ORYOL, RUSSIA >> After 19 months in a Russian jail awaiting trial for “extremism,” Dennis O. Christensen, a Jehovah’s Witness from Denmark detained for his faith, received an unexpected lift from President Vladimir Putin at the end of last year.
The president, speaking in the Kremlin in December, declared that prosecuting people for their religious affiliations was “a total nonsense” and had to stop.
But instead of curbing a campaign across Russia against Jehovah’s Witnesses, Putin’s remark has been followed by more arrests; a conviction and six-year prison sentence for Christensen; and, in a new low, reports late last month of the torture of believers detained in Siberia.
The gulf between what Putin says and what happens in Russia raises a fundamental question about the nature of his rule after more than 18 years at the pinnacle of an authoritarian system: Is Putin really the omnipotent leader whom his critics attack and his own propagandists promote? Or does he sit atop a state that is, in fact, shockingly ramshackle, a system driven more by the capricious and often venal calculations of competing bureaucracies and interest groups than by Kremlin diktats?
The belief, widespread among critics of President Donald Trump, that Russia propelled him to the White House by colluding with his campaign is premised in part on the first view of Putin’s capacities and reach. The Mueller report, if ever released to the public, may help Americans better understand how Russia does or doesn’t work in reality.
But to some of Putin’s fellow citizens, the Russian president’s grip looks less firm than often imagined.
Ekaterina Schulmann is a political scientist in Moscow and a member of Putin’s Council for Civil Society and Human Rights who challenged the president over the persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses at the December meeting in the Kremlin. She said Putin’s grip on the country had been vastly exaggerated by both supporters and opponents.
“This is not a personally run empire but a huge and difficult-to-manage bureaucratic machine with its own internal rules and principles,” she said. “It happens time and again that the president says something, and then nothing or the opposite happens.”
A plethora of bureaucratic and political forces both reinforce and sap the president’s power: the security services, the Russian Orthodox Church, billionaire oligarchs, local officials and others, each with its own sometimes competing and sometimes overlapping interests. Putin has to manage them as best he can, but he doesn’t control everything they each do.
One analyst is even more blunt about Putin and the state he presides over. “The system is dysfunctional,” said Andrew Wood, a former British ambassador to Moscow and now an associate fellow at Chatham House, a research organization in London. “No one man could possibly control everything.”
To most Westerners, accustomed to seeing Putin strutting in front of TV cameras and projecting an aura of effortless command, such statements can sound incredible. It is true that in high-prestige matters of state, like hosting the Olympic Games or the World Cup soccer tournament, or building a bridge to Crimea, Putin has made the system act on his commands. The same is true for matters that ensure his grip on power, like cracking down on disobedient oligarchs and political opponents.
And after he came to power at the end of 1999, he effectively curbed the conspicuous disorder and noisy infighting that under his frequently drunk predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, left Russia with a state that barely functioned.
But many projects he has backed, like a critical bridge over the Amur River between Russia and China, and a high-profile undertaking to build a highway between Moscow and St. Petersburg, have stalled.
There are limits to just how much time and political capital Putin can invest in prodding corrupt or incompetent officials and contractors to do as they are told.
The construction of a new rocket launch center in the Russian Far East, pushed by Putin as “one of modern Russia’s biggest and most ambitious projects,” is taking years longer than planned, slowed by corruption, strikes by unpaid workers and other setbacks. The prosecutor general’s office in Moscow says that more than $150 million has been stolen from the project, which it said had been marred by 17,000 legal violations by more than 1,000 people.
This stark mismatch between Putin’s words and the system’s actions was on display again last month when police in Moscow arrested Michael Calvey, the American founder of one of the oldest and biggest Russia-focused investment funds, on fraud charges after a dispute with a rival over control of a Russian bank.
Calvey’s arrest, on charges that could result in up to 10 years in prison, was at odds with repeated statements by Putin that Russia must attract foreign investors and keep law-enforcement agencies from meddling in business disputes.
Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, insisted that Putin had no prior knowledge of Calvey’s detention, but no one outside the president’s innermost circle can be sure.
Alexei Kudrin, a liberal-minded old friend of Putin’s from St. Petersburg and his former finance minister, complained that the arrest “fully disregards the directives of the president” and had created an “emergency for the economy.”
