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Johnson's Russia List
6 September 2000
FROM THE OCTOBER 2000 ISSUE OF VANITY FAIR MAGAZINE, ON NEWSSTANDS
SEPTEMBER 12, 2000
RUSSIA'S DARK MASTER
Vladimir Putin, Russia's new president, won the admiration of his people
for his iron grasp on power. Then came the Kursk submarince crisis. Will
the Kremlin's mystery man be able to rein in a massively corrupt
oligarchy, or will he wake the ghost of Stalin?
BY MAUREEN ORTH (Maurorth@aol.com)
The muddy lot in a working-class section of St. Petersburg is filled with
debris and gives no hint of the city's shabby grandeur. But housed there in
a beat-up building behind a turbine factory is the sports club that helped
form so much of Vladimir Putin's discipline and character. For 15 years
Anatoly Rakhlin, a slight, tautly muscled man with Bozo-the-Clown white
hair and penetrating blue eyes, trained "Volodya" to become a champion in
sombo and judo; Putin and his team traveled all over the Soviet Union.
Sombo, a Russian acronym for "self-defense without weapons," is a mix of
judo and wrestling that caught on when Putin was growing up in the mid-60s.
It places a premium on quick moves, calm demeanor, and the ability to keep
from showing emotion or uttering a sound, no matter how intense the
struggle or the pain. Putin, a laconic, inscrutable introvert to the world
and a wry charmer to his intimates, seems to have learned sombo's lessons
well. On one wall of the sports club, Putin's sad teenage face stares out
from an old lineup of the club's "Masters of Sport," the Russian equivalent
Clearly, Putin, then as now, was not only calculating but also a risktaker.
Although he was barely five feet seven and competed in the lightweight,
135-pound category, he was Leningrad's judo champion in 1976, and he would
take on teammates twice his size. "He could always fight against me," says
316-pound Slava Okumen, "even if we were in different categories." (Okumen
was only 246 pounds back then.) "He could throw me. His will to win was
superstrong." Some of Putin's contemporaries still come back to the gym at
night to wrestle, sweat in the sauna, and tell stories in the coach's
office, which is filled with rags, old tires, and decrepit athletic
equipment. Coach Rakhlin explains, "Volodya was not a wrestler of
physicality, but more of intellect-a smart wrestler. He always did the
unexpected, because he was versatile, very strong, so the speed of the
fight was intense."
The quality the coach most remembers Putin for, however, was his loyalty.
And loyalty is what has catapulted Vladimir Putin through the ranks, from
an obscure, disillusioned K.G.B. lieutenant colonel home from Germany in
1990 to deputy mayor of St. Petersburg, to a series of increasingly
powerful posts in the corrupt Kremlin of Boris Yeltsin. (Think Robert
Duvall as the consigliere in The Godfather.)
During Putin's first four years of training, Rakhlin had to change the
club's location five times in the sprawling city. Other kids dropped out,
but not Volodya, who had to travel long distances on the trolley. The only
child of what Rakhlin calls poor working-class parents, Putin stuck with
the coach, even when he was studying at Leningrad State University, where
he was pressured to be on the university teams, and later as a young K.G.B.
officer, when he was practically ordered by university authorities to join
the police club. According to Rakhlin, "The best wrestlers come not from
talent but from dedication to sport. Volodya was dedicated to sport and
loyal to his coach."
Last December 31, Boris Yeltsin-in a brilliant tactical move-resigned
unexpectedly and made Putin, who was then prime minister, his successor,
thereby forcing early elections in March. Putin, one of whose first decrees
as acting president was to absolve the vulnerable Yeltsin of any
prosecution after he left office, got 52 percent of the vote. The campaign
was designed as a clever series of macho photo ops in which Putin said
almost nothing but proclaimed a "dictatorship of the law," while the
state-owned media mercilessly slandered his opponents.
On May 7, the day of Putin's inauguration, Anatoly Rakhlin was outside
Moscow at a tournament, but the next day the Kremlin tracked him down the
moment he registered at a hotel in the capital. Rakhlin was picked up in an
official car and whisked in his sweats to the inner sanctum of the Kremlin,
to have lunch alone with the exhausted new president of Russia in his
private dining room. "I was with him 15 years. His mother died, his father
died. I am a second father."
