It is hard to believe that Vladimir Putin has been in power in Russia for nearly 2 decades now. That seems like a long time. Long enough to call it an “era”. So what will folks say about the Putin era in 50 years?
Of course, that depends on how Putin’s era ends up. Life in Putin’s Russia is not a bed of roses, except for the privileged. Moreover, Putin’s foreign adventures are expensive and risky, and do not offer immediate strategic advantages. So there is reason to be cautious before anointing him Vlad the Great. And yet, despite everything, Putin’s hold on power seems as secure now as ever.
To us, Putin holding onto power for 17 years seems like a long time. By historical standards, however,that is not so. For example, after 17 years on the throne, Henry VIII had not yet even married Anne Boleyn. The great split with Rome was still in the future. He would reign for another two decades after that, for a total of 37 years. And his daughter Elizabeth would reign for 45 yerars.
Using Henry’s reign as a yardstick, one would find Putin’s hold on power weakening in 2037. using Elizabeth’s, 2045. 2045? Putin would be 92 by then.
No doubt, Mr. Putin likes exercising power and, all things being equal, would like to continue doing so for as long as possible. But does he have a vision for the future? If so, what is it?
One would have to be naive in the extreme to expect him to reveal the answer to those questions. But would it be too bold to speculate that he sees himself as the master pupeteer? And btw, would it be too bold to speculate that Donald Trump shares the same self-image? Is that what Trump finds so fascinating about Putin – that he has been able to hold onto power for so long? That like Trump, Putin is the master manipulator? The master of the game?
Let’s assume for a moment that this is the case. Their ability to manipulate depends upon their ability to project images that are larger than life. And indeed, both seem obsessed with that type of thing. Putin is not just the dictator of a regional power. He plays global strategic games with the great powers in Ukraine and Syria. He is not just leader of Russia. Nothing happens of any consequence in Russia without his approval. Trump is not just wealthy. He is a billionaire, and sued an author who claimed otherwise (he did not win that suit). Trump is not just a real estate developer. He is a master negotiator. You can see why, as president, he rages that he cannot claim huge successes in Washington. Something must be wrong — with Washington!
Here is the Donald summing up his presidential record so far to a crowd in Iowa jus the other day
“All we do is win, win”, he told a cheering crowd.
Notice the hint of fantasy in all of this? Perhaps more than just a hint?
I mentioned good old Henry earlier for a reason. The reason is that Henry played pretty much the same game. He was a master of marketing his image. Perhaps he was the first king to realize the power of PR: Indeed, his famous jousting accident in 1536 that rendered him unconscious for 2 hours, caused Anne Boleyn to miscarry a baby boy, and perhaps cost Henry his sanity, was a failed PR stunt to show that he was still virile even though he was already in his 40’s. Ooops!
But there is a difference between what Henry saw around him and what Putin and Trump see now.
Many years after Henry died, the west underwwent an intellecutal revolution. That revolution posited that men did not need the fantasy based trappings of kingly power. They could govern themselves using reason to guide them. This idea seemed absurd at first. But in the 20th century, after great wars, it was accepted in the west as conventional wisdom. I do not claim here that our systems are actually based on reason. I do claim that it is our belief. Our mantra. Our sense of history. Or as Churchill put it
Democracy is the worst form of government, except compared to all of the others.
Is it too much to ask whether Putin and Trump would prefer that this revolution and transition had not happened? Would they be more at home in the type of world that Henry lived in? And if so, and these men are in power, are we at risk of going back to that sort of life?
If so, our path there will be through seduction. The fantasy of the great leader, The so called “man on the white horse”, He who must be obeyed. What holds us back from this seduction? Well, our history, for one thing. We have been there. We have seen where it ends up.