Vladimir Putin mines history to solidify his position as Russia's modern czar

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First and foremost, Russian president Vladimir Putin is a politician.

And like all politicians, he and his advisers devote enormous attention to how he's portrayed in the media.

Recently, Putin scored a public-relations coup  when he was photographed with a snow leopard.

It was reminiscent of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's photo-op with a giant panda in China.

As the Winter Games get underway in Sochi, expect to be bombarded with many more well-crafted images of the Russian president.

Putin has already been photographed playing ice hockey, practising judo, driving a race car, hunting while shirtless on the Russian steppe, riding a horseback while shirtless on the Russian steppe, fishing while shirtless on the Russian steppe—hell, he does practically everything without wearing a shirt.

It's designed to demonstrate that he's a macho man of the people—and not one of those effete elitists stuck in Moscow.

Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin, a 2013 book by Brookings Institution scholars Fiona Hill and Clifford G. Gaddy, revealed that Putin also plays up the role of "outsider" by using crude populist language.

The authors reported how Putin often talks about eliminating Chechen terrorists in the "outhouse".

Putin also spoke of hanging former Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili "by the balls".

The goal is to talk to enemies of the state in the same way as the average man in the street would speak to them.

This helps explain why members of the punk band Pussy Riot were treated so callously—including receiving lengthy prison terms—after they ridiculed the Russian Orthodox Church.

But acting like an outsider is just one of the ways in which Putin connects with the electorate.

Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin also disclosed how Putin applies lessons he learned in the late 1980s as a KGB case officer in Dresden, Germany.

He holds an annual call-in show for hours with the Russian masses. One of the reasons is it gives him insights into what average people might be thinking about.

He's the "case officer", listening to people's comments, winning them over.

Putin applies a similar "case officer" approach in his dealings with oligarchs. He leaves them with no doubt that if they don't pay taxes, they will face legal consequences.

"In a televised meeting in July 2000, Putin laid down the ground rules with the oligarchs," Hill and Gaddy wrote. "Putin sketched out a scheme that essentially resembled a 'protection racket'. It was the kind of deal he might have forged as a KGB case officer trying to recruit a double agent in Dresden. The oligarchs would be allowed to continue to pursue their businesses and increase their wealth, but they would have to agree to a new tax regime that would give the federal government more resources."

The book also reveals that Putin is a survivalist. This mindset was forged during his childhood in Leningrad. His older brother had died during the Nazis' siege of the city, which resulted in food shortages and massive suffering.

As a survivalist, Putin retired his country's international debt obligations as quickly as possible. It left Russia on a firmer financial footing when the global economy melted down in 2008.

Putin served two terms as president from 2000 to 2008, then spent a stint as prime minister before being elected president again in 2012.

He often relies on historical references to justify his actions.

Traditionally, Russian peasants would appeal to the czar when the country's nobility was acting in a high-handed manner.

It didn't always work, but there was often a perception that the monarch was on their side.

Putin plays this role in the 21st century, often rushing in to solve crises when others are failing.

On rare occasions this backfires on him, such as during the country's forest fires of 2010 or in the sinking of a Russian nuclear submarine called the Kursk in 2000.

According to Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin, he frequently compares himself to Pyotr Stolypin, a prime minister under Czar Nicholas II who was assassinated in 1911.

Stolypin came to power after the disastrous Russo-Japanese war of 1905, and introduced reforms to calm unrest in the country.

Similarly, Putin likes to see himself as a leader who rebuilt the Russian state after the chaos of the 1990s, which culminated in the country defaulting on its debt obligations in 1998.

"Ultimately, Putin's uses of history and his synthesis of ideas are part of a carefully calculated policy," Hill and Gaddy wrote. "Drawing on his personal interest in Russian history, Putin has weighed up the political debates of the 1990s about Russia's future and the restoration of the state. He has then carefully mined Russia's past for what he deems to be appropriate parallels and concepts."

It's one of the reasons he has helped the Orthodox Church revive itself to become a major institution in Russian life. That, in turn, has led directly to the country's crackdown on gays and lesbians, which is attracting international opprobrium.

Given Putin's keen interest in Russian history, no one should be surprised if this passion receives prominence in tomorrow's Olympic opening ceremony.

Putin is the modern czar. Why not let the world know about his forebears?

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