Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin and Donald J. Trump are locked in a humid political embrace, which seems, at first glance, unlikely. Putin grew up in postwar Leningrad. In the dismal courtyard of his building on Baskov Lane, a hangout for local thugs and drunks, he and his childhood friends pursued their favorite pastime: chasing rats with sticks. His father, a wounded veteran, beat him with a belt. Putin’s way up, his dream, was to volunteer for the K.G.B. Donald Trump encountered few rats on his lawn in Jamaica Estates. Soft, surly, and academically uninterested, Donald was disruptive in class—so much so that his father, a real-estate tycoon of the outer boroughs, shipped him off to military school when he was thirteen. He did not set out to serve his country; he set out to multiply his father’s fortune. “When I look at myself in the first grade and I look at myself now, I’m basically the same,” Trump has said. “The temperament is not that different.”
Decades later, Trump has praised Putin as a forceful leader, a “better leader” than Barack Obama; Putin hardly conceals his hope that Trump will win election to the White House. What would be more advantageous for Putin than to see the United States elect an incompetent leader who just so happens to be content to leave the Russian regime to its own devices, particularly in Europe? Even as non-Democrats have variously described their own nominee as a “con,” a “bully,” and a “borderline” 9/11 conspiracy theorist, Putin has acted as a surrogate from afar, dropping clear hints at his preference, slyly declaring Trump “bright” and “talented without doubt.”
The Times has reported that hackers who broke into the Democratic National Committee’s e-mail trove—a cyber version of the Watergate burglary—were likely agents of the Russian Federation. We shall see if that suspicion holds up. But what’s undisputed is that the gathering of kompromat—compromising material—is a familiar tactic in Putin’s arsenal. For years, the Russian intelligence services have filmed political enemies in stages of sexual and/or narcotic indulgence, and have distributed the grainy images online. Last April, state TV broadcast a black-and-white film of Mikhail Kasyanov, Putin’s former Prime Minister but now a potential opposition leader, exchanging carnal favors and playing “Name That Tune” with his political assistant, Natalya.
Even if the Russian government is not responsible for the hack on the D.N.C., Putin’s affinity for Trump is clear. Some part of it may be a matter of kindred temperament. Just as Trump talks ominously about Mexican “rapists” and tens of thousands of “illegal immigrants ... roaming free” in the land, Putin won early popularity by vowing to dispense with terrorists from the Caucasus: “We will ice them in their shithouses.” Trump is, after all, a kind of parody of Putin: the bluster, the palaces. As the historian Timothy Snyder puts it, “Putin is the real-world version of the person Trump pretends to be on television.”
The fellow-feeling between the two is complex, but it is not hard to see who gets the better of whom. Trump sees strength and cynicism in Putin and hopes to emulate him. Putin sees in Trump a grand opportunity. He sees in Trump weakness and ignorance, a confused mind. He has every hope of exploiting him.
Putin’s view of the world—of the future of Russia and its increasingly dangerous confrontation with the West—is rooted in the fall of the Soviet Union. His behavior and his resentments, to say nothing of his shrewd foray into our current electoral follies, are based entirely on that event.
Twenty-five summers ago, Communist ideology and the Soviet Union itself teetered on the brink of nonexistence. On the morning of July 23, 1991, two newspaper articles appeared that, each in its own way, signalled the end.
A liberal paper called Nezavisimaya Gazeta (The Independent Newspaper) published a leak of a new draft platform for the Communist Party. The draft rejected Marxist-Leninist ideology in favor of European-style social democracy, and it “unconditionally” condemned the “crimes” of the Stalin regime, which “broke and maimed the lives of millions of people, whole nations.” The draft had the endorsement of Mikhail Gorbachev, who was still the Party’s General Secretary, but of no more than a third of the Central Committee.
That same morning, Sovyetskaya Rossiya (Soviet Russia), the most prominent daily outlet for orthodox Communists and hardcore Russian nationalists, published a front-page call to arms called “Slovo k Narodu” (“A Word to the People”). The appeal, signed by leading figures in the military, the security apparatus, and the right-wing intelligentsia, accused Gorbachev and more radical reformers of leading the Soviet Union to ruin. Only if the “healthy forces” of state power united and acted swiftly could “humiliation” and “fratricidal war” be averted.
