Motivating Vladimir Putin is the inviolability of Russia’s imperial past, be it the Great Northern War (1700–21) or the Great Patriotic War (1941–45). No sacrifice by the people of Russia, let alone Ukrainians, appears too high a price to pay to the gods of war as long as the greater glory of Russia is restored. Putin’s concept of the “Russian world” (Russkiy Mir) is simultaneously a language and a geographical location, a civilisation and an all-powerful state, a nation-state and an empire and, most perilous of all, his personal destiny and the fate of Russia. We can see, in retrospect at least, that the likelihood of a new incarnation of the Cold War increased as Putin began to contemplate his place in the textbooks of future generations of schoolchildren. The grandiloquence of this one man, served by the lethal but compliant siloviki, casts a terrible shadow over the world.
An unprovoked full-scale invasion of Ukraine was not inevitable. But Putin’s early career in the KGB, an enduring enmity towards the West, and more than two decades of holding the reins of power in the Kremlin, doubtless increased the chances. On June 9, 2022, with the death toll of Russian and Ukrainian soldiers and Ukrainian civilians soaring, Putin told the young engineers, entrepreneurs and scientists attending the annual St Petersburg Economic Forum:
Peter the Great waged the Great Northern War for twenty-one years. On the face of it, he was at war with Sweden taking something away from it … He was not taking away anything, he was returning. That’s how it was. The areas around Lake Ladoga, where St Petersburg was founded. When he founded the new capital, none of the European countries recognised this territory as part of Russia; everyone recognised it as part of Sweden. However, from time memorial, the Slavs lived there along with the Finno-Ugric peoples, and this territory was under Russia’s control. The same is true of the western direction, Narva and his first campaigns. Why would he go there? He was returning and reinforcing, that is what he was doing.
We can only assume he believed his bloody assault on Ukraine was a question of “returning and reinforcing” what rightfully belonged to Greater Russia—however many years it took, however many lives were lost and whether or not “European countries recognised [his conquest] as part of Russia”.
How did we get here? In May 2005, Putin famously declared on national television that not only was the break-up of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century” but a “genuine tragedy” for the Russian people. There are actually two points here. The latter one concerns the supposed disaster arising from the establishment of post-Soviet independent states and the permanent separation of ethnic Russians—in Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Georgia, Moldova, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania and elsewhere—from the Motherland. Long-time Moscow correspondent Owen Matthews, in Overreach (2022), maintains that the vision Putin employed to justify his invasion of Ukraine “was based not on imperialism but ethno-nationalism”. In other words, “Putin would claim that the war against Ukraine would be fought not to bring a foreign people under Moscow’s rule but to protect the rights of people he regarded as essentially Russian”. To make sense of Putin’s perspective we have his 2021 essay, “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians”, where he argues for the historical affinity between three discrete modern-day entities, Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.
But, of course, Putin’s “vision” of a Greater Russia has not only been about Russians living outside the borders of the Russian Federation. Also on his mind was the reduction of Moscow’s imperial realm to an area about the size it was at the time of Catherine the Great (1762–96). As a consequence, Putin’s political philosophy has turned out to be an incongruous blend of the imperial two-headed eagle and Soviet patriotism. The ambiguity of his under-formulated but always evolving belief-system has, over the years, encouraged those who should have known better to see in Putin what they wanted to see. Boris Yeltsin, Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Patriarch Kirill are three examples of significant Russian figures, respectively political, cultural and religious, who directly or indirectly assisted the rise and rise of ex-KGB agent Vladimir Putin.
Yeltsin, as viewed through the lens of Russian film director Vitaliy Manskiy in the 2018 documentary Putin’s Witnesses, could well be the greatest Putin enabler of all. As president of the Russian Federation from 1991 to 1999, Yeltsin founded the Federal Security Service (FSB) in 1995 and granted it, along with the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), the authority to surveil private citizens akin to that enjoyed by the Soviet Union’s KGB. He appointed Putin as its new head in March 1998. Twelve months later Yeltsin was manoeuvring his protégé into the post of prime minister and then, on New Year’s Eve 1999, he pronounced Putin his replacement in the lead-up to the March 2000 presidential elections.
