The New York Times' Moscow Bureau Chief gives us an interesting but incomplete look at Putin's acquisition and maintenance of power. In fairness, any biography of Putin is going to be far from complete - he lives an intensely stage-managed life and much of his life is shrouded in privacy and secrecy. But this book fails to satisfactorily answer even basic questions like "how did Putin rise to power?" with anything more than "others might promise, but Putin achieved results" and that Boris Yeltsin "impetuously" selected him as his prime minister. Why? I couldn't find a compelling answer
In spite of these major holes, "The New Tsar" does provide a fascinating and timely analysis of modern Russia and Putin's dominant role in it. The book reads particularly well when set against the backdrop of Trump's recent election in America - I was struck by many similarities between the two. The following passage could just as well have been written about Trump/America:
Putin’s rise was as astonishing as it was unexpected. He seemed to represent a new, independent political force... In the muck of Russia’s politics, he alone seemed untainted by the intrigues of politicians and oligarchs... His blunt public statements, even the coarse ones, seemed refreshing after the confusion and obfuscation of Yeltsin’s administration
Other similarities include:
- The importance of loyalty in their political allies
- The understanding and manipulation of the media to promote their own cults of personality
- The emphasis on law and order - Putin has said that Russia will be a "dictatorship of the law"
- Each takes his own counsel regarding major political decisions, reflecting their spirit of self-confidence and self-reliance.
Time will tell if Trump will adopt Putin's tactic of using "anti-corruption" measures to take down the political opposition.
When the book describes Putin's various methods of acquiring, expanding, and maintaining his power (by sheer determination, economic patronage, elimination of rivals, etc), I was reminded of similar strategies used by LBJ and Robert Moses. Putin isn't blazing a new trail here - we can understand him much better if we realize that he's a rational, ruthless actor doing things that aren't so unfamiliar to us here in America. One of the most interesting devices in this book was the constant comparison of Russian "corruption" to similar occurrences in the US.
I was also surprised by Putin's personal work ethic and initiative. From a starting point as a mid-career bureaucrat, he seized every opportunity to put in the hard work, deliver results, and work his way up. The book fails to explain why it took him until middle-age to really turn on the jets, but Putin seems to work his butt off. He doesn't drink, doesn't smoke, puts in crazy hours, and really turned his country around. And he learned English so that he could understand America better - when was the last time one of our presidents learned another country's language on the job?
Putin is certainly anti-American as all hell. But does that make him a bad leader for Russia? I'm not sure. It's not great for America, but he does seem to have majority support of the Russian population. He inherited a pretty dysfunctional situation from Yeltsin and there's no denying that he really turned things around. He's ruthless, brutal, and decisive - and there have certainly been some "broken eggs" but maybe that's the best that could have been done in such a tough situation. Rather than withering away, Russia has grown significantly in international stature and power under Putin. I just wish the author had given us a clearer picture of how he's done it.
As for the future... Russia's in a pretty tough spot with the structural weakness of their economy and their reliance on natural resources (particularly oil). At a recent Yale Grand Strategy event, I heard a perspective that sounds right to me. In the long term, Russia is not a geopolitical risk to the US - their economy is structurally too weak and this limits their influence. In the short/medium term though, Russia is going to assert itself but likely won't write checks it can't cash.
My highlights below:
Oh, he understood very well that for the meek soul of a simple Russian, exhausted by grief and hardship and, above all, by constant injustice and sin, his own or the world’s, there was no stronger need than to find a holy shrine or a saint to prostrate himself before and to worship. —Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
CHAPTER 1 - Homo Sovieticus
The Red Army’s commanders had poured troops across the river in hopes of breaking the encirclement of Leningrad that had begun two months earlier when the Germans captured Shlisselburg, an ancient fortress at the mouth of the Neva, but the effort failed. The Germans laid a siege that would last 872 days and kill a million civilians by bombardment, starvation, or disease.
One did not think of the mistakes that were made, the young boy would say later; one thought only of winning.
This third son, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, was born on October 7, 1952, in a city still scarred by the siege, still suffering from deprivation, still consumed by fear. Stalin’s megalomania, even in victory, had descended into paranoia and retribution.
Faith nonetheless hovered in the background of the boy’s life, along with his father’s commitment to Communism’s secular orthodoxy. He evinced little preference for either, though some who knew him would assert years later that his relationship with the Jewish neighbors instilled an unusual ecumenical tolerance and a disdain for the anti-Semitism that has long afflicted Russian culture.
As a college student, he continued to study rigorously and devote much of his time to judo competitions, forswearing smoking and drinking in order to stay fit.
The law appealed to Vladimir as martial arts did. It imposed rules and order, which he came to respect more than any ideology.
As far as he was concerned, the crimes of the past that killed or ruined millions were old history, and he was not unusual in that. For many Russians, even those who suffered under his tyranny, Stalin remained the revered father of the nation who led the country to victory over the Nazis; the darker recesses of his rule were suppressed, either by fear, complicity, or guilt, leaving a conflicted legacy that would dominate Soviet society for decades.
CHAPTER 2 - A Warm Heart, a Cool Head, and Clean Hands
Andropov understood the limits of the Soviet system and sought to modernize it so it could catch up to the West, especially in economic affairs. The KGB sought out recruits who understood macroeconomics, trade, and international relations. Vladimir seems to have anticipated this with his studies at Leningrad State University, where he wrote a thesis on the principle of most-favored-nation status in international trade.
This “Hungarian complex” shaped Andropov’s belief that only force, wisely administered, could ensure the survival of the Soviet state and empire.
He did not return to the personnel department, but rather to the counterintelligence department, the KGB’s Second Chief Directorate. He took part in operations not against the enemy outside, but against the enemy within. He became an apparatchik who sought, above all, to maintain social order and political control, though very little was known about his activities at the time.
With abundant free time, he careered around the city in the car his mother had given him and, according to his friends, continued to involve himself in street fights, despite the risk such indiscretions could cause his career. He was indifferent to risk and danger — he proudly recounted a poor performance evaluation that said as much — in part because his KGB service provided him some protection from the ordinary police. He bent the rules because he could.
Vladimir proved to be a demanding, jealous boyfriend; she felt he was always watching her, testing her, judging her. He would declare his intention — whether it was to go skiing, say, or for her to take a typing course — and leave her no room to argue.
The KGB promoted him to major after nine years of service and sent him to study in Moscow at the elite school of foreign intelligence, the Red Banner Institute. Founded in 1938, it was boot camp for the Soviet Union’s foreign spies. The institute was not only ideologically exclusive, it also discriminated on racial and ethnic lines. Jews were banned, as were Crimean Tatars, Chechens, and Kalmyks.
The institute was a secret facility located in a forest outside Moscow, where it remains today under a new name, the Academy of Foreign Intelligence. It offered courses that lasted one to three years, depending on a cadet’s education, experience, and expected assignment. Lyudmila, now pregnant, remained in Leningrad, living with his parents. It was here that Vladimir learned spy craft — how to recruit agents, to communicate in code, to conduct surveillance, to lose a tail, to make and use dead-letter boxes. Above all, he was learning the art of deep cover. Throughout the training, cadets adopted code names, derived from the first letter of their names. Putin became Comrade Platov, protecting his real identity even from other students.
The institute’s three main departments were headed at the time by veterans of the KGB’s “golden age” of espionage — the years before, during, and after World War II: Yuri Modin in political intelligence, Ivan Shishkin in counterintelligence, and Vladimir Barkovsky in scientific and technological intelligence. All made their reputations as spies in London, and Modin was the last controller of the group that became known as the Magnificent Five, the young Cambridge graduates, including Kim Philby, who were recruited during the 1930s as agents of the Soviet Union and ultimately penetrated the highest levels of British power.
Serving undercover in the West would have required another year or two at the institute, with deeper and deeper training in local customs that often betrayed foreign origins — basic aspects of capitalist life, like mortgages, could stump and betray a Soviet operative. Vladimir would later claim that he preferred to serve in East Germany, but the choice was not his to make.
For the first time, he received a foreign passport. He was almost thirty-three and had never left the Soviet Union before.
CHAPTER 3 - The Devoted Officer of a Dying Empire
As a student, he had grown to love German culture, history, and literature, and now he immersed himself in it.
He enjoyed middlebrow variety shows on German television and yet also read the classics prodigiously, favoring Russian satirists, like Nikolai Gogol and Mikhail Saltykov - Shchedrin, who savaged the stifling and corrupt tsarist bureaucracy of the ninteenth century. Dead Souls, Gogol’s masterwork skewering provincial venality and supplication, became a favorite novel.
