Deluded Tyrant in the Kremlin

Masha Gessen,  The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin (Riverhead Books, 2012), 304 pages, US$27.95 

David Satter, It Was a Long Time Ago, and It Never Happened Anyway (Yale University Press, 2011), 400 pages, US$29.95

In December 1564, Ivan IV took himself off into exile. From the remoteness of Aleksandrova Sloboda he wrote two letters to officials in Moscow, one announcing his abdication, the other stipulating that he would return to the throne only on condition he be granted absolute power. There were positive aspects to Ivan’s rule, especially in the earlier years, and “Fearsome” rather than “Terrible” might be a better rendering of his popular designation, and yet there is something wretchedly Russian about those obtuse boyars pleading, in the end, for Ivan’s royal restitution. Masha Gessen’s The Man Without a Face and even more so David Satter’s It Was a Long Time Ago, and It Never Happened Anyway do nothing to disabuse us of the notion that Russia as a whole remains clueless when it comes to addressing the most basic principles of democracy and the rights of the individual.

In August 1999, Boris Yeltsin announced that Vladimir Putin, Head of the Federal Security Service (FSB), was to be the new prime minister of Democratic Russia. Shortly thereafter, contends Gessen, the FSB made Yeltsin an offer he could not refuse. If Yeltsin allowed Putin to replace him as the president of the Russian Federation, Yeltsin could expect to enjoy the full protection of the intelligence service for the rest of his days, along with immunity from prosecution for any transgressions committed during a decade in office. The ailing and politically vulnerable Yeltsin assented. For almost seventy years the Chekists had been the sword and shield of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Now, thanks to the demise of the USSR and Yeltsin’s instinct for self-preservation, a criminal cabal with a lineage dating back to Dzerzhinsky’s Cheka commenced ruling Russia in its own right.

As a consequence, argues Gessen, Vladimir Putin has spent the past twelve years effectively transforming Russia “into a supersize model of the KGB”, the world’s first bona fide mafia state.

On a personal level, Putin turns out to be a complete embarrassment, like so many gangsters before him. At the time of his emergence from virtual obscurity into the spotlight of national attention, state propagandists created a mostly fictitious biography of the mysterious KGB colonel from St Petersburg. One authentic anecdote remains, however, and what a tale it tells. Here, according to Ludmila Putin herself, is the circumstance in which the thirty-one-year-old Vladimir proposed to his future wife: 

“Little friend, by now you know what I am like …” And then he went on to describe himself: not a talker, can be pretty harsh, can hurt your feelings, and so on. Not a good person to spend your life with. And he goes on. “Over the course of three and a half years you’ve probably made up your mind.” I realised we were probably breaking up. So I said, “Well, yes, I’ve made up my mind.” And he said, with doubt in his voice, “Really?” That’s when I knew we were definitely breaking up. “In that case,” he said, “I love you and propose we get married on such and such a day.” 

The word creepy comes to mind. Sadly, this is only a hint of the flaws of a man who has resolutely demolished democratic Russia, put out contracts on his critics, and stealthily amassed an alleged personal fortune (by 2007) of some $40 billion.

Over the years Putin has repeatedly stolen the assets of prosperous companies and individual billionaires, the case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky in 2004 providing as good an example as any: 

And with the assets of the country’s largest private company hijacked in broad daylight, Putin had claimed his place as the godfather of a mafia clan ruling the country. Like all mafia bosses, he barely distinguished between his personal property, the property of his clan, and the property of those beholden to his clan.  

Putin’s compulsion to pilfer apparently knows no bounds, high or low. In 2005, while hosting a delegation of American businessmen in St Petersburg, Putin expressed his admiration for the 124-diamond Super Bowl ring of Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots. With no more ado Putin pocketed the ring and abruptly left the room: “After a flurry of articles in the US press, Kraft announced a few days later that the ring had been a gift—preventing an uncomfortable situation from spiralling out of control.” Putin’s insatiable greed, contends Gessen, is not a case of kleptomania so much as pleonexia, “the insatiable desire to have what rightfully belongs to others”.

