Professor John Boyer’s lecture at Course Hero headquarters unpacks Vladimir Putin’s path to global infamy. How did the Russian leader rise among the ranks?
John Boyer: Hi, everyone! How’s it going? All right. Great. My name is John Boyer, from Virginia Tech, on the other coast. I know the West Coast is the best coast, but we came from the other direction. I was asked to give a talk on anything. I said, “Well, narrow it down a little bit because I lecture about world events, world affairs, international politics. But I also have a whole class just on wine; my true passion is wine.” They said, “No, there’s students here, so we shouldn’t talk about alcohol,” even though I teach my wine class at a university. So you should look out for that—we’ll put that online on Course Hero soon.
I gave them a list of topics. I said, “Well, here’s a bunch of stuff that’s interesting happening in the world right now that students have been asking me about. Pick one of these topics.” The topics that the good folks here at Course Hero picked was Vladimir Putin. What the hell is up with this guy? I think that is actually the phrase, the quote that I turned in. I think the official flyers say something about the rise of authoritarianism and Putin and something on the world stage. I would flip around that just a little bit. I’m going to talk mostly about the rise of Vladimir Putin himself and then kind of finish up with on how that is playing into the rise of authoritarianism that’s happening all over the planet right now.
Interesting times to be alive, is it not? Yes. OK. So here we go. I assume that these good folks want me to do a straight-up legitimate lecture that’s really nice, right into the camera, and I hit all my cues. That’s not going to happen. I’m fairly interactive. I like to talk to people and teach people and answer questions about what they’re interested in as we go along. So you can raise a hand, if you want to be old-school about it, or just yell out a question along the way; I don’t mind getting interrupted at any time for anything all the way through. There is literally 0% chance I will finish this lecture in one hour. I’m one of those professors; it’s simply not going to happen. So we’ll just keep on talking until you get tired and everybody leaves. All right? OK.
This was a brief chat about Russia, rebirth of the Bear here in the twenty-first century. Spasibo is the Russian greeting you used to a new-century, brand-new bear. When I say “bear,” that’s the official mascot of Russia, of course. It really is a brand-new century for Russia after a not-so-great last century. Russia is back to being large and in charge, and that’s why everybody’s really interested in this Vladimir Putin cat lately. It really is because of this one dude that, not just we’re going to have a talk today, but that Russia is back large and in charge and making big waves across international politics in every country everywhere, including ours. Have you heard anything about Russia and America in the last six months? Maybe a little bit? Yeah. It’s kind of a big deal, and it’s all because of this Vladimir dude.
Now, Vladimir is a man of many talents, of many titles, and of many moods. The Internet is replete with Vladimir Putin memes. I will be using as many as I could squeeze into this. There’s Vladimir Putin, Daddimir Putin, Sadimir, Madimir, and this one’s cut off, Gladimir Putin, and of course, Badimir Putin, as in Bad-assimir Putin.
Now, there are many Vladimirs on planet Earth. It’s a fairly common name in Eastern Europe and Russia. Let’s make sure we’re all on the same page about this particular Vladimir. So we’re going to play a quick round of “Know your Vlads.” All right? Know your Vlads. We’ll start with Putin, the man in question—maybe great, but he isn’t The Great. For anyone who studies Russian history, you’ll know that there is a Great, and that is Vladimir the First, Prince of Novgorod, Grand Prince of Kiev, ruler of the Kievan Rus way back in the day, like a thousand years ago—the early stages of this thing we’re going to call the Russian Empire before it even becomes a Russian Empire.
I’d like to point out these little historical tidbits, because it says “Kievan Rus.” Does anybody know where Kiev is? Kiev, that’s a major city. Where’s that at?
Boyer: Ukraine. So the Russian Empire actually starts in what’s now modern-day Ukraine. Have you heard anything about Russia and Ukraine lately? Yeah. Maybe a little bit happening there too, and there’s precedent for that.
The reason I like Vladimir the First so much is, he is the one who looked around at all the world religions as they were building this early empire and said, “Which world religion should us Russians adopt?” It fell down to either Islam or Christianity. They said, “Oh, the Islam one looks pretty good, but we heard that you’re not allowed to drink if you’re Islamic,” so scratch that. We’re going to become Christians. True story. And that’s why Russian is one of the foundation stones of Eastern Orthodox Christianity to this day. Got to have your vodkas.
All right. Back to the Vlads. Now Putin may be scary, but he isn’t the scariest Vlad out there, either. There’s one you might have heard of: Vlad the Impaler, Vlad Dracula. I had to do it! I had to do it first, Stepan—for Stanley; he’s going to be talking about this tomorrow. But Vlad the Third, he’s not even Russian, I believe that’s Romanian. Yeah? The origins of the Dracula legend are this one guy—pretty nasty, scary dude.
Putin is already an important historical figure even before his death. He’s a wildly important person to go down in history. But he isn’t yet the most important Vlad. Does anybody know any other Vladimirs that might take the title of most important historical figure? Maybe this dude you’ve heard of, this Vladimir Lenin dude, the Russian Communist revolutionary, changed the tide of twentieth century history by introducing Communism into this place that was called Russia before it became the Soviet Union. Right? We’ll get to all of that. But he’s still—in terms of shaping world history and being a big deal—the Lenin guy still got a little bit of edge on Vladimir Putin.
Putin is the most Eastern-leaning Russian leader of recent times, but he isn’t the most Eastern Vlad. That would be Vladivostok. Anybody know that guy? Yeah. You really shouldn’t know that guy because it’s not a guy, it’s a city. It’s Vladivostok. It’s Russian’s biggest easternmost city, way over there on the border with China. So I want you to be thinking that Russia always has a hand on Eastern affairs and increasingly will be in this coming century. It’s looking at China now, and the Koreas, and what’s going on with Japan.