Little Volodya, Usoltsev thought, had a remarkable ability to adapt his personality to the situation and to his superiors, charming them and winning their confidence; it was a defining trait that others would notice. [NOTE: Like LBJ / Moses]
He was such a picky eater, refusing to touch dishes he did not like, that she lost patience cooking for him. When she complained, he quoted a Russian aphorism: “Don’t praise a woman, or else you’ll spoil her.” He never celebrated their wedding anniversaries.
Lyudmila confided in her that theirs was a stormy marriage, that Vladimir was abusive and a serial womanizer.
In a way, glasnost came to the security forces first, since they had access to what was forbidden then, but soon would spill into the public consciousness.
He sensed the need for political and economic change, but like Gorbachev and many other Russians, he favored evolutionary change, not radical reform. As many others, he never wanted the state to collapse.
CHAPTER 4 - Democracy Faces a Hungry Winter
Some would assume the KGB had a hand in directing the young officer into Sobchak’s office, but according to Kalugin, it was Sobchak who recruited him.
First, though, Putin felt obliged to disclose his actual profession. “I must tell you that I am not just an assistant to the rector,” he told Sobchak. “I am a regular officer of the KGB.” In Putin’s recollection, Sobchak hesitated and then, to Putin’s surprise, dismissed this issue. “Fuck it!” he replied.
Vladimir Putin played no role in the politics of the collapse of the Soviet Union.
After Sobchak’s election, Putin ended his work at the university, and in June 1991 he joined the mayor’s staff as the director of the city’s new committee on foreign relations. He made himself indispensable: a quiet, level-headed, but stern presence, working in a sparsely furnished office. He worked so tirelessly and with such efficiency and “brute determination,” as one colleague put it, that he earned the unflattering nickname “Stasi,” only in part because of his tour of duty in East Germany.
Not at all by his design, Vladimir Putin landed on the winning side of the collapse of the Soviet Union. And yet he did not share the euphoria that many Russians felt.
CHAPTER 5 - The Spies Come In from the Cold
When Nikiforova asked if the city’s “international partners” would look askance at the presence of KGB spies on Sobchak’s staff, he simply noted that the American president, George H. W. Bush, had previously served as director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and no one disqualified him from holding office. [NOTE: common technique throughout book to compare Russian "corruption" to everyday American politics]
And yet even then, at the dawn of democracy in Russia, he warned that the imperative of the strong state — and the people’s willingness to accept, even desire it — remained part of the collective Russian temperament. “No matter how sad, no matter how terrible it sounds, I believe that a turn towards totalitarianism for a period of time is possible in our country. The danger, though, should be seen not in the organs of law enforcement, the security services, the police, or even the army. The danger is in the mentality, the mentality of our people, in our very own mentality. It seems to all of us — and I will admit, to me sometimes as well — that by imposing strict order with an iron fist, we will all begin to live better, more comfortably, more securely. In actual fact that comfort would very quickly pass because that iron fist would very quickly begin to strangle us.”
Sobchak soon joined one of the eminent Cold Warriors, Henry Kissinger, as co-chairman of an international commission of experts and businessmen devoted to finding investors who would convert the city’s moribund defense factories and other manufacturers into commercial enterprises. When Kissinger flew into Petersburg for a visit, it was Vladimir Putin who met him at the airport and took him to the mayor’s residence, chatting about his KGB past. “All decent people got their start in intelligence,” Kissinger told him, to his delight. “I did, too.”
Sobchak’s motives for hiring the security veterans puzzled and alarmed the city’s reformers, but he argued that the city needed experienced professionals to govern, even if it meant co-opting the political and security bureaucracy that he had once vowed to dismantle. To secure his power, he needed the apparatchiks, not the democrats. This would be a central dilemma in Russia for years to come. [NOTE: Similar to Trump's current dilemma]
His conclusion was that the profits of sin should belong to the state. Initially he favored creating a state monopoly to control the gambling industry, even though Russia’s new anti-monopoly laws forbade it, hoping to break the state’s grip on the economy. Putin’s committee instead created a municipal enterprise that would buy 51 percent of shares in each of the new casinos the city licensed, and the dividends would fill the city’s coffers. The city lacked the cash, and so acquired the shares in lieu of rent for the city-owned buildings that became the casinos.
The creation of a regulated market economy proved far more difficult than Putin, like many Russian officials, anticipated. The legal foundations for capitalism were not yet in place, and like most officials, he had no experience in managing economic affairs after decades of five-year plans and state control. “This was a typical mistake made by people who are encountering a market for the first time,” he acknowledged. The people who suffered from the mistake were “pensioners, teachers and doctors,” but he did nothing about the scandalous loss to the state’s coffers then, or later. Others, meanwhile, quickly became rich, exploiting the immature legal and economic system with, some suspected, the complicity of officials like Putin.
There was no public bidding for these contracts, worth $92 million in all, though there were also no clear laws requiring public bids.
None of these men ever faced any charges. Although they were little known at the time, they would grow close to the young official from the mayor’s office and would ultimately, years later, become business titans in the new Russia. It was never proved that Putin himself profited from the deal, though some, like Marina Salye, said they suspected he did, but people around him clearly had, a pattern that would repeat itself in the years ahead. Putin’s explanations seemed disingenuous. Instead of demanding an investigation, Putin for the most part deflected questions. He even suggested darkly that members of the council itself had wanted the contracts for themselves and did not want “a meddlesome KGB man” in the role of awarding them.
Putin developed a reputation for competence, effectiveness, and absolute, ruthless loyalty to Sobchak. While others who worked for the mayor soon left, often acrimoniously, he remained steadfastly by Sobchak’s side, his influence and authority growing, even as accusations of corruption swirled around the city’s administration. At work, Putin appeared aloof, even imperious, rarely displaying emotion or sympathy — in contrast to the stormy political debates under way in the country. “He could be strict and demanding and yet never raised his voice,” his secretary, Marina Yentaltseva, recalled. “If he gave an assignment, he didn’t really care how it was done or who did it or what problems they had. It just had to get done, and that was that.” When Yentaltseva once broke the news to him that the family’s new Caucasian sheep dog had been killed by a car, she was struck by the absence of any reaction at all.
“Putin picked his battles carefully and avoided controversy, never going out on a limb. It was difficult to decipher what he really thought.” [NOTE: Like LBJ]
Despite his proximity to power and control over government transactions worth millions of dollars — unimaginable sums for a lowly former intelligence officer — Putin still lived modestly, at least not as ostentatiously as Sobchak and the generation of “new” Russian businessmen who were quickly amassing enormous fortunes and dressing the part.
The events affirmed Sobchak’s early decisions to nurture ties with the security services; and they reinforced Putin’s conviction that even in a democracy, law and order depended on the quiet, effective work of the secret services.
CHAPTER 6 - Mismanaged Democracy
Sobchak’s hubris had blinded him to the most fundamental feature of the democracy he so eloquently promoted: the people have a vote.
CHAPTER 7 - An Unexpected Path to Power
Too many fortunes relied on Yeltsin. They included Russia’s richest men, bankers and media moguls who the year before had acquired the state’s controlling assets in major industries in exchange for loans to keep the country’s budget afloat: Boris Berezovsky, Mikhail Fridman, Vladimir Gusinsky, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and Vladimir Potanin. They were the pioneers of the post-Soviet gold rush, who through genius, guile, and grit cobbled together vast, diverse conglomerates that would almost certainly be at risk if Yeltsin did not remain in office. Although rivals in business, they found a common cause against Yeltsin’s chief opponent, the Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov. [NOTE: like Caesar / Robert Moses]
And yet, in the end, Yeltsin beat Zyuganov convincingly, winning 54 percent of the vote, compared to 40 percent for the Communist. More than three million Russians, nearly 5 percent, voted “against all.” Yeltsin had triumphed, but at an enormous cost to democratic values because of the dirty tricks, the lies, and the corrupting power of money. The outcome may have reflected the will of the electorate, but the campaign left ordinary Russians with a view of the country’s democracy that was as jaded as the one they had of its capitalism.
Borodin was a jovial politician from Siberia who managed the Presidential Property Management Directorate. From that post, he looked after hundreds of buildings and plots of land, palaces, dachas, fleets of aircraft and yachts, hospitals, spas and hotels, art and antiques, and scores of state factories and enterprises that included everything from funeral homes to an Arctic diamond mine. By Borodin’s estimate at the time — and it could only be a guess — the value of the Kremlin’s assets exceeded $600 billion. Borodin showed a flair for creative capitalism, diversifying the directorate’s holdings in newly emerging sectors like banking and commercial real estate. He also used the position to replenish Yeltsin’s patronage mill, dispensing gifts of apartments and dachas, travel and vacation vouchers. The press mockingly called his office the Ministry of Privileges.
