The Two Worlds of Vladimir Putin.
I was introduced to Vladimir Putin's KGB in the summer of 1981. I was in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), the city where he was born and spent much of his career before his improbable rise to Russia's presidency. That summer I was visiting as a tourist more interested in the city's splendid architecture and museums than in bucking the system as I had as a student traveler in 1967. Fourteen years had not changed the rule: Forging acquaintances with local Russians was strictly out of bounds. Foreigners, especially Russian speakers like me, were still cordoned off from contacts with ordinary Russians by the efficient operations of Intourist and the infamous dezhurnye, the elderly ladies who were positioned on every hotel floor to monitor the comings and goings of guests. So it was very odd when an unusually friendly Russian man approached me as I sat in the lobby of my hotel, right under the watchful eyes of Intourist, and began earnestly telling me about the woes of Soviet life and expressing sympathy for Americ an ideals. It took a while before I realized what was going on. I was the target of an entrapment effort. Shaken, I quickly broke off the conversation and hurried away.
My new "acquaintance" was doubtless an employee of the local branch of the KGB. Part of his job was to hang around hotels spying on visiting foreigners and trying to single out a few--as in my case, apparently--who could be more directly exploited. This was the kind of elevated activity Vladimir Putin did during the nine years he worked for the Leningrad KGB, from l975 to 1984. (For all I know, the man in the Hotel Moskva's lobby may have been Putin, who has been aptly described as "professionally nondescript.") It is hard to imagine what people like Putin felt when they went through daily routines such as this, but I will never forget my own reaction. I felt like going up to my room and taking a long shower. I had come face to face with an organization I knew chiefly in the abstract from reading the samizdat writings of Soviet dissidents whose lives had been destroyed by just such mundane KGB functionaries. What came to mind was Hannah Arendt's phrase about the Nazi regime -- the banality of evil.
Now, with the political ascendancy of Vladimir Putin, that banal evil has reached the summit of power in the Kremlin--a situation that should cause more concern to U.S. policymakers than it apparently does. At home, journalists and political pundits scour the past of American presidential contenders to see if they have smoked marijuana, dodged the draft, or committed adultery, but the background of the new Russian leader is, policymakers tell us, irrelevant. The important thing is that Putin is "someone we can do business with." It is not hard to understand the rationale behind this approach. But if you judge Putin by his past, it does not bode well for the future of Russian democracy or for Russia's relations with the West.
Contrary to the myth generated by the Kremlin and perpetuated by the Western news media, many authoritative sources agree that Putin was never a spy of the sort so romantically depicted by John le Carre--a sophisticated, suave cynic who hobnobs in Western diplomatic circles abroad, sipping cognac in elegant, book-lined rooms. If such a person existed, he might conceivably have realized that the Soviet system was a sham and warmed to the democratic ways of the West. (The Kremlin exploited a similar myth when former KGB head Yuri Andropov came to power in 1982, suggesting that he was a jazz-loving Western-style sophisticate.) But the spymaster group was an old-boy elite to which Putin, the son of a factory worker, had no entree. When Putin was hired by the KGB after finishing law school in Leningrad in l975--a training ground for police and administrators, not foreign intelligence officers--he was sent to its Leningrad branch rather than a more desirable foreign post.
According to former KGB spy Oleg Kalugin, who was banished to Leningrad in 1980 by disapproving superiors, the local office was a backwater. As he recalled in his 1994 memoir, "Our 3,000-person KGB office in Leningrad continued to harass dissidents and ordinary citizens, as well as to hunt futilely for spies. But I can truly say that nearly all of what we did was useless. [ldots] In the twenty years before my arrival in Leningrad, the local KGB hadn't caught one spy, despite the expenditure of millions of rubles and tens of thousands of man-hours." As a low-level cog in this machine of repression and deceit, Putin, as Kalugin has since put it, was a "nobody."
