Vladimir Putin emerged from the obscurity of a secret agent’s life when called to Moscow in 1997 by power-hungry oligarchs in search of a pliable accomplice to plant in the Kremlin. In little more than two years, Putin was president of Russia and embarked on a mission to tame the wealthy cabal that hired him and to reinvigorate the debilitated nation.
At once aloof and ubiquitous, Putin has turned an inscrutable face to fellow Russians and to the outside world. He appears cold and calculating, indifferent to contrary opinions of political opponents at home or abroad. Yet he casts himself as a man of action, a derring-do figure flying planes, roaring around on motorcycles, hunting big game. In an article two years ago about a Russian comic strip hero called Superputin, Wired magazine called the Russian president’s publicity stunts a “weird and wonderful collection of personality-cult kitsch.”
In last year’s “The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin,” journalist Masha Gessen describes Putin as an enigmatic thug at the head of a criminal empire, neither his goals nor his tactics clear to those who examine a legacy that may unfold for another decade or more.
In the newly released “Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin” (Brookings Institution Press), Russian scholars Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy unveil the Russian leader as a composite character who dons one of at least six personas as needs dictate.
Putin is the Statist, committed to restoring Russia to its superpower-era greatness; the History Man, convinced his personal destiny is intertwined with Russia’s; the Survivalist, born into a Leningrad family that suffered the life-altering deprivations of the Nazi siege; the Outsider, with neither governing experience nor elite connections; the Free Marketeer, rectifying the ruinous economic policies of the Soviet era; and the Case Officer, the methodical agent applying his tradecraft to a new mission, the details of which only he is privy.
Hill, a chronicler of evolving Russia since the mid-1980s, talked with The Times about the picture of Putin that has emerged from more than a quarter of a century of research into the man and the country that brought him to power.
Q: Putin claims to be representing people demanding the “restoration of the state.” Is that likely to mean restoration of authoritarian rule, to suppress the instability that people see as a byproduct of dissent?
Hill: Whether that was his intent at the beginning is a question, but it is certainly where it has ended up. The system Putin has created is a very personalized part of Russian political culture. That personalization involves one central institution and one central figure, with few checks and balances. The legislature is a helpmate of executive power rather than a check against it. There is a propensity toward authoritarianism.
Q: In describing Putin as History Man, you say he embraces what he refers to as “useful history.” Does he see paying respect to the values of the Imperial and Soviet eras as enhancing his authority?
Hill: His stress is all on continuity and the eternal existence of the Russian state. He sees the past as something you can pick from and put together a future. He sees no black spots in Russian history. His view is the antithesis of glasnost and perestroika -- something of continuing inherent value that you embrace all of and move forward.
Q: What historical figure do you think has had the most influence on Putin? Who does he emulate?
Hill: The person he has selected for himself is [early 20th century Prime Minister Pyotr] Stolypin. He had statues erected to him on the 100th anniversary of his  assassination. It is from Stolypin that Putin gets the idea of putting the state back on its feet and keeping it there. Stolypin had a far-ranging program of reforms, and he was the last prime minister who could have taken Russia in a different way than the revolution. Stolypin’s repressions after the 1905 revolution and his tendency to go hard after opposition and revolutionary movements is something that can be seen in the way Putin deals with political unrest.
Q: Putin was able to bring down the debt-to-GDP ratio significantly during his first two terms. How important was that to average Russian citizens to be free of the controls of the International Monetary Fund and other Western institutions?
Hill: This has been his major accomplishment, and it wasn’t a given just because of high oil prices. We’ve seen time and time again, as in Venezuela, that when a government has a windfall, the tendency is to spend it. Putin did something unusual -- he paid down debt and created one of the world’s largest sovereign wealth funds. Putin is making sure Russia has its sovereignty by being solvent.
Q: Putin has kept the lid on Muslim separatist movements in the Caucasus during his tenure. Will he continue to divert resources to military suppression rather than let the non-ethnic Russian periphery secede or have autonomy?
Hill: This is a really important issue for Putin. There is no way on his watch that he is going to allow a return of separatism. He made it a singular goal when he came into the presidency in 1999 not to allow [an independent] Chechnya to become an issue again. And he’s going to make sure other republics don’t go in that direction. The [2014 Winter] Olympics are in Sochi, and he is going to make sure they are a success and not undermined by insurgent movements.
Q: What about Putin appeals to his supporters? As a self-styled “outsider,” is he able to put distance between himself and the mistakes of previous leaderships? Does he establish kinship with the vast majority of Russians who are outside of the wealth and power circles?
Hill: He presents himself when communing with the narod [the people] as not being one of those Moscow elites. It’s rather ironic after 12 years in the Kremlin, but he has managed to create that image of himself. While he has definitely grown stale as a politician, with less active support nowadays, I do think the foreign policy element still resonates well. He throws Russia’s weight around, leaping to the defense of Russian interests. He always comes out swinging to respond to any insult, like the Magnitsky Act, any instance where Russia is being put down. Russians see that Putin is at least feared if not ultimately respected on the international stage.
Q: Is Putin likable? He seems so aloof from afar, and everything you cover in the book paints him as calculating and opportunistic. Does he have friends with whom he engages on a more informal level?
Hill: He’s hard to like from a distance. He seems very cold, which is not surprising after so many years in the KGB, learning how to control himself at all times. But he appears to be likable by some people. He is quick to make fun of things, to get into a back and forth. People do find him funny and engaging. But in a situation like that, as leader, your personal life shrinks down and down and down to an ever narrower circle. We didn’t get into his family life in the book, as we just don’t know anything about them.
Q: You portray Putin as a pragmatist, not an ideologue, someone who will do what he has to do “in service of the ends he has laid out.” What are those ends? What is he trying to do?
Hill: It’s really rather general. He is restoring the state, a Russia that holds its own internationally and domestically. It’s not the Russia he’s got today, with simmering opposition movements and protests. He’s looking for social stability and to make Russia one of the major economic powers.
Q: When Putin was asked what he wants to leave as a legacy, he retorted that no one should be planning his funeral quite yet. Does that reveal or confirm what many have suspected since his decision to go for a third presidential term, that he expects to be president for life?
Hill: He is obviously someone who wants to go out on his own terms. He doesn’t want to go out in a box. But he has made it difficult for himself to make a graceful exit. He tries to make himself the indispensable man who has to be everywhere at once. That could be his undoing. There are too many things that can go wrong, and he may not be able to deal with all of them.
His comments on Margaret Thatcher’s demise were very telling. He described her as a tough lady who made tough decisions. He didn’t embrace Thatcherism and would never take on unions, but she did a lot to put Britain back on its feet, as he sees himself doing with Russia. She shared his idea that someone was in power for the long term and needed to be unbending. Putin said she was “not one for U-turns.” It was high praise, and almost like he was eulogizing himself.