Because Manskiy had extensive access to both Yeltsin and Putin for an earlier documentary about Putin’s first year in office, Putin’s Witnesses provides an astonishing close-up view of Yeltsin and family, especially his daughter Tatyana Dyachenko, revelling in Putin’s election victory. One of the reasons for their glee, doubtless, was that Putin’s win guaranteed Yeltsin and his coterie, the so-called Yeltsin Clan, immunity from future prosecution. Some blame the West for not organising a Marshall Plan to save the Russian Federation from financial ruin in the 1990s, but the West provided billions of dollars to prop up Yeltsin’s government, only to see most of it, as a rule, commandeered by officialdom. Boris Yeltsin—not unlike Putin working for the mayor of St Petersburg—was no exception to the rule.
Putin in Manskiy’s film is something of a chameleon, warily polite to the Yeltsin people who facilitate and celebrate his rise to power and yet, in one-to-one exchanges with the interviewer, supremely confident of his powers of persuasion and leadership. The Yeltsin Clan mistakenly believed Putin’s ascendancy would serve not only their interests but the interests of—for the want of a better expression—post-Soviet liberalism. That is, a pragmatic pathway between the fanaticism of Soviet diehards on the one hand and ultra-nationalist obsessives on the other.
Only on the anniversary of Putin’s elevation to the presidency, New Year’s Eve 2000, does Yeltsin betray unease about Putin. It occurs at the moment Yeltsin hears the new national anthem played for the first time on television. Putin’s anthem is the melody of the Soviet (that is to say, Stalin’s) anthem combined with new patriotic words. Yeltsin, a born-again anti-communist if nothing else, was disgruntled enough to go on the record at the time, something he rarely did in retirement: “My only association with the old anthem is party congresses and conferences that consolidated the power of the party’s bureaucrats.” But his protest was too little and too late. Manskiy’s 2018 documentary notes that the liberal-technocrats who schemed to bring Putin to power in 2000 fell from favour soon afterwards and were replaced by the so-called siloviki, people who often had connections with the KGB/FSB.
Solzhenitsyn’s endorsement of Putin is different though no less problematic. Some do not care to concede that the author of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1961) and The Gulag Archipelago (1973), two of the greatest paeans to human freedom in the twentieth century, could finish up as an apologist for Putin. Prominent among Solzhenitsyn’s defenders is Daniel Mahoney, author of Alexandr Solzhenitsyn: The Ascent from Ideology (2001). Frustrated by the frequent denunciations of the “political” Solzhenitsyn, as distinct from the incontrovertible “literary” Solzhenitsyn, Mahoney wrote The Other Solzhenitsyn: Telling the Truth about a Misunderstood Writer (2014) to show that Solzhenitsyn, the novelist and social commentator, was less a dogmatic and war-like nationalist than a life-affirming patriot. He remained his own man, in the opinion of Mahoney, notwithstanding Putin’s frequent praise for Solzhenitsyn, the 2006 airing on state television of a ten-part serialisation of The First Circle and a special presidential award bestowed upon Solzhenitsyn in 2007. Whenever Putin granted Solzhenitsyn an audience, apparently the legendary champion of human dignity did not hold back, lecturing Putin on how things might be done better, starting with the reintroduction of democratic elections for provincial governors, curtailing endemic corruption, reducing the gap between rich and poor and addressing the peril of demographic decline.
Still, the evidence shows that right up until his death in 2008 Solzhenitsyn admired Putin and gave him more than the benefit of the doubt. Four months before his death, according to a WikiLeaks cable, Solzhenitsyn reputedly informed the US ambassador, William Burns, that Putin was a vast improvement on his predecessors: “Solzhenitsyn positively contrasted the eight-year reign of Putin with those of Gorbachev and Yeltsin, which he said had ‘added to the damage done to the Russian state by 70 years of communist rule’. Under Putin, the nation was rediscovering what it was to be Russian, Solzhenitsyn thought.” Solzhenitsyn’s body was failing at the time but his mind was sharp and he continued to follow current events. None of this is to suggest that were Solzhenitsyn alive today he would condone Putin’s invasion of Ukraine—quite the opposite, I assume, notwithstanding Solzhenitsyn’s long-held belief that the people of Great Russia (the Russian Federation), Little Russia (eastern Ukraine), White Russia (Belarus) and conceivably western Kazakhstan all belonged together in one ethno-state.