Rakhlin tried to relax Putin by "speaking of nothing. I told him how to
take care of his knees." Then, because Rakhlin wanted a signed picture and
the president didn't have one, they drove over to Putin's old prime
minister's office, which he had not yet vacated. Rakhlin got his picture,
of Putin in judo clothes, and it now hangs in his gym. Later, Rakhlin was
told to inform the president's secretary anytime he got a request for an
interview. By then Rakhlin and I had already met.
He tells me that Putin confided to him that the hardest part of his job was
meeting so many "simple" people during his travels outside Moscow. "He told
me they just complain or cry because they live so badly," Rakhlin says.
"They can't believe they are seeing the president, and they hope he can
make their lives better, because they are so miserable. It's getting to him."
At the Okinawa G8 summit in July, Putin capped an impressive first
appearance with the heads of state of the world's leading industrial
nations-one of his suggestions was that they should start E-mailing one
another-by visiting a Japanese judo club and pinning a young opponent, whom
he then invited to throw him. He told reporters that his favorite judo move
is the deashibari, a swift attack which knocks the opponent off his feet.
Putin's instant popularity took Kremlin image-makers totally by surprise
last fall, when, as the third prime minister Yeltsin had appointed in two
years, he took full responsibility for waging a bloody, brutal war on
Chechnya, which has leveled Grozny, the capital, and left untold thousands
of civilian casualties. Putin considers the conflict in Chechnya a
terrorist civil insurrection and says that "Chechen bandits" are the shock
troops of a fundamentalist Muslim drive to deprive the Russian Federation
of vast stretches of territory. His efforts to demonize Chechens were aided
by the fact that many Muscovites believe downtown Moscow is controlled by
the Chechen Mob. After highly suspicious "Chechen terrorist" apartment
bombings in three Russian cities last fall, in which about 300 civilians
were killed, Putin's ratings soared, though there's little evidence that
Chechen terrorists actually carried out the bombings. "Military activities
in the Caucasus always bring down popularity ratings," says Kremlin
political consultant and manipulator Gleb Pavlovsky. "It was the miracle
that Putin brought into reality. We didn't expect that at all!"
Putin, who Pavlovsky says was being "tested by Yeltsin," was a revelation.
Yeltsin's "Family," or inner circle, intent on managing the succession and
maintaining its tainted power, had been plotting the post-Yeltsin era
almost from the day of Yeltsin's 1996 election (Pavlovsky calls it "a sort
of Manhattan Project"). They secretly polled to find out what kind of
person the Russian people considered heroic. Suddenly, right under their
noses, they realized that in Putin they had a Stirlitz, the dashing
fictional K.G.B. officer who is the hero of a popular old film, an
undercover agent in the SS in Germany in World War II, who embodies Russian
ideals. They immediately launched a campaign to turn Vladimir Putin into
another Stirlitz. They created an ideology-free political party called
Unity, and came in second to the Communists with 24 percent of the
parliamentary electoral vote.
The Stirlitz campaign revealed to Pavlovsky how Putin could overcome the
dual handicaps of coming from the K.G.B. (not exactly consonant with
democratic reform) and being handpicked by the despised Yeltsin. "For an
intelligence officer it was easy. He had the alibi: he's hiding and in
secrecy awaiting orders.... Did he take part in reforms? Yes, but he was
Stirlitz, seen in the movie as working under SS cover, but he's not SS. Was
he seen at demonstrations? Of course not! He is Stirlitz and not supposed
to be seen there. And here we are reaching the paradox," Pavlovsky
continues. "But Yeltsin named him as successor, and Yeltsin was hated by
the whole country. Yes, but he is Stirlitz, and he earned Yeltsin's trust
so well that even Yeltsin counts on him! That was a very deep mechanism."
Pavlovsky adds, "Of course, power should be in a way mysterious and magic.
Especially in Russia. Putin answers that need perfectly."
