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A “thug” in the Kremlin: unmasking Vladimir Putin

Robert Horvath

20 April 2012

Almost nothing remains of the once imposing myth of Putin the energetic moderniser, writes Robert Horvath

The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin
By Masha Gessen | Granta | $29.99

VLADIMIR Putin’s metamorphosis from a democrat into an autocrat is one of the greatest paradoxes of recent history. During the 1990s, he established his democratic credentials by serving a political apprenticeship as a deputy to Anatoly Sobchak, the St Petersburg mayor who was the greatest orator of Russia’s anti-totalitarian revolution. It was Putin’s reputation as Sobchak’s protégé that helped to persuade the ailing Boris Yeltsin to anoint the obscure ex-KGB agent as his successor. This trust seemed to be vindicated by the first term of Putin’s presidency, during which he implemented liberal reforms and defended them with cogent arguments. Even as he crushed media barons and waged a dirty war in Chechnya, Putin appeared to be a convinced advocate of Russia’s liberal future. In 2004, an eminent British scholar could plausibly argue that “one of Putin’s central goals was to transform the democratic capitalist project from a state of emergency into an everyday part of Russian normality.” Later that year, German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder extolled Putin as a “flawless democrat.”

Today, even Putin’s most sycophantic admirers would hesitate before indulging in such an extravagant panegyric. Indeed, Alexey Chadaev, who helped to codify “Putin’s ideology” in a Kremlin-authorised volume, boasted that Putin’s early liberal rhetoric was a kind of “instrumental language,” a set of empty, ritualistic formulas like the invocations of Lenin in the speeches of late Soviet leaders. During Putin’s second presidential term (2004–08), he abandoned these word games and laid the foundations of a new kind of authoritarian regime, which combined repression of opponents with the mobilisation of supporters. Credible opposition leaders were ousted from their parties and “Stop Lists” banned them from appearing on state television. A succession of draconian laws circumscribed the rights of NGOs and turned elections into a regimented farce. Protest demonstrations were dispersed with ostentatious brutality. At the same time, the Kremlin created a host of militantly loyal youth organisations, which staged anti-Western spectacles and fought a “counter-revolutionary” war of attrition against the regime’s adversaries. The foot soldiers in this war included gangs of soccer hooligans, who were implicated in a series of violent attacks on opposition youth.

Masha Gessen’s new study of Putin’s ascendancy offers a compelling explanation of how the “flawless democrat” became the gravedigger of Russian democracy and an authoritarian strongman who presided over Russia’s degradation into one of the world’s most corrupt states. Her essayistic narrative intertwines two strands of argument. The first is psychological. She traces the mafiosi-like aspect of Putin’s rule to a brutal childhood in the apartment courtyards of postwar Leningrad. Here the young Vladimir made a name for himself as a violent youth whose uncontrollable temper led to his expulsion from the Young Pioneers, an unusual expedient that was reserved for particularly disruptive delinquents. Nostalgically recalling these years in his official autobiography, Putin boasted that “I was a real thug.” What saved him from a life of conventional criminality was his discovery of martial arts, which taught him to focus his aggression. He also found a career that matched his persona. During his school years, Putin was obsessed by the idea of joining the secret police and idolised Yan Berzin, a founder of Soviet military intelligence.

Little is known about Putin’s years in the KGB. Gessen raises doubts about Putin’s insistence that he played no role in the repression of dissidents. She cites a memoir by the Soviet defector Vladimir Usoltsev, whose sympathetic account of Putin notes in passing that he served in the Fifth Directorate, which targeted dissidents as manifestations of “ideological diversion.” She might also have mentioned an interview that the young pro-democracy activist Roman Dobrokhotov conducted with Mikhail Kheifets, the distinguished Leningrad literary scholar. According to Kheifets, his interrogation for samizdat activities was attended by a young man who had been courting the daughter of a family friend. That young man, he alleges, was Vladimir Putin.

The Putin myth celebrates his patriotic service in foreign intelligence during the Gorbachev years, when he defended the Soviet motherland against the intrigues of the West during a tour of duty in East Germany. In fact, Putin was posted to Dresden, a relative backwater, which offered few opportunities for cloak-and-dagger combat. Gessen suggests that the defence of the motherland was not uppermost in Putin’s mind during these years. In August 2011, she tracked down one of Putin’s West German contacts, a former Baader Meinhof terrorist, who spoke to her on the condition of strict anonymity. What amazed this terrorist was not merely Putin’s acquisitiveness but his brazenness. “He always wanted to have things,” he told Gessen. “He mentioned to several people wishes that he wanted from the West.” Items on Putin’s shopping list that the terrorist was able to procure included a Grundig shortwave radio and a Blaupunkt car radio. Unlike Stasi agents, who would at least go through the motions of offering to pay for gifts, Putin “never even started asking, ‘What do I owe you?’”

