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Putin: Tracing the president's political metamorphosis

Juri Rescheto in Riga
March 16, 2024

Over his 24 years in power, Russian President Vladimir Putin has grown progressively anti-Western. How did this shift happen? Two prominent Russians provide answers.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a wreath-laying ceremony
Does Vladimir Putin intend to rule Russia until his death?Image: Mikhail Metzel/Sputnik/AFP/Getty Images

When Vladimir Putin is — likely —reelected as Russian president this weekend, many people will be asking themselves what to expect from his next term in office. What will Putin do this time? How far will he distance Russia from the European Union and US in the coming six years in power? And how was it possible that hopes for Russian-European rapprochement have been dashed? How could Putin — a leader to which many had pinned great hopes when he rose to power — become so staunchly anti-Western 24 years later?

Vitaly Mansky and Alexander Stefanov, two Russians with two very different backgrounds and a significant age gap, have tried to make sense of these questions. Both are known to millions of Russians.

Mansky, 60, has produced dozens of award-winning documentaries, making him Russia's best-known documentary filmmaker. He got to know Putin personally, producing two films about the Russian president

Filmmaker Vitaly Mansky is seen holding a camera, following Vladimir Putin, in March 2000
Vitaly Mansky (right) got to know Putin personally over the last 24 years and while shooting his latest documentaryImage: Juri Feklistow/ZDF/Arte/dpa/picture alliance

The 24-year-old Stefanov is known for his controversial online presence; he is one of Russia's best-known historians on YouTube. He believes he understands Putin thanks to media reports and his political science studies.

Up close and personal

Mansky was given a behind-the-scenes look at the Kremlin when he shot his 2000 documentary film "Russia — the Beginning." At night, Mansky followed Putin to his private residence and accompanied him to his swimming pool the next morning. During filming, the director got know the president better than almost all other Kremlin officials. Today, Mansky lives in Latvia and has no interest in ever meeting Putin again.

YouTube historian Stefanov, meanwhile, still lives in Russia and dreams of one day meeting Putin in person. He has never known any other Russian leader but Putin.

"A change of power? How does that even work," he jokingly asked. After all, Putin took power in the Kremlin when Stefanov was born.

Stefanov recalls first becoming aware of Putin at the age of 10, when he watched a comedic political television show.

Alexander Stefanov is seen looking into the camera, a bookshelf is visible behind him
Alexander Stefanov's opinion of Putin has grown more negative over the yearsImage: Ekaterina Semkina

"There was an episode with a playful portrayal of the time Putin-Medvedev swapped roles," he said. "I thought how cleverly Putin had managed the whole thing! What a clever guy!"

He was referring to the time when Putin temporarily took on the role of Russian prime minister after his second presidential term. Putin's childhood friend, Dmitry Medvedev, became president in his place, until the two later swapped roles again.

Yet over the years, Stefanov's view of Putin has grown increasingly negative. "I saw him less and less as a human and more and more as a fearless political actor without doubts," he said.

This shift in perception was the result of Russian state propaganda, said Stefanov. "They dehumanized and glorified Putin so that everyone could say: 'He was given to us by God!'"

Putin was Yeltsin's 'antithesis'

Mansky draws on his own personal observations to explain Putin's metamorphosis. He visited the Kremlin before Putin came to power, during the 1990s, when politicians "walked around in azure sweaters and woolen scarves" — a casual dress code that was probably a sign of the liberal policies under Putin's predecessor, Boris Yeltsin.

"The [presidential] elections were held on March 26, 2000, then came the May inauguration and then — whoosh! — the entire atmosphere changed in September," he remembered.

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Yeltsin, whom Mansky described as an "odd ruler," was followed by Putin, a completely different kind of president. "He was the choice of Yeltsin's liberal circle; Putin was Yeltsin's antithesis, he was young, sporty, liberal," Mansky told DW. "But Putin was also a leader who kept the state [working] in order."

While "Putin played along with this contrast, he had not created this image," said Mansky. "He was merely fulfilling the role that political advisers had prescribed for him. He was very careful not to slip up or stumble."

As president, Putin had sought to appear even more Western and liberal than was required of him, according to Mansky. For example, Putin always referred to the decisions of others and acted very respectfully toward others.

Stefanov believes Putin was fascinated by the West during his early years though later became disillusioned.

"[In the early 2000s] Russia was able to score political points, the economy stabilized and oil prices rose, but Putin was dissatisfied with the post-Cold War international order," Stefanov told DW. Putin, he added, was critical of US hegemony.

Russian President Vladimir Putin whispers to his American counterpart Bill Clinton during a press conference in the year 2000
Was Putin initially fascinated by the West?Image: Sergey Chirikov/EPA/picture alliance

Mansky, on the other hand, believes Putin never liked the West.

"He always had a clear attitude that the West opposed Russia's development, that is his basic understanding," he said.

Under Yeltsin, Russia joined many international institutions. Putin reversed this course and did so consistently, although it was difficult for him. "Every measure Putin took in the following years was aimed at withdrawing Russia from the international community," said Mansky.

Putin's metamorphosis was gradual

Mansky told DW the people who created Putin — his political advisers and Yeltsin's family members — let the situation unfold too soon, with Putin taking on a political life of his own too fast. By early 2004, Mansky added, there was no longer any controlling Putin. 

"He distanced himself from his liberal advisers, and once independent, Putin began to implement his idea of good and evil," said Mansky . "His worldview, his idea of how the state should be structured, never changed. He had to lie to fit in with the liberal doctrine."

Putin's metamorphosis was a logical development, the filmmaker said, though it happened gradually, "just like winter doesn't come immediately. First comes the rain, then the snow and the frost. The question is how long this winter will last."

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Stefanov is certain this political winter, so to speak, won't last long. He is certain Russia can become a more liberal country, even if Putin wins the presidential election and continues to be in power for the next six years. After all, he said, Russia has always been and will continue to be part of European civilization.

"What else is a 24-year-old supposed to believe," a smiling Mansky told DW. "It's good there are some people whose optimism brightens up our gray everyday lives." The filmmaker himself, however, is far less hopeful. "No liberalization, no thaw is possible, loosening the reins is destructive for Russia's system."

Despite their different opinions, Mansky and Stefanov do agree on one thing: they are certain Putin will remain in power until his death.

This article was originally written in German.

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Juri Rescheto DW Riga Bureau Chief