Putin: mentality of a street fighter

Dmitri Travin
15 September 2008

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Russia's isolation by the international community in August-September 2008 was to a great extent determined by objective circumstances. However, one subjective factor played an important role too. That was the character of Vladimir Putin, who despite his change of role from President to Prime Minister remains the dominant political figure in the country.

The economic growth of the last decade, based as it is on oil and gas, is the most important of these objective factors. This gives the Kremlin considerable room for political manoeuvre. Europe's dependence on Russia's energy resources mitigates the foreign policy consequences of drastic military steps. Consumers of our energy resources are wary of falling out with Russia without very good reason.

The considerable growth in real income of the Russian population has also served to distract people from politics. It gives them the illusion that everything is going well in the country, and that the deterioration of our relationship with the outside world will not affect their wallets.

Putin's hard-line policy has also been popular in Russia, as we have seen in recent years. Many citizens feel that the country has ‘got up from its knees' after the difficult years of the 1990s. They believe that the country's standing is enhanced by its ability to stand up for its national interests and to lash out at an enemy now and then. It is hardly surprising that the Kremlin plays up to this to strengthen its own position. ‘A small, victorious war' has been considered good for public opinion since the late 1990s, when Putin set out to establish his power in Chechnya. The invasion of Georgia in August 2008 also went down well. Especially as the Chechen terrorist Shamil Basaev and the Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili are regarded by many Russians as aggressors.

The effect of US policy

US policy in the Balkans and the Persian Gulf region has also played a significant part in changing Russians' ideas about good and evil in the sphere of international relations. In the late 1980s- early 1990s the democratic West had a kind of moral authority for many citizens of Russia who supported reforms. That authority has been lost. People associate the invasion of Georgia with the invasion of Iraq and the threats against Iran. They compare our support for the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia with the recognition of Kosovo's independence by many western countries.

I myself work a lot with students, and do a good deal of public speaking to middle-aged and elderly audiences. I can say from experience that even at the very beginning of Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika, it was far easier to convince audiences of the need for constructive cooperation with western countries than it is today, after Kosovo and Iraq.

The Putin factor

Economic, domestic and international political factors have thus all combined to encourage Putin to take the drastic action which has led to increased international isolation. However, Russia's foreign policy decisions have also been informed by personal characteristics that go back to the Prime Minister's childhood. In a country with a real division of power, with a system of political checks and balances, these personal characteristics would not have such major consequences. But in Russia today, where Putin's authority is extremely high and where the authority of the government and leading political party are determined almost exclusively by public support for the so-called national leader, these personal qualities play a most important part in determining political policy.

When explaining his position on an issue, Russia's Prime Minister has recourse more and more often these days to arguments of the ‘it takes one to know one' kind. Take his response in an interview on the ARD television channel after the war when a German journalist criticised the bombing of a residential building in the Georgian city of Gori. He referred with heavy irony to the Americans, who in suppressing the Taliban in Afghanistan killed hundreds of peaceful civilians. The same goes for Russia's recognition of the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The main Russian argument is that western countries behaved exactly the same in Kosovo.

Events in Afghanistan and the Balkans are, of course, objective factors in international politics. But in his speeches, Putin characteristically puts much less emphasis on standing up for Russian interests than on the fact that Russia is not behaving any worse than anyone else.

Putin the street fighter

So what characteristics are we talking about? Putin's own stories of his childhood and reports by several people who knew him at the time are very telling. Commentators tend to be misled by the fact that Putin comes from Petersburg, often called the cultural capital of Russia, as also by the fact that he graduated from the second best university of the country, and speaks German fluently. While taking all this into account, we should not ignore other important aspects.

Putin is the first of his family to belong to the intelligentsia. His father worked at a factory. His grandfather was a cook, and his great-grandfather was a serf in the provinces. Putin may have spent his childhood in Petersburg (Leningrad as was), but it was not an elite intellectual environment. He lived in a ‘kommunalka', a communal apartment, where several families who are not related live in the same apartment because they cannot afford one of their own. There are ‘kommunalkas' in Petersburg to this day. Like many children those days, he spent his free time outside in the yard, with boys of a pretty rough kind.

Volodya Putin was clearly a boy not lacking in noble instincts. Almost everyone who knew him as a child remembers that he stood up for the weak, and that although he was short and puny, he was brave enough to fight boys stronger and heavier than him. But commentators have studiously overlooked another very striking and important fact. Conflicts did not so much seek Putin out, as Putin seek them out. Do I see a fight? Can I join in? And when he did join in, he always threw the first punch.

