Listen to this article
This essay was written in response to Gideon Rachman’s invitation to readers to sit his ‘2066 history exam’. Of 170 entries, the FT is publishing the best five (see panel for the others). This piece addresses the question: Was Vladimir Putin a good or a bad tsar for Russia?
When Russia’s first freely elected (more or less) leader, Boris Yeltsin, resigned in 1999, the country’s progress depended upon his successor being more democratic, less corrupt and less drunk. It got one out of three.
The coldly sober Vladimir Putin created a hybrid regime as a tsar steeped in the oppressive methods of the Soviet era. He formally granted himself the old monarchist title just months before his demise at the paws of an insufficiently doped dancing bear during a tango for the broadcaster RT’s version of Strictly.
By falling victim to a failed publicity stunt, Putin did at least avoid the violent overthrow to which many dictators succumb. His iron grip on the security forces and cultivation of cynical apathy among the population ensured that. For much of his rule, he seemed to have restored order to Russia and rebuilt its global influence. But this was largely a Potemkin façade that disguised how deeply he had corroded the country’s institutions and society. His reign left chaos in its wake and was ultimately a disaster for Russia.
Russia’s development was being hampered by corruption when Putin came to power. His early campaign to banish some of the worst-offending oligarchs was justified. Sadly, the methods he used were not. The subordination of the courts to the Kremlin crushed the nascent rule of law. This ended the transition to an open society that had begun even before the fall of communism, under Mikhail Gorbachev. Instead, “might is right” was reaffirmed as the governing principle.
Rather than returning the deposed oligarchs’ assets to the state or transparent private ownership, Putin made matters worse by redistributing them among his, mostly ex-KGB, cronies. For as long as these modern-day boyars depended on him for access to the trough, he could preserve stability by acting as arbiter between them. But after his death no other member of the ruling elite could assert similar authority, and the squabbling over the spoils descended into gang warfare.
The subsequent power struggle led to the disclosure of the full extent of his personal corruption. As was suspected when the Panama Papers were released in 2016, the millions of dollars held in the name of his musician friend Sergei Roldugin were confirmed as belonging to the tsar. Documents found by Caucasian demonstrators who over-ran Putin’s palace in Sochi revealed his majority ownership of a Swiss-based commodity trading firm and extensive London property holdings.
While his own finances were healthy, Putin left Russia fragile economically. Some cosmetic improvements had been made to the big cities during his first decade in power. But he failed to capitalise on a period when oil prices regularly exceeded $100 a barrel. There was no diversification from the dependence on natural resources. Little was invested in the crumbling infrastructure or public services. The widespread poverty this led to in the late 2010s and 2020s era of cheap oil was compounded by the turmoil that followed the tsar’s death.
Putin left Russia in an equally poor political state. He had avoided anointing a successor because he feared creating a rival power centre. The Duma became a rubber-stamp parliament. And by eliminating all genuine political parties and civil society organisations, he left few mechanisms through which a credible successor could emerge.
Perhaps the worst damage was done by his pioneering of the “post-truth” politics that blighted the world in the first half of the 21st century. Even before Putin, centuries of autocracy had conditioned Russians to have low expectations of their rulers and deep tolerance of their misdeeds. The public’s apathetic cynicism was cultivated by his “political technologists”, such as Vladislav Surkov and Dmitry Kiselyov.
Their strategy focused on convincing people that all politicians were equally dishonest but that the tsar would at least look after Russia’s interests as well as his own. While this approach served Putin well, it was a tragedy for his country. His propagandists erased the concept of objective truth and instead, as they put it, “created realities”. This left the people ill-equipped to exercise reasoned political choice and easy prey for the succession of even worse despots who followed Putin.
The tsar’s aggressive foreign policy meant Russia’s collapse attracted little sympathy from the outside world. For a time in the late 2010s, he gloried in his revival of Moscow’s global influence through military interventions in Ukraine, Syria and the Baltic states. But the tactic failed when it became clear that the Kremlin had no plan beyond mischief-making to attract US attention and distract the domestic audience from their troubles. Nato’s rapid, forceful military response reversed Russia’s incursions to the alliance’s member states and the west imposed tighter sanctions on Putin’s associates. At home, anger rose over the unrecognised sacrifice of soldiers fighting in unacknowledged wars.
The final collapse of Putin’s attempt to reassert Moscow’s global power came when US President Donald Trump was inspired by a tweet he read about Richard Nixon and struck a surprise grand bargain with China. The world’s two largest powers subsequently dominated global governance and Russia was sidelined by its former Chinese ally.
History has exposed Putin as a bad tsar who did significant long-term damage to his country’s economy, society and international standing.
The writer is a former diplomat now based in Switzerland