After a year of study at the KGB's Red Banner Institute of Intelligence in Moscow, Putin finally won a stint abroad in 1985. But he was sent to Soviet-controlled East Germany, not the West, and, contrary to many press reports that now suggest he was engaged in high-level espionage, he had the same sort of job he had in Leningrad. Working in close cooperation with the Stasi, Putin spied on German and Soviet citizens and recruited informers. Not very lofty work, by any stretch of the imagination.
Putin, who speaks fluent German, appears to have been heavily influenced by his five-year immersion in Stasi culture. In The File: A Personal History (1997), journalist Timothy Garton Ash estimates that by 1988, when Putin was in East Germany, the Stasi had more than 90,000 employees and some 170,000 collaborators. In other words, at least one out of every 50 adult East Germans was directly connected with the secret police. The East German police state, Garton Ash observes, was "less brutal than the Third Reich, to be sure, far less damaging to its neighbors, and not genocidal, but more quietly all-pervasive in its domestic control."
Garton Ash sees a strong parallel between the Stasi mentality and that of the Nazis. Both appealed to "secondary virtues" such as discipline, hard work, and loyalty, while completely ignoring the "systemic wrong" of the totalitarian state they served. Putin's words since his rise to prominence certainly fit the pattern Garton Ash describes. The new president speaks of reviving the "moral fiber" of the Russian people and of "exterminating" the Chechens in the same breath. He emphasizes the need for honest leadership, yet he also extols the accomplishments of the KGB--which was not only morally corrupt, we now know, but riddled with more ordinary corruption as well.
When the collapse of communism in East Germany in 1989 brought his career there to an end, Putin returned home to Leningrad. He formally retired from the KGB in 1991, going to work for the city's mayor, Anatoly Sobchak. Some say that he continued spying for the security services. Eventually, Boris Yeltsin's cronies in St. Petersburg, part of a far-flung clan of often corrupt oligarchs, tapped him for service in the president's administration in Moscow. The rest of Putin's prepresidential resume is straightforward. In 1998, Yeltsin, under fire for the rampant corruption in his regime and for the bungled first war in Chechnya of 1994-96, named Putin chief of Russia's domestic security agency, the Federal Security Service (FSB). When the Russian parliament was about to impeach Yeltsin on a variety of charges, he gave Putin the additional job of heading the president's Security Council, which oversees the entire security and defense apparatus. Putin pulled out all the stops for Yeltsin, bullying the parliament w ith a threatening speech and using an embarrassing videotape to discredit the Russian prosecutor-general, who was bent on the prosecution of a Yeltsin crony. Putin's good works were rewarded last year when Yeltsin named him prime minister and then made him acting president when he stepped down on December 31. He was elected president in March without ever having held elective office.
How could the Russian people accept as their leader a dyed-in-the-wool KGB apparatchik with unexceptional credentials? Frightened by the specter of Chechen terrorism and fed up with Yeltsin's dysfunctional "democracy," Russians have embraced Putin because he pressed hard in the war against Chechnya and built an image as a tough, aggressive, anti-Western superpatriot. Human rights activist Sergei Kovalev aptly summed up the current attitude of his fellow Russians in a recent article in the New York Review of Books: "We don't want to return to communism, but we're fed up with your democracy, your freedom, your human rights. What we want is order."
Putin did not come to power alone. He is part of a cohort of professionals from the Russian security services who have used the support of Yeltsin and corrupt oligarchs such as business tycoon Boris Berezovsky and former Deputy Prime Minister Anatoly Chubais to infiltrate the Kremlin. Early in his presidency, Yeltsin began courting the security services and building up their powers because he needed them, with their investigative and surveillance capabilities and their elite troop units, for support in his political battles. Before long, Yeltsin was surrounded by former KGB officials, and they came to play a prominent role in determining both domestic and foreign policy. It is hardly a coincidence that the last three Russian prime ministers hailed from the KGB and its successor organizations. If Putin had not been the designated successor to Yeltsin, it would have been someone very much like him--an iron-fisted, tough-talking former KGB officer who promised to restore law and order by cracking down on crimin als. (Not members of the Yeltsin clan, of course, just the Chechens and others, such as journalists, who embarrass the Kremlin.)
