Us and Putin

Yesterday, I watched the 2012 documentary 'I, Putin',  by Hubert Seipel (French version, Youtube.)

Seipel was one of the few westerners to approach Putin so closely, accompanying him on hunting trips, to his Hockey games, and swimming and Judo practices.  His documentary is one of the few to present a complex portrait of Putin and was hailed as objective while being intimate, leaving the international audience to make its mind and gain a better knowledge of Putin through the documentary.  Despite this, Spiegel gave a largely western centric and negative account of Putin, as he appears in the documentary, brushing aside the insight offered by Seipel.

The documentary is not intimate in the sense that it offers knowledge of Putin's private life, which was kept off-limits.  It is intimate in another way, in reducing the distance between the largely a priori western perception of Putin - as a leader whose only aim is soviet revival - and the national perception of Putin, by presenting Putin against a backdrop of recent Soviet and Russian history and Putin's family history.

The most important thing we learn from this documentary, in my opinion, is that Putin was not part of the Soviet nomenklatura.  He comes from a working class background and had an ambition for himself to work for the KGB.

Putin left the KGB after their failed coup against Gorbatchev's Perestroika, proved his skills in the St. Petersburg's municipal council, as advisor to the mayor, fighting the crime that engulfed Russia after the fall of the USSR, then became Yeltsin's trusted man, probably because of the same skills he showed in St. Petersburg. He restructured & headed the new KGB, the FSB, and climbed quickly the different echelons of power during the Yeltsin's years.  Putin's rise to the pinnacle of power during these troubled years appears as natural, he had the right instincts to rescue his country from disintegration navigating between a disoriented class of apparatchiks, and young oligarchs seizing the country's resources and industry, unemcumbered by the non existant law and order.  This was a time when the USSR had disappeared leaving Russians without institutions, without a country, and in economic apocalypse.  Putin filled the void and guided the existent institutions on the road to reformation, while nationalizing the country's resources and bargaining them on the world market in order to sustain an economic activity capable of lifting the country and its population from the economic abyss towards which it was pushed by the oligarchs who were aided by West.

One can fairly say that the new Russia is not the Russia of the Tzars, not the Russia of the communist party, not the Russia of the oligarchs, it is the Russia of Putin.  We can easily understand the responsibility that Putin must feel and shoulder for Russia.  It is within this context that we have to understand Russia's nascent democracy.  Putin could have easily become a full-fledged autocrat, unemcumbered by the democratic process.  But here we see another aspect of Putin: a man self-aware of the perception of his leadership in the rest of the world - and correlatively - of the place of Russia in the world.  The Putin we see in the documentary is a leader who wants to work with the rest of the world, and the West, as he proved it many times already by developing Russia's diplomacy and econnomic reach worldwide.

But what has the West offered Putin?  At best, an inability to understand the new Russia, at worst, disdain, arrogance and threats to comply with the diktat of a league bent on keeping Russia 'contained' or rather weak - to speak plainly.  Indeed, neither Russia, nor the USSR, even at the height of Soviet might and power, ever achieved the military reach of the West.

I wondered, at the end of the documentary, which emphasized Putin's outsider status among his country's elite, if western leaders, none of whom come from a working class background similar to Putin's, and none of whom ever felt the weight of having to shoulder, on their own, the responsibility of keeping a country over their heads, as in keeping a roof over one's head and bread on the table, will ever be able to understand the man and his mission.

For certain, Putin can be ruthless, but which leader isn't when his country is on the brink?   The western press would like us to believe that Putin is only this.  He isn't. 

Of interest in the documentary:
Minute 21 : 19 Putin on NATO's anti-missile defence shield
Minute 24 : 26 Putin on Chechnya
Minute 35 : Putin on the disintegration of the USSR
Minute 40:  Footage of Yeltsin, the West's darling, during a government session
Minute 46 :23 Putin and the oligarchs

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Since March 29th 2006