Why could Solzhenitsyn not see the peril of Putin’s siloviki? After all, it had been four years since the liberal journalist Anna Politkovskaya published Putin’s Russia, a searing and comprehensive condemnation of the Kremlin: “Putin’s new-old nomenklatura has taken corruption to heights undreamt of under the Communists or Yeltsin.” Moreover, Putin’s exploitation of the Second Chechen War (commencing in 1999) had effectively polished off democracy in Russia. In the chapter titled “Our New Middle Ages, or War Criminals of All the Russias”, Politkovskaya depicts that war (and its toll of 25,000 to 50,000 dead or missing) as a cancer affecting every part of the Russian Federation—the judiciary, human rights, the political opposition, the army, the police, the various intelligence agencies, the media and, most important of all, the psyche of the general population. Already, by 2004, her country had fallen into the “Soviet abyss” and for a journalist to survive in Russia required “servility to Putin”. For any remaining contrarians, Putin’s “guard dogs” were ready with “the bullet, poison or trial”. On October 7, 2006—Putin’s fifty-fourth birthday—four bullets struck Politkovskaya, one fatally to the head. Oleg Gordievsky, a covert agent of the British Secret Intelligence Service who defected from the Soviet Union in 1985, warned the world at the time that the FSB was operating straight out of the old KGB handbook.
The third enabler, Patriarch Kirill (above), born Vladimir Mikhailovich Gundyayev, was installed as the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church in 2009. That Kirill’s father and grandfather were priests during the Soviet era, a time when Christians were derided and often persecuted, and the young Gundyayev himself took up theological studies in such a hostile environment, indicates he was no communist dupe. Still, the freedom he enjoyed to study abroad in the 1980s likely suggests he was by necessity KGB. Certainly his predecessor as head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Alexy II (1990–2008), worked for the secret police from as early as the 1950s. Father Kirill, during the chaotic years of the Yeltsin era, participated in the free-for-all corruption that impoverished the Russian people and yet filled the coffers of not only the oligarchs but—on the back of duty-free imported alcohol and tobacco scams—the Orthodox Church. Patriarch Kirill’s conscience appears to be highly selective. For the benefit of the 70 million or so local members of his faith, he is forever directing his moral outrage at the decadent West but has rarely, if ever, condemned the horrors arising from Putin’s brutal war on civilians in the Second Chechen War, the Syrian civil war and now Ukraine. This is the missive he sent the World Council of Churches on March 10, 2022:
The peoples of Russia and Ukraine, who came from one Kievan baptismal font, are united by common faith, common saints and prayers, and share common historical fate. This tragic conflict has become a part of a large-scale geopolitical strategy aimed, first and foremost, at weakening Russia and stirring Russophobia.
Putin could not have said it better.
Solzhenitsyn, in one of his last public interviews, attached little importance to Putin’s earlier professional life as a KGB agent in Dresden, East Germany (the GDR):
Vladimir Putin—yes, he was an officer of the intelligence services, but he was not a KGB investigator, nor was he the head of a camp in the gulag. As for service in foreign intelligence, that is not negative in any country—sometimes it even draws praise. George Bush Sr. was not much criticised for being the ex-head of the CIA, for example.
In some ways we might agree. Both Putin and his opposite number in the CIA would have engaged in all manner of skulduggery and subterfuge to advance their respective causes. In the case of Bush, for instance, the US government itself has released records that clearly document the CIA’s involvement in the 1953 Iranian coup d’état that resulted in the overthrow of the democratically elected Muhammed Mossadegh. Nevertheless, Putin’s time as a KGB officer cannot be dismissed as merely incidental to the Cold War—there are key consequences that need to be considered. First, as Catherine Belton outlines in Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and Took on the West (2020), numerous Soviet intelligence officers with connections to Putin reached the upper echelons of power in the Russian Federation. Mikhail Fradkov, for instance, served as Putin’s prime minister (2004–7) and then as his director of the SVR (2007–16).