Have Russians forgotten the heavy price they paid for "law and order" and national pride in the heyday of the KGB: no meaningful elections, no freedom of the press, and no ability to travel freely or exercise religious beliefs? To be sure, Russia has not yet turned back the clock to the Soviet period, but the signs of regression are everywhere: the brutal onslaught against the Chechens, the harassment and arrest of journalists who are critical of the government, and the growing state control over the news media. This should surprise no one. Why expect people who spent most of their careers callously abusing human rights suddenly to stop, especially in the chaotic and ruthless world of Russian politics?
As Aleksandr Nikitin, the outspoken environmentalist who was arrested on charges of treason in 1996 for exposing the Russian Navy's harmful nuclear dumping practices, observes: "There is no such thing as an ex-KGB employee, just as there is no such thing as an ex-German shepherd." Nikitin, whose arrest and prosecution were orchestrated by Putin's long-time Leningrad colleague, Viktor Cherkesov, was unexpectedly acquitted at the end of December. The man who persecuted him for more than two years, however, is now second in command of the FSB.
The greatest risk for Russia's future will come if and when ordinary Russians become disenchanted with Putin. Then he and his allies may decide that courting public opinion is simply more trouble than it's worth and fall back on the familiar methods of the security services. Putin has already placed a number of former KGB colleagues in high positions. In addition to Cherkesov, for example, the new chief of the FSB, Nikolai Patrushev, went to law school with Putin and served with him in the Leningrad KGB. The head of the president's Security Council, Sergei Ivanov, graduated with Putin from the KGB'S Red Banner Institute.
Given Russia's increasingly belligerent anti-Westernism, the United States and other Western governments can do little in the short run to influence events in Russia directly. But by acknowledging the implications of having another former KGB apparatchik as Russia's president, U.S. policymakers would at least avoid giving an impression of naivete that would encourage the Kremlin to be even less inhibited about flouting world opinion than it already is. The fact that almost a decade after the collapse of the Soviet system in 1991 someone like Putin could rise to the top of the political leadership in Russia is a grim reminder that the legacies of police states die hard.
[greater than] AMY KNIGHT, a former Wilson Center Fellow, is a lecturer in political science at Carleton University. She is the author of several books on the history of the Soviet intelligence services, including Spies without Cloaks: The KGB's Successors (1996) and Who Killed Kirov? The Kremlin's Greatest Mystery (1999). Copyright (c) 2000 by Amy Knight.
Blair A. Ruble
More than three months after Boris Yeltsin startled the world by resigning in favor of Vladimir Putin, Western analysts are still groping for insights into the new Russian president. They debate the significance of his KGB past and his role in St. Petersburg's democratic movement during the l990s. They wonder what the Russian war in Chechnya tells us about the heart and mind of the man who prosecuted it while serving as Yeltsin's prime minister. In truth, we are not likely to learn enough about the inscrutable Mr. Putin to predict what he will do as Russia's president. Yet one important and neglected piece in the puzzle of his character undoubtedly resides in St. Petersburg, where he was born and spent many of his politically formative years.
During those years, two distinct realities coexisted within the city's official boundaries. The first, and by far the weaker, was that of the historic city center and the pre-revolutionary values it embodied. This community was known in unofficial shorthand as "Peter." Around it in the years after World War II grew a new Soviet industrial city, representing all the values of the Soviet Union. This sprawling urban center was rightly known in local parlance by the city's official name, "Leningrad."
"Peter" grew out of the city's proud tradition as Russia's imperial capital, the center of its high culture and intellectual life, and its "window on the West." Founded by Peter the Great in 1703--who gave it straight streets and borrowed neoclassical architecture in an attempt to impose European rationality on an addled Russian landscape--it grew to be Europe's fifth largest city by the eve of World War I. After the fall of the Romanovs, the city entered a period of wrenching transformations. The Russian Civil War cost it more than half its population, and it lost its name (which had changed to Petrograd in 1914 and then in 1924 to Leningrad) and its status as the capital city. In the 1930s came Stalin's purges and an influx of peasants fleeing his unfathomably brutal collectivization of agriculture; Hitler's 900-day siege of 1941-44 cost the city more dead than all of its wars together have cost the United States. During the late 1940s, the few members of the local intelligentsia and political elite who su rvived suffered another round of purges. By the time Putin was born, in 1952 (shortly before Stalin's death), the city of Pushkin, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky was no more.