This avarice was one of the sources of the explosion of corruption that took place during Putin’s presidency. Not only did his wishlist grow to include foreign bank accounts and a Black Sea palace, but he also became increasingly reckless. Gessen recounts two bizarre incidents in 2005, when Putin appropriated objects – a diamond ring and a replica Kalashnikov rifle filled with vodka – which American hosts had shown him. She speculates that such conduct was a symptom not of conventional kleptomania, but of pleonexia, the insatiable desire to have what rightfully belongs to others.

The second level of Gessen’s indictment is political. She debunks the carefully fabricated myth of Putin the idealistic democrat, who was inspired by Sobchak, his former law professor, to break with the KGB and join him in resisting the August 1991 coup. Exposing the mass of contradictions and implausible claims in the account of this period in Putin’s autobiography, Gessen argues that there was one simple reason why Putin found himself in the milieu of democratic politics: he was a KGB plant. At the end of his term in Dresden, he had received the unusual honour of a visit from Yury Drozdov, a legendary KGB major-general. The only possible reason for such a meeting, one of Putin’s ex-KGB colleagues told Gessen, was to give Putin an important new assignment: the infiltration of the inner circle of one of the rising stars of the democratic movement.

What enabled Putin to fulfil that assignment with flying colours were Sobchak’s own authoritarian leanings. Putin’s supposed “democratic” mentor was a skilful manipulator of liberal rhetoric but his political instincts were those of a local communist party boss. Sobchak’s attitude towards St Petersburg’s grassroots democrats, the intellectuals who had risen from the ranks of the “informal” movements of the perestroika years, was contemptuous. No sooner had they voted him into office as chairman of the city council than he castigated them for their obsession with “democratic procedures for the sake of democratic procedures” and nominated a communist vice-admiral as his deputy. During the tense days of the failed putsch in August 1991, when Boris Yeltsin stood on a tank in Moscow to denounce the usurpers, Sobchak and his trusted aide, Vladimir Putin, went into hiding in the basement of the Kirov industrial plant. There they played a waiting game, keeping lines of communication open to both sides.

Gessen claims that Putin was not merely an opportunist but also the coup organisers’ mole in Sobchak’s entourage. She points to his role in negotiating a contract for the purchase of foodstuffs, which were redirected from St Petersburg to Moscow as part of a plan to flood the capital’s empty shelves with food in the aftermath of the coup. This is a plausible but unproven conjecture.

WHAT is clear is that Putin played a sinister role in the protracted economic and social crisis that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. As Sobchak’s deputy, he headed St Petersburg’s “Committee for International Relations,” which was supposed to coordinate efforts to feed the city and avert social breakdown. Confronted by a real prospect of famine, Yeltsin’s bankrupt government had given federal units like St Petersburg the right to export raw materials to raise cash for the import of foodstuffs. During the first half of 1992, Putin signed $92 million worth of such contracts, but the food never came. An investigation by Marina Salye, a leader of the democratic bloc in the city council, revealed evidence of corruption that was extreme even by the lawless standards of the early nineties. First, each of the contracts contained a deliberate drafting error, which made them legally unenforceable. Second, they involved massive commissions, sometimes over 30 per cent, which were presumably kickbacks for corrupt officials. But what was most extraordinary was the fact that none of the promised food was ever delivered. Not only was $92 million siphoned off into foreign bank accounts, but an estimated billion dollars of primary materials – oil, aluminium and cotton – had also vanished into thin air.

Salye’s report was tabled in the city council, which voted to send it to Sobchak with the recommendation that it be submitted to the prosecutor’s office and that Putin be dismissed. Sobchak refused to act against his deputy. Undeterred, the indefatigable Salye took her report to Moscow, where the case was taken up by Yury Boldyrev, another Petersburg democrat, who had just been appointed director of the Kremlin’s new auditing department. After a review of the evidence and a private confrontation with Sobchak and Putin, Boldyrev submitted a damning memorandum to Yeltsin. What saved Putin was the fact that Yeltsin was then locked in a mortal struggle with the parliament and could not risk weakening his position by a clash with the rulers of Russia’s second largest city.

The bloody climax of that struggle provided Sobchak with a pretext to dissolve the city council. Now unassailable as the power behind Sobchak’s throne, Putin helped to transform St Petersburg into a frightening, authoritarian metropolis, where the former KGB cast a long shadow over public life. Half police state, half the criminal capital of Russia, the city was decrepit, impoverished and oppressive. It became a place where journalists were kept under surveillance and murders of political and business leaders were routine. In short, observes Gessen, it was a place “very much like what Russia itself would become in a few years, once it came to be ruled by the people who ruled St Petersburg in the 1990s.”

But there was one important difference. During the nineties in St Petersburg, elections were still a mechanism for competition for power, rather than the puppet show that they became during Putin’s presidency. As a result, in 1996 the unpopular Sobchak was voted out of office and lost his immunity from prosecution. Soon he was the target of a major criminal investigation centred on shady property dealings. Putin, who had taken up a position in the Kremlin, arranged his former master’s escape on a private jet to Paris on Revolution Day 1997. This act of loyalty impressed Yeltsin, but Putin’s intervention was hardly selfless. His own abuses of office would inevitably have been exposed if Sobchak had been put on trial.