Kudrin’s observation drew widespread scorn. Critics of Putin accused the former minister of deluding himself with the idea that the president was not responsible for Calvey’s troubles and countless other examples of Russian law enforcement run amok.
Some recalled how at the height of murderous purges in the 1930s, many of Stalin’s acolytes refused to believe that the Soviet dictator knew what was going on — which he clearly did, since he signed off on lists of people to be executed — and blamed out-of-control underlings.
But Russia today, Schulmann said, resembles not so much the rigidly regimented country ruled by Stalin as the dilapidated autocracy of Russia in the early 19th century. The ruler at the time, Czar Nicholas I, presided over corrupt civilian and military bureaucracies that expanded Russian territory, led the country into a disastrous war in Crimea and drove the economy into a stagnant dead end.
Nicholas knew the limits of his power: “It is not I who rule Russia,” he complained. “It is the 30,000 clerks.” The only real difference now, Schulmann said, is that “clerks,” or bureaucrats, now number more than 1.5 million.
“It is a great illusion that you just need to reach the leader and make him listen and everything will change,” she added. “This is not how it happens.”
The illusion, however, is largely a result of the Kremlin’s own propaganda about the man at the top of what it calls the “power vertical.”
An annual call-in show broadcast on state television features Putin taking hours of questions and complaints from the public. The ritual is invariably followed by reports in state media about how crumbling schools, broken heating systems, giant potholes and other problems raised by callers have been fixed on Putin’s orders.
Christensen, the Dane who has been jailed since May 2017, said he still held out hope that Putin might command compliance with his December statement that “we can and even must be more liberal” toward Jehovah’s Witnesses, a Christian denomination.
“I was very encouraged by this statement,” Christensen, 47, said last month, interviewed from behind bars while on a video link to a courtroom in Oryol, a city 230 miles south of Moscow. “I hope that the Russian president was telling the truth and was speaking honestly.”
Putin, he said, had sent a clear signal that “this should not be happening in the 21st century. We don’t live in the Middle Ages anymore.”
For taking part in Bible readings and prayer sessions in Oryol, Christensen, a former carpenter, was found guilty in early February of committing “a grave, premeditated crime directed at the foundations of the constitutional order and the security of the state.”
His wife, Irina, who is Russian, attended the court hearing where a lawyer made a request that her husband be released to house arrest pending an appeal of his conviction. She said she did not know whether Putin had made his Kremlin comments only as a public relations ploy or had bowed to other forces in the system that favored harsh crackdowns.
The Orthodox Church has campaigned for years against Jehovah’s Witnesses, a rival it views as a heretical sect. This hostility has meshed neatly with the interests of the security services, which since Soviet times have viewed the denomination as subversive because its global headquarters are in the United States and its members steadfastly refuse to inform on one another.
To buttress Christensen’s plea to be let out of jail, his lawyer, Irina Krasnikova, noted in court that judges previously involved in the case “have apparently not read the president’s statement.” The judge, unimpressed, ordered that the Dane be kept behind bars.
“The cult of Putin at the top of an all-powerful ‘power vertical’ is a myth. It does not exist,” said Mark Galeotti, a British Russia expert and the author of the new book “We Need to Talk About Putin: How the West Gets Him Wrong.” Instead, Galeotti said, Putin is a “gray blur that allows us all to create our own Putin,” either all-powerful and Machiavellian or struggling just to hold an essentially decrepit system together.
This at times chaotic setup has proved particularly advantageous to Russia’s security apparatus, notably the Federal Security Service, or FSB, the domestic arm of the Soviet-era KGB. Putin, a former KGB officer, has largely given the FSB free rein, even when its actions directly contradict his stated goals.
Putin has frequently spoken, for example, of Russia’s need to develop small and medium-size businesses but has left the FSB, which operates mafia-style protection rackets, to ride roughshod over many enterprises.
In his annual state of the nation address last month, he again stressed the need to let business people work freely. Noting that he had made the same demand in a previous address, Putin acknowledged that “unfortunately, the situation has not improved much.”
Christensen blamed the FSB, with an assist from the Orthodox Church, for his own legal troubles. Putin may think it’s “total nonsense” for people like Christensen to be sitting in jail. But for now, that is where he waits. He was recently joined there by a second believer from Oryol, Sergei Skrynnikov, whom prosecutors want jailed for three years for “extremism.”
“A properly run dictatorship looks very different from this,” Galeotti said.