The clashes unfolded as Yeltsin underwent heart surgery in November, and Putin found himself pulled deeper into the Byzantine machinations. He had not even finished his inventory of the country’s foreign properties, let alone dealt with them, when he was transferred to a new job in March 1997, after only seven months in Moscow. Aleksei Kudrin was promoted and became a deputy finance minister, and on his recommendation, Putin replaced him as the head of the Main Control Directorate. The assignment also made him a deputy chief of staff in the presidential administration, working out of a magnificent new office on Staraya Ploshshad. A week after he assumed the job, a new presidential decree gave the directorate broader authority to investigate abuses in government spending throughout the country at a time when governors, state enterprises, and monopolies were taking advantage of the political and economic chaos to leech money out of the nation’s coffers. Putin’s task was to restore order, to end the most rampant schemes that were dragging the government and the economy ever downward. The work exposed him to the corruption that gnawed at the country, but also to the political risks of exposing those in power.
Putin saw education as a means to an end, not an end in itself. He did not return to the law department of his university for a higher degree, though. Instead, he chose the prestigious Mining Institute named after Georgi Plekhanov, a prerevolutionary theorist called the father of Russian Marxism. And he settled not on legal affairs but rather on a subject that he understood was vital to Russia’s future: natural resources.
Whoever the author or authors, Putin’s thesis lifted almost verbatim more than sixteen pages of text and six charts from an American textbook written by two professors at the University of Pittsburgh, which was translated into Russian in 1982 — almost certainly at the behest of or with the approval of the KGB, which under Andropov was eager to find a way out of the Soviet Union’s economic stagnation. The thesis’s bibliography includes the textbook — Strategic Planning and Policy, by William R. King and David I. Cleland — as one of forty-seven sources, including papers and lectures by Putin at the institute, but in the text itself the work is neither credited explicitly nor are the lengthy passages lifted from its Russian translation acknowledged.
Few academics ever have the chance to put their ideas so directly into practice, but Putin soon would.
Putin’s involvement was certainly audacious and very likely illegal, even if the Sobchaks’ documents were in order. As he had in 1991, he risked his own future out of loyalty to the charismatic, flawed leader who had been “a friend and a mentor.” Only in a country where the justice system had broken down could he have succeeded in spiriting Sobchak to safety abroad. Only in a dysfunctional political system could his brazen defiance of the law have earned him admiration — and not just among his close circle of friends.
CHAPTER 8 - Swimming in the Same River Twice
A $4 billion credit from the International Monetary Fund stabilized Russia’s meltdown but only briefly.
Berezovsky recalled a deal he had made in Petersburg years before. He wanted to open a car dealership and was surprised that Putin had refused even to consider a bribe, which presumably he was prepared to offer. “He was the first bureaucrat who did not take bribes,” Berezovsky said. “Seriously, it made a huge impression on me.” Whether or not Berezovsky’s recollection was a factor, Putin had earned a reputation as competent and disciplined to the point of abstemiousness, though others noted his capacity for discretion.
“Hi, Volodya,” Kiriyenko greeted him, familiarly. As young as Putin was, the prime minister was a decade his junior. “Congratulations!” “What for?” he asked. “The decree is signed,” Kiriyenko said. “You have been appointed director of the FSB.”
Two days later Putin granted an interview to the newspaper Kommersant, in which he outlined his priorities and expanded the agency’s traditional domestic work to include the fight against political extremism and nationalism, against foreign spies, and against the newly arrived and slowly expanding World Wide Web. “Of course, the FSB is not going to take the Internet under its control,” he said, already expressing a wariness of the growing importance of the new medium, “but it understands that modern tools of telecommunications can be used to the detriment of the country’s security.”
Putin’s appointment caused grumbling among the FSB’s veterans — also KGB veterans — who viewed him as an upstart and an outsider. He was from Petersburg and had served his entire intelligence career in provincial posts. He had never risen above the rank of lieutenant colonel. It was an extraordinary, unanticipated break for Putin — and an enormous advance in an unexpected rise. He had leapfrogged over far more experienced and qualified generals, who considered him a parvenu sent to impose the Kremlin’s control over the agency — which is exactly what he set out to do.
CHAPTER 9 - Kompromat
He had demonstrated his loyalty to the president, impressing him with his quiet efficiency; others might promise, but Putin achieved results. After only two and a half years in Moscow, Putin now stood at the center of Yeltsin’s administration, no longer a mere deputy, but one of the most powerful officials in the Kremlin. [NOTE: like Robert Moses / Hamilton]
The prospect of a NATO military intervention to protect Kosovo infuriated Russia in ways American and European leaders failed to appreciate. Serbia and Russia shared Slavic roots, religion, and culture, but Russia’s concerns went deeper. The conflict in Serbia inflamed Russia’s wounded pride over its deflated status since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The new Russia lacked the ability to shape world events, which made the American-led actions even harder to swallow.
Putin’s remarks about the “pre-election struggle” underscored the extent to which the end of Yeltsin’s presidency had become an overriding obsession of Russia’s political elite. The country, after centuries of tsarist and then Communist rule, had never democratically transferred political power from one leader to another. The personification of power ran so deep in Russian culture that it seemed inconceivable.
Since Catherine the Great’s conquests, the mostly Muslim lands stretching from the Black Sea to the Caspian had been restive subjects of the Russian and later the Soviet empires. Stalin expelled entire Caucasian populations to Siberia during the Great Patriotic War, fearing they would embrace the Nazi invaders. The collapse of the Soviet Union unleashed old grievances, which culminated in Chechnya’s declaration of independence and the disastrous war from 1994 to 1996.
Yeltsin claimed he had decided on his next course of action months before, though given his reactive and improvisational leadership, that seems doubtful. Even if he had thought of it earlier, no one else knew what he had decided to do, not even his closest advisers, until the announcement was imminent. It certainly seemed impetuous, not planned. On August 5 he summoned Putin to his dacha outside Moscow for a secret meeting. “I’ve made a decision, Vladimir Vladimirovich,” Yeltsin told him, “and I would like to offer you the post of prime minister.”
CHAPTER 10 - In the Outhouse
When Clinton pressed on Chechnya, though, “Putin’s mouth tightened, his posture stiffened and a hard-eyed look came over his face.” He drew a map on a napkin, explaining to Clinton the plans that had already been drawn up for the limited incursion, halting at the Terek River. He stressed that the fighting in Dagestan was not merely an isolated raid, but the beginning of an invasion of Russia, supported by international terrorists, including Osama bin Laden. He told Clinton that Bin Laden, whose Al-Qaeda network had orchestrated attacks on the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania the year before, had financed Chechnya’s Islamic fighters and even visited Chechnya (though the Americans were never able to confirm that). Putin confided to the American president what he had not yet told his own countrymen: Russia’s military was about to intervene again in Chechnya.
The death toll from the wave of terror had now reached nearly three hundred.
When he was questioned about the purpose of the air strikes, his temper flared. The laconic manner that Russians had seen in their dour, ascetic new prime minister vanished. He sounded like a street fighter. His answer was blunt, his language salted with the slang of the underworld. “I am tired of answering these questions,” he responded testily. “Russian aircraft are only striking terrorist camps. We will go after them wherever they are. If, pardon me, we find them in the toilet, we will waste them in the outhouse.”
It seemed so improbable, he said, that people might start to think the FSB was somehow involved in all of the bombings.
Yet, to the surprise of Yeltsin and many others, Putin’s conduct of the war proved to be immensely popular. The first war had been unpopular, but given the public’s reaction to the second, that was because the prosecution of the first war had been halfhearted; because the Russian army, the remnant of the great Red Army, had been ill-prepared and ill-equipped; because the Russians had lost to a bunch of lawless Chechens from the mountains. This war, under this prime minister, seemed different. The political elite, looking ahead to the coming elections, feared the consequences of a war, but now it seemed that ordinary Russians wanted, as Putin, to “bang the hell out of the bandits.”
Putin’s rise was as astonishing as it was unexpected. He seemed to represent a new, independent political force. And it was not solely because of Chechnya. In the muck of Russia’s politics, he alone seemed untainted by the intrigues of politicians and oligarchs that had consumed Russia for the previous eight years. Although he owed his career to Yeltsin and the “Family,” the fact that he had mostly worked on the margins of public scrutiny since 1996 meant he was not associated with the Kremlin’s multiple failings and scandals. His blunt public statements, even the coarse ones, seemed refreshing after the confusion and obfuscation of Yeltsin’s administration. The newspaper Nezivisamaya Gazeta wrote in November that within a precious few weeks “a completely unknown, fairly colorless functionary” had become a leader willing, “unlike his predecessors,” to tell people what he intended to do. It went on to call this “one of the rare cases in our political history.” [NOTE: Is this Putin or Trump?!]
