Vladimir V. Putin stood on the landing of a staircase outside the Grand Kremlin Palace. Ceremonial troops paraded before him. Behind him was the presidency, which he had left a few minutes before.
It was May 7, 2008, a milestone in a season of ceremony inside the Kremlin's red walls. Beside Putin stood his protégé, Dmitry A. Medvedev, who had just become the third president of post-Soviet Russia.
Officially, Medvedev was the Kremlin's leader, successor to Yeltsin, Gorbachev, and all of the others, back to Stalin, Lenin, and the czars. Medvedev was minutes into his term. After the troops filed past, he remained in place, waiting. And then, in the full public view that live television allows, Vladimir Putin, who at the moment held no elected office, shifted his head and said something not audible to the rest of us.
Taking a cue from Russia's boss, Medvedev left the stage.
It was Medvedev's day. It remained Putin's time.
I. THE MAN WHO WOULD BE CZAR Vladimir Putin is a national savior and hero, a man, sober and exceptionally smart, who stepped from shadows to resuscitate a proud country that others had run aground, looted, and left for dead. After eight years as president, a period marked by a surging economy and an unexpectedly victorious war in Chechnya, he surrendered one of the most seductively powerful offices on earth voluntarily and according to Russia's constitution, with Moscow's influence in the world restored and with a large fraction of Russia's citizens better off than they ever had been. He has been a bridge from postcommunist chaos and hardship to national stability, freer markets, individual economic choice, and the possibility of democracy.
Or, he is a cunning, even diabolical strongman atop a scrum of bandit cliques. As a career officer in the KGB, an organization its members never leave, he is fundamentally anti-Western and undemocratic, and comfortable with conflict, crime, and the company of beasts. Moreover, he is nostalgic for empire and covetous of power, and he has surrendered only a title. Instead, he has manipulated Russia's loose political rules and obedient political class to install a puppet successor and transfer the levers to his new post as Russia's premier, where he continues to abuse office and direct the spoils of oil-state excess to his coterie. His talk of public stewardship and personal liberties is farce. The Kremlin has rejected democracy while pretending to embrace it, hardening into a kleptocracy with nuclear weapons and state-controlled television stations purring that all is well.
Depending on the point of view of the commentator (and sometimes the source of the commentator's paycheck), the standard assessments of Putin's nine years in public office reach these rival extremes. What makes them interesting, and makes full and accurate descriptions of Putin elusive, is that both are largely true.
Vladimir Putin is one of the central figures of our times, the man who presided at the Kremlin as the broken remains of a sprawling nation were restored to life, and who used his stature to reorder the Russian-speaking world's relations with the West and become the de facto spokesman of strongmen everywhere. No recent Western leader can claim to have changed a nation and its place in the world so fully.
During his second term, from 2004 to 2008, as Putin reanimated the Kremlin, I lived and roamed in the world where he is supreme, working as a newspaper correspondent throughout the former Soviet republics. Putin's influence is outsized and everywhere. But fresh insights into him are rare. This is because analysis of Putin and his Kremlin relies more on deduction than firsthand observation. Access to him and the top levels of his government is exceptionally limited. The common perceptions of Putin are created indirectly, by reflecting on the Kremlin's manufactured images on state-run news, by interviewing people in proximity to power or who have suffered from it, and by reading cues. Sleuthing informs the picture but is small in scale. Russia lacks freedom-of-information laws and practices, many interesting archives are closed, and fundamental documents of civil affairs -- court records and transcripts, for example -- are difficult to obtain. Requests for meetings with officials or questions about government decisions can go unanswered for months. Russian authorities also run the equivalent of a counterintelligence operation against independent journalists: The entrances to the apartments and offices of much of the Moscow press corps are under video surveillance and have uniformed guards who check visitors' passports. Phone lines are bugged. Almost every journalist who wanders Russia has tales of being denied access to regions, of having sources reinterviewed by local authorities, or of being stopped for questioning by police or intelligence officials. (A Russian colleague and I were detained twice while working on a story on the terrorist siege at the public school in Beslan.) Putin's Russia is far less restrictive than Soviet times, but is a stifling environment in which to trace the motions of a nation, and a leader, moving at such speed.
