September 13, 2012

Putin – the Faceless Apparatchik


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Masha Gessen ends her book about Putin* with an Epilogue, which consists of her diary entries covering a “week in December”. It wasn’t just any week but the week from the 3rd to the 10th December 2011, the week of The Snow Revolution in Moscow. This was the time when, almost in spite of herself, she experienced the restoration of her faith in Russian democracy. It was a time of volatile emotions for Gessen, as high hopes were mingled with fears. She worried at first that the “brewing revolution had no unifying symbol, no slogan” only to rejoice when someone coined the phrase the “snow revolution”. She fretted when a demonstration was moved from “the fabulously named Revolution Square” to a place called Bolotnaya (Swampy) Square… She applauded every good joke told during manifestations, and celebrated that “the goons who were spouting propaganda” from tv screens “started speaking a human language” but then she suddenly remembered that the same journalists sounded human about 12 years earlier, before they became Putin’s goons.
The choice of this blog-like diary for the ending of a book about Putin ought to be surprising but isn’t really, because the most lively part of her book concerns the Nineties, the Yeltsin era of “democracy” and that week in December left her hoping for more of the same. Gessen leaves us in no doubt as to why she found the Yeltsin period of her life the most satisfying. She states verbatim “I gained everything in the 1990s”. All the active participants in the momentous events of the early Nineties she describes as “brilliant”, every businessman had a Ph.D., every politician was an “activist” (and more often than not had a Ph.D. to boot). I was reading these parts of the book – book about Putin, lest we forget – having an unmistakeable feeling of déjà vu: we’ve seen it all before, we lived through the same excitement, the same passion, the same ultra-democratic idiocy which left one on the verge of ecstasy. The year was 1980 and the place was Poland. We too felt we had to re-invent democracy from scratch; we too thought we carried a righteous struggle against evil; we too hoped and believed and misplaced those hopes in people who were not worthy. We weren’t the first ones either. Before us people went through the same process in Czechoslovakia in 1968 and in Hungary in 1956, the process of almost spiritual intensity, of intellectual renewal, the exciting feeling that everything around is in the state of perpetual ferment. And just like Masha Gessen, we could not accept that our authentic and spontaneous reactions were cynically manipulated. The paradox of this situation is obvious: the more authentic and spontaneous were the manipulated masses the better the outcome for the manipulator.
Strangely enough, Gessen’s book is full of examples proving that point which must be a testament to her honesty. She is an intelligent observer and a courageous human being so her book is rich in fact but sadly lacks in understanding. She commences her narrative with Galina Starovoitova’s murder. Starovoitova assumed the status of a symbol for Gessen. It was Starovoitova who led the crowds in a “five-syllable chant the reverberated, it seemed, through the city: ‘Ros-si-ya! Yel-tsin!’” She subsequently became a candidate for the post of defence minister, which Gessen sees as symptomatic of the times, bearing in mind Starovoitova’s pacifism and feminism. In 1992 Starovoitova found out that the kgb reconstituted the internal party structures and publicly confronted Yeltsin with this fact only to be rudely dismissed; and lastly in 1994 she predicted that the Chechen war would become a “certain disaster and the biggest threat to Russian democracy”. Starovoitova was gunned down in 1998. Gessen sees all these events as milestones, encapsulating the nature of changes in those days. She set out to investigate her friend’s murder but never managed to find out who ordered it. Nevertheless, in the process she realised
“that throughout the 1990s, while young people like me were constructing new lives in a new country, a parallel world had existed alongside ours. St. Petersburg had preserved and perfected many of the key features of the Soviet state: it was a system of government that worked to annihilate its enemies – a paranoid, closed system that strove to control everything and to wipe out anything that it could not control.” [all underlining mine – MB]
Sounds familiar? Yes, dear reader, you have read it here many times before. So, without further ado, let’s follow in Gessen’s footsteps and let’s look at the career of Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, the accidental president, the man without face who came from nowhere, unknown even to his friends; a man who remains largely unknown still, after staying in power for over 12 years in the largest country on the planet.
Gessen expresses surprise at Putin’s “unlikely rise” more than once. She relates the frantic search for a successor by the so called “Yeltsin’s Family”, a close group of advisers, including Yeltsin’s daughter and theéminence grise of that era, Boris Berezovsky. They feared prosecution from whomsoever formed the next administration so they wanted to find a “friendly” candidate who could guarantee their security. It was Berezovsky who introduced Putin to them. Putin was certainly friendly, helpful and above all loyal. Gessen concentrates her bile on the rather tedious fact that a small clique of people was deciding who was going to be the next leader of Russia – allegedly still “democratic Russia” (I was tempted to ask: “have you not heard of the politburo?”) – instead of asking the more pertinent question: how did it happen that Putin was offered to them on a plate, as it were? He was so grey and unobjectionable that everyone could project onto him whatever he wished. But how did he find himself in that position in the first place?
