Putin: New Faces and Flaws in the Weave · 11 July 2010

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin recently issued reprimands to six deputy ministers for not fulfilling Dmitry Medvedev’s presidential orders in a timely fashion.

Apparently, under the Russian Labor Code, a reprimand is the lightest possible form of punishment.

Last year, only one in six presidential orders was completed on time, while for the first five months of 2010, one in five was finished, the head of the Kremlin’s control department, told Medvedev on 21 June. At that meeting, Medvedev ordered the government (headed by Putin in his position as prime minister) to give him a list of those to blame, including their punishments, “right up to termination.”

One newspaper article then carried this paragraph: The government treats the president’s orders just as seriously as any other orders, a government official said. The official suggested that people close to Medvedev could be pressing the issue because they are uncomfortable with the prime minister’s political clout.

Despite Medvedev’s comments, neither Putin nor Medvedev seem generally inclined to use the termination option as a management tool. After the disastrous Yeltsin years, both Putin and Medvedev crave stability in the Russian governmental system.

But there is also a difference. Medvedev is probably disinclined to use termination because of his intellectual nature which seems to generally focus on the good in people. Putin, however, is clearly more manipulative and inclined to use force.

Putin’s reluctance to use the termination option can be explained, at least in part, by considering how some historical strong-men have approached this issue.

There will be an element of Stalin in Putin’s approach. Sergo Beria, son of Lavrentiy and who had his own professional dealings with Stalin, wrote that above a certain level in the hierarchy of Party and State, Stalin appointed only individuals he knew personally. He sent for them from time to time and never ceased studying them. Before promoting a cadre he spent a long time analysing him. He had one unchanging rule: one can never be too suspicious.

Such analysis and study takes time, so there is a lot to be said for sticking with old faces. Louis Bourreinne, Napoleon’s first secretary, wrote that Napoleon had an extreme aversion for mediocrity, and generally rejected a man of that character when recommended to him; but if he had known such a man long, he yielded to the influence of habit, dreading nothing so much as change, or, as he was accustomed to say himself, new faces. Napoleon’s third private secretary, Fain, confirmed that Napoleon had a horror of change, feared new faces, and held single-mindedly to conserving all the men who were formed under his shadow.

All this sounds like Putin who had a solid eight years as president beginning in 2000 to choose who would progress under his shadow and those who have so progressed generally seem at little risk from new faces.

At Nuremberg, Herman Goering said that Adolf Hitler found it extremely hard to get used to new faces, and that he did not like to make changes in his entourage. He preferred to continue working with men whom he did not like, rather than change them.

Albert Speer explained that Hitler was generally pleased if his lieutenants showed some flaw in the weave, and quoted one of them, Karl Hanke:

It is all to the good if associates have faults and know that the superior is aware of them. That is why the Fuhrer so seldom changes his assistants. For he finds them easiest to work with. Almost every one of then has his defect; that helps keep them in line.

In Hitler’s case, wrote Speer, immoral conduct, remote Jewish ancestors, or recent membership in the party were counted as flaws in the weave.

Mao Zedong operated on a similar principle. His doctor, Li Zhisui, wrote of Mao’s method of finding the flaw in the weave and of the control this gave him:

Repeatedly in my years with Mao I watched him win loyalty from others in the same way he had won it from me. He would begin by charming people, winning their trust, getting them to open up, to confess their faults just as I had told him about my problematic bourgeois past. Mao would then forgive them, save them, and make them feel safe. Thus redeemed, they became loyal.

Dr Li then added:

His loyalists, in turn, would become dependent on him, and the longer they depended on him, the more they had to depend on him, the more impossible life outside his circle became.

This is a very similar comment to that of Speer who wrote that all of Hitler’s lieutenants who had worked closely with him for a long time were entirely dependent and obedient.

Somewhat paradoxically, Speer also wrote that Hitler loved to see new faces, to try out new persons. The paradox would seem best explained by the combination of factors. Firstly, Hitler recognised his own hypnotic powers and ability to fascinate; so it was a bit of a game some diversion from the familiar servile faces around him and possibly a chance to overcome his loneliness at the top.

Secondly, it accorded with his tendency to divide power wherever he encountered it. Speer noted that Hitler often had two or three competitors for each important position, all of whom he directed immediately (personally). Thus, Hitler was all to ready to treat the second men in an organisation, as soon as they were presented to him, as members of his staff and to make assignments directly to them.

Hitler was an instinctive psychologist of genius in his manipulation of people. In this he differed from Stalin, Mao and even Napoleon who had a more methodical approach. Indeed, Speer wrote that Hitler seemed to have no sense of methodical deceit that is, he did not plan his moves in advance like a chess-player or a Stalin. In his approach to divide and rule Hitler was more instinctive than Stalin etc

From the point of view of manipulation and deceit, Putin is no Hitler. His psychological approach is closer to the methodical Stalin, Mao and Napoleon.

So what is the result of all this?

General Caulaincourt, a close aide to Napoleon, wrote of a positive effect of not liking new faces: The master’s well-known dislike of any change (among his entourage) gave everyone a sense of security which proved greatly to the advantage of truth.

This aversion to new faces also had another benefit in that Napoleon’s lieutenants generally had little fear of exposing their own lieutenants to Napoleon. His third secretary, Fain, wrote about the Administrative Councils: Each minister was careful to bring with him to the council the colleague who could be most useful to him. It thus helped ministers avoid the type of reaction that Speer noted, when he wrote that in order to avoid raising up … a rival in his own household, many a minister took care not to appoint an intelligent and vigorous deputy.

So, this could be one benefit of Putin’s approach; and indeed I suspect that it is.

The disadvantage is that too many incompetent (and corrupt) people remain in the highest levels of government, and this impedes the progress of Russia. Medvedev may well understand this better than Putin, and his proding on this issue may be more than simply being “uncomfortable with the prime minister’s political clout”.