Vladimir Velikii

Sandwiched between the Dalai Lama and Barack Obama on Time‘s 100 Most Influential Leaders and Revolutionaries is, for some, a rather unlikely figure: Vladimir Putin. Time already ignited insult and outrage in December when it had the gumption to name Putin its Person of the Year. (The hawks in Washington were hoping for General David Petraeus, seeing his possible recognition as praise for their “surge.”) It’s likely that naming VVP as one of the most influential will elicit similar condemnation. I’m sure some of the more paranoiac among the chattering classes will think Putinites have infiltrated Time‘s editorial offices.

Also intriguing is the fact that Madeleine Albright wrote Time‘s blurb for Putin. Albright, who in 1999 and 2000 described him as “shrewd, confident, hard-working, patriotic, and ingratiating,” sees Putin as someone who has become after eight years in office “more confident” and for his Western counterparts, “less ingratiating.” And though Putin may be Russia’s next Prime Minister, Albright hardly thinks that he views this as a “comedown.” For her, “Putin is more likely to define his job than be defined by it.”

The biggest question, however, is not so much Putin’s influence. His footprint on Russia’s current and future politics is clearly unmatched. The question is: Is Putin a leader or a revolutionary? Or is he both?

The answer might lie in Time‘s own blurb on Putin. The accompanying picture shows his head superimposed over Hyppolyte Delaroche’s Portrait of Peter the Great (1838), suggesting that Putin’s impact on Russia might be comparable to that great Tsar. There is also Albright’s mention of Mikhail Speransky. Speransky was the “father of Russian liberalism” and one of the most influential political figures and reformers of 19th century Russia. Like Putin, Speransky, Albright writes quoting Tolstoy, was a “rigorous-minded man of immense intelligence, who through his energy…had come to power and used it solely for the good of Russia.” And also like Putin, Speransky possessed a “cold, mirror-like gaze, which let no one penetrate to his soul [and] a too great contempt for people.” Both quotes are a reminder that a person may be a great leader and revolutionary but that hardly makes them humanists.

Peter the Great and Mikhail Speransky. I think placing Putin in the same historical frame as these two says that at least Albright thinks Putin is both a leader and a revolutionary. The real mystery is what kind of revolution Putin has wrought. Is he more like Peter who tore Russian society asunder by sheer force and authoritarian will? Or is he more like Speransky whose conservative idealism planted the seeds for Tsarist Russia’s gradual and meandering path to (ultimately incomplete) reform?

Or perhaps he is neither. Putin is one of these accidents of history. Hardly a nascent “great man” when he was chosen as Prime Minister and then acting President in 1999. His potential manipulability is what made the Family think he was an ideal choice. Eight years later, it’s hard to imagine the Putin of the winter of 1999. So hard that it’s more comforting to think that Putin had a devious plan all along to vanquish the Family and consolidate his grip on power. But even this is giving Putin too much credit. It suggests that he has some sort of miraculous power to stand outside history and above politics. Both are hardly possible. The truth of the matter is that Putin may be a great leader. He may even be a revolutionary. However, he is the face of a Russian conservative power elite now firmly entrenched in Russia’s political and economic driver’s seat. Recognizing this is a reminder that Putin is more than a mere individual autocrat. Rather he is the chosen representative of and for his class.