In grappling with Putin and his meanings, I often turned my back on him for weeks at a time to survey the Kremlin's old and distant domain, trying to understand Putin from vantage points away from the center -- in the Caucasus and Central Asia, at revolutions, crackdowns, elections, and in the Chechen and Georgian wars. Throughout a continent where the rule of cliques is secured by manipulated politics and fraudulent elections, there was no limit to the seams where Putin's hand -- and his extraordinary luck -- revealed itself. Putin ultimately succeeded in running against the 1990s, against separatism, penury, weakness, and the crisis of self-confidence that made Russia a laugh line, even as official cruelty and crime checkered his political climb. And yet when measured off the bottom -- against the domestic behavior of other leaders who imposed themselves on the union's wreckage -- he could often seem the softest of the autocrats.
That unlikely status presents one way of blending the rival arguments: Is Putin's Russia a retreat to Soviet practices or a capitalist democracy sputtering through early stages of evolution? Putin's signature legacy is not Russia's new wealth and confidence, nor the subjugation of Chechnya, nor the return of an assertive foreign policy, capped by the invasion of Georgia. It is the refinement, if that word could ever be used with this phenomenon, of a more sophisticated and rational police state than the failed USSR. This is no celebration of imaginary virtues; the world of his politics remains ugly and unrepaired. It is meant to pose a question. Putin has reshaped Russian autocracy under another name. To what end?
II. THE TALL MAN From the beginning, the experts' forecasts were wrong. When an exhausted President Boris Yeltsin introduced Putin to the world in the summer of 1999, announcing that Putin was his choice as prime minister (Yeltsin's sixth in less than eighteen months), few expected him to last. It was not just that Putin, then forty-six, was charged with managing a pauper state, a government adrift in disorder, and a population soured by the unmet promises of free markets and democracy. The brewing unrest in Chechnya had drifted beyond separatism and nationalism and become an international Islamic cause. Crime and corruption were pandemic, and a circle of billionaire oligarchs controlled large fractions of the nation's resources and capital, as well as voting blocs in parliament, which was a legislature for sale. There was also Yeltsin's lurching style to consider, which lent Putin's new job the air of a free-swinging trapdoor. Nothing that summer suggested that Putin's tenure would end differently from those of his predecessors, who were sacked. Vladimir Putin was an untested unknown, a stand-in destined to be fired. It hardly helped that Yeltsin said he would support him in the presidential election in 2000. An endorsement from a man who gave Russia a losing war and economic shock therapy at once? Leonid Dobrokhotov, an adviser to the Communist party, called it a "kiss of death."
In retrospect, of course, the early assessments were wrong, albeit for understandable reasons. Russia's problems were monumental. Events in the recent past predicted little relief. And the available information on Putin, a career spy, was beyond scarce. This was a public figure schooled in anonymity and deception; so complete was his obscurity that one prominent Western newspaper described him as "tall." Putin is a martial-arts expert. Light-footed and thick-shouldered, he can emanate the self-assuredness of a stocky, muscular cat. But he is not tall. He stands, by generous estimate, perhaps five feet six inches high.
Putin swiftly displayed his confrontational self. He directed a renewed military campaign in Chechnya, which was foundering under the self-rule separatists had gained after fighting the Russian army to a standstill a few years before. The war had undermined Russia's standing and self-esteem, psychological injuries that Putin seemed to understand viscerally. Vladimir Putin did not just promise to restore Russian rule. He went beyond the typical language of settling unsettled scores. He vowed blood. "We will pursue the terrorists everywhere," he said. "You will forgive me, but if we catch them in the toilet, we will wet them even in the outhouse." Earlier Russian premiers had been rendered inert by the tenacity of the Chechen fighters and the reliable incompetence of Russia's army. (In 1995 Viktor Chernomyrdin had pleaded for the release of hostages with Shamil Basayev, the terrorist, on live television. "I beg you," he had said.) Putin signaled that Russia would not beg. He came from an organization that had used fear to bring a vast nation to heel. Violence for him was a governing tool.