GEOG 1014 World RegionsSee materials
So Russia is a fascinating country that straddles both the Eastern and Western worlds and has done so under a whole lot of Vlads. The one we’re talking about, of course, though, is this Vlad, Vladimir Putin. I will be mixing in real photographs and also some fake ones throughout. I actually don’t know if this is fake or not. That’s how intense this Vladimir Putin guy is.
We want to talk a little bit more about what’s so great about this guy because, while he wasn’t the greatest at any of those other things I mentioned, he easily leads the world in nipple exposure for world leaders. Easily throughout all of human history, there has never been a world leader photographed topless this much, ever. If you’ve seen most world leaders, you don’t want to see that from anybody, and maybe not even from Putin either. He is the manliest manly man living on planet Earth right now. This is a picture taken from 48 hours ago. This was him on vacation. So our American president is playing golf; this president was out spearfishing in Lake Baikal, or maybe riding a whale or something. Who knows? He can kind of do it all.
We can ask the questions that you see on the screen right here, which is, what all would you guys like to know about him, given what you tangentially know a little bit about this dude. What do you know of him, except the stuff I just mentioned? Vladimir Putin: Go. Free-associate.
Boyer: Ex-KGB? I hear, yes. What do I hear at the back?
Boyer: Net worth unknown, and will always be unknown. Millions, easily. Billions, possibly. What else do you think about Vladimir Putin? What do I hear in—back here?
Boyer: He might be into voter fraud, yes. Into cyber warfare. Russia’s leading export, as far as I can tell now, is cyber warfare. That and oil; that’s all they got. And vodka, we shouldn’t forget that.
What would you then like to know about Vlad, since folks here asked for a Vlad talk? Yes?
Boyer: Where did this guy come from? Is he an alien? With pec muscles like that? He must be. Right? What else would you like to know? Where did this guy come from? Yes?
Boyer: I can’t answer that. If I could do that, I’d be in a different room getting paid a lot more money. But we’ll try. Yes.
Boyer: That’s a good one. How did he get so darn powerful? He’s just a human, after all, we think. He’s just a man. All right. How did he garner some of the greatest amounts of political and economic power on the planet? Anything else?
Boyer: Was he royalty? Hmm, I don’t think so, I can answer that one real quick. Yes?
Boyer: OK. Yeah. Russian news and the word propaganda are kind of synonymous in today’s world. Anything else? Yes?
Audience: What’s his vision for Russia?
Boyer: What’s his vision for Russia? Oh, I think that’s becoming crystal clear. Yeah, we’ll talk about that. Yes?
Audience: Who’s in his inner circle?
Boyer: Whoo, do you want to know who’s in that inner circle? I don’t. I mean, you would know, but then they would have to kill you. All right? So I don’t know that I have hard answers on that either. These are all really good questions. So I’ll start on some of them and try to tell a tale that will not be able to be told in one hour, but I’ll do my best. Let’s see.
Now it’s not clicking anymore. OK. Technology, yes. Yes, I know. OK. So that just clicked. OK.
Here’s the intro, what I can tell you very quickly of his awesomeness. By the way, when I use the word awesome, I don’t have a bromance with this guy. I mean, I did, actually, 17 years ago. I’ve been teaching for almost 20 years. So I followed this guy for going on two decades, and I saw it coming. He was a really exciting figure from the start. But just so you know, no bromance. When I say “awesome,” I truly mean that he’s an awe-inspiring figure in that he has really changed the course of history.
How has he done that? Well, he started out as a KGB operative, as someone pointed out. He was a prime minister, actually, first, for a few months, then he became a president, then he was a prime minister, then he became president. But he’s definitely the baddest-ass human on planet Earth—just ask any Russian. Now, what do I mean by that? I’m just going to jump—OK, there it goes.
He’s a master of all manly weaponry. He knows how to shoot everything, every gun, every harpoon, bows and arrows; he can hunt with a knife, he shot off missiles. He’s been on every mode of transportation in Soviet Russia. “President assassinates you,” as the saying goes. He is a master of all vehicles. He’s been in planes, trains, automobiles, aircraft carriers; here’s him in a submarine, in a Formula One car, in a jet plane, on a motorcycle, in a glider guiding cranes that were migrating. You can’t make this crap up, all right? These are all real pictures.
Boyer: He owns a Super Bowl ring under mysterious circumstances. I remember that story, sir. That was a good one. Whose ring is it? Patriots, yeah. We don’t know what happened there. The finger is probably still missing. All right.
He’s also a master of all animals. Yes, that’s him with dolphins. And a cheetah, or something. I don’t even know what this creature is. Maybe it’s a cow. Maybe it’s something he bred. And puppies. And he’s a horse whisperer. I think this one might be fake. All right, I’m putting it out there—this one might have been slightly doctored, although we wouldn’t put it past him to ride a shark.
He is, encapsulate, hitting all the broad categories, an absolute hero to Russian people. And I mean an overwhelming majority of them. So you can think whatever you think about Vladimir Putin, and people in Europe can think what they think, and people in Australia can think what they want to think about Putin. Russians love him by an 80 or 90% margin. Wildly supported.
He is a conservative icon now on planet Earth, because now he’s getting all churchy, and he’s getting all kind of fundamental and conservative and back to tradition. That’s a theme that is increasingly important in today’s world, or increasingly embraced in today’s world, I should say. So not just in Russia, conservatives worldwide really like this guy.
Did you know anybody in America, in the run-up to the Trump campaign, he says, “We need a president like Vladimir Putin.” Yeah. Maybe not out
here in California. All right. But I’m closer to the red states. So, yeah, there is a lot of Americans who think he’s a really great guy. Yeah. So he’s not big on human rights, but he’s a really cool, awesome leader.
He is an ardent nationalist. Another theme that is being embraced all around the world. That means, being an ardent nationalist means, that your country is great, and you want to focus on your country and make your country great again. Ring any bells there? OK. Nationalism is the opposite of globalization or globalism, that we want to solve world problems, we all work together. Nationalist is like, “No, we are the best. We’re going to do it ourselves.” Common theme also cropping up around planet Earth.
