Inside the mind of Vladimir Putin
September 21st, 2013
12:55 PM ET

Inside the mind of Vladimir Putin

By CNN Foreign Affairs Correspondent Jill Dougherty

Sociologist Olga Kryshtanovskaya is used to getting into people’s heads.

She’s an expert on Russia’s elites and its political system. For 23 years she headed the Department of Elite Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences and now is director general of the research center “Kryshtanovskaya Laboratory.”

When Kryshtanovskaya looks at Russian President Vladimir Putin, she sees an “average Joe” - make that an “average Ivan.”

“Putin,” she says, “reflects the middle statistical opinion of the average Russian, and what he says is sometimes contradictory, but that is what the majority of Russians think.”

In his first term, she recalls, Putin said the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century was the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

“Every resident of Russia would subscribe to that,” she says.

It’s not that Russians want Communism back, although some do, but the whole structure of life and secure social programs fell apart along with the USSR. So, when people in the West reacted with horror to Putin’s statement, many Russians were surprised, Kryshtanovskaya says, “Everything Putin says is very understandable to us, but not very understandable to you – and vice versa,” she says. “What the American president does, when he starts a war, when he sends troops, when Vietnam begins, Afghanistan, Iraq, etc., we can’t understand it.”

Russians who lived during the Soviet Union grew up with government-inspired anti-Americanism. “It’s one of the pillars of our country’s ideology,” she says. “It was formed a long time ago and was carefully instilled in people by the Soviet leaders. Why are there problems? ‘It’s those people, the evil Americans, who are at fault, who make things worse for us.’ It’s an ideological cliché.”

Now, Kryshtanovskaya says, “When Putin thinks of how he can justify his policies, it’s faster to recall this old enemy than to create a new one. This external enemy is a factor of the internal politics of Russia, as strange as that may seem.”

Russian presidents that Americans like are the ones Russians don’t like, she says. “Gorbachev, whom the whole world loved, Russians didn’t like. It’s the mentality. Putin acts according to our traditional mentality which is to respect only strength. That one has to be quite aggressive, that you have to demonstrate crude power so that people will respect you. We even have that expression – “when people fear you it means people respect you.”

Putin’s way of behaving, she says, is an attempt to say “’We are a great power, you have to fear us, we have nuclear weapons, etc.’ That is our mentality.”

Vladimir Putin’s recent op-ed in the New York Times was addressed to the American people, but Kryshtanovskaya believes he was talking to Russians, too.

“‘If you think that heaven on Earth is the United States, that everything is ideal and wonderful there – No! It’s not that way. They have problems.’ So it was an attempt to lower America a bit and boost yourself.”

But today’s Russians, this sociologist says, are split down the middle.

“We have an ideological war in Russia,” she explains. “The opposition, and Putin’s people, they’re two different fronts. One says ‘We want democracy and everything should be the way it is in the West.’ They are the ‘Westerners.’ And people who are for Putin – they once were called ‘Slavophiles’ – they say ‘No, we are a separate civilization. We have our own special path, for us the West is not the way.’”

Kryshtanovskaya sees these divisions, as well, in other developing countries such as China.

Putin also is an example of courage for Russians, she says. “Putin says ‘See? I’m not afraid to speak the truth, even to the most powerful country in the world. We are a very influential country. Look at our proposal on Syria, which is being welcomed.’”

Some Russians, she says, are trying to make fun of the fact that President Barack Obama, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, wants to start a war. They’re playing on that, she says. “It’s we who are saving the world from a new war.”

It’s a constant verbal battle, she says, with some aggression from Russia, and some from Obama, as well. For example, when he called Putin a “schoolboy.”

“That was insulting,” she says. “It’s like a game of ping pong.”

If the framework for destroying Syria’s chemical weapons, proposed by Russia, works out, Kryshtanovskaya says, Russia will jump on it as a PR opportunity.

“’We are great! Hooray! We are geniuses! We found a way out. We are an influential country,’ she says. “That is, to strengthen the position of Putin and the government.”

If it doesn’t work out, it it’s not a tragedy, she says.

“We can say ‘Those bad Americans. How terrible they are. Wherever they go, war follows. They’re starting a new war. We tried. We did everything we could. We were the power of good, but the power of evil didn’t listen to us.’”

Putin, she is convinced, “is going to play on the fact that we are great – and Americans are the enemy.”

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