Putin also showed skills as a performer, peppering an understated demeanor with prison-slang coarseness. Hunting terrorists to their toilets? The Russian idiom "to wet" is inmate jargon for soaking a victim in blood. It is a knowing way of saying "to kill" and suggests killing at very close range, as with a knife. Underneath his Italian suits and aura of sobriety, Putin revealed an icy Eastwood deadpan. An ease with crudity simmered beneath what passed for Putin's style. Asked if he worried about Russia's columns inflicting civilian casualties, Putin made clear that he did not, and would not keep company with people who did. "We do not need generals who chew snot," he said.
Such was the mind behind Russia's new war. Russian troops soon leveled much of Grozny, Chechnya's capital, and launched often indiscriminate sweeps through the Chechen countryside. Victims and human-rights organizations assigned much of the blame for the troops' conduct to Putin, whose language seemed to encourage it. Putin was undeterred. He had found a persona. He was not just a stern nationalist who would restore Russian sovereignty. He was the unblinking fighter, untroubled by rules, conscience, or second thought in the pursuit of national order. Russia's losing streak had been long. Putin would be its fist. RUDEST EVER P.M. WINS OVER RUSSIA, another Western newspaper declared. His popularity climbed.
Late in 1999, Yeltsin resigned, making Putin the front-runner in the presidential race. In the spring of 2000, he was elected. His time had begun.
III. THE BOOM Eight years on, Russia looks not much like it did then. The value of the Russian stock market has soared. Personal incomes have grown. A society that suffered the forced austerity of communism and economic collapse has entered a carnival of personal spending. Gone are empty shelves, replaced by a rollicking consumer culture that buys what it wants. French perfumes, Austrian chocolates, Japanese electronics, Scandinavian cell phones, Italian handbags, Cuban cigars, Australian wines, and single-malt Scotches -- malls have opened offering all of these. Rates of car ownership have multiplied with access to personal credit, and Moscow's roads, cluttered during Yeltsin's time with Zhigulis, are jammed with BMWs and Benzes. Extravagant restaurants cater to the wealthy. Sushi, in the inland reaches of a northern forest, is a minor Russian craze. For people of even modest means, stores stock fresh fruits and vegetables year-round. Yes, babushkas still sell onions on the streets. And yes, rural areas are deeply depressed. But the expanding Russian wealth has grown beyond the horizon. Visit tourist destinations in Thailand, the Mediterranean, Europe, or the Red Sea and you will hear Russian. Visit a real estate office in any Western capital and you will hear tales of Russian buyers.
Such are the signs of the most tangible freedom associated with Putin's Russia -- the freedom to buy whatever you can afford, except, in most cases, power.
No small part of this turnaround resulted from conditions outside Putin's control. Russia's combined oil and natural-gas reserves are the world's largest, and with timber and coal and mineral deposits, these resources positioned Russia to be a global gas pump, lumberyard, and mine long before any of us knew Putin's name. The price explosion of oil enriched Russia with head-spinning speed, creating a huge transfer of global wealth to Slavic hands. Along the way, it transformed parts of dreary Moscow into a northern Vegas and allowed the Kremlin -- which not long ago could not afford the fuel in its fighter jets -- to pay down foreign debts ahead of schedule. And yet the results cannot be ascribed to sheer chance. It is easy to reduce the arrival of Russian wealth to the indifferent bounty of market forces, but sound macroeconomics and fiscal restraint supported some of the boom. Stephen Kotkin, the professor of Russian history at Princeton, said early this year that if surging oil and gas prices automatically mean that states rich with hydrocarbons will enjoy instant prosperity, ask Nigeria where its boom is.
While Russia's economy roared, Putin was benefiting from another unanticipated success. By 2005, the war in Chechnya had turned. The insurgent bands were either being thinned to pockets or, in many cases, coerced to join a pro-Kremlin government led by Ramzan Kadyrov, the rebel turned Putin loyalist who replaced the chaos of conflict with a local dictatorship. Fighting lingers nearby, in Ingushetia and sometimes Dagestan, but in scale and intensity it is a fraction of the violence of 2004. No one saw this coming. Anyone suggesting four years ago, after the school siege in Beslan, that the war would be reduced to skirmishes in Ingushetia and Dagestan, and that Grozny (think: Mogadishu) would be largely rebuilt in a thousand days, would have been dismissed as a fool. But after the school siege ended in 2004, with more than 330 victims dead and hundreds more injured, Russian counterterrorism was reinvigorated. Two underground Chechen presidents were killed, and Basayev died in a mysterious explosion. On both sides, the war had been a race for the bottom, with horrors trumped by horrors for several years. With Beslan, the separatists had gone too far. Chechnya's Sufi nationalists had once enjoyed a reputation as underdogs. But killing children was not an image-booster; support for them collapsed.