“An enormous, unforeseen calamity has taken place,” it read. “The Motherland, our country, a great power, given to us by nature, with its glorious ancestors, is perishing, breaking apart, falling into darkness. And this collapse is taking place with our silent acquiescence and tolerance. Brothers, we are late in waking to this, late in observing the misery when our home is already aflame in every corner. We must extinguish this blaze not with water but with our tears and blood.”
The florid apocalyptic language was distinctly that of one of the signatories, Aleksander Prokhanov, the editor of a reactionary newspaper called Dyen’ (The Day). Prokhanov, a third-rate novelist, was closely connected with the Army and the intelligence services. He was widely known around Moscow as “the Nightingale of the General Staff.” For many months, Prokhanov’s paper had given vent to the anger of important figures in the Soviet hierarchy. At a certain point, these men no longer cared that they were speaking in defiance of Gorbachev. They saw a world coming to an end, and with it their positions, their privileges. In order to preserve at least the rudiments of the old order, they were prepared to defy Gorbachev and anyone else they judged to be betraying them. In one interview, published in 1991, Oleg Baklanov, Gorbachev’s assistant in charge of the military-industrial complex, told Prokhanov, “The bones of the defense industry are breaking.” The Soviet Union was weak, and losing its capacities as a superpower. Prokhanov replied that perhaps, in order to avoid the collapse of Soviet power, “one should spit upon the legal technicalities and impose a dictatorship.”
These hints that the conservative forces in the Soviet leadership were emboldened and planning some sort of putsch against Gorbachev did not come as a shock to the first Bush Administration. As early as July, 1989, Eduard Shevardnadze, Gorbachev’s Foreign Minister, had told Secretary of State James Baker, “In time there could be danger of civil war and dictatorship.” The C.I.A. did not think a putsch was necessarily imminent, but with every month there were broad indications—then more booming ones. In December, 1990, Shevardnadze resigned his post, declaring publicly, “A dictatorship is coming.”
And in June, 1991, just weeks before the publication of “A Word to the People,” Gavriil Popov, a liberal and the mayor of Moscow, went to Spaso House, the residence of American Ambassador Jack Matlock, and told him that a coup was being planned. Matlock sent an emergency “flash cable” to Baker, who, in turn, told Bush; the Americans also informed both Gorbachev and the Russian President, Boris Yeltsin. Gorbachev, who had grown accustomed to a more or less permanent state of crisis and embattlement, somehow did not take the warning seriously. This was a mistake.
On August 18, 1991, while vacationing at his seaside villa in Ukraine, Gorbachev received unexpected visitors from the leadership in Moscow. They informed him that he was being “temporarily” stripped of his authority, until “everything returned to normal.” Gorbachev’s communications were cut off, and he and his family were put under virtual house arrest.
The next morning, state television broadcast a loop of Tchaikovsky’s ballet “Swan Lake.” Tanks rolled into the center of the capital. The people of the Soviet Union were informed that Gorbachev had “stepped down” and yielded power to the ominously named State Committee for the State of Emergency because of “problems related to his health.” Everyone understood the meaning: the coup had begun.
Putin, for his part, experienced the events of the Soviet decline and fall from afar. When the Berlin Wall was crumbling, in 1989, he was a mid-level intelligence officer in Dresden, and as protesters arrived at the gates of his offices he helped shovel countless secret documents into a roaring furnace. “The work we did was no longer necessary,” he told an interviewer, years later. “What was the point of writing, recruiting, and procuring information? Nobody at Moscow Center was reading our reports.” Fearing that the building would be overrun, Lieutenant Colonel Putin called Moscow for orders. But, he said, “Moscow was silent.”
“I had the feeling then that the country was no more, that it had disappeared,” Putin recalled. “It had become clear that the Soviet Union was sick. It was a deadly, incurable disease called paralysis—a paralysis of power.”