CHAPTER 11 - Becoming Portugal
The country was learning that ideology mattered less to Putin than an orderly, pliant legislative majority.
Putin had told Yeltsin that he did not like election campaigns, and now he dismissed campaign promises as unachievable lies told by politicians and denigrated television advertisements as unseemly manipulation of gullible consumers. Visiting the textile city of Ivanovo, he announced that he would refuse the official television time allotted to all candidates to present their biographies and platforms. “These videos are advertising,” he said, belying his appreciation of the importance of television in shaping his public image. “I will not be trying to find out in the course of my election which is more important, Tampax or Snickers.” Behind the scenes, Putin’s aides nonetheless recruited a campaign staff, led by the young aide he had brought with him from Petersburg, Dmitri Medvedev. They conducted a sophisticated operation to shape Putin’s personal and political image, with all the tested techniques of modern politics but little passion for actual democracy. The result was an image not of a politician, but of a man above politics; Putin’s strategists succeeded beyond expectations. State television conducted a long biographical interview with him — which in his mind might not have amounted to a commercial, though that is what it was — and his campaign released a series of interviews conducted over six days by three journalists.
Putin, along with Lyudmila and others who had known him for years, recounted his biography in a folksy, occasionally frank manner that shaped his image as an ordinary guy, but also as the undisputed, virtually unchallenged ruler of a vast, once-great nation emerging from its latest “time of troubles.” Putin managed at once to express pride in his Soviet upbringing and his KGB career while distancing himself from the failures of the Soviet Union. He offered everyone something to cling to, a cipher committed both to the past and to the new democracy, both a patriot and a religious believer. And no one knew for sure what he stood for, because he seemed to stand for everything. [Note: LBJ / Trump?]
Putin would not deign to debate his challengers, but his remarks on the government’s work received far more airtime than anything they ever said. He was not promising anything; he was delivering.
Russia, he declared, would be “a dictatorship of the law.”
Reporters who dared to report the Chechen perspective on the conflict — or without official accreditation from the Russian military — faced arrest, or worse. When Andrei Babitsky, a reporter for the American-funded Radio Liberty, was captured by Russian forces in January, the military did not simply charge him with violating the rules on reporting from Chechnya and expel him from the area. It turned him over to masked Chechen rebels in exchange for five Russian prisoners of war, as if he were himself an enemy combatant. Babitsky’s fate caused an outcry at home and abroad, prompting sharply critical stories about Putin and his KGB background.
Most Russians never learned the dark side of Putin’s all-out war and did not seem to care if they did. Putin had arrived in Grozny aboard a two-seat attack fighter built in Soviet times. He emerged at the military airfield dressed like a character out of a war movie, swaggering in a pilot’s flight suit. Stunts like this would soon become a staple of Putin’s politics, the careful cultivation of the leader’s televised image that one author would christen a “videocracy.”
The paratrooper was identified only as Aleksei P., and the evidence was purely circumstantial, but the newspaper suggested that the events in Ryazan and the bombings in Moscow and Volgadonsk might not have been acts of terrorists against the state but rather terrorist acts by the state.
Putin’s rise, the newspaper insinuated, might not have been a providential gift after all, but rather the result of an unspeakable sin. On March 16 a cyberattack destroyed the next day’s edition of the newspaper.
There were counterarguments that supported the FSB’s version of the bombings. It was not beyond the Chechen extremists — and their like-minded fighters in the other Muslim republics — to commit acts of terror, after all. The political logic of the conspiracy also ignored the fact that the political elite had deeply opposed a new war for the reasons that now seemed prophetic. Launching a war was in the summer of 1999 seen as a liability, not an asset. And now after the early military successes and all of Putin’s tough talk, the war had become a drag on Putin’s broader popularity, not the ballast it had been at the beginning.
Moreover, any conspiracy would have had to be set in motion before anyone, even Putin himself, knew he would become prime minister, let alone Yeltsin’s anointed successor.
Independent lawmakers and journalists who pursued the question died with such disturbing regularity that it was difficult to consider their deaths mere coincidence.
To protect himself from the Byzantine political intrigues of Moscow, Putin turned to those he could trust explicitly. It became a remarkable personalization of authority in the Kremlin, reflecting his deep distrust of the country’s political elite. “I have a lot of friends, but only a few people are really close to me,” he acknowledged. “They have never gone away. They have never betrayed me, and I haven’t betrayed them either.”
Putin’s early policy choices reflected liberalizing reforms that were cheered on by big business at home and abroad. He imposed a flat income tax of 13 percent on individuals and cut the tax on corporate profits to 24 percent from 35, effective January 2002. He pledged that Russia would have lower taxes but also expect people — and businesses — to pay them, after a decade in which almost every Russian avoided them by any means available. Putin’s new government adopted land codes that allowed private property to be bought and sold, and institutionalized labor rules governing private employment, removing some of the uncertainties that had paralyzed investment and invited corruption and lawlessness.
No, the cause of Putin’s political misfortune was the media.
Of course, Putin already knew. He had files already compiled. In the shady world of Russian business, few oligarchs could withstand scrutiny over their dealings, their murky acquisition, their tax dodges, their secret accounts offshore. As head of the FSB, he had established a monopoly on financial information, and as prime minister and now president he knew where the skeletons could be found. This was, not incidentally, the method of the KGB once upon a time. [NOTE: and Robert Moses]
He considered the state networks a “natural resource” as precious as oil or gas. “He understands that the basis of power in Russia is not the army, not the police, it’s the television,” Pugachev said. “This is his deepest conviction.” Now, barely a year into his presidency, the three main television networks in Russia were firmly under the control of the Kremlin.
CHAPTER 12 - Putin’s Soul
The ceremony had just ended when his security aides summoned him to a conference room where they watched television reports of the commercial airliners that crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, an attack carried out by Al-Qaeda, the organization that the Russians had long argued provided assistance to Chechnya’s rebels. Putin turned to Sergei Ivanov, his old KGB colleague and friend. “What can we do to help them?” he asked.
Putin was the first world leader to call the White House, even before the extent of the attack was clear.
He made it clear that the tragedy was an opportunity to refashion international relations to fight “the plague of the 21st Century.” “Russia knows firsthand what terrorism is,” he said. “So we understand as well as anyone the feelings of the American people. Addressing the people of the United States on behalf of Russia, I would like to say that we are with you, we entirely and fully share and experience your pain.”
“Good will triumph over evil,” Putin told Bush. “I want you to know that in this struggle, we will stand together.”
When the two emerged to meet the press after two hours of meetings, they had resolved few of their differences, especially over Russia’s opposition to missile defenses, which Bush pursued far more aggressively than his Democratic predecessor, but they exuded a personal warmth that was striking given recent events. Bush called him “a remarkable leader,” and, in contrast to what the Russians viewed as Clinton’s carping, he made only passing mention of Chechnya or freedom of speech in Russia. When asked if Americans could trust Putin, given their differences over a plethora of issues, Bush said he would not have invited him to his ranch in Texas the following November if he did not think so. “I looked the man in the eye,” Bush said. “I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy. We had a very good dialogue. I was able to get a sense of his soul: a man deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country.”
What Putin sought was nothing less than a rapprochement with the West — especially with Europe, but even with the “main adversary” he had been trained to fight as an intelligence officer. In 2001 he closed Soviet-era military outposts overseas, including a massive eavesdropping post in Lourdes, Cuba, and a naval and intelligence base in Vietnam, vowing that the new Russia should focus its resources instead on building up its military to counter the more pressing threat of Islamic extremism in the Northern Caucasus. After the attacks of September 11, Putin softened his public opposition to the enlargement of NATO, the next round of which would extend membership to Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, the three Baltic republics that had been annexed by the Soviet Union and still included sizable Russian populations.
Although he favored warships and fighter jets as backdrops for his popular image, Putin was not a military man. In Soviet times, the soldiers and officers of the Red Army had disdained the elite agents of the KGB, and the feeling was often mutual. The military, though, lay at the heart of Putin’s mission to restore the nation, and he understood the sorry state it was in.
After the Kursk disaster, Putin resisted the expedient political move of dismissing the commanders whose incompetence and lies had dented his popularity. He proved far more calculating, building popular support and boosting morale by raising the salaries of soldiers and pledging more money for the military, even as he ordered a restructuring of the armed forces that would further reduce the number of troops. Putin restored the Red Banner as the army’s standard, now with the tsarist double eagle, and the music of the Soviet national anthem, though with new words.
