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The Emperor Vladimir

Putin’s Russia

by Lilia Shevtsova,translated from the Russian by Antonina W. Bouis
Carnegie Endowment, revised and expanded edition, 457 pp., $19.95 (paper)


This book is about Vladimir Putin,” says Anna Politkovskaya, a leading Russian journalist, “but not, as he is normally viewed in the West, seen through rose-coloured glasses.” Which may seem a puzzling way to start. There is a lot of indifference toward Putin in the West. There is a lot of disappointment. But there is not much admiration, especially now that Putin’s strongest ally among European politicians, Gerhard Schroeder, has gone as chancellor of Germany—and has taken a job on Putin’s payroll as chairman of a pipeline company.

Most Western governments would probably agree by now with the gloomy verdict of Putin’s long-serving economic adviser, Andrei Illarionov, who resigned on December 27, saying that he had joined Putin’s team in 2000 “to pursue an economic policy of broadening economic freedoms,” but that Russia had “essentially ceased pursuing that policy a minimum of two and a half years ago.” It was “difficult, if not effectively impossible,” he said, to identify any decision taken in 2004 and 2005 which had not reduced “economic freedoms, indeed political freedoms too.” He added that Russia’s reassertion of state control over its oil industry, which had included the renationalization of two big producers, Yuganskneftgas (the main production arm of the Yukos group) and Sibneft, was damaging the economy, even though the damage was masked for the moment by high oil prices. The Kremlin’s policy, he said, was that “energy could and should be used as a political weapon.”
As if to bear out Illarionov’s point about political freedoms, on the day of his resignation, the upper house of the Russian parliament, the Federation Council, approved a bill curtailing the rights of nongovernmental organizations in Russia. Ostensibly, this was for fear that they might be used as vehicles for terrorism or subversion. The law was slightly softened after fierce foreign and domestic criticism of a first draft, but it still gave Russian officials “an unprecedented level of discretion in deciding what projects, or even parts of NGO projects, comply with Russia’s national interest,” said Human Rights Watch, and would allow them to close NGOs which disobeyed. The law closes off the possibility that NGOs might ever serve as rallying points for effective political opposition in Russia, as they did before democratic revolutions in recent years in Serbia, Georgia, and Ukraine. Few people think Russia could face a similar revolution anytime soon. But it is part of Putin’s character to want to bring any independent organization, anywhere on the Russian political landscape, within the scope of his control, just in case.

And as if to bear out Illarionov’s warnings on energy, Russia also chose the holiday season to use energy as a political weapon against Ukraine. Gazprom, Russia’s state-run gas monopoly, raised fourfold its price for gas exported to Ukraine, then shut off supplies on January 1 when Ukraine refused to pay. The aim was apparently to undermine Ukraine’s pro-Western president, Viktor Yushchenko. But the effect may have been more to undermine the fragile reputation of Russia as a reliable energy supplier, especially among countries in Western Europe that rely on Russia for one quarter of their gas supplies. Most of this gas travels via Ukraine. When Russia cut supplies to Ukraine, Ukraine cut the pressure in the pipelines sending gas on to Europe, sowing panic. Western governments protested; Russia agreed to a much more modest price increase, though one that still produced a storm of protest in the Ukrainian parliament, leading to a no-confidence vote in the government; and supplies were restored on January 3. Even so, European countries that were happy until recently to rely on Russia for energy will be looking harder now for alternative sources in the future.

Politkovskaya’s presumption that Putin is well regarded in the West may therefore sound odd—but that is only because the West has moved a little closer to Politkovskaya’s own, much more skeptical, point of view, since she was writing her book. It appears only now in an American edition, but it was completed in May 2004, save for a postscript written later that year, and deals mostly with Putin’s first presidential term. Putin could still count then on some lingering indulgence from foreign governments that were willing to minimize public discussion of his authoritarian instincts in the hope that, if people were nice to him, his more liberal instincts would prevail. Now, with his second term well underway, his limitations are more apparent, and the ranks of his admirers have thinned. Many see him as a competent leader, even an effective one, by Soviet and Russian standards. But he is also a dour, cagey, somewhat sinister man who often looks as if he is in thrall to some deep private anger or bitterness, and who has never escaped the shadow of his KGB past.

He inherited a Russia which, chaotically and corruptly run as it had been under Boris Yeltsin, still seemed to be open to Western democratic values, if only for want of any others. He closed off that possibility by recreating a monopolistic political system that captured and confined power within a heavily militarized bureaucracy. This Russia, stronger and more confident, has become an awkward neighbor for the West. It sells nuclear technology to Iran, sponsors lawless rebel provinces inside Georgia and Moldova, bullies Ukraine and the Baltic states, and makes no great distinction in its foreign policy between democrats and dictators, save that it often seems to get along more easily with dictators. It remains, for all that, a necessary partner of the West. It has huge oil and gas exports, and a booming economy. Its cooperation is often useful in world affairs. But there can be few illusions left on either side of the relationship.