By August, 1991, Putin was back in Leningrad, working for Anatoly Sobchak, the city’s liberal mayor, as a K.G.B.-affiliated aide. The coup lasted only three days. The plotters failed to follow the standard putsch handbook. A coup, Lenin instructed, must “first seize the telegraph,” the means of communication. They didn’t. There were renegade reports all over the media, rallying the resistance. The coup’s leaders were comically disorganized, often drunk, and, above all, unwilling to shed the blood necessary to overcome popular resistance. Just as Gorbachev refused to open fire in the capitals of Eastern and Central Europe to retain the “near Empire,” the coup plotters lacked the cruelty of their Stalin-era heroes. They could not bear to unleash the tanks on their countrymen or even arrest Yeltsin, who bravely rallied the forces of opposition.
Putin reacted to the coup with ambivalence. Having sided with Sobchak through the ordeal, helping to insure his security, he was at a loss when the drama ended. Where would he go? The August events, he said, “tore my life apart. . . . There were no prospects, and in general it was clear what would happen with the intelligence service.” Putin claims that he resigned from the intelligence services after the coup, though he is fond of saying, with evident conviction, “There is no such thing as a former K.G.B. man.”
By Christmas, 1991, the Soviet Union itself was a memory. Gorbachev, who struggled to form even a loosely confederated union out of the fifteen Soviet republics, blamed Yeltsin and the leaders of Kazakhstan, Ukraine, and Belarus for plotting illegally to dissolve the bloc. But the truth was that, by that time, the union itself was a mass of internal uprisings for independence—first in the smallest republics, the Baltic states, and then in the Slavic heart of the union, Ukraine and Russia.
Putin was less ambivalent about the collapse of the Soviet Union. In 2005, he called it “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the past century.” Although it was Yeltsin who brought Putin to Moscow, Putin has expressed barely concealed contempt for the nineteen-nineties, the Yeltsin era, as a period of unrelieved chaos, theft, and humiliation.
There are many worthwhile books on the post-Soviet period and Putin’s ascent. David Hoffman meticulously describes the rise of the new rich in the nineties in “The Oligarchs,” and Steven Lee Myers’s “The New Tsar” is the most solid book we have on Putin. Mikhail Zygar’s “All the Kremlin’s Men: Inside the Court of Vladimir Putin” is an entertaining look at Kremlin politics in the “Game Change” mode. “Opposing Forces,” a book-length dialogue between two dissidents—one Polish, Adam Michnik; the other Russian, Alexei Navalny—is a good supplement to the best of the recent surveys: Ben Judah’s “Fragile Empire,” Peter Baker and Susan Glasser’s “Kremlin Rising,” and Arkady Ostrovsky’s “The Invention of Russia.”
But the nonfiction volume that has done the most to deepen the emotional understanding of Russia during and after the collapse of the Soviet Union of late is Svetlana Alexievich’s oral history “Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets.” Alexievich is sixty-eight and lives in Minsk, the capital of Belarus. She won the Nobel Prize in Literature last year. She is hardly pro-Putin. Like many in the urban intelligentsia, she supported the anti-Kremlin street demonstrations that took place between 2011 and 2013. She views Putin as a dangerous autocrat who chokes dissent. “I have no love for the Russia of Beria, Stalin, and Putin,” she has said.
But Alexievich is interesting less for her analysis of Putin’s political stratagems than for her profound presentation of Russian voices: the psychological disorientation after decades of Soviet rule and Communist ideology; the widespread outrage toward the business élite who grabbed up state enterprises at cut-rate prices; the sense of loss and humiliation after realizing that a once great power was now diseased and fallen.
Putin’s hold over public opinion unquestionably depends on his ruthless stifling of dissent and the media. But he also appeals to something that is harder to quantify, something deep in the psychology of a people just twenty-five years distant from the fall of the Soviet imperium. Putin gains tremendous plaudits by refusing to take moral or political direction from the West. He has taken to lecturing the West for its sins and hypocrisies—in Vietnam, in Iraq, in Libya, and elsewhere—its “moral bankruptcy,” its godlessness. Bravado became his way of appealing to his own people. His military actions in Crimea and Syria are meant not only to display a geopolitical toughness but also to rouse a Russian people who were humbled and insulted by the weakness that followed the Gorbachev and Yeltsin eras. Many Russians are, despite the censorship of televised news, quite well informed, and they know that Putin is hardly their Lincoln. And yet he speaks to the grievances and indignities of many millions of Russians; he speaks to the restoration of Russian self-respect. This appeal is hard, given Putin’s brutality and his cynical disdain for individual rights and democratic aspirations, to understand from a distance. People in the West, Alexievich told the Times recently, “do not understand that there is a collective Putin, consisting of some millions of people who do not want to be humiliated by the West. There is a little piece of Putin in everyone.”
