tsar. Firstly, to Anatolii Sobchak (as his Deputy Mayor), then to Boris Yeltsin (as head of the FSB). Moreover, the very nature of the secret services, Putin’s flesh and blood, is entirely beta-male.  What, after all, is their main task? To remain forever in the shadows, to be both a ‘right hand’, and at the same time the left, analytical hemisphere of the brain for the leaders, those silly, conceited alpha males revelling in their fame, while at the same time taking responsibility for all the most important decisions. 

Putin’s clearly-defined beta masculinity, his apparent lack of substance or political independence, played, as one might expect, a decisive role in the [Yeltsin] Family’s choice of him, as it did for Boris Berezovsky and other oligarch cronies in 1999, when the successor to Yeltsin was being selected. 


More complicated than a chimpanzee: is alpha-Putin actually a beta-male in disguise? 

However, relying on Putin as a manageable second fiddle turned out to be a big mistake.  Not because he suddenly proved to be an alpha male, but because, when all’s said and done, man is a more complicated creature than a chimpanzee. Human behaviour includes a psychological device called ‘over-compensation’, when a person makes conscious efforts to overcome an innate inadequacy and manages to achieve successes for which nature has not initially intended him; a puny man, for instance, who takes up athletics with noticeable results.  Not that he will become an Olympian, of course, but he might achieve some kind of ranking.  Or a not particularly intellectually gifted academic who plods through postgraduate degrees, ending up as a professor, although he retires without having made any mark at all in his chosen field.  And so on.

 The same can happen with a beta male that sets out to convince himself and everyone around him that he is the most alpha of alpha males.  Formally, he goes through all the alpha-male routines: he’s implacable and demanding, he says the right decisive things and, if necessary, can withstand a physical blow, ski well, pilot a supersonic jet, dive for amphorae in the sea, and fly at the head of a group of cranes…. But all will be not quite right, and achieved with no charm or artistic grace at all.  It will look strained, petty, inelegant and small-minded… sometimes, even comic; although, still quite like a real alpha male!

The beta male in the wild

The chief problem of an over-compensator who has decided to challenge his own inadequacy is not that a little boy in the crowd will suddenly say loudly that the emperor has no clothes on, and all around, people will start laughing out loud. That won’t happen, because he actually does have clothes on, it’s just that they’re not quite right for an emperor. 

Beta males are faint-hearted pragmatists

Beta males are, by nature, unable to assume responsibility for out-of-the-ordinary, complex decisions; they are not charismatic leaders who will dare to take risks, and whose innovative actions will either confirm the new order, or destroy them.

Beta males are faint-hearted pragmatists; they like the idea of taking risks, but they are not up to it, so in a situation demanding a strong lead, they start looking for pseudo-intellectual ways of getting round the problem, dragging their feet until the very end and, as a result, losing, and proving their beta male status.

During Putin’s second term as president, Russian and world media were asking if he would somehow try for a third term or hand over to a successor. At the time, I remember, I energetically argued that Putin would take a leaf out the book of his Central Asian colleagues - change the Constitution at the last moment and be elected for a third term. I said this for two very clear reasons: firstly, he couldn’t willingly give up his power, because, like any authoritarian leader, he could soon find his personal security under threat; secondly, it was no problem for him to make a ‘slight amendment’ to the Constitution.

Putin, like a true beta male, preferred not to risk it

However, at least in the second part of my prognosis, I was wrong; or rather, Putin was wrong. Instead of assuming responsibility for the velvet constitutional coup, and calmly carrying on ruling, which would not only have preserved, but actually considerably increased, his authority in the eyes of the patriarchal electorate, Putin, like a true beta male, preferred not to risk it, better to exchange his autocratic power for a cunning power exercised behind the throne. He dreamed up the musical chairs with the ‘omega male’ (downgraded from beta) Medvedev, and in so doing he lost out politically. 

Under an authoritarian regime, society is very sensitive to the nuances of power plays.  As soon as a ruler shows that he is ‘weak and cunning’ (Alexander Pushkin’s epithet describing Tsar Alexander I, whom he very much disliked, can be extended to all unsuccessful tyrants), then rebellion begins to foment. 

Under an authoritarian regime, society is very sensitive to the nuances of power plays.  

In failing to opt for a constitutional coup Putin demonstrated his weakness; by not allowing Medvedev to become a fully-fledged president he revealed his cunning.