Of course, you know from all the current events news, a bro fist, love recipient of Donald Trump, who—love him or hate him—has made it kind of one of his pledges that he wants to warm relations with Russia. That can be a whole separate talk, if you like, but I think it’s intriguing. I know a lot of you in the room probably are not big fans of Donald Trump. That’s cool. I don’t care about political affiliation. I’m not here to preach one way or the other. I try to not pay attention to US politics at all.
But it’s an intriguing proposition that the US government would try to warm relations with Russia. There’s a reason why it’s not going to happen, but it’s an intriguing concept that you could put to rest 60 or 70 years of hate, which would change the world in dramatic ways.
So that’s what’s going on with this dude named Vladimir Putin. He is, I think, two times been named, maybe three times, Person of the Year—and that’s an American publication. He routinely gets Man of the Year in Russia and other places in Asia, but this is in America, Man of the Century. I want you to take to heart he is a living legend. Those are not words I choose quickly or off the cuff.
What does that mean, “a living legend”? What I mean by this is that 100 years from now, if the species is still around, they’re writing history books, Vladimir Putin will feature prominently as one of the most important, central figures of the twenty-first century. If he dies tomorrow, he will still have volumes of works written about him. He truly is one of those people that doesn’t come around very often—that, while they’re alive, they’re so important, they’re shaping and changing the way the world is functioning. That’s rare. Again, I’m not using these words lightly.
President Obama, I thought he was a fine guy, good guy, US president, powerful dude, important dude. He’ll have this much in an encyclopedia chapter 200 years from now. Vladimir Putin will have a chapter. That’s not being dismissive of Obama. I’m talking about the importance to the world and shifting history.
Living legend. He’s still alive, and he’s still doing it, and he’s got a ways to go. Again, unless he kicks the bucket, he could likely be in power for another decade, easy, still going at it. All right. How did he get the status “living legend”? That seems extreme. Well, he’s an extreme dude, as I’ve shown you from all these extreme topless pictures. All right. So someone asks, how did he get here? I’m glad you asked, because I was asking the same thing.
To understand the meteoric rise of this dude, you actually have to step it back a little bit to understand Russian history of at least the last century. OK? This was supposed to be an hour-long talk; history of Russia would easily be two or three or five courses, a whole semester long, so I’ll try to keep it as brief as I can. By doing so, I’ll do Russian rulers in rapid review. This is not an all-inclusive list. I’m simply going to pick out the more important aspects of Russian culture in the last 100, 120 years, plus or minus—not all-inclusive.
Because you have to understand how Russia has kind of been smacked down for a century to get why this dude suddenly got so much power so fast. In other words, you can title this a century’s long series of unfortunate events, Russian style. Russia really has had a tough go of things, maybe since its inception but certainly in the last 100 years.
For starters, one should remember that Russia is an empire that grew economically, politically, and territorially for hundreds of years—and this is just showing you as it grew, the dates are down here, under Ivan the Great, then Ivan the Terrible, who I think is popping up right there. The Russian Empire started around—Moscow is that little red dot—and you see from 1300 onward, until you get to Peter the Great, and Catherine the Great, that expanded this empire across an entire continent, even picking up Alaska—they head by Sarah Palin’s house preemptively. All right?
So this is a mighty empire that was powerful and a world power back in 1800s. But they start to lose it as you get into the modern era, and that’s largely because of what was going on in this society in the 1800s, into the 1900s, up to the current time. That is, when you think about Russia for virtually all of its 100-year history, it’s a cold, bitter, hard place. Virtually all of Russia is north of the US-Canadian border. So if anybody’s driven north and went to Canada: All of Russia, just about all of north of Russia is north of the US-Canadian border, and some of it very far north. Russia is the largest country on planet Earth, and all of it is pretty damn cold. It’s a hardscrabble life, and it really affects people’s mentality and the spirit of the people.
On top of it being a challenging place physically, they have a full-on feudal system for centuries. That is pretty close to slavery, but of a different term. People are literally property of the land. So you have the rich landowners, and if all you people at this table happen to live on my land, well, you’re my workers. You work for free, and you give me part of your crops, and you do that for life. You don’t leave unless you ask my permission, in which case I’ll say no, because I like free labor. All right?
This feudal kind of peasant-style system is in place for a very long time. In fact, way later than one might imagine. Not till 1861 did they even legally get rid of it, and it didn’t even take practical effect until almost 1900. Again, I’m painting this challenging portrait of a society coming into the 1900s. They also have an old-school style of leadership, a monarchy, under the Romanovs—maybe you’ve heard of them. The Romanovs were one of the longest-lasting monarchical lines on the planet for 300 years-plus, way late in the game. We had an American Revolution in 1776, then the British had one, and the French had a revolution; and all those countries in Europe, they went a different route, some sort of representative democracy. Russia said, “That’s OK. We’re going to keep going old-school.”
Up until 1917, they still had a king with ultimate absolute power. It’s one of the reasons why things start to fall apart. This feudal monarchy society is actually quite stagnant, as you might imagine. They’re always kind of behind. They’re never quite up to par with the European states, or what will later become America, or even China. They weren’t even in China’s league 200 years ago. So this is a state that’s a big empire but not really the cream of the crop.
As the twentieth century dawns, things really start to disintegrate for them, because they’re economically, socially, technologically, militarily—they’re stagnant, and they’re behind. It’s a laggard society. Anything that the Europeans adopt, the Russians adopt a hundred years later. You can see how they just can’t compete economically or militarily to a certain extent. They’re a stagnant society, and it keeps getting further and further behind; it keeps doing things the old traditional way. It’s just going to turn south for them, and things then take a turn for the worse.