Putin is a man of mystery. Gessen traces his biography back to his parents but omits to mention that his grandfather, Spiridon, was a personal cook to Lenin, then to Lenin’s widow, to Stalin and finally was employed as a cook in one of the Moscow party committee’s dachas. Official cooks were always linked to the secret police in the soviet union because they held an obvious position of trust. According to Gessen, Putin’s parents lived in a communal flat, seemingly in great poverty, with his mother taking menial, often physically demanding jobs, despite her advanced years. Yet they also had the largest room in the flat, they also had a television set, a telephone and a dacha, which were all unmistaken signs of privilege in the overwhelming poverty of post war Leningrad. They were both over 40 when Putin was born and there were rumours that he was adopted (fuelled by the very strange detail that no one could remember Putin before the age of 8, despite the fact that his parents lived in the same communal flat all the time). Gessen rightly dismisses such suggestions as unproven and largely irrelevant.
What seems proven though, is that Putin was groomed for the kgb. As a schoolboy he had a portrait of Yan Berzin on his desk at the dacha. Berzin was the founder of gru but is little known outside the “chekist circles”. “You would have had to be a true KGB geek not only to know the name but to have secured the portrait,” comments Gessen and yet the natural suggestion that the young boy’s intention to become a chekist came directly from his father is also difficult to prove. Indeed there is no direct evidence of the older Putin’s work for nkvd. It seems probable that after being seriously injured in action behind enemy lines during WWII, “he remained part of the so called active reserve, a giant group of secret police officers who held regular jobs while also informing for – and drawing salary from – the KGB. This may explain why the Putins lived so comparatively well: the dacha, the television set, and the telephone – especially the telephone.”
According to his official biography, at the age of 16 Putin went to the kgb headquarters to join the force but was told that they did not sign up volunteers… He was finally contacted in his fourth year at the university and since then openly spoke of his work for the security police. Naturally, no documentary evidence of his kgb career has as yet emerged – we will have to wait until de-putinisation campaign, which will follow in the future as certainly as night follows day – but there were many suggestions that he worked in the fifth directorate, charged with fighting dissidents. He was then sent to the spy school and assigned to East Germany. Gessen comments with irony that gdr was a backwater and that really promising graduates would have been sent to West Germany but I must disagree with her. Firstly, sending an unproven agent to the West was always fraught with danger, as confrontation with the world of plenty put an inevitable strain on the agent’s loyalty. However, perhaps more importantly, I suspect that different set of skills was required for a mission in the West – certain suaveness and ease of manner, as demonstrated by so many successful soviet spies, but absent from Putin’s personality – whilst the role played by Putin in Dresden was equally important. Officially, he collected information about the enemy but in reality such information could be gathered from behind a desk situated in Moscow as well as in Dresden. What he really did was recruit Latin American students; he also ran some members of Rote Armee Fraktion, the remnants of the Baader-Meinhoff terrorist gang. Gessen interviewed some members of the RAF and is adamant that Putin was not directly involved with terrorists, which begs the question: why and how did he get in contact with them?
And then the “revolutions ‘89” came. Gessen has soppy stories to tell about perestroika and glasnost’ and Putin is full of equally ridiculous tales in his official biography. He tells of the instance when his stasi compound in Dresden was surrounded by demonstrators but the soviets couldn’t do anything without orders from Moscow. “And Moscow was silent,” says Putin, clearly making a point that Russia could not afford another paralysis of power. It was the “paralysis of power”, which is the commonly accepted narrative explaining the next decade in the ussr. To be fair to Gessen, she doesn’t share that view; she sees the Nineties as a glorious time of putting the splendid “principles of radical democracy” into practice. Needless to say, I don’t accept either of these descriptions.
The key moment for Putin’s career was his joining the staff of Anatoly Sobchak, chairman of Leningrad City council at the time. Gessen does a good job in debunking the fictional stories surrounding this appointment. Sobchak knew very well that Putin was sent to him by the kgb and that’s exactly what he needed. He had credentials as a “leading pro-democracy politician” so it was necessary for him to build up a solid base where it really mattered. Gessen acerbically claims that it was wiser to pick one’s own kgb handler than to have him picked. However, she also quotes a defector, Sergei Bezrukov, who maintains that Putin met the kgb general Drozdov in February 1990 in Berlin and that the only conceivable purpose for such a meeting must have been the next assignment.