Then came luck, courtesy of George W. Bush: The influence of foreign Islamic fighters declined.
Foreigners had been a radicalizing presence in the war, and their near disappearance during Putin's second term was related to a factor out of Putin's hands. For several nights in late 2005, I sat with Chechen fighters in Baku, Azerbaijan, just over Russia's border. These scarred men dwelt on their hatred of Putin, blaming him alike for deaths of relatives and of hostages for whose freedom he would not negotiate. They spoke of him as the ugly product of a weakened, embarrassed state, and compared him to Hitler, whose rise followed Germany's defeat in World War I. (Hitler comparisons are tiresome and common in some of the circles that hate Putin most. A more apt pejorative for Putin is Putin.) Then they described an underground railroad they had used to smuggle Arabs, Turks, and others into Chechnya to fight. By bribing Russian guards and using roads that pass from Azerbaijan through Dagestan, they said, the separatists had shipped in traveling Islamic fighters for years. But by 2005, the railroad had all but stopped. "They used to sit in the chair you are sitting in and ask us to take them to the jihad," one of my Chechen hosts said. "Now they do not come. They are all fighting in Iraq."
Putin, a student of what is wrong with the United States, had loudly opposed the invasion of Iraq. But as the United States bogged down along the Tigris and the Euphrates, the war he had stood against was making his job easier. George Bush limped toward the end of his presidency, facing public unease about his handling of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Vladimir Putin's public-approval ratings exceeded 70 percent. By this year, with memories of terrorism in Moscow streets fading, the Chechen war had slipped from much of the national conversation. Putin was even able to raise the subject himself to divert uncomfortable questions about his personal life.
He had long been rumored to keep mistresses, including a relationship with a prominent television executive whose career turned for the better after they met. In April, a Moscow newspaper dared to publish an article about another suspect: Alina Kabayeva, a twenty-four-year-old former Olympic gymnast and newly appointed member of parliament. Putin decried the story as the intrusive fantasy of a yellow press. But, he added, "Thank God people have stopped asking about Chechnya."
IV. THE BREAKOUT In his public appearances, Putin has always displayed a Clintonesque command of facts, as if he spent his nights reading the finer points of policy proposals. Authentically vulgar, his mind was also swift and facile, capable of freewheeling riffs on all manner of public affairs. But he had rigged his own reelection in 2004, and by late that year he seemed out of stride with powerful currents coursing through the old Soviet space. A bloodless revolution in Georgia had overturned another falsified election and installed a West-leaning government, eroding the Kremlin's influence. The Ukrainian opposition was organizing in Kiev. Could the yearning for a new guard, evident along Russia's borders, spread to Red Square?
There are many essential moments in Putin's consolidation of power. Most publicly, it began with the arrest of oil oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an act that propelled his long climb to what he is now. But his handling of Ukraine, at first bungled, proved to be another.
Putin's Ukraine policy had courted disaster. In the elections of 2004, he publicly backed a pro-Russian candidate, Viktor Yanukovich, who had been convicted of robbery but had the support of the sordid political machine built by Leonid Kuchma, the much-hated departing president. Putin jumped in as if the race were a domestic affair. He presided over a Soviet-style military parade in Kiev and committed Russia to an energy deal that pledged to sell natural gas to Ukraine at a deep discount through 2009. Natural gas is the lubricant of the Ukrainian economy. It heats Ukrainian cities and powers electrical plants and factories. Putin's deal -- to sell gas for less than a quarter of the market rate through Yanukovich's first presidential term -- was a subsidy-for-loyalty exchange, and promised Ukraine's elite ample opportunity for graft. (Reselling subsidized Russian gas at high profits is a common insiders' swindle.)
There was only one problem: Yanukovich was not elected. His rival, Viktor Yushchenko, survived dioxin poisoning and emerged from the hospital as a potent symbol against the enduring nastiness of post-Soviet rule. Kuchma's government falsified an election victory for Yanukovich, but it was not enough. Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators, and then the Ukrainian court, demanded a new vote. Putin was scrambling for credibility.