It is safe to say that, on a strictly intellectual level, Donald Trump understands little of this. In recent weeks, he has made it plain that he is ignorant of the basics of contemporary Russian and geostrategic reality. He has declared NATO “obsolete” and has suggested that he might do away with Article 5, which promises that an attack on one member state is an attack on all. He makes the threat not because he is interested in reassessing anything as complex as global-security strategy but, rather, because not every member state is forking over its dues.
Trump is muddled in the essentials. He has admitted that he doesn’t read much. It shows. On Sunday, in an interview with George Stephanopoulos, Trump said that in his Administration Putin would never send forces into Ukraine. When Stephanopoulos reminded Trump that “they’re already there,” the candidate forged ahead like a school kid bullshitting his way through an oral exam that he had not bothered to prepare for.
“O.K., well, he’s there in a certain way,” Trump said. “But I’m not there. You have Obama there. And, frankly, that whole part of the world is a mess under Obama, with all the strength that you’re talking about and all of the power of NATO and all of this.”
When, on “Morning Joe,” he described Putin as “a leader, unlike what we have in this country,” Joe Scarborough pushed back, saying that Putin “kills journalists that don’t agree with him.” This seemed not to faze Trump. “Well, I think our country does plenty of killing also, Joe,” he replied. “You know, there’s a lot of stuff going on in the world right now, Joe. A lot of killing going on and a lot of stupidity.”
Some analysts have said that Trump’s affection for Putin is based mainly on his own, and his circle’s, economic interests. Paul Manafort, his campaign manager, profited immensely as an adviser to Viktor Yanukovich, the pro-Russian (and now deposed) leader of Ukraine. (Manafort has also worked as a lobbyist for other dictators, including Mobutu Sese Seko, of Zaire, and Ferdinand Marcos, of the Philippines.) Carter Page, one of Trump’s foreign-policy advisers, has longstanding ties to Gazprom, a pillar of Russia’s energy industry. Donald Trump, Jr., has made it plain that the family has pursued opportunities in Russia for decades. “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets,” he said, in a speech in 2008 to a real-estate conference, according to the Washington Post. “We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.” The public would have a more detailed sense of this if Trump were ever to release his tax returns.
One of the countless lies that Trump has told over the years is that he is personally acquainted with Putin. In 2013, while he was promoting the Miss Universe contest in Moscow, he told MSNBC that he had a “relationship” with Putin. In 2014, at a National Press Club lunch in Washington, Trump remarked that he had spoken “indirectly and directly” with Putin, “who could not have been nicer.” In fact, as Trump has now had to admit, the two never met.
No matter. Trump is just pleased that Putin has returned his compliments. “It is always a great honor,” he has said, “to be so nicely complimented by a man so highly respected within his own country and beyond.”
In Moscow, officials around Putin have echoed the idea that Trump’s election would be welcome and would bring about better, less stressful, relations with the United States. Alexei Pushkov, the chairman of the international-affairs committee in the State Duma, has said that, because Trump has stated that the people of Crimea prefer to live under Russian rule, then “Trump has shown himself to be far more democratic” than Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. Alexander Dugin is a nationalist intellectual whose pronouncements often represent the darker id of the Russian policy élite. Recently, he wrote of his disdain for Obama (“the black Muslim Democrat”) and Clinton (“quite annoying”) and his amused admiration for the Republican nominee. Trump, Dugin writes, is “crude America without the gloss of the globalist élite. He is sometimes disgusting and violent, but he is what he is. He is true America. . . . Vote for Trump and see what will happen.”
Putin may get high marks for leadership from Trump, but he knows that his own country is in a state of crisis: low global energy prices, Western sanctions, an economy that seems incapable of healthy growth. And, in his view, what is bad for the United States is good for Russia.
