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Vladimir’s Tale

Vladimir Putin; drawing by John Springs

On November 20, 1998, Galina Starovoitova, a member of the Russian parliament, was murdered in the stairwell of her St. Petersburg apartment building. In the weeks that followed, obituaries, articles, and tributes to her life poured forth from all over the world. Starovoitova, almost everyone agreed, was different from the Russian politicians of the past and different from her contemporaries too. She spoke differently, moved differently, thought differently. She was frank, she was energetic, and she seemed genuinely interested in improving people’s lives. “Everything she said seemed fresh,” wrote The Economist. “Unlike others, she did not compromise her principles as the political winds changed; she did not mix business with politics,” wrote The Independent.

To many Russians at the time, Starovoitova’s murder also seemed like an ill omen, maybe even a major turning point in Russian politics. “If at the beginning of the reforms there was an enthusiasm, an optimism, now something has changed,” one of the thousands of mourners at Starovoitova’s funeral told The New York Times. “This shows that in our society the process of intolerance to each other is developing. I think we are on the brink,” a liberal Russian parliamentarian told Ekho Moskvy, a Moscow radio station.

It was therefore not for reasons of sentiment that Masha Gessen chose to begin The Man Without a Face, her book about Putinism—the system both created by Vladimir Putin and embodied by him—with the death of Starovoitova. In November 1998 Gessen was a young journalist who had just returned to Russia after several years in America, and she had thrown herself into Moscow life with enthusiasm. She was personally close to Starovoitova (“Galina clearly felt motherly toward me,” she writes), but she also understood Starovoitova’s symbolic significance:

In a country where political role models ran from leather-jacketed commissar to decrepit apparatchik, Galina was trying to be an entirely new creature, a politician who was also a human.

For Gessen’s generation—liberal journalists, activists, and intellectuals in Moscow, mostly under the age of thirty when the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991—Starovoitova represented the hope that Russia, and Russians, could change. Uncorrupt, unscripted, dedicated to serving her constituents, willing to speak honestly, able to laugh at her own flaws and foibles—perhaps if more politicians were like her, then Russia’s future really could be very different from the past. By contrast, her death represented the end of that hope. It also coincided with the beginning of Putin’s rise to power.

In fact, at the time of Starovoitova’s murder, Putin was not yet president of Russia. He had only recently been named head of the FSB, the successor organization to the KGB, and was just beginning to become a nationally known figure. Until then, most of his career had been passed in Dresden, East Germany, where he worked for the KGB, and in St. Petersburg where, Gessen believes, he continued working for the KGB, both while “studying” (he wrote a plagiarized thesis) and while serving as deputy to Anatoly Sobchak, the city’s flamboyant and rather opaque mayor in the tumultuous years between 1991 and 1996.

Though he hadn’t been in office very long, Putin had already begun to work on the FSB’s tarnished image, and the even more tarnished image of the KGB that had preceded it. He brought back the word “Chekist,” an old term for Lenin’s political police, coined in the 1920s, and used it with pride. He also initiated a minor cult of Yuri Andropov, the longest-serving KGB boss in Soviet history (1967–1982), as well as general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, a post he held only briefly, in the year before his unexpected death in 1984. As FSB chief, Putin laid flowers on Andropov’s grave, and dedicated a plaque to his hero inside the Lubyanka, the KGB’s notorious Moscow headquarters. Later, as president, he ordered another plaque placed on the Moscow building where Andropov had lived and erected a statue to him in a St. Petersburg suburb.

But Putin wanted to restore more than Andropov’s name. He also, it seems, wanted to restore the old KGB boss’s way of thinking. Andropov, in Soviet terms, was a modernizer—but not a democrat. On the contrary, having been the Russian ambassador to Budapest during the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, Andropov understood very precisely the danger that “democrats” and other freethinking intellectuals posed to totalitarian regimes. He spent much of his KGB career stamping out dissident movements of various kinds, locking people in prison, expelling them from the USSR, and sending them to psychiatric hospitals, a form of punishment invented during his tenure.

At the same time, he understood, like everyone else in the KGB, that the Soviet Union was falling behind the West economically. At the time of his death he was seeking ways to solve that problem, and he’d come to the conclusion that the problem was one of order and discipline. Though some, in retrospect, believe he sought a “Chinese” path to reform—free markets and unfree politics—only one of his ideas was ever put into practice. This was the mass anti-alcohol campaign, which included everything from restricted vodka sales to the destruction of Moldovan vineyards, and it was carried out by one of his successors, Mikhail Gorbachev.