Agent Putin, stationed at the farthest western reach of the Soviet Empire from 1985 to 1990, would have seen himself as a warrior on the frontier between a reactionary imperialist superpower (America and the West) and a progressive socialist superpower (the USSR and friends, including the Soviet bloc). The GDR, from the perspective of most Westerners at the time, was a totalitarian nightmare that had to build a wall around the city of West Berlin in 1961 to prevent its captive population escaping to the freedom of the West. It was a “surreal cage” as Frederick Taylor characterises it in The Berlin Wall (2007), evidence of the moral bankruptcy of Soviet-style communism. Putin’s attitude to the GDR, as portrayed in an expansive interview that took place in 2000, was more nuanced. He admitted that Erich Honecker’s regime was heavy-handed and “totally invasive”, similar to the Soviet Union in Stalin’s heyday, and that a “position built on walls and dividers cannot last”. Even so, Moscow should not have just “dropped everything” in 1989-90 and abandoned East Germany to its fate—that is, to be absorbed by West Germany. It should have remained to help a new version of the GDR “rise in its place”.
We are unlikely to ever know the full details of Putin’s service to the KGB in East Germany, not least because the official record of his work was expunged: “We destroyed everything—our communications, our list of contacts and our agents’ networks. I personally burned a huge amount of material. We burned so much that the furnace burst.” Catherine Belton makes a strong case that the Dresden branch of the KGB aided and abetted the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Red Army Faction—that is, terrorists. Putin, unsurprisingly, has played down his role in Dresden, portraying himself as a low-level operative whose work was innocuous. We may never know the full truth. But we do know Putin was outraged by Gorbachev’s failure to take a decisive stand in East Germany or even reply to a request for military back-up to protect the Dresden station from the “aggressive mood” of the locals: “But that business of ‘Moscow is silent’—I got the feeling that our country no longer existed. That it had disappeared. It was clear that the Union was failing. And it had a terminal disease without a cure—a paralysis of power.” Ever since, I would argue, Vladimir Putin has been the proverbial bayonet in search of an ideology. He would never be a Marxist-Leninist again and yet Western-style liberalism was unsuitable for the Russian world.
The bayonet part of the equation is evident in Putin’s escalate-to-de-escalate response to acts of civil disobedience. In May 2012, for instance, Putin cracked down on the wave of massive protests that were in response to voter fraud associated with his re-election to the presidency. The same brutal police measures were again employed in January 2021 when widespread demonstrations erupted after opposition leader Alexei Navalny was arrested on his return to Russia. (Navalny, to give all this its full KGB dimension, had earlier been poisoned with Novichok nerve agent by the FSB.) It was, inevitably, the same story in February and March 2022 after large numbers of people came out on the streets to protest against Putin’s invasion of Ukraine; and, again, in September 2022 when his regime announced a “partial mobilisation” of some 300,000 Russian men. Over the years tens of thousands of peaceful protesters have been beaten, detained and imprisoned—the same remedy for retaining the status quo recommended by KGB officer Putin to quell the aggressive mob back in 1989. To do otherwise was to succumb to a paralysis of power.
But what, exactly, is the purpose of power? If the duty of the KGB was to protect the Soviet communist system from external and internal adversaries, what is the mission of modern-day chekists—that is, Putin and the siloviki—since the Soviet communist system ended with a whimper in 1991? The answer, which took time to fully manifest, is to protect the Russian state from its external and internal adversaries. Conveniently enough, we might say, those who hold power in Putin’s Russia are the state. Do we call this form of rule fascism—or Ruscism and Racism—as Yale professor Timothy Snyder and others have argued? More accurate, perhaps, is Alvis Hermanis’s counterview:
Putinism, or Russism, is the opposite of fascism in terms of the development of the world. It is counter-revolutionary, strictly opposed to any social reforms and social mobilization. It is not based on youth, but on those who are stuck in the past. Putinism’s social course is aimed at the depoliticization of society. You can do what you want, just stay out of politics. We give you bread and entertainment, you don’t interfere with our rule, that is the social contract of Putinism.