His retaliation was precise. Russia announced that the gas deal with Ukraine was off, and that Ukraine would have to pay market rates, now more than five times the previous offer. Gazprom, Russia's state gas monopoly, set a deadline for late 2005. The threat's timing was carefully chosen and the irony inescapable. Ukraine faced the prospect of gas shortages in winter. And Putin, the KGB man who had given a Soviet-style energy subsidy to a nation to buy its loyalty, was now lecturing Europe about the need for market rates.
As Yushchenko resisted through the deadline, Russia escalated again, reducing pressure in pipelines feeding Ukraine. Pressure quickly began to fall in Europe, which receives much of its gas on lines that pass through Ukraine. In his anger that Ukraine overturned a falsified election, Putin was cutting off gas to the West. European officials seethed. Could he be such a neophyte? Was he not getting any better advice? Had Putin lost his mind?
With the din rising, Yushchenko capitulated in a deal to buy gas through a mysterious company, Rosukrenergo, at a compromise price. It was an utterly nontransparent arrangement, and raised immediate suspicion that insiders were profiting. After seeming cornered only months before, Putin had won, and been successful in three ways. He had forced Ukraine to accept his terms, he had pulled Yushchenko into an agreement that sullied his government and image as a reformer, and he had shown Europe that he could stand up to it as Yeltsin never did.
As the deal closed, an invigorated Putin appeared on national television. These appearances have become scripted rituals of daily broadcast life in Russia, during which Putin holds contrived meetings with subordinates on sets made for state television. Putin has many such sets available -- in the Kremlin, in Sochi, and on this evening he appeared at Novo-Ogaryovo, his suburban residence outside Moscow. The office had a desk, a boardroom table, and a Christmas tree. A group of us was allowed into the room to observe the faked meeting, which would be broadcast around the Russian-speaking world as the president receiving a report about the negotiations with Ukraine. Putin arrived. Aleksei Miller, Gazprom's chief executive, and Viktor Khristenko, Russia's energy minister, took seats before him. The show began.
The president congratulated his men, and then turned to the subject of the day. "I am sure that the settlement of the complex issue in the gas sector will have a positive effect on the entire set of Russian-Ukrainian relations," he said. "It is not only important that Russia's approach to calculating the gas price was recognized as justified, but that our relations are assuming a new quality and becoming a truly transparent market partnership." Nothing about the new partnership was transparent, and relations with Ukraine had hardened.
After he finished talking, his daily TV segment done, he looked over at us. For a moment, Putin stared. Then he spoke. "S Novim Godom," he said. This is a Russian holiday greeting, words in Russia that carry great cheer. Coming from most any other mouth it would mean "Happy New Year." Coming from Putin, it carried another message: Get out of my room.
V. THE CRACKDOWN For all of Putin's domestic success, and in spite of his good luck, Russia remains bedeviled by problems. Social services are poor, and corruption has become total. Russian public services are so wormy with dishonesty and dysfunction that patients bribe doctors for care, parents buy access to schools for their children and grades for their report cards, and the police shake down drivers with a regularity resembling taxation. The court system is a sham, vulnerable to bribery and political instruction. Racial and ethnic violence is widespread, and murders of minorities occur with morbid frequency.
Russia's army, far behind Western levels of professionalism and standards of equipment, is further weakened by high rates of draft dodging, which are elevated by traditions of conscript hazing. Its record of human-rights violations is appalling. Putin has consolidated the Kremlin's control over key economic sectors -- oil, gas, pipelines, aircraft and vehicle manufacture, arms dealing, banking, and metals -- and the billionaires have been brought under the Kremlin's sway. But there are more oligarchs now than in 2000, suggesting that wealth has not been redistributed in ways Putin had pledged, even as inflation and a real estate bubble have eroded middle-class spending power.
All of these are issues that might motivate a growing middle class to ask questions about its government. So how did Vladimir Putin build so much prestige and muster the strength to assert himself on the world?