Meanwhile, the opposition did its part. According to Pavlovsky, "They were
conducting an anti-Yeltsin campaign only. They started to truly believe
their propaganda, that Yeltsin is some sort of maniac who is entertaining
himself by changing prime ministers, that he is not solving a rational task
of searching for a successor. Our hope was that they would be thinking of
Putin as another fatal mistake of Yeltsin." They were. "When Putin was
superpopular, they called themselves his enemy-total stupidity!" The
strategy played out perfectly. "When we understood everyone was thinking
the way we wanted them to, psychologically we began to drink champagne,"
After the parliamentary elections on December 19, "which were really
presidential elections, because people came to vote for Putin, we
understood we couldn't hide Putin anymore." Had Yeltsin not taken himself
out early, "that would have forced Putin to position himself regarding
Yeltsin and Yeltsin's past." But after Yeltsin resigned on December 31, "we
understood that we had one or two months for Putin to become stronger and
stronger as the head of executive power."
The image-makers poured it on: Russians saw Putin distributing hunting
knives to Russian troops at the Chechen front on New Year's Day, Putin
using crude prison slang to say how he'd deal with Chechen guerrillas
("We'll ice them while they're shitting in the outhouse"), Putin flying a
two-seat military jet. "Putin demonstrated all the time he can do things,"
says Pavlovsky. "He showed that as a secret intelligence officer he is able
to handle weapons, the jet." The Russian populace, humiliated by the loss
of the first Chechen war in 1996 and the loss of their status as a
superpower, and weary of the ubiquitous corruption in the government and
the downturn of their economy, yearned for a young, vigorous leader they
could be proud of-someone who would restore law and order and show who was
boss. Democracy was almost a secondary concern.
Until the tragic sinking of the Kursk nuclear submarine in August, when 118
men perished and Putin failed to come home from his Black Sea vacation to
provide leadership in the crisis, the new president had been consolidating
his power at a dizzying rate. He had managed to scare and offend many of
the elite while keeping his approval ratings high. He had cut a deal with
the Communists in the Duma, the Parliament's lower house, to share power
with his Unity Party, and he seemed to be getting almost everything he
wanted. Even now he is moving toward a two-party system of Unity and the
Communists. More important, he has divided Russia into seven federal zones,
each with its own administrator, a move designed to rein in Russia's 89
elected regional governors, many of whom are corrupt in forging deals which
bypass the national government. What is alarming to many observers both
inside and outside of Russia is that five of the seven administrators are
former generals from the military or security forces. Echoing fears that
the security forces are in the ascendant, human-rights activist Yelena
Bonner, widow of the famed dissident Andrei Sakharov, says, "I believe [the
K.G.B.] would never allow anyone to leave the zone of its influence.
Physically you can resign from this organization, but mentally and
professionally Putin will never get out from under their influence."
Putin has gotten legislation passed to expel the governors from automatic
membership in the upper house of Parliament and to strip them of their
office if they have been found to break the law. They now have to return
much more tax revenue to the federal government. The Parliament will be
further weakened by the establishment of a new "state council," predicted
to take over many key parliamentary powers traditionally held by the upper
With a team of liberal economists, Putin has also introduced a new
supply-side economic plan for Russia, featuring a radical tax-reform
package to attract Western investment, the cornerstone of which is a
simplified flat tax of 13 percent to encourage the wealthy to pay at least
something. But there are also more punishing tax hikes on gas, vodka, and
cigarettes, and the worst is supposedly yet to come this fall when the
government reduces utility and housing subsidies. But with the sinking of
the Kursk, and the bomb that exploded in a crowded downtown-Moscow
underground passageway a week earlier, the perilous nature of Russia's
security and military preparedness was brought into stark relief.
While the Russian press responded with more vigor than it ever had in the
past, and when public opinion suddenly demanded to be taken into account,
Putin-instead of displaying the reflexive instincts of an experienced
politician rallying his country at a crucial moment-behaved like a timid,
secretive Soviet bureaucrat out of the past: distancing himself, refusing
foreign aid for four days, allowing disinformation fed by the Russian Navy
about the fate of the sub to flourish. The long-term effect of the Kursk on
Putin's ability to govern will take months to assess.