To take it a step further, as Julie Fedor does in Russia and the Cult of State: The Chekist Tradition, from Lenin to Putin (2013), Putinism is about normalising and justifying the existence of the FSB-state on the proviso it protects the Russian people from their foreign and internal adversaries.
In a number of ways, argues Catherine Belton, 2004 was when Putin’s “vertical power” came into its own. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the richest oligarch of all, had been arrested in 2003 and charged with financial crimes. Perhaps he should not have founded Open Russia, originally a philanthropic organisation. Its pledge to fund regional journalism, education projects for the young and so on might have transgressed Putin’s admonition against oligarchs meddling in politics. Khodorkovsky’s farcical trial, which lasted throughout much of 2004, was reminiscent of one of Stalin’s show trials. The defendant did not receive a bullet to the back of the head but was relieved of his not inconsiderable assets and sent to a penal colony for ten years. Also, in 2004, the FSB botched the Beslan school siege in which some 333 students, teachers and parents died. Later, Nikolai Patrushev, then head of the FSB, delivered Putin a report claiming Western involvement in the terrorist attack. A Kremlin insider, according to Belton, provided her with this insight into Putin’s reaction: “Putin believed it because it suited him. The main thing was to create a myth, to blame it on the West. This is how they were able to cover it all up.” And so it was with Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in 2004. Naturally, the pro-West presidential candidate in the 2004 presidential election, Viktor Yushchenko, was a CIA man and the demonstrators who came out to support him after the first rigged vote were funded by anti-Russian American interests. Yushchenko was then poisoned in an attempt on his life.
We could argue Russia was lost when Yeltsin handed over the presidency to the former head of the FSB on New Year’s Eve 1999, but Putin made it official in his speech at the 2007 Munich Security Conference:
I think it is obvious NATO expansion does not have any relation with the modernisation of the Alliance itself or ensuring security in Europe. On the contrary, it represents a serious provocation that reduces the level of trust. And what happened to the assurances our western partners made after the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact? And where are those declarations today? No one even remembers them.
No one remembers, claims M.E. Sarotte in Not One Inch: America, Russia and the Making of the Post-Cold War Stalemate (2021), because there was never a formal agreement between NATO and Moscow to match Secretary of State James Baker’s suggestion to Gorbachev, in February 1990, that NATO would “not shift one inch eastward from its current position” if Moscow “let go” of Russia’s part of Germany. Baker, under direction from the White House, quickly retracted his off-the-cuff proposal and, in any case, Gorbachev did not act on the idea, not least because by then the GDR was no longer his to “let go”. There is certainly no mention of Baker’s proposition in the Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany signed in September 1990 by Washington, London, Paris and Moscow. Bill Clinton’s 1994 Partnership for Peace program might have been a way to assuage the distrust for Moscow still held by former Eastern Bloc nations without granting them full membership of NATO. However, Yeltsin’s invasion of Chechnya in 1994 and Putin’s re-invasion of Chechnya in 1999 put paid to that idea. Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic were all accepted as members of NATO in 1999. Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Slovakia and others were not far behind.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine might be the consummation of Putinism—the (prospective) restoration of Greater Russia, the demonisation of the West and, not to be overlooked, the continued atomisation of the Russian people. As Pavel Chikov, head of the Russian human rights group Agora, recently argued, a key domestic effect of Putin’s war is that new presidential decrees and their arbitrary and cruel enforcement have further “cowed” the Russian population. While laws in Russia have grown increasingly oppressive over the last two decades, at least they were relatively transparent. A person knew that “by adapting their own behaviour, they [could] minimize the risk of running afoul of law enforcement”. Not any more. Long ago a KGB lieutenant-colonel stationed in Dresden complained about the paralysis of power in Moscow as the mood of the people turned angry and the Soviet empire began to collapse. That situation has now been reversed. Today the Kremlin is omnipotent and the population paralysed. Who lost Russia? Alas, the Russian people.
Daryl McCann contributed “Russia, China and Iran: An Uneasy Alliance of Rogues” in the December issue and “Putin’s Inglorious War of Terror” in January-February. He has a blog at https://darylmccann.blogspot.com