In drawing a psychological portrait of Putin, some Russian writers have observed that people like him are not aggressively inclined. But so many tales of fights involving the young Vladimir have surfaced that they sound more like scenes from a Hollywood thriller about gangs from Chicago or the Bronx than the accounts of eyewitnesses from Leningrad in the 1960s-1970s. Life in Petersburg was certainly no idyll at the time. Yet no Petersburg boy of that generation (and the author of this article is one of them) could really say that there were fights going on on every street corner.

Actually, Putin himself has been quite open with journalists about what he was like in Leningrad in the 60s:

‘...I was a hooligan, not a pioneer.'

‘Are you joking?'

‘Absolutely not. I was a real hood.'

Political analysts usually ignore this self-assessment, or treat it as a joke. But they're wrong. Boys like young Volodya were rare in those days. Very few boys in the 1960s-70s were not included in the so-called pioneers, the mass children's communist organisation named after Lenin. There were probably not more than one or two in a class. And how many were summoned to a ‘comrades' court' by their neighbors? This really was unusual.

Putin really was hauled up in front of one of these. Although he was a bright little fellow, who didn't work badly and got Bs and Cs, he really was not admitted to the pioneers until he was 12, as opposed to the normal age of 9. Hoolignism was the only reason why he was not allowed to join the ranks of the ‘young Leninists'.

‘Growing up in the yard was like living in the jungle,' Putin once said himself. ‘Very much so. Oh yes!" And Vladimir's life soon began to develop according to the laws of the jungle. Theatres, museums and concert halls - was it that kind of Petersburg childhood? Well, not exactly.

To be top dog out there in the yard, you had to smash your opponent in the mug and ‘work him over' (this is the expression Putin once used about terrorists, when he was already president). What's more, you had to fight desperately ‘to the last drop of blood', without backing down. There are lots of stories about him as a fighter. And they all say the same thing, what words they use. Some say Volodya would work himself into a frenzy. Some say he was like a tiger, some that he was like a panther. What they're getting at is that this was the boy's way of expressing himself. It was character-forming.

Later on, when he was studying at the KGB intelligence school, he was described as having ‘very little sense of danger'. Perhaps this is an inborn characteristic. But it is more likely that it is the result of a childhood spent fighting in the yard, having to hit your opponent first, and leave the thinking till later. Isn't this the quality we see in Putin later, when the Russian authorities began the second Chechen war? Isn't this what distinguishes his actions today, what is leading to Russia's isolation?

The well-known Russian publicist Andrei Piontkovsky wrote in March 2000: ‘The Petersburg yard where a boy from a poor family living in a ‘kommunalka' spent all his time - this is where he really learned about life. An ordinary yard of the 1950s-60s, with brutal fights, the power of the street gangs and the cult of force. To survive in this environment, weedy little Vovochka had to be cunning and brutal, to appear strong and never experience moral doubts and suffering.'

The crucible of Putin's morality

While Piontkovsky has put his finger on the factors that formed Putin's character, the conclusion is still somewhat one-sided. Putin's personality is more complex, and it cannot all be explained by cunning, brutality and lack of moral norms. But what it does explain is the very particular notion of morality that underpins the Russian president's character.

There is the desire to punish the bad guys without really thinking about the political consequences. The desire to fight uncompromisingly, because bad guys only understand force. The desire to take things to their logical conclusion, as boys do in the yard, where a good fight is the norm, where a bad peace is nothing more than a temporary hiatus, an accidental exception to the rule.

Putin's love of martial arts - initially boxing, then sambo (unarmed self-defence) and later judo - all this goes back to the days when he lived by the laws of the jungle. And it also explains his genuine desire to serve in the KGB. He was still a schoolboy when he went to the Leningrad office of the KGB on Liteiny Prospekt to ask how he could get a job there.

Putin the communicator

And the KGB taught him another very important thing. When talking about what he did in the KGB, Putin has said himself that they made him a specialist in communicating with people. And he does indeed communicate extremely professionally in public, as well as with individuals on whom he wants to make a good impression. Almost everyone he talks to says that when they leave the president, they are quite sure that they've managed to persuade him. But none of the highest ranking officials in Russia can say today that they have been able to persuade Putin to follow their policy on fundamental issues.

Perhaps this is what happened to President Bush, who said after one of his first meetings with Putin that he was able to get a sense of his soul. Yet despite this Bush has not been able to establish a good working relationship with the Russian leader.

Today Putin acts on the international stage in more or less the same way that he fought boys in the yard. He acts with flair, trying to achieve personal self-affirmation, rather than a rational, positive result. But at the same time he is extremely good at concealing his aims, at finding an individual approach to everyone he deals with. The leaders of western countries were clearly not able to understand this strategy, and as a result they lost out to Russia.


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