Before the Kursk crisis, however, Putin's most controversial move had been
a clampdown on the opposition media with the arrest of one of the new
Russia's powerful oligarchs, Vladimir Gusinsky, chairman of the Media-Most
empire, which includes NTV, the influential television network, for alleged
fraud. Gusinsky says the charges are baseless, though Russia analyst
Dimitri Simes cautioned on The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer that Gusinsky is
"closer to Meyer Lansky than a real democrat." The government says he
acquired a controlling stake in a lucrative TV station for $5,000 after the
official in charge of the sale allegedly received a payment of $1 million.
In July, after strong negative reaction at home and abroad, the charges
were suddenly dropped, and rumors abound that a deal was struck to have
Media-Most sold and put under state supervision, but NTV officials deny it.
Igor Malashenko, the number-two man at Media-Most, warns, "Putin's
consolidation of power is very simple: it's to put everything under his
control. He doesn't believe in a system of checks and balances. Any checks
and balances are a nuisance." Putin's government appears to be serving
notice that rogue elements will be forced into compliance.
Gusinsky's case was extreme but not isolated. Freedom of the press remains
a very sensitive issue. Last winter, Putin was widely criticized for
defending the Russian troops who kidnapped Radio Liberty correspondent
Andrei Babitsky, a vocal opponent of the Chechen war. Pavel Felgenhauer,
Moscow Times columnist and Radio Moscow commentator, says, "I know from the
inside there is no free press. The press here is either distorted, not
published, or told what to write."
The Russian press and Internet thrive on kompromat, "compromised material,"
which is usually bought from underpaid government security-force employees
or former security agents who wiretap, intercept E-mail, and tail. Phone
tapping is believed to be more widespread today than in Soviet times. In
fact, Gusinsky was accused of having a private security force-all the
oligarchs do- which engaged in massive wiretapping, and indeed a former
K.G.B. general, Philip Bobkov, now gathers and analyzes information for
Most oligarchs don't even bother to deny how ill-gotten their fabulous
fortunes are, and Putin has begun to move against several of them,
declaring, "All should be equally distanced from power." Whether he will
carry out his threats, merely use them as leverage, or is staging a P.R.
stunt for the benefit of the masses remains to be seen. Last July, Putin
assured a group of nervous big-business men that he was not going to
overturn their unscrupulous privatizations of state-owned companies. "You
built this state yourself to a great degree through political or
semi-political structures under your control," Putin said bluntly, "so
there's no point in blaming the reflection in the mirror."
"Imagine a prison," Alexander Starkov, one of the major real-estate
developers in Moscow, tells me. "You cannot live in prison with the laws of
a free life-you have to live with the laws of the prison. We in Russia all
live in one big prison."
Putin has also launched into a frenzy of diplomacy with the Vatican, China,
and North Korea, and his highly publicized visits with Tony Blair in
Britain and Gerhard Schroeder in Germany pointedly indicate that he is
seeking to ally Russia with Europe rather than with the United States.
Since his inauguration, Putin has met twice with President Clinton, at the
U.S.-Russia summit in Moscow in June, and in Okinawa at the G8 meeting in
July. This month the two men will meet again for the United Nations
Millennium Summit in New York.
I was sitting in the front row during the signing ceremony at the Moscow
summit, watching Putin, who is all one color, a kind of yellowy beige,
slump in his seat in the newly restored St. Georges Hall in the Kremlin and
absently drum his fingers on the table while a tired-looking Clinton read
his notes about the summit's "successful" conclusion with a joint agreement
for each to destroy 34 tons of plutonium intended for nuclear warheads.
Several hundred journalists present were confined to four questions and sat
like props at a photo op. Putin had spoken without notes, yet unlike
Clinton or Yeltsin or Gorbachev, with their obvious charisma, he would
never have been the one picked out by an observer as the group's natural
A few hours earlier I had witnessed Putin greet the U.S. delegation before
sitting down to negotiate-he presented a bouquet to U.S. ambassador James
Collins for his birthday and greeted Clinton in English. Deputy Secretary
of State Strobe Talbott, who was a Rhodes scholar at the same time as
Clinton and has had wide latitude over U.S.-Russian relations since his
friend's election, hobbled in with a cane, a result of knee surgery.
Clinton playfully pointed to three little monkeys Secretary of State
Madeleine Albright had pinned to her lapel, and said, "'See no evil, hear
no evil, speak no evil'-that's Madeleine's entire foreign policy." Putin
smiled politely. This was definitely not Boris and Bill poking each other
in the ribs to share yet another joke.
