MOSCOW, Russia — Russian President Vladimir Putin ideologically portrays Russia as steadfastly resistant to what he perceives as Western decadence. It is reflective of his Soviet past and indicative of his domestic and foreign policy decisions.
Putin’s Soviet Past
Putin was born Oct. 7, 1952 in Leningrad, Russia, now known as St. Petersburg. His parents were survivors of the 900-day siege in Leningrad during World War II that claimed 900,000 lives, mainly by starvation. Putin’s older brother, however, died during the siege.
Betrayal was the theme of that dark time in Russian history. Dictator Joseph Stalin’s call for Leningrad to hold out during the siege is perceived by some as betrayal. Residents betrayed one another during the siege, both children and parents turning their backs on each other. Abandonment and cannibalism were common.
Psychological trauma affected the city long after the siege ended. Betrayal was both an awful transgression and a method of survival. Putin was impacted by the betrayal entrenched in Leningrad.
Putin revealed that very few people are close to him. He maintained that those people would never betray him and he would never betray them. Putin sought protection under what Russians refer to as a “roof.” The roof is a code to remain loyal to one’s own and stand united against the rest of the world.
Putin became a KGB agent after he completed his education in law. The KGB security agency was the eyes and ears of all activity in the Soviet Union. Anya Schmemann of the Council on Foreign Relations revealed how closely the KGB watched every move her family made. She said that the KGB tapped their phones, bugged their apartment and opened their mail.
Betrayal was not an issue for Putin because the KGB had total awareness and an unforgiving code. The code maintained that traitors would always be traitors and must be punished to the fullest extent. The KGB was Putin’s roof.
Putin perceived the collapse of the Soviet Union as a devastating blow to Russia. BBC News reported in 2005 that he described the event as the 20th century’s “greatest geopolitical catastrophe.”
Many Russian liberals do not find comfort in Putin being a former KGB agent or his romanticizing of the Soviet Union. The authoritarianism associated with the KGB and Putin’s Soviet ideals have influenced his policies both domestically and internationally.
According to Putin, Russia is one of few truly sovereign states because it acts on its self-interests and does not yield its affairs to outside interference. Putin’s assertion is the manifestation of the roof code.
Russia continues to resist the external pressure against its anti-gay laws and human rights abuse. Its controversial gay and lesbian propaganda legislation and lack of human rights reveal illiberal qualities in the ideology behind how Putin governs Russia.
Poverty and homelessness are another problem in Russian society that has not been adequately addressed. Billionaires possess 35 percent of Russia’s wealth, which ranks Russia close to the world’s highest for income inequality levels. The Sochi Olympics were funded by $50 billion that hid the local poverty from view and demolished the homes of 2,000 families without compensation.
The North Caucasus has been described as the most impoverished and violent part of Russia. Sochi villages have little access to running water and gas and the unemployment rates are as high as 50 percent. Putin does not have enough resources in place to aid the poor. St. Petersburg, his hometown, only has one homeless shelter with just 52 beds available in a city where 70,000 homeless people must sleep outdoors. An estimated 1,000 homeless people die annually.
Russia and prominent Western states are estranged, which is mostly an intended strategy on Putin’s part. Western leaders have distanced themselves from Putin as well. Most notably, President Barack Obama of the United States cancelled his visit to Moscow in September 2013. Washington disapproved of the asylum Russia granted Edward Snowden.
Putin was further frozen out by the Western states in late January, when he was not warmly received at the European Union-Russia summit in Brussels. Europe disapproved of Russia obstructing potential relations between Ukraine and the European Union.
Putin further isolated himself when he sent Russian troops to invade Crimea, a Ukrainian Peninsula with a predominantly Russian-speaking population, many of whom have shown support to the Russian occupation of the region. Local residents in Crimea stood outside the Crimean parliament building waving Soviet flags.
Ukraine is vital to Russian national interests. Putin had a crucial alliance with ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and planned to form a customs union with the Yanukovych-led Ukraine as a member state. Russia uses a Crimean port for its Black Sea Fleet and Ukrainian pipelines to transport half of the natural gas it supplies Western Europe.
Putin carried out his actions in Crimea despite Western condemnation and threats of sanctions. Isolation may be ineffective against Putin’s policies because the Russian national objective and identity are not based on the comments or actions of the international community. Moreover, international problem-solving is not a top priority on the Russian foreign policy agenda.