During the 1950s and 1960s, the city's Communist leaders created a distinctive Leningrad model of development, emphasizing defense and other specialized industries, including shipbuilding, machinery, and precision instruments. The city's economy rested on the increasing integration of a vaunted technical and scientific academic community with leading local industries and the national security apparatus--an especially vigorous presence in Leningrad. The Leningrad model included cultural policies that were even more authoritarian than the Soviet norm. The new economic and cultural policies sharply divided the city's intellectual elite, creating, in effect, two cities. On one side stood the writers, artists, performers, and humanistic scholars who identified with a mythical "Peter" that stood in latent opposition to Soviet power--their more outspoken colleagues having been dispatched to the gulag. On the other stood what the Soviets called the technical intelligentsia -- designers, engineers, architects, and th e like--who served the Soviet Union's leading regional military-industrial complex. This was Vladimir Putin's city.
Putin graduated from the Leningrad State University Juridical Faculty during the mid-1970s. I was a visiting graduate student at the time, in Leningrad to do research for my doctoral dissertation, and although I don't recall meeting Putin, I well remember the asphyxiating atmosphere of the place. The drear was relieved, ironically, only on Soviet holidays, when some of the faculty members (officers in the KGB, one student whispered to me) showed up in colorful dress uniforms. Leningrad State, like all Soviet-era law schools, was a prime training ground for the KGB and other security agencies.
The local Communist Party and security agencies were among the Soviet Union's most aggressive enemies of dissent. When I arrived, the law school was in the midst of a crackdown on professors with unorthodox views or Jewish names--the two categories were considered virtually synonymous. Local hostility was forcing many members of the city's once large Jewish population into exile and liberal scholars were being driven underground. Clumsy Communist politicians, resentful of the city's heritage of liberalism and high culture, were hard at work turning their once proud metropolis into a provincial industrial town. Leningrad party chieftain Grigorii Romanov earned a reputation for boorishness even among Brezhnev-era Politburo and Central Committee members, hardly a crowd noted for high standards of refinement. It was in this city at this time that Mikhail Baryshnikov decided to flee to the West, and a young Vladimir Putin decided to cast his lot with the KGB.
Since the demise of communism, a resurgent "Peter" has overshadowed the city's "Leningrad" heritage, assuming a prominent role in post-Soviet Russia's faltering democracy. Their conflict, hidden during the Soviet years, was brought into the open by Mikhail Gorbachev's liberalizing policies during the late 1980s. Fittingly, it was through battles over the preservation of historic buildings that "Peter" first found a legitimate forum for advancing the war against "Leningrad." Raucous street demonstrations erupted in March 1987 to protest the city's graceless restoration of the once grand Astoria Hotel and its more declasse neighbor, the Angleterra. It was from the Astoria bar that John Reed witnessed the 10 days that shook the world in 1917, while at the Angleterra the poet Sergei Essenin, in despair over the emerging face of the Bolshevik regime he had once embraced, took his own life in 1925, scratching a final verse in his own blood. For the first time, local citizens found the courage to publicly reject the economic visions formulated for their city by Soviet planners.
This was the beginning of the city's rise to prominence in prodemocratic Russia. In the historic Supreme Soviet elections of 1989, Leningrad voters turned every senior local Communist Party leader out of office, effectively breaking the party's back in much of the Soviet Union. When a Communist coup threatened Russia's new government in August 1991, Boris Yeltsin's defiant display of bulldog tenacity riveted the world's attention on Moscow. But in Petersburg, a genuinely revolutionary moment occurred as one-third of the entire local population crowded into the historic square in front of the Hermitage Museum to oppose the coup. Local voters have remained Russia's most liberal electorate, right down through the parliamentary elections of December 1999.