The anti-alcohol campaign was a disaster. Not only did it create sugar shortages—sugar being an ingredient used in homemade vodka—it may have unbalanced the budget, which had relied heavily on alcohol taxes. In any case, Gorbachev abandoned it, decided that more profound changes were necessary, and the rest is history. Nevertheless, nostalgia for Andropov remained widespread among the ex-KGB elite for a very long time. The idea that Andropov died “too early” was a sentiment common to many in the ranks of the former KGB, and some even saw a conspiracy in his premature death. “They got him before he finished the job,” one ex-officer told me wistfully in 2000, just after Putin became president for the first time.

But Putin had not only made his career in Andropov’s KGB, he also shared some similar experiences with the former secret police boss. As ambassador to Budapest, Andropov had been shocked when young Hungarians first called for democracy, then protested against the Communist establishment, and then took up arms against the regime, even lynching one or two secret policemen along the way. Putin had a similar experience in Dresden in 1989, where he witnessed mass street protests and the ransacking of the headquarters of the Stasi, the East German secret police. Both men drew the same conclusion: talk of democracy leads to protest, protest leads to attacks on the Chekists, better to stop all talk of democracy before it goes any further.

For Putin, and for those in his generation—twenty years older than Gessen, and as loyal to the old Soviet state as Gessen’s friends were to the idea of a “new Russia”—Starovoitova was not, therefore, a happy harbinger of a better future. On the contrary, she was exactly the kind of person who threatened the social order. Putin understood very well the threat that uncorrupt, unscripted politicians had posed to the KGB. By 1991, he also understood very well the threat that uncorrupt, unscripted politicians posed to the secret business empires then being created by the former KGB.

Gessen does not suggest that Putin killed Starovoitova. In fact, she never found out who killed Starovoitova. The two men eventually convicted of the murder were just hired hands. As Gessen writes, “It was impossible to determine what had gotten Starovoitova killed, precisely because her standing as an enemy of the system had made here a marked woman, a doomed one.” But her friend’s death did lead her to explore, as a reporter, the secret police milieu from which Putin had emerged, and within which there were so many people who might have wanted Starovoitova out of the way.

Her book, although focused on Putin and his rise to power, is at heart a description of this secret police milieu. Born in Andropov’s KGB, it subsequently gave rise to the Russian business and political elite, while never losing the deeply cynical worldview and twisted morality of the Soviet secret police. Putin did not bring this elite to power. On the contrary, it was already in place by the end of Boris Yeltsin’s first presidential term in 1996, by which time Yeltsin, not Putin, had already restored many of the powers and privileges of the security services, and Yeltsin, not Putin, had overseen the redistribution of Russia’s natural resources to a tiny group of insiders. But as Yeltsin’s health declined, some of these insiders began to look around for a trustworthy successor who would look after their interests, and Putin seemed to have all of the right qualities.

To illustrate the nature of Russia’s new ruling class, Gessen provides portraits of several major and minor characters who have functioned within and around it since the 1990s. They include Mayor Sobchak, a friend and mentor to both Putin and his sidekick, ex-president Dmitri Medvedev; Boris Berezovsky, the oligarch—a former mathematician and engineer—who, by his own account, introduced Putin to Yeltsin, and thus facilitated his rise to power; Andrei Bystritsky, the Russian state television executive who was one of the chief propagandists for the Putin reelection campaign in 2004; and Alexander Litvinenko, the FSB officer murdered by radiation poisoning in London in 2006, after attempting to expose corruption in the FSB. She investigates Putin’s role in the botched KGB coup attempt of 1991, in the terrorist attack on a Moscow theater in 2002, and in the prosecution of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the oil oligarch who was arrested in 2003 after becoming too critical of Putin, and who remains in prison almost ten years later, following a series of what can only be called show trials.

In some ways the most intriguing of all Gessen’s characters—with the exception, of course, of Putin himself—is Marina Salye, a liberal St. Petersburg politician who was chairwoman of the Leningrad City Council’s committee on food supplies in 1991 (and who died at age seventy-seven on March 21 of this year). At that time, Sobchak was the mayor, Putin was his deputy, and Leningrad, now renamed St. Petersburg, ran out of food. The Soviet economic system was imploding, there had been a tobacco riot and a sugar riot, and the city council negotiated the purchase of several trainloads of meat and potatoes. Salye was sent to Berlin to sign the contracts, as Gessen relates:

“And when we get there,” Salye told me years later, still outraged, “and this Frau Rudolf with whom we were supposed to meet, she tells us she can’t see us because she is involved in urgent negotiations with the City of Leningrad on the subject of meat imports. Our eyes are popping out. Because we are the City of Leningrad, and we are there on the subject of meat imports!”
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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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