The Life & Lies of Vladimir Putin (with Andrew S. Weiss)
How much of the Russian leader's tough-guy persona is a calculated performance?
In the late 90s, as Boris Yeltsin’s health deteriorated, Moscow began to search for a viable replacement. The new leader had to be loyal to the Yeltsin regime, in particular his daughter. He had to command the trust, and probably the fear, of the Russian people. He had to be competent enough to run the country. Oh, and if he wasn’t a debilitating drunk, that would also be a plus.
“The Kremlin was casting about for a successor,” explains Andrew S. Weiss, the Russia expert who served at the National Security Council, the State Department and the Pentagon, the current Vice President for Studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the author of the new graphic-novel biography Accidental Czar: The Life and Lies of Vladimir Putin, and my guest on today’s PREVAIL podcast. “And they did these focus groups. And this is what’s so interesting. They were trying to find out: what are the characteristics that the Russian people most craved in a leader?”
And they found their man: Max Otto von Stierlitz. He was a handsome, dashing secret agent, cunning and patriotic, heroic and brave. The focus groups determined that Stierlitz was the guy most Russians wanted to take over for the inebriate Yeltsin. There was only one problem: Stierlitz was a fictional character—the hero of a popular 1973 limited series called Seventeen Moments of Spring, a make-believe Soviet spy working in Nazi Germany.
“The Kremlin then tried to find: who do we have in our midst who could play that part credibly, who looks, you know, sort of handsome, and we could dress him up as a man of great resolve and character, like the fictional Stierlitz?” Weiss explains. “And who else do we have who would at least protect the Yeltsin family and keep them from harm in the post-presidency period?”
Enter Vladimir Putin, who was, among many other things, a Max Otto von Stierlitz fanboy. It was Seventeen Moments of Spring that inspired him to find work with the KGB. And if you squinted enough, he fit the part. Like Stierlitz, Putin was a secret agent working in Germany. Sure, it was Communist East Germany, long after the Nazis were vanquished, but there were moments of Putin’s tenure in Dresden that could be spun heroically. And while he was no Vyacheslav Tikhonov—the Russian actor Weiss likens to Jon Hamm—he was markedly more handsome than the corpulent Kremlin officials, let alone the bloated, gin-blossomed, moribund Yeltsin.
“And they find this guy,” Weiss says. “And they’re like, ‘Yeah, you. You should be that guy.’ And Putin’s like, ‘Okay. I’ll do that.’”
This was a dream come true for Putin. It’s like when the other guys in Queen asked Adam Lambert to front the band after Freddie Mercury died—but instead of crooning “Bohemian Rhapsody,” he got to run the world’s largest country and amass a gigantic personal fortune. And for the first half-decade, at least, Putin nailed the part. “On the world stage,” Weiss says, “he’s sort of playing this role of the paint-by-numbers facsimile of Max Otto von Stierlitz.”
That was then. Putin has been the leader of the Russian Federation for 23 years. The role he plays has evolved in those two decades plus—like Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone over the course of the three Godfather movies—but there is always an element of fabrication to the part. When he first came on the scene—when Weiss, who was working for Bill Clinton’s national security adviser Sandy Berger, met him—Putin was a bit obsequious, always looking to curry favor with those world leaders he thought might be able to help him.
Once he got his sea legs, once his position was more secure, Putin ditched the ass-kissing, and played more of a strongman role. He changed the gait of his walk from an awkward gambol to a powerful strut. There were endless hours of footage of him crisply marching down some long hall at the Kremlin, like he was in a Russian version of Severance. There were clips of him doing Manly Things: Putin playing hockey, Putin winning a judo match, Putin shirtless, astride a horse. This, too, was staged. In an actual, competitive ice hockey game, Alexander Ovechkin would smash the 5’ 7” president against the boards, and that would be the end of him. But as the Russians quickly figured out, it’s better to just let the little bastard score.
At 70 years old, with a big, botoxed head and hands that sometimes tremble, Putin can no longer credibly pull off the strongman act. In recent years, he’s morphed into a more conservative, elder statesman, protector-of-the-traditional-family kind of role.
“Everyone now in the West assumes that Vladimir Putin is a dyed-in-the-wool social conservative and a promoter of family values,” Weiss tells me. “It’s all largely artifice.” Putin took that position to stem protests that were happening internally, not to protect traditional families. The rightward tilt wasn’t motivated by Jesus Christ, but by Pussy Riot. “He wears this whole moral conservative stuff as basically a way of being a wedge issue in Russia,” Weiss tells me. “[He says] that anyone who wants democracy or doesn’t support me is un-Russian, and you’re a weirdo, and, you know, the sooner you and your paymasters like George Soros beat it, the better Russia will be.” Thus, the appeal of Putin to American Evangelicals—that he is some great conservative Christian who opposes LGBTQ rights because of the Bible—is complete bullshit.
Putin is, by temperament and by training, a hard guy to figure out. In Accidental Czar, Weiss cracks the code. There are longer biographies that go into greater detail about his life, I’m sure, but if you’re going to write about a leader who is essentially a cartoon character, a graphic novel is the perfect format. As Fiona Hill says, “[r]enowned Russia scholar Andrew S. Weiss and artist Brian Brown have found the perfect means to introduce the complexities of Russian politics and Putin’s peculiarities to a new set of audiences.”
What we know for sure about Putin is that he believes Ukraine should not exist, and should be part of Russia. Never mind that this is not historically true. His decision back in February to invade a sovereign nation that he was treaty-bound to leave alone, and his insistence to keep the war going despite his enormous losses and the atrocities committed in his name and by his orders, is his and his alone. He is doing to Ukraine what Hitler did to Poland.
Putin is no longer Max Otto von Stierlitz. He has become the evil monster Stierlitz was trying to defeat.
We’ve all heard stories about the Russian dictator. But who is the real Vladimir Putin? Greg Olear talks to Andrew S. Weiss of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace about what’s happening in Putin’s Russia, what he learned about Putin in his experience with the National Security Council, the State Department, and the Pentagon, and his new non-fiction graphic novel, “Accidental Czar: The Life and Lies of Vladimir Putin.” Plus: White Lotus returns!
The Carnegie Endowment:
Sponsored by BetterHelp. Get 10% off your first month at betterhelp.com/greg
Photo credit: A panel from Accidental Czar. Artwork by Brian “Box” Brown.