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Vladimir’s Tale

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Patrick McMullan/Sipa Press
Masha Gessen, New York City, March 2012

The meat never appeared. The money Salye thought was earmarked for the purchase—90 million deutschmarks—disappeared. Subsequently, Salye discovered that Putin, who then headed the mayor’s “Committee for Foreign Relations,” had been responsible for that swindle as well as many others. She learned that Putin, a trained lawyer, had knowingly entered into a dozen legally flawed contracts on behalf of the city, mostly involving the export of timber, oil, metals, cotton, and other raw materials. As Salye explained:

The point of the whole operation was this: to create a legally flawed contract with someone who could be trusted, to issue an export license to him, to make the customs office open the border on the basis of this license, to ship the goods abroad, sell them, and pocket the money. And that is what happened.

Although she couldn’t track most of the contracts, she did find documentation proving that Putin had arranged, at a minimum, for the export of some $92 million worth of commodities in exchange for food that never arrived. She wrote her findings into a report for the Leningrad City Council, which passed it on to Sobchak, with a recommendation that he fire Putin and his deputy. Salye also passed the report to President Yeltsin’s comptroller, who interviewed Sobchak and then passed the same conclusions on to President Yeltsin. “And then,” writes Gessen, “nothing happened.” The story died.

The Leningrad City Council did not get rid of Putin. Instead, Putin—or rather Mayor Sobchak—got rid of the Leningrad City Council, which was dissolved by administrative fiat not long afterward. Salye left politics. In 2000, she wrote one final article about Putin’s years in St. Petersburg. Its title: “Putin Is the President of a Corrupt Oligarchy.” That was her last public statement on the subject. Not long afterward she was so badly scared—by something—that she ran away. Gessen found her ten years later, living in a tiny village twelve hours’ drive from Moscow. Even then she wouldn’t tell Gessen what or who had frightened her. And there, once again, the story ends.

Ultimately, Salye’s story, like many of Gessen’s stories, is unsatisfactory. We never find out what really happened. We never learn why she retreated to the provinces. We never identify the mysterious forces that somehow conspired to prevent the missing meat and the crooked contracts from becoming a public scandal. Some of Gessen’s other reviewers have complained about her failure to fill in the blanks (“The problem is, there is no proof for these claims,” one wrote), or have implied, almost condescendingly, that she is a little hysterical and perhaps prone to “conspiracy theories.”

But that is exactly the point about contemporary Russia: there is no proof of anything that happened. Documents are missing. People have disappeared or changed their identities. Major companies are owned by nonexistent shell companies, and they mysteriously do the president’s bidding. After Putin’s government arrested him in 2003, Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s company, Yukos, was driven into bankruptcy and its enormous assets were sold at auction. Only one buyer turned up to bid at that auction: a previously unknown company called Baikal Finance Group, whose listed address turned out to belong to a vodka bar in the provincial town of Tver. That company then sold those assets for a pittance to Rosneft, another oil company whose major shareholder is the Russian government. Rosneft’s CEO, in addition to his business career, also held down a second job as President Putin’s deputy chief of staff.

Rosneft subsequently received the imprimatur of the international financial establishment and sold its shares on the London Stock Exchange. Yukos’s former owners and shareholders are now in jail or in exile, reduced to filing endless lawsuits against the Russian government. At times, some of them do seem a little hysterical. So does William Browder, the head of Hermitage Capital, who launched a personal and political vendetta against the Russian government after the FSB tortured and murdered his lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, in a Russian prison. Before her death, the journalist Anna Politkovskaya could also seem a little hysterical. Her own book about Putinism contains even more convoluted tales of corruption, mafia, and terrorism than The Man Without a Face.*

Like Starovoitova, Politkovskaya was murdered in the stairwell of her Moscow apartment building in 2006, and that murder has never been solved either. As the corpses pile up, as the capital flows out of the country, as colonies of Russians pop up like mushrooms in London, Nice, and Courcheval, where they busily launder themselves into respectability, it’s hard not to develop a conspiracy theory, or even a set of conspiracy theories, to explain what is going on. Gessen’s book has some flaws—she fails to fill in some of the background, skips too quickly over major events, and slightly loses the chronology as a result—but it has one major virtue. Although Gessen is enough of an outsider to write beautifully clear and eloquent English, she is enough of an insider to convey, accurately, the wild swings of emotions, the atmosphere of mad speculation, the paranoia, and, yes, the hysteria that pervade all political discussion and debate in Moscow today.