Putin’s character is not without complications. He might be a thug, a vulgarian, and the perpetrator of state-sponsored scams that rival the accomplishments of the Congo’s Mobutu Sese Seko, but he evidently conceives of himself—at least in his more sanguine moments—as an incorruptible and dutiful servant of Russia and its patriotic intelligence service. Not dissimilarly, Joseph Stalin possessed all the personal attributes of a Genghis Khan while at the same time regarding himself as a first-rate practitioner of Marxism-Leninism. A fantasy only makes the megalomaniac more dangerous. The delusions of the little guy who in earlier days was several times Champion of Leningrad Sambo are no laughing matter.  

A courageous investigative journalist of long standing, Masha Gessen provides us with an array of fresh insights in The Man Without a Face, including an account of Putin’s behaviour in August 1991 during the short-lived attempted putsch against Mikhail Gorbachev. Putin, at the time only an enigmatic figure in the regional politics of St Petersburg, shrewdly kept a low profile throughout the drama. We are led to believe, however, that his secret sympathies were probably with the communist hardliners intent on reversing Gorbachev’s experiments with perestroika, glasnost and demokratiya. Not that Putin, a product of the cynical world of Late Communism, could ever be accused of having an ideology. From the outset the young Vladimir worshipped not communism but the Russian state, or more specifically the KGB, and it would be a stretch to claim much more than this on behalf of his younger spiritual self, other than a passion for his (relatively) fast car and bashing up people who aggravated him.

Putin has never represented anything of substance. He talks tough on law-and-order issues but he and his henchmen are themselves above the law. He wants to return Russia to its rightful place on the world stage, but investment in the armed forces remains problematic and he has made a total botch of Chechnya. Putin’s good fortune in foreign policy has been his current opposite number in the White House pursuing a policy with the Kremlin called “Reset” (also known as appeasement). Putin, for his part, is only interested in Realpolitik, more of which we are likely to observe if Obama is re-elected in November. Economically, the Putin Show has mostly ridden on the back of a five-fold rise in the price of oil, allowing Russia to navigate its way through the GFC and avoid the economic meltdown of 1998.

In short, whatever success Putin has enjoyed over the years, he remains a leader of no moral or visionary seriousness. It is this absence of an ideology, suggests Gessen, which points to the Achilles heel of both Putin and his United Russia movement. Once the message seeps into the public consciousness that Putin is less a high-minded strongman than a low-life fraudster, his days of uncovering ancient treasures at underwater archaeological sites in front of the cameras will be over.                                            

Gessen’s optimism on this point, it needs to be noted, has a lot to do with completing The Man Without a Face during the heady days of the 2011 anti-Putin protests in Moscow. The final chapter, “Epilogue: A Week in December”, is written in the present tense and in the style of a diary. We observe despondency at the “falsified results” of the parliamentary elections, which assigned Putin’s United Russia 66 per cent of the vote, giving way to the elation of participating in a series of enormous public demonstrations. Not even the glacial weather could impede the righteous indignation of the crowds. However, in March this year the OSCE confirmed the overall integrity of elections that saw Putin secure a third non-consecutive term as president with 63.5 per cent of the vote, the one caveat being that “procedural irregularities” occurred in a third of the polling stations. The anti-Putin movement has since gone into abeyance.                   

Gessen explains Putin’s dominance over the years in terms of his duplicity, in addition to a hoodlum-like propensity to “whack”, “ice” or “burn” anybody who causes him grief, from the investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya to the whistleblower Alexander Litvinenko. At times, argues Gessen, his entire political message can be summed up in four words: “Don’t mess with me.” In twelve short years Putin has nationalised the media, subverted the independence of the judiciary, annulled the autonomy of provincial governorships, and accelerated the corruption of everyday life. Gessen notes that in 2003 Transparency International ranked Russia as more corrupt than 64 per cent of the world’s countries, but by 2010 it had become more corrupt than 86 per cent of the world, slotting in between Papua New Guinea and Tajikistan. Putin’s “rule of terror”, as Gessen puts it, has emasculated the Russian people.               