The easy answer, the one you've heard, is that he rolled back civil liberties and created a neo-Soviet state, securing his own power by limiting everyone else's. Since 2000, Putin's Kremlin has replaced independent television with lapdog television, stifled political competitors, expelled foreigners and harried nongovernmental organizations that criticize the state, abolished the elections for governors and replaced them with a system in which the Kremlin appoints regional leaders. The effect has been a drought of candor and vibrancy in Russia's public conversation. These days, free speech does not extend much beyond venting online, a single bold radio station, and the work of a few small, rambunctious newspapers.
But the insistence that Russia is returning to Soviet times is a claim resting on omission and exaggeration. This is not the nightmare of Soviet rule, and not just because Russians have access to food and foreign goods. Putin's Russia is a canny autocracy, a system that exerts intensive control over political society but offers pressure-release valves in individual life. In Russia, Internet use is largely unfettered, cell-phone ownership is profligate, the pursuit of money is an organizing ideology, and foreign travel is common. Under the old guard, all of these would have been regarded as threats to the state.
So what is this new Russia? A few years ago I sat one cold morning with a Western diplomat who was contemplating Putin. Western governments, he said, often criticized the Kremlin for not emulating democratic systems of government, and accused Putin of backsliding toward strongman rule. The diplomat saw the backsliding. But he suggested that there was actually a high degree of emulation of the West.
The Kremlin's political apparatus routinely falsified elections. It compelled laborers, students, and government employees to vote for its candidates. It doctored voter lists. It used tax inspectors and police to harass opposition members. It manipulated media coverage and released invented vote results. In the daily administration of government affairs, the state perched atop a sprawling machinery of graft that spirited away money from all manner of public works. And the state's penetration of the strategic industries extended the graft throughout the economy. Although checks and balances existed in the law, in practice they had been subverted. The Kremlin controlled the legislature and courts. Law-enforcement agencies -- from the tax police to the successors of the KGB -- worked at its bidding. No new face could stand against Putin or his men. "We keep urging them to embrace and practice democracy," the diplomat said. "But actually, when you look at it, the Kremlin has done a pretty good job of copying the state of democracy in American urban machines of the early twentieth century. It's not that far from Tammany Hall."
Put another way, Putin's autocracy is a cunning blend of ruling ideas from the old Soviet regime with many of the material pleasures of capitalist life, a form of government for strongmen who did their homework. And just as they accept that freer markets are more efficient than planned economies, and that pining for foreign goods is not treason, Putin and his circle understand that Russia's people can say what they wish in their kitchens without endangering the state. This allows for democratic pretenses with centralized rule and insider access to the profits of governing. The Kremlin today does not control everything. It does not try to. Putin's circle exerts control over the profits of the most lucrative industries, and bares its teeth at actual threats to power. Repression is no longer total. It is precise, and its weight is brought down, often publicly, on the few who stand up to the state.
Putin will be remembered for many things, but to the list should be added his government's skills at mimicry. Throughout his second term, he smothered foes by creating obedient duplicates of them. These are the Kremlin's Stepford Wives. Western journalists have covered Russia critically? Putin launches Russia Today, a twenty-four-hour, state-controlled English-language television station that acts less as a news agency than as a sycophant with a British accent. Opposition youth groups -- Otpor! ("Resistance!"), Kmara! ("Enough!"), Pora! ("It's time!") -- helped topple tired postcommunist governments in Serbia, Georgia, and Ukraine? The Kremlin creates Nashi, or "Ours," a youth organization whose demonstrations praise the power and whose ranks serve as an unofficial reserve of street loyalty to be mobilized at will. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which leads the region's most credible election-observation missions, was publicly documenting election-rigging in the old Soviet space? The Kremlin deploys its own observers to declare rigged elections free and fair.
To all the world, these duplicates are crude Orwellian inventions, calling things the opposite of what they are. To Putin, they are accoutrements of power. He has seemed pleased to watch his subjects disgrace themselves in the service of his needs.
VI. A KINDER, GENTLER POLICE STATE *****
For years after the Soviet Union's collapse, Russia's liberals and Westerners alike hoped that the freed people and new republics would form law-abiding and democratic states. Putin's rule has labored to prevent that from happening, and the old Soviet world has hardened to its new shape. Across the rolling expanse of steppe, forest, and mountain range formerly under Kremlin rule, every single government unfailingly declares itself democratic. But aside from in the Baltic states, few in the region can speak candidly on television or the radio, or watch a free and independent news broadcast of local origin, or enjoy unmolested public assembly that criticizes the government, or have a fair hearing before an impartial judge in a court where the law is the highest authority, or select leaders from a slate of candidates who have been allowed to campaign openly and without restriction. This is the state of the Russian-speaking world nearly two decades after the wall came down.