Such moves proved deft. They appealed to the nostalgic patriotism of the military and large swaths of society, without restoring the Soviet ideology that many Russians were happy to put behind them. Putin might have been a political novice, but he found a balance between the conflicted past and the uncertain future — one that came naturally because it very much reflected his own views.
“Anyone who does not regret the collapse of the Soviet Union has no heart,” he said. “And anyone who wants to see it re-created in its former shape has no brain.”
Putin expected something for his acquiescence to a post–Cold War order. He invested heavily in developing a personal relationship with Bush. Already the first Russian or Soviet leader since Lenin to speak a foreign language, he took lessons in English for an hour a day, learning the language of American diplomacy and commerce, and he used his rudimentary skill to speak privately with Bush and to break the ice.
Lyudmila wore a dress with red, white, and blue sequins, and when Putin offered a toast, he sounded personally moved. “I’ve never been to the home of another world leader,” he said, adding that the United States was “fortunate at such a critical time in its history to have a man of such character at its helm.”
The mastermind of the Kremlin’s political strategy was Vladislav Surkov, a Chechen-born advertising genius with a background in military intelligence who in the 1990s had worked for the banks of three of Russia’s oligarchs, including Mikhail Khodorkovsky. He joined Aleksandr Voloshin’s staff while Yeltsin was still president, and more than anyone else he helped craft Putin’s public image and engineered his political strategies. He was youthful and deeply cynical, a fan of American rap music — he kept a picture of Tupac Shakur next to one of Putin — and Shakespeare, whose work he considered a font of political inspiration. As a Russian novelist and activist, Eduard Limonov, once said, Surkov had “turned Russia into a wonderful postmodernist theater, where he experiments with old and new political models.”
On August 19, an Mi-26 helicopter approached the main Russian military base in Chechnya, the sprawling airfield at Khankala, just outside Grozny. The helicopter, the world’s largest, was designed to carry tons of equipment and as many as eighty passengers and crew, but by 1997, the Ministry of Defense had banned its use to ferry passengers, restricting it to cargo. On this day, there were 147 people onboard, soldiers and civilians, including the wives of several officers and at least one young boy, the son of an army nurse, who had hitched a ride. As the helicopter descended, a missile struck its starboard engine. The helicopter landed a thousand feet short of its landing pad—right in the middle of a minefield intended to protect the base’s perimeter. Loaded with fuel for its return trip, it burst into flames. Most of the passengers who survived the crash landing were trapped inside the burning cabin; those who made it out tripped mines as they fled. The military, reflexively, lied about the cause and the casualties, which ultimately reached 127, including the boy and his mother. It was the worst helicopter disaster in history, and the single biggest loss of life in the war, a military catastrophe more deadly than the Kursk.
The rescue seemed to be an unmitigated victory — except that the men who planned and carried out the raid had not given thought to the effect the gas would have on the weakened hostages. The succcessful raid turned into disaster. The first unconscious victims were brought out at seven o’clock and laid in rows on the theater’s front steps, followed by more and still more. Some had already died, but many more were merely unconscious, left amid the growing piles of corpses. Rescue teams were overwhelmed. They were prepared to treat wounds from bullets or bomb fragments, not people choking on swollen tongues. The authorities had prescribed an antidote to counteract the effects of the gas, but there were not enough doses available. And neither the paramedics on the scene nor the doctors in the hospitals knew how much to administer. In the end 130 hostages died during the siege, only five of them from gunshot wounds. Of the latter, only two were hostages inside the theater. The other three were the woman who had burst into the theater the first day and two other men who were shot as they approached or entered the building during the siege. A doctor who participated in the rescue described the confusion and chaos. “It wasn’t an evil plot,” he said. “It was just a Soviet mess.”
He went on, his language so crude that the interpreters did not bother to translate. “If you are determined to become a complete Islamic radical and are ready to undergo circumcision, then I invite you to Moscow. We are a multiconfessional nation. We have experts in this sphere as well. I will recommend the operation be conducted so that nothing on you will grow again.”
CHAPTER 13 - The Gods Slept on Their Heads
Now, in 2003, two dozen of the country’s richest men — their collective worth greater than many countries’ entire economies — gathered again to discuss something far more sensitive, the intersection of business and government, that shadowy nexus where corruption flourished.
By the time of the meeting in 2003, Khodorkovsky had become Russia’s richest man, and Putin had become its most powerful. A clash was probably inevitable, but on that winter day, no one saw it coming.
Putin’s fierce defense of Rosneft made clear what some in the room had not yet discerned. Rosneft had more than Putin’s blessing. It had a personal connection to him. Khodorkovsky did what no one had dared to do before, certainly not in remarks during a televised meeting in the Kremlin.
What he had done was expose a strategy of Putin’s whose roots reached back to Petersburg more than a decade before, when Putin forged his bonds with the cadre of aides and businessmen concentrated around the Mining Institute where he had defended his thesis. By the middle of the 1990s, Putin was meeting regularly for informal discussions on the country’s natural resources under the aegis of the institute’s director, Vladimir Litvinenko, who had presided over Putin’s dissertation. The ideas that Putin and his friends, Igor Sechin and Viktor Zubkov, formulated in their discussions and academic work became the basis for a strategy of restoring the state’s command over Russia’s vast oil and gas resources. Litvinenko, a respected geologist, advocated greater state control as a means not to revive its beleaguered economy but to restore Russia’s status as a superpower. “They’re the main instrument in our hands — particularly Putin’s — and our strongest argument in geopolitics,” he declared.
Three years into his presidency, Putin’s inner circle remained remarkably united behind him and behind a unifying goal of resuscitating a greater degree of political control over the economy. Behind the scenes, though, the advisers had begun to struggle for power, and profits, requiring Putin’s constant intervention and mediation.
Russia’s oil companies, both private and state-owned, also had stakes in Iraq’s undeveloped oil fields, including a deal worth $20 billion for a vast field in the southern desert. The deals remained frozen as long as the sanctions remained in place, but the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s government threatened to make them all worthless. “Vladimir Putin didn’t consider Saddam a threat,” Bush later wrote. “It seemed to me that part of the reason was Putin didn’t want to jeopardize Russia’s lucrative oil contracts.”
Putin did not break with Bush outright, but Iraq was a turning point. To him, the war revealed the true ambitions of the United States. In his view, it wanted to dictate its terms to the rest of the world, to champion “freedom” and use unilateral means to impose it, to interfere in the internal affairs of other nations. When Russia wanted to build civilian nuclear reactors in Iran — a deal worth billions for Russia’s nuclear industry — the United States furiously fought to block it. Bush pledged friendship and cooperation, but Putin also heard the voices of others in Washington, liberals and conservatives, who criticized Russia and seemed intent on keeping it in its weakened post-Soviet state.
Until Iraq descended into sectarian war in 2006, no other country in the world, not even Israel, had faced a terror campaign of such scale.
Kasyanov asked three times why Khodorkovsky had been arrested before Putin told him that the tycoon had crossed the line by funding his political opponents. Putin was not, as some feared, renationalizing the country’s industry or even taking on the oligarchs so much as taking down a man he viewed as a political threat to the power he was accreting. Several days after Khodorkovsky’s arrest, Putin told his economic adviser, Andrei Illarionov, that he had been protecting the tycoon for some time from those in his circle who wanted to punish him. Instead, Khodorkovsky had ignored repeated warnings and had “chosen to fight” the Kremlin. Putin told Illarionov that he decided then to step aside and let Khodorkovsky “solve his problems with the boys by himself.”
Khodorkovsky was arrested only six weeks before the parliamentary elections in December, and for all the national and international condemnation, the blow to investor confidence and the losses on the markets, the assault on one of Russia’s oligarchs proved immensely popular among Russians, the vast majority of whom had little or nothing invested in stocks in the first place.
CHAPTER 14 - Annus Horribilis
Kasyanov and, before him, Voloshin had represented a legacy of the Yeltsin years. Officials with their own ambitions, interests, and constituencies, they were now gone. There were still rivalries and divisions inside the Kremlin, but with Fradkov’s appointment, Putin consolidated his political supremacy by elevating a complete network of underlings that would above all remain loyal to him. A mere five days after the appointment, the Duma confirmed Fradkov’s nomination after a perfunctory debate that included only nine questions. Fradkov offered only the vaguest platitudes about his policies. He was there to do Putin’s bidding, and everyone understood it. The vote was 352 to 58, with 24 abstentions.