Putin’s first years in office were relatively charmed. Even as he denounced the colossal property grab of the nineties, Russia began, in the early aughts, to see the benefits of those changes. The G.D.P. climbed steadily. As energy prices soared, so, too, did the over-all economy, and not only for the super-wealthy. Even as Putin enriched his circle of intelligence officers and friends from St. Petersburg, creating a kleptocracy widely known as Kremlin, Inc., he was also able to erase budget deficits, build a surplus, pay salaries and pensions for working people, and help engender a new urban middle class.
Putin was not nearly as anti-Western then as he is now. He notably called George W. Bush quickly to offer support after 9/11, and even talked about future Russian membership in NATO. “Russia is part of the European culture,” he said in 2000. “And I cannot imagine my own country in isolation from Europe and what we often call the civilized world. So it is hard for me to visualize NATO as an enemy.”
After NATO absorbed seven new countries in the region, in 2004, and after witnessing the rebellions in his midst, from Kiev to Tbilisi, Putin adopted a more resentful attitude toward the West. He felt that the hand he had extended to Washington had been rejected, disdained. He reminded the public that the Clinton Administration had taken advantage of Yeltsin, bombing Kosovo and Belgrade. He was furious that the coalition attack on Libya did not merely stop a potential slaughter in Benghazi but ended up toppling Muammar Qaddafi and creating even more disorder in the region. He admonished the West for treating Russia as a “vassal” rather than as a powerful global actor.
Putin had come to believe that the West was behaving heedlessly abroad; it was also fomenting internal dissent. And this is Putin’s singular anxiety. He fears a chaotic uprising, an Arab Spring or an Orange Revolution on Red Square, outside the Kremlin walls. In 2011, he accused Hillary Clinton of giving “the signal” that started a wave of anti-Kremlin demonstrations in downtown Moscow. He resented the presence in Moscow of the American Ambassador, Michael McFaul, whom the Kremlin had suspected of trying to push a pro-democracy agenda in Russia since his days as a grad student.
In 2012, Putin returned to the Presidency determined never again to trust the West or the urban middle classes that had protested against him. He used means as aggressive as cyberattacks (in the Baltic states) and old-fashioned invasion (in Ukraine) to subdue independent nations that he considered within his sphere of influence. Putin has also aligned himself with reactionary forces across Europe. His government has loaned money to Marine Le Pen’s nativist party, in France, and has lent support to similarly right-wing forces elsewhere in Europe, like Golden Dawn, in Greece, and Jobbik, in Hungary.
When Putin looks at the Presidential race in the United States, he sees Hillary Clinton, who is hardly likely to dissolve American commitments to NATO. Then he sees Donald Trump, who refuses to accept that Putin kills opponents (“I haven’t seen that”) and who called the Russian leader’s diatribe against American exceptionalism in the Times, three years ago, “a masterpiece.”
In “Putin’s Puppet,” in Slate, Franklin Foer suggests, with the benefit of original reporting, that one reason for Trump’s attitude has to do with his business ambitions. Perhaps. He is also right when he dismisses the cartoonish notion that, somehow, Trump is a “Manchurian candidate.” But it is also quite clear that Putin has an interest in Trump’s success.
“Putin wants the United States to be taken up with its own problems, and forget about things like Ukraine and Crimea,” Sergei Parkhomenko, an activist and broadcaster for Echo of Moscow, told me. “It seems to him that, if the United States elects Trump, all of America will be taken up for at least a year trying to ‘digest’ him.
“But there is a second reason,” Parkhomenko continued. “Putin is convinced that absolutely everything in this world is done for money. He is a religious fanatic, and money is his god. With money, it is possible to solve any problem, buy any interlocutor. He bought the Olympic Games, he bought the World Cup. It will be easy to deal with Trump. He won’t need to use words in negotiations, only figures. When they don’t agree, it will only be necessary to find the right price.”
Vladimir Putin is a cunning and cynical reader of his adversaries. He notices that Trump does not know the difference between the Quds Force and the Kurds, or what the “nuclear triad” is; that his analysis of Brexit was based in part on what might be good for his golf courses in Britain; that his knowledge of world affairs is roughly that of someone who subscribes to a daily newspaper but doesn’t always have time to get to it. Overwhelmed with his own problems at home, Putin sees the ready benefit in having the United States led by an unlettered narcissist who believes that geostrategic questions are as easy to resolve as a real-estate closing. Putin knows a chump when he sees one.