Peering into Putin’s Soul

Does Vladimir Putin have a soul? He doesn’t if you ask Hillary Clinton. In a campaign stump in New Hampshire, Clinton pondered the existence of Putin’s soul as a means to crack at George Bush’s foreign policy. She said:

“Bush really premised so much of our foreign policy on his personal relationships with leaders, and I just don’t think that’s the way a great country engages in diplomacy. . . . This is the president that looked in the soul of Putin, and I could have told him, he was a KGB agent. By definition he doesn’t have a soul. I mean, this is a waste of time, right? This is nonsense, but this is the world we’re living in right now.”

The comment drew laughs and applause from a Democratic crowd always eager to hear jabs at the Prez they love to hate. Forget for a moment that Clinton’s beating up on lame duck Bush only shows how desperate she is. She has nothing to offer but Bush-lite (though I’m positive that all Obama has to offer is Clinton-lite. That’s only two short degrees from Bush by my count.) But the inanity of American democracy is not the issue here.

The issue is Putin’s soul. For a genealogy of its nature we have to begin not with Bush, but with Putin himself. In October 1999, Putin speaking on Ukraine’s desire to become chummy with NATO made a collective assessment of not only his soul, but of the entire CIS. “Both Ukraine and Russia, as well as many other CIS countries, are in the process of soul-searching, seeking to clarify their positions in the world,” he told reporters. “To do so, one should not look only to the West or only to the East. Above all, one should look inside one’s own country to see what its people want and expect.” (BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, 10/10/99). Putin didn’t have a clue where to find his or Russia’s soul and decided that it would be best to look everywhere.

The Western media also seemed to think that Putin was missing a soul. More specifically he lacked the gregarious Russian soul that so personified Boris Yeltsin. In the Daily Mail on January 1, 2000, Owen Matthews wrote “Whatever his failings, Yeltsin is loaded with that indefinable Russian quality, dusham (soul) whereas Putin is as colourless as a winter evening in Moscow.” While Matthews thought Putin’s soul, if he indeed had one, to be colorless, Itar-Tass thought that its nature was best found in Putin’s love for animals. In a report titled “Putin Bares Soul on Animal Rights in Letter to Brigitte Bardot,” Putin was said to have told the French actress, “[Animals] live alongside with us on our planet, on our land and their fate depends on us to a large degree. That is why people must always behave in a humane way both towards other people and towards animals” (Itar-Tass, 1/5/2000). By February 2000, Putin’s soul went beyond a warmness for animals and began showing its political side. The Financial Times‘ John Thornhill declared that the approaching Presidential elections signaled that “the battle for Vladimir Putin’s political soul was intensifying” (FT, 2/8/2000). Putin won that battle but not without the help of some “dead souls” reported the Moscow Times (9/9/2000).

The exact nature of Putin’s soul came under more focus after his electoral victory. In an editorial in the Sunday Times, historian Robert Service appeared to have looked into Putin’s soul and found “the words “order” and “power” engraved on [it]” (Sunday Times, 10/22/2000). The London Times suggested that this true nature of Putin’s soul was being shrouded that the soft, sweet, but firm imagine of him emerging from his cult of personality. The “Putin cult” painted him as neither zoophiliac nor power imprinted figure but as a a dedicated “church goer and guardian of Russia’s soul” (2/10/2001).

The most talked about definition of Putin’s soul, however, came in June 2001 when George Bush peered into Putin’s soul at their first meeting at Brdo, Slovenia. In his now infamous statement on Putin’s soul, Bush said, “I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy. We had a very good dialogue. I was able to get a sense of his soul; a man deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country.” He then added, “I wouldn’t have invited him to my ranch if I didn’t trust him.”

Bush’s playing soul doctor has been lambasted ever since. The NY Times’ Thomas Friedman called Bush and Putin “soul brothers” (6/29/2001). Contra Bush, the Washington Post argued that Putin’s service in the KGB “calls the quality-of-soul claim into some doubt” (6/27/2001). A few days latter, the WP again questioned the real nature Putin’s soul. “We’re still hoping to get that glimpse of Mr. Putin’s soul that President Bush talked about last month,” wrote the Post’s editors (7/5/2001). Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez however bucked the emerging conventional wisdom. In talks with Putin, Chavez expressed gratitude to the Russian President “for the generosity of his soul.” This is probably one of the only times Bush and Chavez would see eye to eye on something (Itar-Tass, 10/22/2001).

Bush’s assessment of Putin stuck and he continued to be excoriated for it in the press. It appeared that every time Putin did something the West didn’t like, the press reminded its readers of Bush “looking into his soul.” By 2004, if the Christian Science Monitor’s Daniel Schorr is to be believed, the day Bush blandished Putin’s soul was “a dim memory.” Now Putin was “an authoritarian ruler [who] sees his regime trembling on the brink of destabilization and is running scared” (9/17/2004). Was this the return of the repressed KGB soul? A new kinda running scared soul? Where is St. Peter when you need him?

For most commentators, Putin’s increasing grip on the Russian body politic made his soul merely a facsimile of a Soviet dictator. Since the Soviets were all godless communists, there is no way that Putin possessed a soul. At least not one worthy of divine appreciation. This of course is despite the fact that Putin considers himself a devout Orthodox Christian. Eastern perversion of Christianity doesn’t make the cut among America’s Protestants. Their soul has no middle ground. It’s nature is either of good or of evil. The soul of a chekist is always dyed black. It’s even in their eyes. As John McCain said, “I looked into his eyes and saw three letters: a K, a G and a B.”

With Clinton the search for Putin’s soul continues.