Gessen is an enormously brave writer, and yet there is something absent from her rationalisation of Putin’s pre-eminence in modern-day Russia. While more than justified in characterising her protagonist as the most powerful Don in the land, she fails to satisfactorily explain why Russians tolerated this preposterous fellow in the first place, and why so many still do, the recent anti-Putin protests notwithstanding. She laments the anomie that pervades the vast majority of the populace, but their passivity surely predates the rise and rise of Vladimir Putin. David Satter’s It Was a Long Time Ago, and It Never Happened Anyway provides an answer.

One particularly disturbing episode in Russia’s recent history helps clarify the problem. Gessen and Satter agree that agents of the FSB, if not Putin himself, were instrumental in the terrorist attacks on apartment buildings in Moscow and two other Russian cities in 1999, when 300 civilians lost their lives as a result of the explosions. Although the slaughter was officially blamed on Chechen terrorists, most pundits now believe that the atrocities were perpetrated by Russia’s intelligence service to create a groundswell of support for the Second Chechen War and the political ascendancy of Vladimir Putin. Only he could deliver lines like this in response to the perceived crisis: 

We will hunt them down. Wherever we find them, we will destroy them. Even if we find them in the toilet. We will rub them out in the outhouse. 

If the conspiracy theories are true—and in Russia, unlike the West, conspiracy theories about politics are more likely to be true than not—then Putin’s mendacity at the time was breathtaking. How, Gessen might argue, could ordinary Russians be expected to see through such depraved deception?                             

The disturbing fact, however, is that in many cases they did, and yet a large proportion of them still voted for Putin in the 2000 presidential election. David Satter’s thesis is that Russia “differs from the West in its attitude towards the individual”. In the West, or so his argument goes, “the individual is treated as an end in himself”; in Russia, on the other hand, “the individual is seen by the state as a means to an end”. This calamitous state of affairs has haunted Russia through centuries of tsarism, seven decades of communism, and now twelve years of Putin, in which the Russian individual is expected to “submit to the supererogatory claims of a de-ideologised Russian state”. Although Putin’s Russia might not be a reconstituted Soviet Union, the average Russian has reverted to the Soviet habit of accepting that “nothing is higher than the goals of the state”.

In the last years of Gorbachev’s rule and for much of Yeltsin’s tenure an opportunity presented itself to undo the habits of old, but circumstances and the difficulty of the task resulted in the project for the most part being abandoned. What Russia needed to do, contends Satter, was to confront the brutal truth of Dzerzhinsky, Stalin, the Great Terror and the labour camps, but also the reality of generations of co-opted Russians who were “denied the possibility of living in a society based on higher values and moral choice”. A brief anti-Stalin phase ensued in the wake of glasnost revelations of the late 1980s—for example, the long-denied Soviet culpability in the 1940 Katyn massacres—but, like the recent anti-Putin rallies, momentum soon abated. The statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the homicidal founder of the Cheka, might not have been returned to Lubyanskaya Square, but his spirit everywhere haunts the land.

The task ahead for the Russian people, if they are to truly liberate themselves, is to desist with “nationalist delusions” and the attendant nostalgia for the good old days of the Soviet empire. Instead, argues Satter, they need to think seriously and responsibly about their country’s future. Rather than romanticising Stalin, they must build a “national symbol of repentance” and candidly acknowledge the complicity of their antecedents in the Great Terror, not to mention their own compromises during Late Communism. Satter has a wonderful account of the children and grandchildren of Anastas Mikoyan attempting to evaluate the merits or otherwise of a man who “participated in the crimes of the regime but also did considerable good”. Eventually one of them arrives at a useful moral formula: “If a person did what he was forced to do, it is necessary to forgive. If he did more than necessary, he should be condemned.”

From a Western perspective, at least, the ethics of a person such as Masha Gessen rate very highly. Whether a majority of her compatriots would concur must be a matter left to conjecture. How many might censure her for bringing the standing of the President of the Russian Federation into disrepute? These would be the same people who continue to trade their personal integrity for the false security of FSB rule. Well might we ask them what protection Putin’s deadly bungling afforded the submariners on the Kursk, the hostages at the Dubrovka Theatre, or the schoolchildren of Beslan?                                                          

Daryl McCann wrote of his visit to China in 1979 in the April issue.

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