The last beta straw was, of course, the infamous trading places – the ‘castling.’ Putin just might have had a chance of overcoming the confusion generated by his riding tandem with Medvedev, if he had accused Medvedev of, say, presidential incompetence, or taken up the cudgels with him at the election, and returned to the presidency as the glorious saviour of Mother Russia. But, instead, like a good beta male, he chose not to take any risks, and to abide by their agreement, which immediately led to him being catcalled in the stadium, on Bolotnaya Square; and to the long drawn out ‘White Ribbon’ Revolution.

Putin’s fear of amending the Constitution was, in the eyes of authoritarian society, more or less understandable.  Russia, according to the official doctrine of the time was, after all, a ‘sovereign democracy,’ and for a democracy, even a sovereign one, the Constitution is a kind of fetish which must be appeased. But the fact that, for Putin, some kind of private and unseemly agreement with the ‘omega male’ Medvedev was clearly more important than national elections, did not fit at all into the sovereign democratic framework.

At very important, sink or swim, moments, when Putin has to be alpha creative and risk-taking, he bottles it.

At very important, sink or swim, moments, when Putin has to be alpha creative and risk-taking, he bottles it. He avoids drowning, only because, fortunately for him, the opposition has no gunboats.  


Back to that divorce, or more precisely, to the hypothetical imminent marriage of Vladimir Putin. There has been no talk of Lyudmila Putina entering into a second marriage, whereas, for at least five years, the media have constantly discussed Putin’s chosen bride, Alina Kabayeva, former Olympic champion of rhythmic gymnastics who is now a Duma deputy for the ruling party, ‘United Russia’. There have, indeed, been rumours that the Putins divorced some time ago and that Putin has already married Kabayeva, with the supposed ‘exact date’ for this secret marriage given as 15 June 2008. During the census of 2010 the Putins gave an interview together, but journalists noted that, unlike Vladimir, Lyudmila was not wearing a wedding ring.  Newspaper and Internet sources regularly suggest that Putin and Kabayeva have 2 children, born 2009 and 2012. These rumours were officially denied, but why do so few people believe the rebuttals?

Kabayeva’s father naively said that if his daughter were to marry Vladimir Putin, this would be very good

Perhaps because, in 2008, Kabayeva’s father naively said that if his daughter were to marry Vladimir Putin, this would be very good.  Or because Kabayeva herself ‘refutes’ rumours of her relationship with Putin in a rather ambiguous way: ‘I’m fed up with this topic. After all, it’s my personal life and nothing to do with anyone else.  You hint at my relationship with Vladimir Putin, but do you have any evidence of it?  You don’t, so let’s stop talking about it.  If there is any kind of relationship, this is for our descendants to discover in about 50 years….’

A multi-tiered beta plan

Why did Putin not divorce Lyudmila, and marry Alina when he was at the height of his fame and glory? Because that would need alpha courage. He dragged his feet until the very last moment, devising a multi-tiered beta plan, allegedly to give himself and society maximum time to get used to the idea of a new marriage.

Firstly, Alina Kabayeva had to work on her personal charisma, so as to appear worthy of her exalted role. In 2006 she was chosen as Glamour magazine’s Woman of the Year and ‘Russia’s sexiest woman’. In 2007 she was elected to the State Duma; then she headed up her own Alina Kabayeva Charitable Fund. She has tried her chances as a TV presenter – without, it has to be said, much success. She runs a children’s gymnastics festival etc. etc.  

Secondly, Putin’s daughters had to grow up and embark on independent lives so that no one could say, heaven forbid, that he had abandoned his wife and children.

Thirdly, Russians had gradually to become accustomed to the idea that Putin and Nabayeva were having an affair. Information first appeared at the time that Putin took rather more of a back seat in April 2008, just before Medvedev was elected President. Putin immediately expressed his displeasure at the journalists prying into his private life, and denied everything. The newspaper Moscow Correspondent, which had published the rumours, was very publicly closed down, but it was after this ‘lead’ that information about Putin and Kabayeva started appearing regularly in the press at home and abroad.

Fourthly and lastly, Kabayeva had to attain the age of least 30, or the age gap would have made the union seem like an old man marrying Lolita. And if the rumours about the children are true, then the older boy is already 4, and it’s time to present him to the world. 

When the open secret does get out, what then?

When the open secret does get out, what then? Perhaps, in spite of that first wave of sympathy for a marriage turned sour, there will be no sentimental reaction from Russian society about the romance of Vlad and Alinushka; an authoritarian power vertical needs an alpha male at the top; the divorce has shown us that what we have is a beta blocker. 

Get oDR emails Occasional updates from our team covering the post-Soviet space Sign up here


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData