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UNIVERSITY PARK, PA. -- Sitting on the stage of the Sutliff Auditorium in the Lewis Katz Building on Wednesday evening, New York Times correspondent Steven Lee Myers painted a picture of Vladimir Putin as a man who views himself as a bulwark against disorder and chaos.
Myers—author of an acclaimed biography titled The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin—drew on his experiences as a veteran foreign correspondent in Russia and former head of the New York Times Moscow bureau while speaking at the event hosted by the Penn State School of International Affairs and Penn State Law.
In moderating the discussion, SIA director Scott Gartner attempted to pull back the veil on the enigmatic Russian president: What motivates Vladimir Putin, a man seemingly without a true ideology?
“Throughout his political life, what he fears most, to put it simply, maybe even crudely, is mob rule,” Myers said, touching on a theme that would run through the discussion.
In 1996, Putin had seen the mayor of St. Petersburg, his mentor and boss whom he viewed as a man of the utmost integrity, lose an election to his own former first deputy in what Putin saw as an act of betrayal. Before that, Putin had seen protestors descend on the East German secret police—men he respected and worked with as a former KGB operative—after the falling of the Berlin wall. Experiences like these shaped Putin’s conception of democracy, not as a shining ideal, but as a force of unpredictability and chaos.
“You see this over and over with Putin. When there were protests of fraudulent elections in 2011 and people took to the streets, in his mind this was the mob again, assembling outside his door,” Myers said.
For a period of time in the ‘90s, Myers said, Russia had been becoming more democratic, especially under the leadership of Boris Yeltsin, whom Myers regards as a true believer in democracy. But when the time came for him to seek a successor, Russia was going through a tumultuous period of financial and political crisis. Yeltsin looked to Putin, not for his belief in democracy, but as a leader “to preserve the country.” This choice has gradually led Russia down a more and more authoritarian path.
“People look to Putin, including in this country, and say ‘there’s a man who knows what he wants for his country,’ but what does that mean?” Myers said. “In the Cold War, there was the ideology of communism and it stood for something. There’s no ideology in Putinism. I think they’re trying to come up with one, but there’s really not one there.”
Myers discussed many aspects of Russia’s foreign policy, such as the annexation of Crimea and the Syrian intervention, as attempts to maintain a “Russian sphere of influence” and demonstrate the return of Russia to the international stage as a major military player, rather than viewing them as ideological decisions or attempts to reestablish the Soviet Union, as some commentators have suggested.
Rresponding to questions from the audience during a question-and-answer segment, Myers also discussed the strange relationship that Putin and Russia have had with the current U.S. presidential election through disinformation campaigns on the internet (which Myers is not worried about), the hacks of the Democratic National Committee thought to be of Russian origin (which he thinks could happen again), and the pseudo-relationship between Putin and Donald Trump.
“Trump has no relationship with Putin, and he talked for a long time like he did,” Myers said. “[At a press conference] Putin gave unprepared remark; he called Trump a very ‘yarky’ guy, which is a Russian term that means colorful or flamboyant, but can also mean brilliant. Next thing you know, Trump’s saying ‘he called me a genius!’”
Myers concluded the event by holding a book signing in the lobby of the Katz Building, where he continued to answer questions and discuss Putin with the attendees who lined up to speak with him. Penn State Law LL.M. student Somyashree was among those at the book signing, and she said the event gave her a much deeper understanding of Putin and Russian interests than she was likely to find elsewhere.
“As students here of law and international affairs, it’s very important for us to know what’s happening globally,” Somyashree said. “Events like this cultivate a global awareness, which helps you grow not only as a student, but as a person.”