Putin turned Russia gov't into KGB copy, author says
Published Thursday, March 8, 2012 7:07AM EST
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin speaks during a cabinet meeting in Moscow, Wednesday, March 7, 2012. (RIA-Novosti / Alexei Nikolsky / Government Press Service)
Vladimir Putin has turned the Kremlin "into a sort of copy of the KGB system," says the author of a new biography of the enigmatic leader, which chronicles the rise to power of a man even his supporters know little about.
In "The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin," journalist Masha Gessen chronicles Putin's early life, career and rise to power, including an unremarkable stint in East Germany as a KGB operative. He eventually ended up deputy to the mayor of St. Petersburg, his only political experience before he was hand-picked by Boris Yeltsin's inner circle to take over the presidency and where he is alleged to have organized massive kickback schemes to enrich himself and his cronies.
The book offers chilling allegations about the lengths to which Putin was willing to go to shore up power. Gessen points the finger at Putin for bombings in 1999, the year before he became president, which killed scores of civilians and were pinned on Chechen rebels.
His early backers, including entrepreneur Boris Berezovsky, who essentially brokered Putin's jump from a position at Leningrad State University to the Kremlin, admitted publicly that they knew little about the man even as they trumpeted him as Russia's next great hope as Yeltsin's presidency came to a close with unfulfilled promise.
In January 2000, Gessen writes, a Russia panel at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland took a question asking "Who is Mr. Putin?" None of the panelists could answer.
Gessen writes that this mystery around Putin is precisely why he was chosen to succeed Yeltsin. His backers believed he would be malleable because he appeared "devoid of personality and interest."
So few people know Putin well enough that it's impossible to confirm rumours he was in fact adopted by his parents, both of whom suffered health problems after the Second World War. And the only real stories that have emerged from his childhood are of a young thug who would fight anyone over the most minor of slights.
Putin's backers were wrong about his malleability. He was power-hungry and had little interest in the democratic reforms that came with the break-up of the Soviet Union.
"(Putin) sincerely believes that the Soviet Union was a great country and that the greatest thing that the Soviet Union ever created was the KGB, and he's done everything he can to turn Russia into a sort of copy of the KGB system," Gessen said in a telephone interview, referring to Putin's suppression of dissent, centralized power base and aggressive action against critics.
"I think he sincerely believes that this is the best thing for the country because it's the best thing that can happen period. In doing so he's really lost sight of the boundary between himself and the country, which happens to authoritarian leaders. So he perceives any attacks on himself and on his regime as attacks on the country."
There are also accounts in the book, some of them famous cases, of journalists and dissidents who were openly hostile to the Putin regime being attacked or killed.
Asked whether she fears for her own safety with the publication of her no-holds-barred look at Putin, Gessen says that while she has been threatened in the past, "I've been lucky not to have been threatened in the last few years."
Gessen writes that in 2012, as Putin finds himself atop Russia's once-again one-man political system, his motivations to shore up power have broadened: he and his allies have become rich off corruption and would like to remain so, and being in office protects him from prosecution for crimes, including the silencing of his critics.
But, Gessen says, Putin may not have long left to rule given how many Russians, as well as his own inner circle, are tiring of life under his thumb.
Tens of thousands of protesters have taken to the streets regularly since December, outraged by widespread allegations of fraud in parliamentary elections. Demonstrators have continued to rally since Sunday's presidential vote, which saw Putin regain Russia's top job with about 64 per cent support amid reports of widespread violations.
On election night, Putin had tears in his eyes as he claimed his victory in what Gessen dubbed "the so-called election."
"He wanted the victory to look very decisive, because he still thinks that that will put an end to the challenge to his legitimacy. So that explains the emotion with which he announced his victory on Sunday," she said.
"The man who never teared up when hundreds of people died in terrorist attacks tears up at having won because he's still under pressure and thinks that it's over. It's not over. (In) the protest movement, some people are demoralized and some people are radicalized… but I'm very hopeful that the protest movement will manage to stay peaceful. And if that happens, Putin doesn't have long left at all."
Putin won the presidency in 2000 and served in that post until 2008, moving to the prime minister's chair due to term limits.
Putin openly stated before Sunday's election that his goal was to win back the presidency in the first round of voting, which means he had to secure more than 50 per cent support. While he achieved that, seemingly with help from "carousel voting" and other electoral abuses, there are signs that Putin's stronghold is weakening.
Putin's cronies have become increasingly dissatisfied with Putin, forced to work in a system that is designed to keep him top dog, she says. And state-controlled media, mostly in television, have become more subversive in how they cover the anti-Putin protests, actions that have not led to mass firings as they have in the past.
And the overall disenchantment is palpable, she says, despite the fact that many Russians have enjoyed a higher standard of living and more creature comforts than previous generations, thanks to a rise in the nation's wealth due to skyrocketing oil and gas prices.
"Most people are susceptible to comfort, and when comfort is bestowed upon you in the form of money and food and life generally getting better, that goes a long way to not making you critical," she says.
"(But) it doesn't work forever, because once people are comfortable enough they realize that they also want to have human dignity and that's something that life in Russia currently doesn't afford. And that's when you get the protest movement. And the protest movement is very much about dignity."
Gessen says one thing that has made Russians feel stripped of that dignity is how many of them have been disenfranchised in the recent elections.
Ballot-box stuffing, intimidation and "carousel voting" all stir up anger, but it's also disheartening for those who hear local news reports that say no one voted for a particular party when they in fact cast their ballots for that candidate.
"There's nothing quite so humiliating as basically being told that you don't exist," Gessen says. "And that's what happens when you go and vote, and your vote is stolen."
Gessen believes that the protest movement will only be successful if it remains strong, and peaceful. However, Putin won't quit just because he looks out the window at the Kremlin and sees tens of thousands of people in the streets demanding that he step down.
Putin will know he has to go when he loses control of the police and interior soldiers, and he will lose control if they refuse to use force against protesters. A poll released Wednesday in Russia indicated that police in Moscow and St. Petersburg sympathize with protesters, and the soldiers may soon follow.
"Ultimately when he feels besieged, which he will eventually if the protest movement doesn't fizzle, then he will order the use of force," Gessen says. "And the big question is will the police obey?"