As if feudal peasant society wasn’t fun enough, we have this guy Tsar Nicholas II. Maybe you’ve heard of him if you’ve got any twentieth century history—the last of the Romanov line. He’s the last czar/king/emperor. He was a totally inept goober. I’m summarizing, obviously. This guy comes into power and really kind of loses everything. They get into a war with Japan, an unknown power at that time. Japan was a group of islands; no one even knew where it was. They get into a fight with Japan—they lose. They lose their entire navy in one fight. Then they get pulled into World War I, and they lose. They lose that, and they lose territory. They lose chunks of what’s now Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania—they lose it. They’re losing World War I so badly, they’re like, “Holy crap, can we just get out of this? Those Germans are scary. We just want out.”
I’m abbreviating. So by 1917, there were multiple uprisings at home that were smashed by the military, violently. So people are stewing in this society, unhappy. By 1917, he has to abdicate. That is, he quits. You know the end of this story: Then him and his whole family gets shot, unless you believe that Anastasia is still running around with a bunch of lead bullets in her. Good luck with that theory. All right. I’m sure Disney made a wonderful movie about it, but she’s dead too. All of them died, all right? Sorry if that burst anybody’s bubbles. All right.
He’s a nut goober, because in his lifespan he oversees this mighty, gigantic world’s largest land empire, basically—economically, militarily—collapse. That collapses because then things take another turn for the worse. That is, this dude comes along, Vladimir Lenin. Now, initially, he’s fighting the good fight. He’s saying, “Yes, monarchy’s crappy. Our economy’s crappy. We’re stagnant, way behind. We shouldn’t have peasants. Let’s fix this stuff. Let’s fix it by becoming communists, because they will win in the end.” That was supposed to get a bigger laugh. That’s OK. Maybe some of you don’t know twentieth-century history. It didn’t work. It never works. It never—it never works. All right.
They didn’t know it at that time, but they were implementing a system that was doomed to failure. It sparked a civil war, and right when it happened, there were people who were like, “We don’t want to be communist, so let’s have a war and kill each other.” That was followed by a couple of bad winters, of famine, and whole bunch of more millions of people died. Russia is like the party center of twentieth century. Death, death, death, and we’re just getting warmed up.
What are the worst things he did? Well, they consolidated all power into a few hands. So basically, they got rid of the monarchy and then themselves just kind of became a new type of monarchy, under this Utopian dream of becoming a Communist state. But the worst thing he did was he died. Because for all his faults, he was at least an idealistic guy, and we really believed in this communist thing [that] was going to try to push for a more equal society—but then he croaked.
And then things took a turn for the worse, because then we’re ballin’ with Stalin. If anybody knows Smokin’ Joe Stalin, who likely has a whole level of hell dedicated to him at this point—if you’re one to believe in the heaven and hell thing. This is not a really great guy. He ends up being—absorbing all power to himself, controlling this Communist experiment in Russia. The absolute strong man in charge from 1924 to 1953.
By strong man, I mean strong man. And he was kind of a psychopath. Little things like that throw a monkey wrench into trying to build up a society. By a kind of psychopath, if you don’t know Russian history, he’s the one that started this thing called the Red Terror, where they’ve started up with a KGB, a secret police force, to go kill anybody who ever said anything bad about Joseph Stalin or his family. Kill anybody secretly who we don’t like; kill all political opponents; just kill everybody. Because Russia hasn’t had their fill of killing yet; we’re only in the ’20s.
He started the gulag system, where you exiled hundreds of millions of people up to Siberia to work in slave camps. They also did forced migrations, meaning they said, “Hey, well, we want to make sure that all Russians are ethnically mixed up, so make for a strong Soviet Union. So all of the people who are Chechens, all you million people, you can’t live in Chechnya anymore. You have to move over to Vladivostok. There you go. Get on the train. Let the fun begin.” Easily millions, perhaps tens of millions, of people died under this guy’s reign. And I’m not talking about war. I’m not even talking about World War II—another 20 million Russians died just during World War II. That’s a war. This is just good old-fashioned domestic death.
Now, he also entrenched a thing called the Cold War, because he’s so crazy that people across the pond, that would be us and the Europeans, are like, “Whoa, this guy’s nuts. And they’re now doing this global domination thing where they want the whole world to be Communist and start a big revolution, so we’re going to start our team,” and you know this stuff, right? OK. Everybody knows the commies are trying to take over. We are the good guys, so we’re like, “No. No, Stalin. No one’s going to be Communist. Everyone wants to be capitalist. We’re going to form up NATO, a collective defense strategy to make sure that you don’t bomb us, because then we’ll bomb you into oblivion.” That’s the Cold War in summary. All right. That really got heated up under Stalin.
Remember, before the Cold War, Russia was an ally. Soviet Union was an ally of the United States during World War II. They were helping us beat the hell out of the Germans. Trust me, the Russians beat up a hell of a lot more Germans than the Americans did. No offense to our great forces, but the Russians suffered horrific casualties during World War II. They really kind of won World War II, a little-known fact. They’re not going to teach you that in class, because we’re supposed to hate Russia. All right? We’re supposed to hate them, and that’s that. But they did a major part of winning over the Nazis in World War II.
A few Stalin memes. In America, you break law; in Soviet Russia, law breaks you. And one of my personal favorites: How to make everyone happy? Kill all those being unhappy. Make for happy Soviet motherland. All right. Yeah, that’s Stalin. But, but, but—he couldn’t be all bad, right? Well, he probably was, OK? But good things can come from even bad places. So I do want you to understand that Stalin is viewed favorably in the Soviet Union and in Modern Russia despite everything I just told you.
He is viewed as a hero in Russia for several things. One, he did oversee the industrialization of Europe—I’m sorry, of Russia. So I was telling you at the beginning of this: Russia was so far behind, stagnant economically, militarily, technologically. In the Stalin era, they fixed that, and they fixed that fast. They catch up in 20 or 30 years to being a major military power on planet Earth, having major military technologies, and missile technologies, and everything else. All right. And the factories are booming. All that happened in a 20- or 30-year period. It’s actually quite impressive.