Or so you might think until you read further into Putin’s Russia, and you see what Politkovskaya has in mind. She says, in effect, that even if the West may think it has Putin’s measure, the reality is far, far worse. She portrays Putin as the bad master of a bad system, a bleak and cruel man who will leave Russia an even bleaker and crueler country. “Why do I so dislike Putin?” she asks rhetorically, and supplies a generous range of answers, of which these are only a few:

I dislike him for a matter-of-factness worse than felony, for his cynicism, for his racism, for his lies, for the gas he used in the Nord-Ost siege, for the massacre of the innocents [in Chechnya]…. I dislike him because he does not like people. He despises us. He sees us as a means to his ends, a means for the achievement and retention of personal power, no more than that.
As a writer for Novaya gazeta, the most honest and outspoken newspaper in Russia, Politkovskaya has been a brave critic of presidents, gang leaders, generals, bureaucrats, and other powerful people in Russian life. The essays and reflections in Putin’s Russia deal mainly with the army, organized crime, the war in Chechnya, and Putin himself. They make for depressing and often terrifying reading, backed up by Politkovskaya’s dogged reporting. You can argue about her sense of proportion, perhaps even her sense of fairness. Her book is one of the few that seem too hard on Putin. But her accuracy and sincerity are beyond dispute. So too is her gift for narrative. Here is one of her tales of army life, in its entirety:

Back to Moscow province. It is the morning of May 4, 2002. Army Unit 13815, in the village of Balashikha. Two boilerwomen working in the plant that provides heating for the unit hear cries for help from nearby. They rush out and see that a trench has been dug in the middle of the courtyard, in which a soldier has been buried up to his neck. The women dig down, cut the rope binding him hand and foot, and help him out of the pit.

At this moment an army major appears in a towering rage. He shouts at the women to leave the soldier alone. He is teaching Private Chesnokov a lesson, and if they do not go back to the boiler house immediately, he will have them sacked.

Private Chesnokov, having escaped from the pit, deserted from the unit.

In this book and in Novaya gazeta, Politkovskaya’s writing returns obsessively to Chechnya, the Russian republic in the northern Caucasus where Russia has fought two wars in the past twelve years trying to subdue increasingly radical secessionists. It now claims to be restoring basic civil order and handing local government back to Chechens, but in practice this has meant allowing a private militia run by Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya’s pro-Russian deputy prime minister, to pursue a reign of terror using torture, kidnapping and murder.1 Politkovskaya gives a disturbing account of Chechen civilians killed, wounded, displaced, and impoverished by the years of fighting. She fears for the corrosive effect on Russian public and private life when the army and the state become habituated to the brutalities and illegalities of prolonged warfare, saying:

We seem to have become very primitive in the last few years, even rather ignoble. The change in moral values is increasingly noticeable as the war in the Caucasus continues and broken taboos increasingly become familiar facts of life. Killing? Happens every day. Robbery? What of it? Looting? Perfectly legal in a war. It is not only the courts that fail to condemn crimes, but society as well. What was regarded in the past with repugnance is now simply accepted.

So fierce is the hatred between Russians and Chechens, she says, that “only a madman could envy the Chechens who live in Russia now.” The same, presumably, holds true for Russians who live in Chechnya. That hatred has been stoked not only by the war within Chechnya, but also by horrific terrorist attacks carried out across Russia over the years by Chechen separatists and their allies, including the seizing of a theater in Moscow in 2002, and of a school at Beslan in North Ossetia in 2004.

Politkovskaya’s insistence on judging Putin’s Russia by its policy and behavior toward Chechens is honorable, even heroic in view of most Russian attitudes toward them. But it is also misleading, in the sense that most Russian life is not like that at all. It would be like judging America today by its behavior in Iraq, or Britain in the 1970s by its behavior in Northern Ireland. These are vital parts of the story, they must be told, but they are not the whole story. The focus on Chechnya leads Politkovskaya into damning generalities about Putin which require more detailed argument than she has the time or the disposition to supply here. It would be one thing to say that Putin has been overly timid about military reform. It is another thing to say, as Politkovskaya does, that he is “entirely to blame for the brutality and the extremism endemic in the army and the state.” In fact there were plenty of both under Gorbachev and Yeltsin. But still, her anger is honest anger. And it serves to remind us that for all Putin’s public polish, his early career in the KGB and his oversight of the last Chechen war must give him a dark and scary hinterland.

  1. 1

    See Arkady Ostrovsky, “Kadyrov’s ‘Legalised Bandits’ Bring Lawlessness to Chechnya,” Financial Times, January 4, 2006.

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