Yet "Leningrad" continues to lurk just beneath the surface of Petersburgian democracy, much as "Peter" hid in Leningrad's shadows during the Soviet decades. Vladimir Putin appears to embody all of the contradictions between the two. After service in the KGB that took him to East Germany and Leningrad, Putin threw in his lot with the reformers in the 1990s. He was St. Petersburg's deputy mayor from 1991 until 1996, working closely with the city's high-toned reform mayor Anatoly Sobchak (who had been one of Putin's law school professors). In 1998, after two years in the Yeltsin government, Putin was named head of the Federal Security Service, the successor to the KGB. In August 1999, Yeltsin named him prime minister.
Sobchak's Petersburg circle produced an impressive number of Russian leaders, from Yeltsin's promarket "gray cardinal," Anatoly Chubais, to national privatization honchos Sergei Belayev and Alfred Kokh. These and other prominent St. Petersburg politicians--including the assassinated democratic politicians Mikhail Manevich and Galina Starovoitova--had all rejected "Leningrad" during the Soviet era. The depth of their commitment to free markets and free elections varied, but at some level all shared the status of outsiders, talented professionals who had felt unjustly ignored merely because they lived in the Soviet Union's second city. To some of them, at least, the democratic movement of the late 1980s offered an opportunity for rapid upward mobility while also having the virtue of being virtuous.
This singular blend of cynical calculation and idealism is one of the distinctive qualities of the politicians the city has bred.
The city continues to struggle with the legacy of the Leningrad model of development. The approach emphasized the centralization of decision making, rationalization of the links between research and development and industrial production, and the streamlining of lines of command in order to force existing institutions to operate more efficiently. The tanks coming off the assembly lines at Leningrad's Kirov Factory, the nuclear power stations built by Elektrosila, the high-grade plastics being turned out by Plastpolimer, and the precision optics produced at LOMO deluded Leningraders into thinking that their economy was world class.
The 1990s revealed the folly of Leningrad's economic and political strategies. The city's Soviet inheritance has been a deadweight, sinking nearly every effort to drag it into the global economy. In pegging the city's fortunes so closely to the Soviet military-industrial complex, its leaders failed to confront its underlying economic handicaps: a peripheral geographic location, a harsh climate, a lack of natural resources, and the absence of an economically active hinterland. Despite numerous behind-the-scenes proposals to remake the city as a high-tech center, Leningrad's Soviet planners never made the sorts of adjustments that would have converted a hierarchically managed industrial-age metropolis into a flexible, horizontally organized postindustrial leader. Instead, they squeezed enough out of the existing system to create the illusion of success.
Leningrad never confronted the central issue facing Russia today: how to generate and sustain economic creativity and growth. That will require the establishment of legal and credit structures that encourage small business and entrepreneurship. It means encouraging bottom-up initiatives rather than rule by top-down decree. It means, in effect, calling upon "Peter" to help make the future work.
There may be something of "Peter" in Russia's new president, but there is undoubtedly a good deal of "Leningrad" in him as well. Putin seems to favor using the strong hand of government overseers to prod the existing Russian economy to function more effectively. It is true that authoritative government will be needed if Russia is to succeed, but that is not what Putin seems to mean. In a statement released only days before he succeeded Yeltsin as acting president last December, Putin tipped his hat to the values of democracy and capitalism even as he observed that "the public looks forward to the restoration of the guiding and regulating role of the state to a degree which is necessary, proceeding from the traditions and present state of the country." These words are as full of contradiction as the city that bred their author. Putin's efforts as Russia's president may bring some improvements, but in assessing them it will be worth recalling the Leningrad legacy of surface achievement at the expense of more p rofound long-term gains.
[greater than] Blair A. Ruble is director of the Wilson Center's Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies. He is the author of several books on Russian cities, including Leningrad: Shaping a Soviet City (1990). Copyright (c) 2000 by Blair A. Ruble.
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|Publication:||The Wilson Quarterly|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2000|
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