He helped win World War II, as I’ve now pointed out, and in doing so, he grabbed all of Russia’s territories back that they had lost in the previous wars. Yay! Yay, Stalin. He also got their mojo on. For the first time since earlier in the century, the Russian people are like, “Yeah, we’re kinda bad-ass. We just beat Nazis, man.” That’s always a good resume builder. Beat Nazis. Just put it on your resume. No one’s going to question that, all right? Looks great.
So they did their part in the war. They’re now caught up. They’re now a world power. They’re on par with all the other major world powers in every way, shape, and form, and including technologically. Because under Stalin is what got them what I call Sputnik ready. Seriously, I know you’re young people—how many know what Sputnik is? Sputnik. Sputnik going once. Sputnik going twice. This is what I thought. Sputnik is really important, and no one talks about Sputnik, either. Well, first off, it’s a great name. You should nickname your dog Sputnik. It just works, all right?
Sputnik was this little satellite. The first satellite put in space by the Russians, not the Americans. I should say the Soviets; it’s not the Russians. The Soviets are the first to put this satellite in space. And when they do—and that’s the size of it, it’s only like six feet long and its antennas, little basketball thing, and it was circling the earth and beeping, putting out a radio pulse, including going over American airspace.
When this happened, truly, your grandparents, probably not your parents, but your grandparents and your great-grandparents were terrified. America was terrified that this whack-ass crazy dude Stalin running this Communist country, trying to create world Communism, has beat America into space and could put something in our airspace. I can’t impart to you how truly terrified Americans were. It’s part of the reason why we had a Cold War. It’s like, “Well, we better get busy. Oh, we’re going to catch up with them.”
I should also point out that the Russians were the first to put a chimp in space, a dog in space, a man in space, and a woman in space. But what did we do? We walked on the moon. So take that, Russia. You suck. You lost. All right? And that’s all anybody remembers. Man on the moon, we did that. Check. All right. China will be doing it next, by the way, but that’s another lecture coming in your lifetime.
OK. So all of these things happen under Stalin. That’s why, routinely, in today’s Russian society—and I’m talking today, today, sorry these headlines are getting cut off—Stalin is always now voted the most outstanding figure in world history. Not Russian history, in world history. He is ranked number one by Russians, followed closely by Vladimir Putin, back to the living legend thing. He’s still alive, and he’s on that list. Oh, I have a little matryoshka doll here. Putin is now closing in on Stalin. Every year they do the survey, Putin is going up a notch. While we in the West look at the Stalin character, we’re like, “You mean that bloodthirsty, crazy psychopath that formed the secret police and killed millions of your people?” “Yes, we love him. Love him.” All right.
Then, things took a turn for the worse. I’m going to skip over a bunch of Russian leaders that didn’t do a whole lot, including the Cuban missile crisis guy, and the unibrow guy, and the guy dropped dead in two weeks. Those of you laughing, you know your Russian history. Let’s jump down to Gorbachev, though. Gorbachev’s super-important, because we actually like this dude. Gorbachev is the guy who gave it all away right when they had reached their apogee, probably in the 1950s and 1960s, of the Soviet Union doing as good as it was ever going to do and competing with the United States in all manner of technology, including space.
By the 1980s, it’s not working anymore. They have overspent. They’ve overextended themselves globally. When I say “they,” the Soviet Empire. Their system of Communism—it’s just corrupt. We all know the end of story here. It just doesn’t work. Capitalism works way better for supply-and-demand stuff. So the place is falling apart. They can’t keep up with the United States. Russia has always economically been a fraction of the US economy, fraction. Right now, I’d say the Russian economy is one-fifteenth the United States economy, and back then probably it was one-tenth. So they’ve never been as big, economically powerful, as the United States.
But militarily, they were keeping up. You can do the math in your own checkbook. If you only have one-tenth of the budget, but you’re spending as much as your adversary to build missiles and bombs and tanks and Star Wars laser systems and try and put a man on the moon, you go broke. So they eventually start to go broke, and it’s so internally corrupt that this guy Gorbachev says, “Hey, I’m going to do these two things: glasnost and perestroika.” That means openness and restructuring. Meaning instead of having a secretive Soviet society, they’re going to start being more like America. Let people see the information. Let people see what’s going on.
Perestroika, restructuring. He said, “Instead of us forcing Poland to hang out with us, instead of forcing Latvia to be part of our Soviet Union, instead of making Kazakhstan be part of us, we’re going to just let you guys vote. And if you don’t want to be part of us anymore, we’ll let you go.” Does anybody know how that ended? Everybody said, “Check, please. I want the hell out of here. This rickety-ass boat has been going down for a long time and we want out.” That all happened in 1988, 1989. It’s the famous fall of the Berlin Wall, when the East Germans said, “Oh, we’d get a vote? Good, we vote out.” Knocked down the wall, reunified Germany. “We want out of this mess.”
Soviet system is broke and, in short order, less than two years later: full Soviet collapse. This is another thing that’s hard to explain to younger people. There’s a couple folks in the room that are about as old as me. But the speed at which the Soviet Union collapsed astounded everyone, including Russians. Even the Reagan administration were like, “Well, yeah, they’re doing perestroika. They’re doing this. They’re doing that.”
It’s just overnight. It was like boom, now it’s all gone. Am I right? Anybody that’s of my age? You’re like watching the nightly news thing. Is this real? They’ve just voted themselves out of existence? In 1991, they said, “Let’s vote. OK, we are not just Soviet Union anymore. We’re gone.” Take a look at the map, though, so you understand the loss, the loss to Russia. This is the great Soviet Union, a union of states. What states? All these states. You’ve heard of Armenia, Georgia, Uzbekistan, Ukraine, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania. In the stroke of a pen in 1991, they said, “Well, we’re going to get rid of that.”
And now the map is this: Russia is one state, and 14 other states that have nothing to do with Russia anymore. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Mother Russia is left holding the bill from running this Communist government for half a century and has lost 14 whole territories. Gone. Think about that, losing territory means you’re losing resources, you’re losing the people, population, labor. All of it gone. This is a huge blow. It is a tremendous, psyche-shattering event for Russians.