In the meantime, things were bleak in the ussr. In June 1989 tea and soap had to be rationed in Leningrad, in August 1990 there were tobacco and sugar riots and in October ‘90 sugar, vodka and cigarettes began to be rationed too; in November ration cards had to be introduced. Sobchak’s “democratic” city council was responsible for supply of food to the second largest city of the world superpower (which in itself speaks volumes of the immeasurable idiocy of the soviet system but it doesn’t seem to bother Gessen) so there were inevitable suspicions that the supplies are being sabotaged to discredit the “new broom”. In May 1991, Marina Salye – one of many colourful personalities of those times, to whom Gessen paid well deserved tributes with her lively portraits – went to Berlin to sign contracts for trainloads of meat and potatoes because after years of socialism, the fertile Russian land could no longer feed half of Europe, as it did under the tsars – it couldn’t even feed itself. To her astonishment, she could not be seen by her German contractors because they were “engaged in urgent negotiations with Leningrad council on the subject of meat imports”. Salye immediately contacted Sobchak who “didn’t know what was going on”. Within a year Salye managed to piece together what happened in Berlin. The soviet prime minister, Pavlov, granted a Leningrad company called Kontinent a concession to negotiate trade contracts on behalf of the government. Kontinent then hijacked all existing negotiations and sent the food supplies to Moscow warehouses (Gessen’s comment is that this was clearly in preparation for a certain August “event”). Negotiations were conducted on behalf of Kontinent by one Vladimir Putin and the commission written into these contracts varied between 25 and 50%!
And thus we arrive at the August coup. I had happened to write about it in the Soviet Analyst shortly afterwards and I must say that many of Gessen’s assertions confirm my view of a “badly rehearsed spectacle”. Some of the behind-the-scenes manoeuvring she describes are pricelessly hilarious: Sobchak forbidding Salye to call the shenanigans a “military coup” in fear of causing panic; Yeltsin summoning all “democrats” to his dacha and somehow not fearing arrest despite his dacha being “encircled by kgb agents”; Sobchak and others flying to their respective cities by official planes to “co-ordinate resistance”; Sobchak blocking access to Leningrad television station to members of his own council and then meeting putschist general Samsonov before delivering a rousing speech on the telly only to go into hiding in an underground bunker – together with Putin. The farce of it all would add up to a grotesque performance ofcommedia dell’arte for the masses, except for one little thing: everyone seems to think that it was all for real…
After the “failed coup and triumph of democracy” Salye reported results of her investigations into Putin’s dealings to the Leningrad city council, to mayor Sobchak and to Yeltsin. Needless to say, nothing happened. Interviewing Salye for her book, Gessen asked a relevant question: “But wasn’t he [Sobchak] acting just like some regional party boss?”
“This was different,” said Salye. “It was different because he talked a good line. He knew he had to present a different exterior, and he succeeded in doing this. He played the democrat when he was really a demagogue.”
As much as I admire the dedication, the sheer courage of people such as Salye, Starovoitova, Politkovskaya, Yushenkov and Gessen herself, I cannot but lament their excruciating naivety. Have they learnt nothing from the history of the soviet union? Is it not littered with demagogues playing democrats? Is it not full of “clever people with Ph.D.s” thinking that they will outsmart the silly chekists? Is it not overflowing with “games” of individuals “presenting a different exterior” only to fulfil their role and be dismissed? Sobchak was dismissed after he fulfilled his role, just like Zinoviev and Kamenev before him, but unlike them he was not murdered in pseudo-judicial process but instead poisoned in hospital, which Gessen describes after Arkady Vaksberg. For his troubles, Vaksberg himself was subject of an attempt on his life.
I will not bore the regular readers of this website with details of the operation “Storm in Moscow”, which provided the background of Putin’s rise to power. Suffice it to say that Gessen relates the facts faithfully. All the more shame on The Economist where we find a disgraceful statement in their review: “Ms Gessen’s tale is marred by a tendency to believe the darkest of conspiracy theories—for example, that the Russian apartment bombings in 1999 were the work of the siloviki.” I’m tempted to say thatEconomist’s case is marred by a Hegelian tendency to dismiss the facts when they do not fit their theories; the theory in this instance being, that Russia is a normal country and facts such as the government bombing their own sleeping citizens into oblivion must be dismissed as “dark conspiracy theories” because they cannot possibly fit in with the wishful thinking. As long as such attitudes prevail in the (still) free media in the West, there is no chance of a realistic assessment of the situation in the so called “Russia”. I must say that this is most unexpected and upsetting coming from The Economist, especially so since the International Editor of that magazine happens to be the excellent Edward Lucas. But enough of that, let’s return to Gessen’s portrayal of Putin.