The obstruction of justice would become a central theme of Putin’s year as director of the Federal Security Service, a crucial moment in his career that receives surprisingly little attention in Gessen’s book. He went to great lengths to silence Alexander Litvinenko and a group of rogue officers, who called a press conference to allege that they had been ordered to conduct assassinations of public figures. Putin was also suspected of producing a compromising video of the prosecutor-general, Yury Skuratov, which derailed a major investigation of corruption in Yeltsin’s circle.

The apartment bombing campaign that killed some 300 sleeping Russians in September 1999 transformed Putin from a political nonentity into a national saviour. Like Boris Berezovsky, Alexander Litvinenko and the American commentator David Satter, Gessen contends that the bombings were the product of a conspiracy to create an atmosphere of national crisis that would enable Putin to take power. The key exhibit in their case is the so-called “Ryazan Test.” Nine days after the fourth and final blast, a team of Federal Security Service agents were arrested for allegedly planting explosives in the basement of an apartment building in a provincial city. During the ensuing months, the authorities appear to have done everything humanly possible to create the appearance of a cover-up. But the conspiracy theory has been harshly criticised by some of regime’s most outspoken adversaries. They include the liberal journalist Yulia Latynina, who contends that there is abundant evidence that jihadi elements in the Chechen resistance were responsible for the blasts. By failing to address this alternative explanation, Gessen weakens her own case.

Gessen is on stronger ground in her account of two major corruption scandals that have become emblematic of the degeneration of the Russian state under Putin. The first is the case of Sergei Magnitsky, a courageous lawyer who was arrested by corrupt policemen in retribution for his efforts to expose the embezzlement of $230 million of state funds. For a year, he was incarcerated in Moscow’s notorious Butyrka prison, where he was pressured to withdraw his accusations. In an effort to break him, he was transferred to the worst parts of the facility, and denied food and medical assistance as his health failed. He died in November 2009.

The other case involves Sergei Kolesnikov, the whistleblower who exposed the financial dealings behind “Putin’s Palace.” A former business associate of Putin’s in the 1990s, Kolesnikov had supervised a scheme for oligarchs to pour hundreds of millions of dollars into a philanthropic venture for the purchase of medical equipment. In fact, he now claims, the entire scheme was a front for Putin’s personal enrichment. At the beginning, Kolesnikov acquiesced in the diversion of funds because the lion’s share of the oligarchs’ largesse was being invested in the Russian economy. What drove Kolesnikov to go public was an order to devote more and more of the fund’s resources into the construction of a baroque palace on the Black Sea, a billion-dollar anachronism that was reminiscent of Nicolae Ceausescu’s self-aggrandising architecture.

Despite the growing evidence that Putin enjoys all the impunity that a corrupted state apparatus and a manipulated political system can provide, Gessen concludes on an optimistic note. The apparently impregnable regime, she argues, is vulnerable because it has been constructed around one, deeply flawed individual. It has no other durable props: no viable political parties, no normal politics, no coherent ideology. Hence, those who seek to overthrow it “would not have to overcome the force of an ingrained ideology – they would merely have to show that the tyrant had feet of clay.”

Gessen has succeeded in exposing the dark side of Vladimir Putin, but she underestimates his ideological creativity. Since 2004, Putin and a cohort of pro-Kremlin commentators have forged a potent ideological synthesis uniting the defence of Russian sovereignty, virulent anti-Americanism and anti-oligarchic rhetoric. Incessantly promoted by state television, by pro-Kremlin youth organisations and by the ruling party, the regime’s “managed nationalism” celebrates Putin as an exemplary patriot and smears the opposition and uncooperative NGOs as traitors.

A classic statement of this propaganda was the documentary Anatomy of Protest, broadcast on Russia’s NTV network on 15 March this year and repeated three days later, which demonised those protesting against election fraud as opportunistic hirelings and accomplices of the US embassy. It is doubtful whether such crude exercises in agitprop can save the regime, but they have contributed to the rise of Russian ultranationalism. Conspiracy theories that were once the preserve of a lunatic fringe are today the conventional wisdom of Russia’s national broadcasters. It is possible that Putin’s most enduring legacy may be this poisoning of public discourse.

As a portrait of a ruler’s moral degeneration, Gessen’s work is worthy of Suetonius. Almost nothing remains of the once imposing myth of Putin the energetic moderniser, a man on a mission to rescue the Russian state from the oligarchs. As an eyewitness to the anti-Milosevic revolution in Belgrade in 2000, Gessen suggests that the collapse of Putin’s rule could happen very suddenly. One sign of his loosening grip was the scale of the mass protests after the Duma elections, which Gessen recounts in an epilogue. It has become plausible to contemplate a post-Putin Russia. What remains unclear is whether a more liberal society or a new dictatorship will emerge from the ruins of his regime. •

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Ambitious agenda: prime minister William Morris (Billy) Hughes and Keith Murdoch photograhed in France on 3 July 1918. Australian War Memorial

Ambitious agenda: prime minister William Morris (Billy) Hughes and Keith Murdoch photograhed in France on 3 July 1918. Australian War Memorial