It still is this guy we’re talking about, Vladimir Putin, [who] says that the worst thing that happened in the last hundred years was the dissolution of the USSR—something he thinks about daily. Knowing that, I could stop the lecture right here. Does it help you understand Russia’s motives around Eastern Europe in today’s world a little bit more? Hope so. That’s what I’m here for. I just paint a big picture; let you fill in the details as you go watch the news and stuff now.
So the Soviet Union collapses. Just to give you a sense of this loss, just in Eastern Europe—not Central Asia, they lost all of Central Asia—this is Soviet Union before, [points to slide] these are states that were owned by Russia—”owned.” These are states that are heavily controlled by Russia, and in a one pen stroke, they’re all gone. Many of these states, I’ll bet you know, then joined NATO and joined the European Union and said, “We want to get the hell far away from Russia as we can. We’re going to jump into these other organizations.” OK? So this was, again, another big kind of blow to Russian pride, Russian esteem, the Russian psyche.
But wait, things are then going to take a turn for the worse because, while they got rid of Communism—yay, Communism is gone. So they’re all happy capitalist now. Well, things don’t happen instantly. Things don’t happen overnight. There’s this thing called transition, and the guy who oversaw the transition is this dude named Boris Yeltsin, who literally drinks himself to death as the president of the country for eight years. He oversaw, albeit loosely, the giving away of Russia.
So under the Communist system, Mother Russia, the Soviet Union, owns everything and controls everything. They own all the oil wells. They own all the oil. They own all the oil wells. They own all the oil companies. They own all the barrel-making companies. They own all the doctors’ offices. They own everything. That’s the old system. They’ve got to go to something different—namely, free-market capitalism, and in doing so, they literally give away the farm. So what was that, we’ll stick with oil because that’s Russia’s biggest moneymaker? So Russia during the Communist era produced tons of oil. All the money, all the money from that oil sale, went to the state to be redistributed, to buy stuff, to run the government.
By 1993 or ’94, they had given away all the oil—just given it away—to this group of people we’re going to call the oligarchs, a name that perhaps you’ve heard of and you will continue to hear, which is a bunch of rich business people who had, let’s say, shady ties into the government. In the early ’90s, let’s say I was a government worker, I’d be like, “Hey, man, we’re selling all this land with all this oil on it, and all the oil wells. Hey, give me $5. Just give me $5. Cool, $5, OK. Here’s the deed.” Awesome. Puts $5 in the bank. Cool. That means you go split this $5 billion company now.
That happened over and over and over and over. When rich thieves get stuff, they don’t want to pay taxes on it, either. So they’re not paying taxes, and all the oil is being produced. They just stick all their money in Swiss bank accounts and other places in the Mediterranean that are now filthy rich with a lot of Russian mobster money and oligarch money. You’ll see stories about that too, still in today’s world. Tax havens that rich Russians are dumping their money into, from shit they looted out of the government during this rough transition.
So you have a country that went broke, that a system that collapsed because it sucks so bad and they were broke, and then they make themselves poorer. They gave away their resource base. The corruption involved in this is on an epic scale. You also have continued territorial secession occurring, meaning when Ukraine voted to go away and did, and then Latvia voted to go away and did. There were other places that are still in Russia who said, “Wait a minute. We want to go away, too.” Maybe you’ve heard of a place called Chechnya. Chechnya says, “We hate the Russians. They made us walk all the way to Vladivostok a hundred years ago. We want our own separate state.” So there were still splinter groups trying to pull away, causing civil-war chaos throughout all of the ’90s.
On top of that, as I suggested, Boris Yeltsin was a waste story. One time he took a state trip to Ireland to have a meeting with the president. He was so drunk by the time he got to the tarmac, and the plane landed, he couldn’t get off the plane. They sat there on the tarmac for a day for him to sober up, and so they took off again and left. That’s your first president of Modern Russia. Right?
OK. Is that it? OK. Well, before Yeltsin quits, because he was wildly unpopular. Imagine the chaos in the society of the 1990s. By the way, [was] anybody in the room born by the 1990s?
Boyer: No? OK. Most of you weren’t born? OK. This is going on when you’re in diapers. OK. Or a little bit past that. So just before Yeltsin quits, he just finds some dude. He’s like, “I’m going to look around for some guy who might kind of work.”
You’ll never imagine who he found. Who did Boris Yeltsin find?
Boyer: There you go: He found this dude, this low-level bureaucrat named Vladimir Putin. Perfect. He looks like a perfect chump scapegoat. Let’s give him this big pot of crap. “You can have it, buddy.” He makes him prime minister. Putin has zero experience at high-level administrative positions at this point. He’s made prime minister of the country, and this is only basically to introduce him to the Russians, because Yeltsin already knows he’s getting ready to quit and just make Putin president.
Audience: Where did he find him?
Boyer: Where did he find him? I think maybe I’ve got some slides about that. Let’s go. All right. See how I just lead the questions like that. So now, I don’t know if we’re even out of time yet, you can stop me if you like. But actually now, we’re ready to talk about Putin. Because I had to give you that thumbnail sketch of the crappy twentieth century for Russia so that you see what this dude inherited.
Twentieth-century recap: Putin inherited, in 1999 when he became prime minister, a laggard society, [that] a hundred years earlier was the laughingstock of Europe that lost multiple wars to everybody, that had the system of monarchy completely overthrown, established a new type of governing system called communism that then completely got overthrown, that was entirely looted, that ended with dissolution, and absolute corruption, and almost economic collapse. Welcome to day one of your job. We love you, Vladimir Putin, a person that almost literally probably no more than a few dozen Russians had ever even heard of. That’s day one.
So where did he come from? By the way, the twenty-first century is going to prove to be considerably different than the twentieth. This we already know. So how do we have this rise of Vlad the Magnificent? Yes, I am going to give him this title, since Vlad the Great is already taken. I think they will inevitably bestow Vlad the Magnificent upon him, if not something more like Soaring Eagle Man or something like that. OK.
