Putin Made Simple

MOSCOW – Three weeks before Russian President Vladimir Putin’s first election victory, in March 2000, his campaign released a book, First Person: Conversations with Vladimir Putin, based on 24 hours of interviews with three journalists. With quotes like “Life is such a simple thing, really,” the book revealed a key belief that would underlie Putin’s leadership style: Simplicity can and must be imposed on a complex world.

This worldview, which today pervades the Russian establishment, was not developed by Putin himself; it was introduced by a think tank established in December 1999 and headed by German Gref, who would later become Economic Development and Trade Minister under Putin. In anticipation of Putin’s victory, Gref’s Center for Strategic Research invited experts to develop two programs – one focused on the economy and the other on public administration reform – based on one fundamental directive: Don’t complicate things.

Fifteen years later, Putin’s ideology, policies, and activities all reflect this obsession with simplification of systems and structures. The separation of powers in government is too inefficient, so the presidency must dominate all other branches. The large number of political parties, each with its own platform, is too complicated, so it must be replaced by a short list of a few accepted parties, with one main (and permanent) representation of power. Freedom of expression facilitates an unproductive cacophony of outrage, so the media must receive clear directives to guide their reporting.

There were also, according to Putin’s regime, too many public institutions performing too many activities with insufficient oversight, so they were made smaller and given specific tasks from a short centralized list of priorities. Multiple higher courts were too difficult to maintain, so a single court replaced them.