This is his world. When Moscow proved too opaque, this is where I would go to see Vladimir Putin's reflection.
In Belarus, the opposition to President Aleksandr Lukashenko was portrayed on state television news (the only broadcast news in the country) as homosexual, drug-abusing, and in the pay of spies. Campaign managers were jailed, as were the protestors against electoral abuses. Both opposition candidates that stood against Lukashenko were arrested during and after the race, and one, Aleksandr Kazulin, was sentenced to five and a half years in jail for leading a protest march. He was released this year to attend the funeral of his wife, who died of cancer, and then led back to his cell.
Kazulin's fate has been less harsh than others. In Tajikistan in 2005, Makhmadrouzi Iskandarov, an opposition leader who said he would run for president, was convicted of terrorism and other charges. He was sentenced to twenty-three years in jail at a closed trial.
In Kazakhstan that year, a newspaper editor who published court documents from the United States detailing the corruption of President Nursultan Nazarbayev was mugged by men who carved a censor's X across his chest. Two prominent opposition politicians died of gunshot wounds around election time. One, Zamanbek Nurkadilov, was found shot twice in the chest and once in the head. (The police suggested the death was a suicide, the three shots apparently evidence of resolve.) The other, Altynbek Sarsenbaiuly, was bound at the wrists and murdered in early 2006 by officers from Kazakhstan's former KGB.
In Uzbekistan, protestors, many chanting "Freedom," were dispersed by government machine-gun fire in 2005. No outsider knows how many people died, and President Islam Karimov blocked all independent reviews. Blocked is euphemism here: Two survivors who were interviewed by me and two colleagues were later dragged from a refugee camp by Uzbek intelligence officers and imprisoned after show trials; a local journalist who assisted us had a bounty placed on his head by the Uzbek government for his own writings. Soon after, he was shot.
In Azerbaijan, after the last parliamentary election, demonstrators and candidates were clubbed by phalanxes of riot police and chased by trucks with water cannons after protesting the intimidation, vote stuffing, and rigged counts that accompanied the ruling party's overwhelming official victory.
In Turkmenistan, after the dictator Saparmurat Niyazov died, the man in line to be acting president was arrested, securing another insider's path to power.
In Armenia, the government declared a state of emergency amid street protests to a flawed vote, and sent tanks to disperse the crowds.
During Putin's second term, I traveled to each of these former Soviet nations and observed their political machines. In Russia, where I lived, control of elections is almost total. But across the region, there are shades in the palette of repression and official crime, and the Kremlin's election-season repression was less crude and violent than in many former Soviet states. Putin, who had the opportunity to be a democrat, instead chose to lead this club. At a time when he was popular and powerful, he never trusted Russia's people or politics enough to allow a free vote. He dashed his chance at legitimacy and surrendered the possibility that Russia might wield moral weight.
Instead, as he became Russia's preeminent man, he pulled the levers of a reinvigorated state to suit himself. And this year when Russia invaded Georgia, Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili was instantly assigned the role of criminal on Russian TV, just as Mikhail Khodorkovsky had been before him.
VII. TO WHAT END? Early this year, Putin was challenged by a reporter at a news conference over the continued vote fabrications in Chechnya. There, according to the government's figures for the parliamentary election last year, 99 percent of the voters had cast ballots, and 99 percent of the ballots were for the political party Putin leads. Such election figures have been rivaled only in Kim Jong-il's North Korea, Mao's China, Niyazov's Turkmenistan, and Saddam Hussein's Iraq. They were especially absurd for a vote in Chechnya, a land shaped by cycles of resistance to Russian rule, and that had been brought back to yoke by force. The correspondent wanted to know: Did the president of Russia find these numbers credible?
Putin declined to answer. Instead, he asked a state journalist from Chechnya to answer for him. The young Chechen quickly stood. "These are absolutely realistic figures," he said, grinning obsequiously. And Vladimir Putin watched with a mix of satisfaction and boredom, the face of unchecked power itself.
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