So where did this guy come from? Now we can start talking some facts, and going through this fairly quickly. Humble beginnings. He was a KGB operative. He was a spy. He was secret spy in Soviet Russia, working in East Berlin, deep, deep, deep undercover as a peanut vendor. I just made that last part up. I don’t know what he did, all right? He was a secret agent. I will tell you—and I often bragged to classes even as far back as 15 years ago—he is skilled in a number of ways to kill humans. Like all of them. He’s a black belt in judo. I failed to mention that during the sporty slide. He’s full black belt in judo. Knows how to use every type of weapon.
Can’t be proven, but I think it’s a safe bet to say he is easily the only current president of a country that has likely killed another human being with his bare hands. I’d say it’s likely. It’s not even maybe; it’s likely. He may have killed someone in his own family with his bare hands for all we know. He’s a tough guy. But he started as a low-level operative, working his way. Basically, he was always working for the state ever since he was a kid, going up the ranks in the military, then into the secret service, basically.
In 1989, as I already suggested, when the Soviet Union started to collapse, he was adamant [that] this is the worst thing ever for Russia. Most Russians thought that too, but he has since said this multiple times in news briefings: It’s the biggest geopolitical catastrophe of the century. When Putin says that he’s saying, “I think this is a geopolitical catastrophe for the world, not just for Russia. This is a horrible thing for the world.” He would be quick to point at all of the calamity, chaos, and civil wars that have been happening across, say, Eastern Europe, all the way down the Middle East as proof of why he thinks that. I’m not saying I agree, because I don’t, but he believes this to his core.
In 1991, he became the deputy mayor of Saint Petersburg. He starts becoming a—not even a politician but a political player. Somebody know what I mean by that? He’s not in the limelight. He’s working the back channels. Do remember, this is the era that I’ve now described, of widespread corruption with the giving away of resources of the Russian state. Again, it can’t be proven; he has covered his tracks very well. But most analysts suggest that he was part and parcel of this system. That he maybe took a bunch of money, but certainly helped rich people get rich. Certainly did.
We know this because those rich people are highly supportive of him right now, and he’s highly supportive of them, as long as they don’t get in his way. As long as none of the rich people try to enter politics, he won’t mess with them, and he doesn’t care what they do. As soon as they try to enter politics, suddenly they are tax evaders, and they’re thrown in jail. This has happened to many of these oligarchs. OK. But keep the rich people happy; they keep your political coffers filled.
So he was already a rising star, albeit quietly, in the ’90s when all this chaos is occurring. How he got to be hanging out with Gorbachev and then Yeltsin? I do not know. I’m sure there’s a nice biography or 20 that points out some of these ties. I don’t know them and, quite frankly, they’re unimportant. It doesn’t matter how he got there. He was there. He was in the right place at the right time to go from being behind the scenes to being the scene almost overnight. That’s something else that’s quite rare in any country, any government throughout history.
Can you name any other times that one day you’re just a dude, and the next day you’re leading the whole world? It doesn’t happen often. I could think of Alexander of Macedonia or Alexander the Great. His father was supposed to go on the campaign to kick all the Persian’s asses. Then his father got assassinated, he was like, “Oh, cool. It’s my turn, then,” and went and conquered the whole world. That’s the best analogy I can think of.
So in a short order, he was appointed prime minister in 1999. He was only prime minister for a few months, then Yeltsin said, “Oh, good. You guys like him? Good. I quit.” He was appointed president. During his time as prime minister, he successfully wages a brutal war against the Chechens—who, I already had suggested, were trying to secede—brutally cracked down, televised on TV. So we’re already starting to build up the strongman persona. He’s saving Russia for the Russians, right? He goes from unknown to 2% popularity the day he becomes president to 45% popularity within a matter of weeks, at first—the successful conclusion of this first Chechen war. His approval ratings will never ever go down ever, up to this day right now.
I know I’m running out of time, so I’ll reiterate it for the tenth time: His approval ratings hover anywhere from 80 to 95%, given on the poll. What I mean by that is 80 or 85 or 90% of Russians think he’s awesome, and he’s doing a great job. That is unheard of. Politicians do not have that approval rating, even the good ones. President Obama is highest ranking. What do you think his approval ratings were? If they were 60, it would’ve been a great day. That would have been a glorious day. Eighty? Ninety? Politicians would donate a testicle to have 80 or 90% approval ratings. It basically gives you a blank card. All the people love everything you’re doing. Do anything you want. That’s how much power this guy has.
The rest of the story is, he was officially elected in the year 2000 as president. Basically, just solidified, making it legit, they went and held an election. Only their second, right? Putin is only their second president up to this point. He appears on TV frequently, preaching his vision of a strong, internationally respected Russia. Let’s make Russia great again. Again, does this sound familiar? On TV a lot, talking about making the country great. This is a message that resonates, and it still is today, even in American society. His popularity continues to grow.
Now a couple things that are in his favor—this is from another slide show—but what went right for Russia in the twenty-first century? This dude, who has the magic touch. But don’t overlook one other word: That’s oil. Russia is one of the world’s largest reserves and largest exporters of oil on planet Earth, and that gives them tremendous power. In the first decade this guy’s in power, oil prices are at an absolute high. Again, this was when you’re a kid, you’re not paying attention; but oil now is like what, 40 bucks a barrel, 45— it was over $100 a barrel for a good long stretch. They were just printing money in Russia. Just printing it, paying off debts, fixing stuff. Hey, that’s what great societies do. That’s what Putin did.
So you have a decade-strong of making Russia great again, almost literally. Now they’re still behind, but revamping the military, working on infrastructure, doing all the things you’re supposed to do with money like that. They had to crush Chechnya for a second time in a televised war. There were multiple Chechen terrorist attacks that happened in Moscow that were put down brutally on TV.