The reforms that Putin promised in his national address after the Beslan tragedy were not long in coming. He did not shake up the intelligence services that had failed to anticipate the attack on a school. He did not fire the military or police commanders who had botched the attempted negotiations and the ultimate rescue. Instead, Putin announced that he would tighten the Kremlin’s political control by further dismantling the vestiges of democratic government. On September 13, ten days after the horrifying end of the siege, Putin abolished the elections of governors, mayors, and presidents of Russia’s many regions and republics, who since the collapse of the Soviet Union had maintained their own constituencies and power bases outside of Moscow’s direct control. He would now appoint them and submit his candidates to the regional parliaments for ratification. If they rejected his candidates, he could then disband them. He also abolished the representative district elections for the parliament, which accounted for half of the Duma’s 450 seats.
Popular will, in Putin’s view, was the road to chaos. The people could not be entrusted with the power to choose their own leaders except in the most carefully controlled process. “The Russian people are backward,” he would later tell a group of foreign journalists and academics invited to a retreat that would become an annual affair known as the Valdai Club, after the resort where it was first held. “They cannot adapt to democracy as they have done in your countries. They need time.”
CHAPTER 15 - The Orange Contagion
Putin had tamed Russia’s oligarchs, while in Ukraine they still threw their support — and cash — behind different political factions, depending on their financial interests.
After Georgia’s parliamentary election in November 2003 was rigged, thousands of people poured into the streets to protest. They had the training and financing of international organizations funded by George Soros and the United States Congress, among others.
Natural gas, even more than oil, had become Russia’s most powerful tool in foreign policy. Oil trades freely, sloshing through the world’s economy; gas requires fixed pipelines, linking the nations of Europe to Russia. The network of pipelines, dating to the Soviet era, gave Russia clout and, with rising energy prices, the prospect of the wealth that Putin nearly a decade before had argued in his dissertation was the core of the state’s power. Ukraine, through which most of Russia’s gas passed, represented a potential chokehold on Putin’s ambitions.
Putin’s unprecedented intervention in another country’s election also played into the opposition’s main argument: that a vote for Yanukovych would simply return the country to the empire from which it had gained independence.
The Orange Revolution, as it became known, was treated in Russia as a humiliating defeat and in the Kremlin as an ominous warning. Putin the tactician had been outmaneuvered in a geopolitical struggle, and he nursed the experience like a grudge.
Putin did not wish to restore the Soviet or Communist system — anyone who wants to, he had said, has no brain — but for the first time he began casting his leadership in a broader historical context. He meant to restore something much older, much richer and deeper: the idea of the Russian nation, the imperium of the “third Rome,” charting its own course, indifferent to the imposition of foreign values. It was an old Russian idea, and he found the model for it in the history books he was said to favor.
CHAPTER 16 - Kremlin, Inc.
The subsidiary’s value far exceeded the $3.4 billion that the company allegedly owed the state for having underpaid its taxes. Yukos had already begun paying that debt in hopes of saving itself, but the tax authorities announced new audits and new fines for underpaying taxes in subsequent years and rebuffed efforts by Yukos’s managers to negotiate any payment plan. The debt soon ballooned to $24 billion, more than the company’s remaining worth. Putin had no interest in winning back taxes for the country’s flush coffers; he wanted the asset itself.
On December 23, four days after the auction, Rosneft announced its purchase. It would take another year to untangle the complicated financing involved. The mysterious and short-lived Baikal Finance had received the advance for the auction from another oil company with close relations to Putin and the Kremlin, Surgutneftegaz; it was repaid once Rosneft acquired the auctioned asset, which even at its discounted price was worth more than Rosneft itself. Rosneft, in turn, struck a deal with China’s state oil company, CNPC, to put up the cash as prepayment for the oil that Rosneft stood to derive from Yukos’s seized assets. The irony was that Mikhail Khodorkovsky had long advocated developing a strategic partnership with China, even building a pipeline to the country, only to be blocked by the Kremlin, which remained wary of the rising economic power of Beijing. Now Rosneft, with Igor Sechin on its board, had effectively acquired Yukos’s confiscated asset for nothing except the promise to pay that asset’s future profits to China. It was, as Andrei Illarionov called it, “the swindle of the year.”
The dismantling of Yukos may not have gone exactly according to plan, perhaps, but it had proved remarkably successful. Putin weathered the warnings from outside economists, and even insiders like Illarionov, that the Kremlin’s centralization of business would damage Russia’s standing as a reliable place for business and foreign investment. He simply repeated that the country welcomed and encouraged investment even as the organs of the state expanded even deeper into the economy. The Yukos affair did taint Russia’s reputation, sowing distrust and fear of the risks of investing in the country, but in the three years after the assault began, Russia’s stock market had more than tripled in value anyway; the economy continued its robust growth, its gross domestic product surging 6 or 7 percent a year on average. Over time, the consternation over Khodorkovsky’s fate — and that of Yukos — grew fainter and fainter. The potential riches Russia had to offer proved too irresistible to the world’s energy and financial giants — and so to Putin’s counterparts in foreign capitals. Despite their public remonstrations over the state of democracy or the rule of law, they could not afford to ignore Russia. Why should Putin worry if some questioned the state’s methods?
It was becoming unclear where the affairs of state and business diverged; people in Russia started to call the government Kremlin, Inc., with Putin as the CEO. He presided over not just Gazprom, but all the “national champions” at home, granting prerogatives that included protection from tax inspectors who were often unleashed against other businesses, small and large. And he lobbied for their interests abroad with a zeal that would have been unimaginable coming from Yeltsin in the 1990s. By 2005, the extent of his control over the state’s monopolies became evident, and it coincided with the elimination of the last political checks against his power in the parliament or the judiciary. Putin, who had vowed to eliminate the brash oligarchs as a “class,” had become the patron of a growing part of Russia’s economy. He did not dictate every business deal across Russia, but all the major ones required at least tacit approval from the Kremlin.
Now, with the country increasingly solvent, he began to redistribute the proceeds to a new generation of tycoons in waiting, those who had not had the privileged, insider track to amass fortunes in the 1990s. None of them were billionaires then, flashing their wealth ostentatiously. They were a new generation of oligarchs, made in the Putin model: dour, colorless, secretive, and intensely loyal to the man who brought them out of relative obscurity.
Putin had enabled his circle of friends to rise to the heights of the country’s economy, enriching them while ensuring they would control the sectors of the economy — from natural resources to the media — that he considered vital to the nation’s security. “He doesn’t take the St. Petersburg boys to work with him because of their pretty eyes, but because he trusts people who are tried and true,” Putin’s first judo trainer, Anatoly Rakhlin, told Izvestiya in 2007.
CHAPTER 17 - Poison
Putin’s speech became a landmark in Russia’s relations with the West, interpreted by many as a defining moment as significant as Winston Churchill’s speech in 1946 that gave the world the phrase the “Iron Curtain.” Putin, as he had certainly intended to do, tapped into the global anger and anxiety about the United States under George Bush: the prison on Guantánamo, the rendition of prisoners in secret detention centers, the torture of terrorist suspects, the war in Iraq. Putin might be criticized for his tightening grip at home, for Russia’s own atrocities in Chechnya and elsewhere, and even for the poisoning of Litvinenko, but many around the world — including some even in Europe and the United States — agreed with his assessment and openly cheered a country and a leader willing and able to provide a counter to unbridled American power.
CHAPTER 18 - The 2008 Problem
Putin’s liberal and democratic critics, led now by Putin’s former prime minister, Mikhail Kasyanov, and the former world chess champion, Garry Kasparov, mounted determined but quixotic protests, but they and other potential candidates were simply disqualified from the ballot on bureaucratic pretexts.
Instead of explicitly announcing his heir as Yeltsin had, Putin wanted to create the impression that his own choice had been made for him, with the consent of a “broad spectrum of Russian society” represented by the party leaders in the room. Putin, with the reins of power in his hands, wanted to preserve the pretense of a pluralistic choice, a “managed” democracy, not an authoritarian writ. For all his bluster and dark ridicule of the West, he still sought its validation, something a constitutional grab for power would have precluded. Putin, legalistically minded, sought a way to ensure his succession within the strict letter of the law, if not the spirit.
The pamphlet, Putin: The Results, challenged the very foundation of Putin’s valedictory speeches, in which he claimed to have resurrected the country from the ashes of the 1990s, working, as he himself would put it, like a “galley slave.” The authors acknowledged the stunning rise in GDP and average incomes, the drops in unemployment and poverty, but they argued that Putin’s economic miracle was a Potemkin mirage, erected with the profits from rising oil prices and papering over structural problems and a numbing growth in corruption.
Timchenko denied having more than a passing acquaintance with Putin, insisting, falsely, that they were not friends, and even sued The Economist for suggesting otherwise in an article titled “Grease My Palm.” Yet as their fortunes grew, it became harder for the Putin oligarchy to remain secret. Kovalchuk and Timchenko both debuted on the Forbes list of billionaires the month after the pamphlet appeared. The Rotenberg brothers followed not long after that.