Though not a standard biography, Gessen’s book is also very good at evoking not so much the precise details of Putin’s life but the culture and atmosphere within which he was raised, and the values he came to espouse. Though “proving” nothing, she establishes that he probably came from a family affiliated with the KGB—his parents were suspiciously well off, relative to their surroundings—and that he was certainly obsessed with joining the KGB from an early age. By his own account, he was drawn to the organization’s glamour, secrecy, and power. “I was most amazed by how a small force, a single person, really, can accomplish something an entire army cannot,” he told his official biographers. “A single intelligence officer could rule over the fates of thousands of people. At least, that’s how I saw it.” Putin, Gessen concludes, “wanted to rule the world, or a part of it, from the shadows.”

Eventually Putin was accepted into the secret service and went through extensive training, learning not only the techniques—including, presumably, how to assume an alias, live undercover, manipulate foreign bank accounts, and create fake companies—but also the mentality of a secret policeman. It is not by accident that Putin and his colleagues all share the KGB’s belief in the power of the state to control the life of the nation, and not by accident that they are instinctively skeptical of independent businesses, people, and organizations. In the course of their training, they learned that events cannot be allowed to just happen, they must be controlled and manipulated; that markets cannot be genuinely open, they must be managed from behind the scenes; that elections cannot be unpredictable, they must be planned in advance—as, indeed, Russia’s now are.

More importantly, these former secret policemen learned to assume that anyone critical of them and their regime is suspicious by definition, probably a foreign spy, and certainly an enemy. Starovoitova was an enemy, Politkovskaya was an enemy, Khodorkovsky was an enemy, but so is anyone who dares to question the absolute right of the Chekists to run Russia. At the end of The Man Without a Face, Gessen has appended a brief epilogue, describing the genesis of the “Snow Revolution,” the series of demonstrations that took place in Moscow at the end of 2011 and the beginning of 2012. She explains that these were unplanned gatherings—the product of text messages, telephone calls, Facebook postings, and conversations between friends—that no one was in charge of, and at the beginning no one was very enthusiastic about them either. She set off for one demonstration on December 5, quite reluctantly. “Who is going to brave this kind of weather to fight the hopeless fight for democracy?” she wondered. As it turned out, the answer was “everyone. At least, everyone I know.” Her generation, fed up with the corruption and menace of public life, had finally decided, spontaneously, to take to the streets. Momentum grew, culminating in a demonstration of 50,000 people on December 10, probably the largest opposition demonstration in Moscow since 1991.

But Putin, and Putin’s henchmen, did not believe these protests came about spontaneously, because the FSB does not believe that anything comes about spontaneously. Nor does the FSB believe that independent civic groups are really independent, that nongovernmental organizations are unconnected to foreign governments, and that “democrats” really believe in democracy. “Unfortunately,” he declared back in 2007, “there are still those people in our country who act like jackals at foreign embassies…who count on the support of foreign funds and governments but not the support of their own people.” This was a direct warning to Russia’s tiny community of human rights and trade union activists, and it was perceived as such at the time.

On the night of his third and most recent reelection on March 4, Putin repeated this charge, this time describing the protesters—the men and women of Gessen’s generation—in stark and one might even say hysterical terms. “We showed that no one can impose anything on us,” he declared with great passion, tears welling up in his eyes:

We showed that our people can distinguish between the desire for renewal and a political provocation that has only one goal: to destroy Russian statehood and usurp power.

Putin doesn’t merely dislike his would-be opponents, in other words, he believes that they are sinister agents of foreign powers. He doesn’t just object to the liberal political system they support, he believes they are plotting to “usurp power” and hand the country over to rapacious outsiders. In order to keep them well away from the levers of power, he allowed only officially sanctioned candidates onto the most recent ballot—all tired, familiar faces who have lost to Putin many times before, or who stood no realistic chance of victory. Thus does Russia’s president protect his countrymen from those who would “destroy Russian statehood.”

There is no reason not to take Putin at his word here, or to doubt that he means what he says. As work in Soviet archives in recent years has shown, Soviet secret policemen also usually meant what they said. They really did believe that their internal critics were “enemies,” that the forces of imperialist-capitalist bourgeois reaction were seeking to undermine the regime, and that only the fearless Chekists stood in the way of chaos and defeat. As Gessen demonstrates, Putin has proudly inherited those beliefs, and he runs Russia in accordance with them.

—March 29, 2012

  1. *

    Anna Politkovskaya, Putin’s Russia: Life in a Failing Democracy, translated by Arch Tait (Metropolitan, 2005). 

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