She is quite right to highlight the conspicuous presence of Vladimir Kryuchkov at Putin’s inauguration ceremony. Kryuchkov was a kgb boss and the highest ranking organizer of the August coup. As a kgb boss throughout the period of “Eastern European revolutions ‘89” he was by definition involved in planning and execution of events such as Polish “round table talks”, Czech faked student’s death and the violent overthrow of Ceausescu in Romania. She’s also right not to dismiss as a joke Putin’s toast at a kgb banquet:
“I would like to report that the group of FSB officers dispatched to work undercover in the federal government has been successful in fulfilling the first set of assignments.”
This was said on the 18th December 1999, Putin had only become the prime minister. Yelstin did not resign until the last day of the century, century dominated by the bolshevik plague. Yes, plague. It was neither the communist ideology nor the pathetic soviet military power that dominated the age but I wonder if Gessen understands that. She muses at one stage:
“Like most Soviet citizens of his generation, Putin was never a political idealist. His parents may or may not have believed in a Communist future for all the world, in the ultimate triumph of justice for the proletariat, or in any other of the ideological clichés that had been worn thin by the time Putin was growing up; he never even considered his relationship to these ideals.”
Communist ideology, the preposterous economic theories, the ridiculous ideal of bright future, as depicted on the soviet agit-prop posters, was not much more than the propagandists’ cattle feed, their opium for the masses. The elite of the working class was never required to believe in such nonsense; instead, it was vital for them to be as flexible as possible in their ideology, to bend over backwards as demanded by the tactical twists and turns of the leadership. It was vital quite literally, because if they were not nimble enough to follow subtle changes in the official line – their lives were at stake. So it does not really matter what generation Putin grew up with – his relationship to “these ideals” was always merely functional and was supposed to remain such. The “ideals” were simple tools or even more to the point: ideology was like a skin to a snake, a skin which can be shed without as much as a blink.
After Putin’s inauguration, the chaotic and relatively free media were swiftly curbed. They could be restrained with ease because they were in the hands of a small clique of oligarchs, just like all soviet economy. It was enough to threaten Berezovsky, Gusinsky et al. to obtain control of the media – most journalists followed suit, and those few who did not, died in strange circumstances. Gessen calls the next phase the “dismantling of democracy”… She clearly still believes, to this day, that Gorbachov really tried to reform the ussr, that the communism collapsed and “Russia” in the Nineties was a democratic state. And yet the evidence so skilfully gathered by her seems to suggest that there was neither democracy nor “Russia” in the Nineties but the same old soviet union under a different name. Unless of course she would like to maintain that shelling of a parliament building is a normal democratic procedure or that the soviet anthem is really Russian. Actually, after reading her recent comments about the Pussy Riot trial, I suspect that she is firmly of the “eternal Russia” persuasion since she compared the Moscow trial of the feminist punk rockers not to the soviet pseudo-justice but to the … 17th Century Holy Rus. Gessen lists violations of electoral laws under Putin, as if they factually mattered: a candidate’s application was rejected because of the use of “St Petersburg” instead of “Sankt Petersburg” or was it the other way round? Prefilled ballots were delivered to psychiatric wards – and what if they weren’t prefilled? Would the result be different? After 95 years of bolshevik rule she still cannot understand that in no circumstances should one participate in elections under the bolsheviks. They will forever lie and cheat, they will maintain that the proverbial white ceiling is black, they will do whatever is required to keep them in power because such is the nature of bolshevism.