CHAPTER 19 - The Regency
What Saakashvili did not understand was that for all the effort he had used to win over the Americans, praising Bush and dispatching troops to serve in Iraq, neither the United States nor NATO was prepared to come to his aid in a war against Russia. The miscalculation cost Georgia dearly.
The crisis highlighted the underlying structural weaknesses in Russia’s economy, its dependence on energy resources, the crumbling industrial base, the pervasive corruption, the eroding infrastructure. (The country had fewer miles of paved roads in 2008 than it had had in 1997.)
Their bus was loaded with sheep, wearing hats and T-shirts with Solidarity’s emblem. Other protesters wore masks and threw bananas, the first of what would be many racist allusions to the new American president, the first of African heritage to hold the office. The message was crude but clear: Putin’s opponents were animals shepherded by the nefarious hand of the United States.
CHAPTER 20 - Action Man
Then the prosecutor’s office announced that after a thorough investigation, it would reopen the criminal case against Magnitsky and charge him with tax fraud. Not even during the worst show trials of the Great Terror in the 1930s had the authorities put a dead man on trial. They would even call his mother to testify in court.
The courts in Russia had become so politicized by then that Khodorkovsky had no hope of prevailing. His defense was simply an exercise in delegitimizing the judicial process, and in that it succeeded. The prosecution was even more convoluted and confused than at his first trial, making a mockery of Medvedev’s pledges to end “legal nihilism.” The proceedings were riddled with procedural errors, conflated or contradictory accusations, and lacked any semblance of fairness. The spectacle was roundly condemned outside of Russia as an indication of the authoritarian state Russia had become.
CHAPTER 21 - The Return
Only weeks before, Putin had warned that the uprisings in Libya and other countries would fuel the rise of Islamic extremists allied with Al-Qaeda, aided and abetted by shortsighted sympathizers in the West trying to overthrow autocratic leaders. He was not wrong about the rise in extremism, which would later consume Libya and exacerbate a grinding civil war in Syria, a far more important ally of Russia in the Middle East. Putin’s support for the autocratic dictators of Libya and Syria was widely viewed through the prism of Russia’s geopolitical interests, including energy projects and a contract to build a railway linking Libya’s coastal cities (negotiated by Putin’s friend, Vladimir Yakunin), massive arms sales, and, in the case of Syria, Russia’s only military base outside the former Soviet Union.
Putin’s steely charisma, his absolute determination, his ability to remain above the trials of Russian life, shielded him from blame when tragedies like these struck. Medvedev, though, looked overwhelmed as president. Perhaps by design, public blame for the sinking and the crash flowed toward him.
If Putin had known all along that he intended to reclaim the presidency, no one else in the government or in his inner circle had been allowed to know, let alone influence the outcome of his deliberations. He made the most momentous decision of his political career with his own counsel alone.
The flagrant disregard for electoral decency provoked outrage when unofficial results showed that United Russia had won just under 50 percent of the vote — enough, given the parties that did not make it to the threshold for winning seats, to allow it to retain a majority in the new Duma. It was clear that even that diminished result was a fraud, one that required the complicity of thousands upon thousands of people to carry out—from election officials like Vladimir Churov, a KGB colleague of Putin’s from Petersburg, to state workers, forced by fear or favor to staff the polling stations, to the journalists of state media who struggled to report it all with straight faces. Even Putin, appearing to declare victory with Medvedev at United Russia’s campaign headquarters, appeared less than exultant. The scale of the fraud at last was enough to stir thousands from the political apathy that had accompanied the rise of Putinism and the stultifying bureaucratic stagnation that it had produced.
That the protests were peaceful made them even more terrifying to the Kremlin. Putin had said little at first, ignoring the allegations of fraud, but he greeted the prospect of a popular uprising with icy, sarcastic derision. Three days after the vote, speaking to organizers of his coming presidential campaign, he blamed the on-going protests on Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who had criticized the conduct of the election. “She set the tone for some actors in our country and gave them a signal,” he said. “They heard the signal and with the support of the State Department began active work.”
He compared the protesters to the Bandar-log, the wild monkeys of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, which had appeared as a Soviet television series when Putin was a teenager. You could not really reason with them, the monkeys, but they were afraid of the snake Kaa, who ultimately subdued them with his hypnotic power. “I’ve loved Kipling since I was a child,” Putin said with an impish smile.
CHAPTER 22 - The Restoration
The lyrics ridiculed the church and its priests as KGB collaborators, as mercantile and corrupted, repressive toward women, bigoted against gays and lesbians. The song was called “Punk Prayer,” using a liturgical word for a special prayer service in times of national crisis, moleben. It was the newest protest from a new amorphous guerrilla-art collective that — inspired by third-wave feminism, the Riot Grrrl movement in the United States, and Putin’s return to the presidency — called itself Pussy Riot.
a little less buoyant now,” Henry Kissinger said not long after meeting Putin in Moscow in January 2012, as the protests continued. The elder statesman of realpolitik had met regularly with Putin ever since he came to power. Putin admiringly recalled their first encounter when he picked Kissinger up from the airport in Petersburg in the 1990s and the older man flattered him by saying “all decent people get their start in intelligence.” Putin considered Kissinger a trusted counselor, one who respected him and Russia’s national interests, whatever the changing state of relations with the United States. Kissinger, the old Cold Warrior who had long advocated deeper cooperation with Russia, reciprocated the admiration. “Putin is not a Stalin who feels obliged to destroy anyone who might potentially at some future point disagree with him,” he had once said. “Putin is somebody who wants to amass the power needed to accomplish his immediate task.” As Putin’s reelection campaign began, the immediate task was to somehow contain the street protests. And Kissinger sensed that Putin’s resolve — his usually steely assuredness — had waned at least a bit.
The church, once heavily repressed, had emerged from the Soviet collapse as one of the most respected institutions in the country, viewed by many of its adherents as an institution above the country’s politics. Now Kirill led the faithful directly into an alliance with the state; just a month after expressing sympathy for the protesters, he now complained that their demands were the “ear-piercing shrieks” of those who valued a Western consumer culture incompatible with Russia’s traditions.
In the face of mass unrest, Putin portrayed himself not just as the guarantor of the gains achieved since the Soviet era, but also as the leader of the nation in a deeper way. He was the protector of its social and cultural values. In a series of seven campaign declarations reprinted in leading newspapers, he outlined a new starkly conservative vision of the country that referred to Russia’s “civilizational model,” one diametrically opposed to the decadent values of the West, represented in large part by those now protesting his rule on the streets. He had chosen a counterattack, and it was strikingly effective.
To defuse the accusations that marred the parliamentary elections, Putin ordered cameras installed in nearly every polling station in the country, but evidence of fraud, including carousel voting and ballot stuffing, nonetheless cast doubt on the tally. By some estimates, millions of votes padded Putin’s total, though even his harshest critics had to acknowledge that he had the support of most Russians.
“I would not like it, to put it mildly, if at the moment I was in church some crazy girls ran in and began to run around the altar,” he wrote on his blog. Instead of provoking a debate over politics, as they had intended, the case fueled the culture war within society in a way that ultimately favored Putin. The church remained one of the most respected institutions in Russia, on a par with the presidency itself. More than 70 percent of Russians identified themselves as Orthodox, even if many wore their faith lightly, rarely practicing or attending church. The “Punk Prayer” backfired. It rallied the faithful to the defense of the church, despite the scandals over its corruption and mercantile behavior. To believe was to be patriotic. To be patriotic was to believe.
CHAPTER 23 - Alone on Olympus
The restoration of “foreign agents” as an appellation suggested that the Kremlin now viewed human rights advocacy or efforts like Navalny’s to enforce government accountability as a crime against state sovereignty. Navalny, after all, had participated at a graduate leadership fellowship at Yale University. That alone was grounds for suspicion now.
Putin’s sixtieth birthday on October 7, 2012, was celebrated across the nation in a manner befitting a cult of personality, something he always professed to find distasteful. No more, it seemed. In the days leading up to it, an exhibition of paintings was held in Moscow entitled, without irony, Putin: The Most Kind-Hearted Man in the World. A youth group affiliated with United Russia produced a four-minute, sexually charged video of beautiful women reenacting his most famous exploits: from riding a horse in the mountains to flying in a fighter jet to driving a yellow Lada in Siberia.
