by Susan B. Glasser
Twenty years ago, if you had asked me or basically anyone whether Vladimir Putin would become the longest-serving Russian leader since Joseph Stalin, the response would have likely been either incredulous silence or uproarious laughter. When he ascended to the Russian presidency while still in his 40s, Putin’s main qualifications for the job, at least based on the many Russians I spoke with during his first years in office when I was the Washington Post’s co-bureau chief in Moscow, were that he was: young, articulate, and, literally, sober. That he was, in other words, not Boris Yeltsin—his sick, aging predecessor, who spent his later years in the Kremlin in vodka-soaked meanderings as gangster capitalism took hold of the realm and his own government. Putin spoke of tax reform, his admiration for Europe, and one day growing Russia’s post-Soviet economy to beat out Portugal. To admirers at home as well as many who misread him in the West, he seemed to represent a different course for Russia—toward becoming a “normal,” more modern, if more modest, country.
Of course, that required overlooking much, even at the time: the brutal war in Chechnya that launched Putin as a political figure, the fact that he had been hand-picked by Yeltsin’s crooked inner circle in exchange for guaranteeing their amnesty, and, especially, Putin’s own background in the Soviet-era KGB and persistent fealty to the idea of a security state.
Two decades on, Russia is once again a struggling petrostate with an aging leader, struggling with an authoritarian tradition that hinders its political development and an unreformed, corruption-ridden economy far too dependent on natural resource extraction. Putin did not restore the Soviet Union or create a new gulag at home. His new normal, however, turned out to be more like the old normal than he would admit. Now, Putin must reckon with cratering oil prices, a poor response to the global coronavirus pandemic, and political overreach that had him schedule, then postpone, a constitutional referendum that could keep him in power for over a decade more to come. May 2020 was meant to be a 20th anniversary party for Putinism, but the party has been canceled.
Susan Glasser is a former editor in chief of Foreign Policy; former Moscow bureau chief of the Washington Post; and co-author, with Peter Baker, of Kremlin Rising: Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the End of Revolution.