Gessen’s account is at its best when dealing with the incredible stories of Beslan massacre and the Moscow Theatre Siege. To begin with, she calmly relates the events as they appeared to the outside world: then she moves on to the painstaking efforts of brave individuals who tried to get to the bottom of what actually happened only to end with the gruesome depiction of the grisly truth. For instance, the theatre siege appeared at first to end in a great success for the security forces, only to be botched by the ineptitude of medics; but then the implausible role played by Khanpasha Terkibayev was exposed by Politkovskaya. Terkibayev was the leader of the terrorists but was allowed to walk out of the theatre by the storming troops. Unfortunately, he could not keep his mouth shut when interviewed by Politkovskaya so he had to die in a car crash a few days after FBI requested an interview with him. However, after piecing together an accurate picture of the actual events, Gessen subsequently proceeds to interpreting them and this is where she is at her least convincing. She sternly points an accusing finger at Putin for organising both sieges and for always pushing towards the bloodiest possible outcome. “Did this add up to a series of carefully laid plans to strengthen Putin’s position in a country that responded best to the politics of fear?” she asks and goes on to answer that it was not so because Chechens had their own hand in these disasters…
Moving on, Gessen describes how Putin put into practice the old leninist maxim that the “capitalists will sell us the rope with which we’re going to hang them”. Clever Russian academics were happy with Putin because “he listened to them”; Western media were happy because Putin employed clever Russian academics; foreign investors were happy because he allowed them to invest; big business was happy because Putin allowed them to operate; Russian businessmen were happy because they could finally turn out a profit in early 2000s and also because their dubious acquisitions from previous era attained an air of legitimacy. Not for long. The academics were sidelined, businessmen treated roughly. The stories of Khodorkovsky or Gusinsky are well known so let me focus on the less known person of Bill Browder, the grandson of the ex-gensek of the US comparty and a soviet spy, Earl Browder. According to Gessen, Bill Browder was a “true ideologue: he had come to Russia to build capitalism. He fervently believed that by making money for his investors, he was creating a bright capitalist future for a country it was his legacy to love.”
He was an “activist shareholder”. There are lots of them in the West. They believe in the so called shareholder democracy or the power – and obligation – of shareholders to change the companies they part-own. Browder would buy a stake in a Russian business, conduct an investigation, which inevitably exposed corruption or usual soviet inefficiencies, launch a campaign for reform and reap rewards from subsequent rise in share prices. Putin liked him and supported him so his Hermitage fund grew from $25 million to $4.5 billion. When Khodorkovsky – Russia’s richest man at the time – was arrested Browder rejoiced because it seemed to him that Putin “would stop at nothing to establish law and order”. Unexpectedly, in 2005 Browder was detained at Moscow airport and denied entry to the country. To most sane people it would have been a blessing to be expelled from the soviet Paradise but Browder was concerned. He slyly divested over $4 billion worth of stock so when finally Putin pounced, Hermitage’s Russian operations were a string of empty shells. It took Putin some time to realise that, for once, he was outsmarted but once he did comprehend what had happened he ordered a string of local courts to issue multimillion dollar judgements against Hermitage. How could the company be guilty of anything since it was an empty shell? Browder employed lawyers and accountants who investigated and found out that the empty shells were re-registered into the names of convicted felons and sued by other companies for no less than a billion dollars. Browder tried his old tactics of filing complaints in Russian courts but in response his lawyers were accused of criminal wrongdoing. He finally had enough and offered his representatives refuge in the UK. Only one of them refused; Sergei Magnitsky argued that he’s done nothing wrong and was not going to run from his own country for no reason. He was arrested in November 2008 and died in prison less than a year later. He was thirty seven. His prison diary chronicles the abuse he was subjected to.
“Back to the ussr” is the title of the last chapter of Gessen’s book. The courts are there to do the bidding of the head of state, the whole of the economy is at the state’s disposal one way or another, but, she assesses, it is a country without ideology, without politics, just a “fully fledged authoritarianism bordering on tyranny”. Why does she think it amounts to going “back to the ussr” then? To this reviewer’s mind, today’s “Russia” is no more than a soviet state, a country without politics, because these are left for the ruling elite; without ideology because there is no need for one, homo sovieticus will keep himself in check without the need of imposing on him what to think about linguistics, as Stalin-the-great-linguist did. However, it is not back to the ussr because ussr never disappeared, communism never collapsed. Communism is not the communist ideology. It is not the ridiculous notion of central control of means of production – it is a Method of acquiring power and staying in power.
I do not share Masha Gessen’s enthusiasm for the snow revolution, but in any case, it would never have crossed my mind that any Revolution Square – and God knows there is plenty of them in our part of the world! – could be “splendidly named”. Let’s not forget that all these sad squares in a multitude of towns in Eastern Europe (and elsewhere) were named thus in celebration of the bolshevik coup, which brought nothing but misery to the world and paved the way for Putin et al. Putin, the man without a face, is only one of many, and if it were not for him, some other faceless apparatchik would have come out of some soviet closet and would have done exactly the same. So should we join Masha Gessen in hoping for the better future for the ussr? In hoping for the next Khrushchov? The next Thaw? The coming de-putinisation?
No thanks.
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* Masha Gessen, The Man Without Face, The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, Granta Books, London 2012

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