Sorry, I know I’m out of time, but one of them is spectacular. You should look this up. There’s one called the Beslan school siege, where some terrorists took over a school; they were killing all the kids—and they just sent in Russian storm troopers and killed everybody. It was a mess. But there was another one where terrorists took over the theater in Moscow, and this is like out of a James Bond movie. They sent in special forces and piped in nerve gas and knocked everyone in the whole theater out and then went in and shot all the terrorists. I mean, they “won” that one. Some of the people died from the nerve gas who were just citizens, but a glorious day for strong Russia.
That’s the kind of Russia we’re talking about in today’s world. Crushed terrorist activity. Crushed all the oligarchs who ever dared raise their heads to get in his way. Crushed the press. Here’s where we start to have more state intervention into what information Russians get. They took back some of the oil industries so they could control more oil and natural resources from the oligarchs they didn’t particularly like. They just took the stuff back, and they started increasingly taking over the press. Right now, you just can’t count Russia’s having a free press at all. It’s basically a state apparatus. So every day, there may be 10 or 20 channels of news in Russia—they’re all from the same source, and it’s all government people who tell you what you’re going to say on TV.
What’s so great about that? Well, it’s not great for people like us who like freedom, but boy, you can sure control the society, and you can make people love you because you’re going to tell them what’s going on and why they should love you. So that’s the kind of hole this guy has been cementing since his first two terms in office. He puts Russia’s house in order and, as I’ve suggested, his approval ratings have been 80, 85, 90% ever since.
I always loved this—this is the point this guy is at now. It’s funny; I laughed when Donald Trump said this during the—remember in the election when Donald Trump said, “I could just go in the street and shoot somebody in the face, and I still would be popular.” Does anybody remember him saying that? I’m like, “Boy, Vladimir Putin actually could do that.” He genuinely could; he could go shoot somebody; on TV, he could say they were a terrorist, and 80% of people would be like, “OK, glad you got one.” No questions asked. Put him in a shallow grave. All right.
Then he turned his attention to another task. I’ve only got 3 minutes left, so I’m going to fly through this. And that is, his other main priority that he is now working on, now that he has Russia in his back pocket: time for Soviet reunion. Meaning [that] it’s time for Russia to reassert its influence and control over those territories that it used to have influence and control over. That sounded like I rehearsed it, didn’t it? I did not.
In 2008, Russia invades Georgia and basically takes over two little areas that are now called Abkhazia and South Ossetia. He just takes them. I won’t go into the details, but Russia still controls them right now. The Georgian war was really their international calling card. In my mind, I remember when the event happened, and they’re basically saying, “We’re back. The time of troubles is over. You’re not going to take us for granted anymore. We still have one of the biggest nuclear arsenals on planet Earth. We have one of the biggest militaries on planet Earth. We are telling you, world, we’re not afraid to use it anymore.”
When they invaded Georgia, the whole world was like, “Dude, you can’t do that. We don’t invade other countries. We stopped doing that.” Putin said, “Well, you guys did. But we are going to retake back what we see as ours.” Part of the reason why Russia sees these hinterlands as “their property,” in a sense, is because there are Russian people there. This map, I know you can’t read in the back, but all the little red dots are people who are ethnically Russian. Now, most of Russia is ethnically Russian people. But these are ethnically Russian people in Kazakhstan and ethnically Russian people in Ukraine.
Hey, look at that Ukraine map real quick. What part is all lit up in red? What part of Ukraine is all red ethnically Russian? The Crimean Peninsula. Oh, yeah. That place that Russia took a couple years back. After fueling a civil war in Ukraine, Russia annexes the Crimean Peninsula back to glorious Russian motherland, liberated. And always a nice political cartoon hibernating since 1991. Poor Ukraine. They still have a bit to get out of the woods.
Putin also establishes something called a Eurasian Union. I doubt many of you’ve heard about [it]. He says, “Don’t join the European Union. They all suck. It’s falling apart. Look at it, Britain already pulled out. Come join the Eurasian Union, centered on Russia.” Can you see the old Soviet Union here, in this proposed Eurasian Union? That’s exactly what they’re planning to do, and now, of course, they are ultimately challenging even US authority and the global world order by saying, “We’re getting involved anywhere we want. We are back. We are a serious world power. We are not going to be denied.” And this guy named Vladimir Putin is the one who brought them back to this point.
Putin, of course, and his state apparatus. I don’t think this is much of a stretch: They are doing a lot of cyber terrorism. They are promoting election meddling, and not just in the US election. If you follow the news at all, they were meddling in the French election. They will continue to try to sway Europe and other parts of the planet to their framework of thinking, which is nation states first, anti-globalization, anti-global order, and in a system that Russia can prop itself up and say, “We are important. See? Because if you mess with us, you’re going to get the Bear.” Yes, got it, and a couple elections just happened.
I know I’m out of time, so I’ll just finish with this: 17-year run, he’s been in power for 17 years. Prime minister, the president, then they had a two-term limit so he became prime minister again. He found a guy named Dmitri Medvedev and said, “Hey, you’re going to be president and I’ll be prime minister.” Well, while he was prime minister for one term, they changed the Russian Constitution and they said, “Oh, you know, we have two-term limits for a president of four years each. That doesn’t seem like it’s long enough. Let’s change our Constitution to two presidential terms of six years each.”
What that did is qualified Vladimir Putin to run again for two more six-year terms, which he immediately did. So he’s now back in office for a six-year term. He will easily win the next six-[year] term, and then maybe they change the Constitution again after that. So during this 17 years of a straight run, he stabilized Russia from the economic chaos, restored Russian pride, consolidated Russian political power, destroyed all political dissent—including a free press—and has restored Russia as a world power player.
That’s where we are now in today’s world. I think this one might be a doctored photo, as well. All right. I got a couple more slides, but I know we’re out of time. So I’ll let you all ask questions, or we can stop or do whatever you like. I’m here for you. I hope you understand just that much more what’s up with this Putin guy, why he’s so important, and a living legend with 80 to 90% approval ratings, [and] will continue to influence Russia and the world for the remainder of our lives. Cool?