Yet even these critics acknowledged that Putin cared less about the trappings of wealth than about those of power. [NOTE: Like Robert Moses]
Jorrit and Maria married in secrecy — it was never exactly clear when or where, though there were rumors of a ceremony on a Greek island — and in 2012, not long before Putin’s sixtieth birthday, they had a son. Putin became a grandfather, a fact that was never reported in the Russian press.
CHAPTER 24 - Putingrad
Early in 2013, Dmitri Kozak, his close aide and now the deputy prime minister he had put in charge of Sochi, let it slip in public remarks that the cost of preparing Sochi had ballooned from the $12 billion that Putin had promised the International Olympic Committee to a staggering $51 billion. It was the most expensive Olympics ever — more than seven times the amount Vancouver spent to host the Winter Games in 2010, more than Beijing spent to host the much larger Summer Games in 2008. In a country with an economy that was still struggling, the figure was so politically sensitive that Kozak and other ministers were ordered never to mention the figure again.
Justice remained selective, however, and there were no meaningful prosecutions, even in Bilalov’s case. Corruption had become so pervasive it was institutionalized. That made it a tool of co-option and coercion. Anyone could be prosecuted, when necessary, because almost everyone was complicit — and even if they were not, they could be charged anyway. The threat of corruption hovered over anyone and thus tamed everyone. In Bilalov’s case, Putin’s concern was less about confronting corruption than with sending a very public warning to those involved in his Olympic dream that they had better finish on time.
One of the first policy declarations he made in 2011 after announcing his return to the Kremlin was the establishment of a broader pact to reunify the economies that had drifted listlessly apart after the Soviet collapse. He called it the Eurasian Economic Union. Excluding the three Baltic nations, now ensconced in the EU and NATO, Putin envisioned the bloc not merely as a counterbalance to the European Union, but rather as a new empire unto itself, one that bridged European Russia and the vast steppe that stretched from the Black Sea to Central Asia and Siberia. The Eurasian Union was the manifestation of an ideology that had taken hold among Putin and his inner circle, an ideology that had been missing from the pragmatism that had characterized Putin’s rule until then. Eurasianism in Russia was a deeply conservative philosophy driven underground (or abroad) by the internationalist ideology of the Soviet Union. It had reemerged in the 1990s, blending the religious and monarchical ideas of exiles like Ivan Ilyin, the philosopher Putin took to quoting, with the geopolitical theories of those like Halford Mackinder, whose “Heartland Theory” made Eurasia the “pivot area” in the battle for control of the “World-Island,” the European, Asian, and African landmass.
He described the American dominance of geopolitics and world finance as a conspiracy to suppress any potential competitors, which is what made the Eurasian Union, he believed, so threatening to the West. “Russia was, is, and will be some kind of geopolitical competitor to the interests of Anglo-Saxon civilization,” he said. The irony of the new ideology was that Russia’s elite, especially those who could afford it, had become thoroughly westernized, taking vacations and owning properties in the nations whose values they reviled.
Putin described the “Euro-Atlantic countries” as dangerously adrift from their Christian roots. “They are denying moral principles and all traditional identities: national, cultural, religious, and even sexual. They are implementing policies that equate large families with same-sex partnerships, belief in God with the belief in Satan. The excesses of political correctness have reached the point where people are seriously talking about registering political parties whose aim is to promote pedophilia.” Worse, he said, these nations wanted to export these dangerous ideas. It was “a direct path to degradation and primitivism, resulting in a profound demographic and moral crisis.”
Khodorkovsky, who had spent so much of his time in prison reading and writing, sounded neither broken nor bitter.
As a condition of his release, he had agreed not to become involved in politics for a year, though he vowed to be active in forging a civil society in Russia — from afar. “The Russian problem is not just the president as a person,” he said. “The problem is that our citizens in the large majority don’t understand that they have to be responsible for their own fate. They are so happy to delegate it to, say, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, and then they will entrust it to somebody else, and I think that for such a big country as Russia this is the path to a dead end.”
He recounted a conversation with “a very wise person,” clearly meaning Putin. “This wise person said, ‘Do you know when everyone will love us and cease to criticize us, and so on, including criticizing us for no reason?’ “And I asked, ‘When?’ “And he said, ‘When we dissolve our army, when we concede all our natural resources to them as a concession, and when we sell all of our land to Western investors — that’s when they will cease to criticize us.’
The Olympics served the political purpose Putin intended. Even Aleksei Navalny, whose anti-corruption organization had published an interactive website on the titanic waste involved, found himself moved by the opening ceremony. “It’s so sweet, and so uniting.” As the attention turned to the sports, as Putin and his aides had always insisted it should, the Olympics even seemed to temper some of the harshest criticism of him and his rule.
CHAPTER 25 - Our Russia
As the writer James Meek wrote when the protests in Kyiv descended into violence that day in February, “It is the ideal of a complete cynic, Vladimir Putin, the one ideal a complete cynic can have — that people have no ideals.”
The most crucial was the one with Angela Merkel. Only two days before, he had told her that there were no Russian troops in Crimea, but now he acknowledged that there were — something no Russian official would admit publicly until Putin did in April, six weeks after the fact. Putin repeated his warnings that ethnic Russians faced violence in Ukraine, forcing him to act. Merkel, the leader who remained Putin’s best interlocutor on the continent, now turned sharply against him. She telephoned Barack Obama even as he was on the phone with Putin afterward, and when they spoke, she dropped her cautious approach to the crisis and took a far harsher stance. The United States, soon followed by the European Union and other members of the G8, warned that Russia risked its international standing and withering sanctions if it pressed a territorial claim on Crimea. Putin’s strategy at this point unfolded haphazardly, catching even his underlings off guard. He was making decisions alone and off the cuff.
The last nation to annex the territory of another was Iraq in 1990, when the armies of Saddam Hussein swept through Kuwait.
Russia’s military budget had nearly doubled since 2005, reaching an estimated $84 billion in 2014. It lagged behind only the United States and China but spent more as a percentage of its gross domestic product than any major economy.
The most ominous rationale for many was that he had intervened to protect his Russian “compatriots” in Crimea — that is, not citizens of Russia, but those Russians who, as he often pointed out, found themselves adrift in “foreign countries” when the Soviet Union splintered in 1991 into separate successor nations. For years he had extolled the Russki mir, or Russian world, the community united across borders by language, culture, and faith, but never before had he used the notion as a rationale for military action. It was an argument that had uncomfortable parallels to those Adolf Hitler used in 1938 to claim Austria and later the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia for the Volksgenossen. The question now was where would Putin’s policy stop? Other parts of Ukraine included significant populations of ethnic Russians, as did Kazakhstan and the three former Soviet republics now in NATO and protected by a mutual defense pledge contained in Article 5 of the alliance’s charter: Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. Few thought that Putin would risk a military confrontation with NATO by attacking one of its member states, but no one seemed certain that Putin’s calculations were entirely rational anymore.
Putin’s intransigence proved to be unifying, shoring up international opposition. Russia was expelled from the G8, whose annual summit was to be held in the summer of 2014 in the newly rebuilt Sochi. Two days after the annexation, the United States ratcheted up the sanctions, followed by the European Union. This time the sanctions targeted those closest to Putin, intending to change his behavior by inflicting punishment on the friends who had amassed their fortunes during his presidency. They included his old judo partners, Arkady and Boris Rotenberg; Vladimir Yakunin, Yuri Kovalchuk, and Andrei Fursenko from the Ozero dacha cooperative; and Gennady Timchenko.
The rift between Russia and the West now seemed irrevocable, and it was deliberate. The United States had already expanded its sanctions the day before the downing of Flight 17, and in the wake of the accident, opposition in Europe to intensifying its sanctions evaporated as well. Entire sectors of the economy, including banking and energy, now faced sanctions, not just the officials and friends close to Putin. By the middle of 2014, capital flight had reached $75 billion for the year as those with cash sought safe harbors offshore; by the end of the year, $150 billion had fled the country.
Putin had not miscalculated in his actions against Crimea and later in eastern Ukraine. He simply no longer cared how the West would respond.
By then, however, it was difficult to argue that his epoch was not washed by the blood of his harshest critics.
After a quarter century of openness since the Soviet collapse, of economic and cultural exchange, most Russians again looked at the outside world as an enemy at the gates, to be feared and resisted. The siege mentality justified any sacrifice. “When a Russian feels any foreign pressure, he will never give up his leader,” said one of Putin’s deputy prime ministers, Igor Shuvalov, considered one of the liberals in his cabinet. “We will survive any hardship in the country — eat less food, use less electricity.”
This book simply would not exist without The New York Times, where I have had the privilege to work since 1989.
The other institution is the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., which provided me a place to study and write within its Kennan Institute, where the atmosphere was serious, nonpartisan, and thoroughly convivial.