Apologies in the toolset of power management

Apologies are considered a sign of defeat or weakness in Russian political tradition. But President Putin often breaks with it.

Apologizing is believed to be a sign of weakness in the Russian political tradition. Our rulers don’t like to apologize, and their subject follow their example.

Putin an exception

President Putin often comes across as an exception from this. He apologized publicly several times—but he does it only before people he deems clearly below his station.

The most high-profiled apologies of Putin;

  • 2002: The most publicly known incidence of polictical apology on the part of President Putin, after the botched attempt to save the hostages of the so-called “Nord-Ost” terror act. It was before the arrest of Khodorkovsky and the subsequent recognition of Putin as an indisputed head and arbiter of all matters Russian, and he used the expression “forgive us”, instead of the more traditional “me” he stuck to afterwards.
  • 2004: Putin paid a birthday visit to a renown actress in St. Petersburg, and apologized for being too busy to attend her mono-play.
  • 2011: Putin apologized to residents of Sochi for the inconveniences caused by the preparations to the Sochi Olympics in 2014.
  • 2012: Apologies from Putin to Moscovites annoyed by the frequent traffic chaos caused by the government motorcades
  • 2013: An apology to people affected by a natural disaster in the Far East for a substandard effort on the part of the rescue services.
  • 2015: To Elton John, for two pranksters who called the pop-star and made him think he talked to Putin.
  • 2016: Putin apologized to WWII veterans for the modern youth who not always pay them the respect they deserve.
  • 2016: Putin apologized to the family of Boris Karlov, the assassinated Russian ambassador to Turkey, for not being able to protect the diplomat.
  • 2017, June: Putin apologized to his audience for not being able to answer all questions during his annual televized Q&A session
  • 2017, August: to the Japanese PM Abe, for being late from the meeting with President Trump


A few years back, the magazine Esquire set up a list of all known Putin’s apologies between 2000 and 2009 (Link in Russian, no later stats are available).

The picture below visualized how many times Putin apologized during official arrangements. Sum total: 145 apologies during 10 years. (Includes instances when Putin was heard using the Russian equivalents of “sorry”, “excuse me”, “forgive me”, “I beg your pardon” etc.)

President Putin public apologies in 2000-09
Infographics with the number of President Putin’s public apologies in 2000-09.

Putin makes corruption work for Russia

Corruption is a powerful tool of government in Russia. There’s close to no history of corruption-free rule in the country. President Putin makes sure to use it efficiently.

Common sense suggests that corruption is bad for rulers because it erodes the loyalty of their servants. If this is true, why are Russian rulers generally, and President Putin in particular, so cavalier about corruption?


To start with, corruption is a crucial lubricant in countries with dysfunctional bureaucracy. Well-tuned “deep state” run by politicians accountable to their constituency is a relatively recent invention. Before that, all great empires were run just the way Putin runs his bureaucracy. He walks a tightrope combining corruption at all levels with effective control where most lucrative positions are mostly occupied by people best suited for the job. Putin’s fascination with China stems from the brilliance with which the Chinese have been managing this since the dawn of time.

Political control

Corruption secures loyalty among Putin’s power base. It’s so much easier to reign in people with greasy palms. You get a lot of controls on the subjects if and when they get the wrong idea.


Russia has never been run in a corruption-free way. According to an old Russian saying, it’s inconceivable when people “stay thirsty standing at the stream”. We think that Westerners steal just like we do. They are just better at putting a nice face on it. Among the Russian elite to insist that their friends, associates and key assistants stay clean is kind of weird.

“What have I done to you that you keep me thirsty standing at the stream?” This is a question too awkward to ask, and even more awkward to answer. However, it’s bound to hang in the air if you call some of your employees to the carpet to discuss irregularities. Therefore, it’s safer to go the way of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Only when corruption starts posing operational problems, it’s time for plain talk. Even then, it’s often packaged in terms of work efficiency and personal loyalty.


Corruption is a powerful tool of government in Russia. President Putin makes sure to use it efficiently.