St. Catherine's Hall, where the meeting took place, was a vision of
imperial opulence. These luxurious rooms were also a testament to the
Mabetex scandal, named for the Swiss contractor responsible for the
restoration, who stands accused of bribing Yeltsin's Family with, among
other things, credit cards. Yuri Skuratov, Russia's general prosecutor
(attorney general) from 1995 to 1999 and a candidate for the presidency,
had urged Swiss authorities to search the contractor's office, and for
that, he told me, he was removed from office. The Family panicked, fearing
that the Swiss-who were building a substantial case-would uncover their
secret bank accounts. Soon after, a videotape of a cavorting threesome
alleged to be Skuratov and two prostitutes was aired on state television.
Skuratov denied it was he.
Putin, then head of the Federal Security Service (F.S.B.), successor to the
K.G.B., had already crossed swords with Skuratov in 1996, when he went
after Putin's former boss Anatoly Sobchak, then St. Petersburg's mayor, for
corruption. Sobchak fled to Paris. Skuratov says Putin was present in the
hospital room when an ailing Yeltsin demanded Skuratov's resignation, which
he at first refused to give. Skuratov tells me, "I am very pessimistic for
the rule of law in Russia-because I know the real situation. Respect for
the law was never a requisite for Russia." Skuratov found it "a very
powerful symbol" that one of the first presidential decrees Putin signed,
to pardon Yeltsin, "contradicted existing federal laws and the Constitution."
At the Moscow summit, Putin declared that "the United States is one of our
main partners." He said, "One would hope that the very worst of our
relations is far, far behind us." Nevertheless, Putin is currently
exploiting a wedge issue, the United States' proposed recasting of the
failed Star Wars project-breaking the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty to
build a new nuclear shield in order to guard against missiles from
so-called "rogue states." George W. Bush favors such a plan; Clinton said
he would decide this fall if testing to construct such a system should
continue. After being ignored by the United States for proposing that the
two countries join forces in such a plan, Putin, who pleased U.S. officials
by finally getting the Start II Treaty ratified in the Duma, is now the
leader of the opposition. His analysis at the G8 of his visit to North
Korea's leader, Kim Jong-il, in which Kim told him he would give up his
plans to build missiles with warheads if others would help North Korea
launch its satellites, was pronounced "brilliant" and "impressive" by
several heads of state, who think that if the U.S. plan goes forward a new
arms race will start. A month later, however, the mercurial Kim told South
Korean media that the idea was "a joke."
Ordinary Russians, who aren't used to a sober leader who works out every
day and drinks Diet Coke, much less one who gets heady praise from other
world leaders, have mostly applauded Putin. Nevertheless, with his swift,
unexpected moves, the president has been keeping friend and foe alike
guessing as to what his real motives are. Will the mysterious Mr. Putin
ultimately save a weak Russian state by becoming a latter-day Pinochet? To
what extent will he remain the captive of the evil Kremlin Family, which
put him in power, the very people who had made a Faustian pact with the
oligarchs, handing them vast parts of the country's resources in exchange
for the means to re-elect Yeltsin in 1996? Will he wake up all of Stalin's
ghosts with the siren call of the
newly energized state security services?
If Putin doesn't succeed, Russia, already off its feet ethically,
economically, and demographically, will be in real danger of being
decisively knocked out. "The real threat to Russia is to implode,"
Malashenko told me. "The government cannot collect taxes or maintain the
armed forces-it's all falling apart." At the same time, nationalistic
fervor is being reasserted. According to Malashenko, "They want to restore
Russian grandeur militarily; they don't understand how bad the situation
is. They don't understand Russia may be disappearing as a viable nation."
To save her, Putin will need more than judo. He'll need voodoo.
Two out of three Russian men die drunk. It doesn't matter if they die of a
heart attack or in an accident or as a murder victim or a suicide; they are
drunk when they die, mostly on a Monday after a binge weekend. The life
expectancy for Russian men is 58.8; for women it's 71.7. (In this country,
it's 72.9 for men and 79.6 for women.) Only 10 to 15 percent of Russian
babies are born healthy. Approximately two-thirds of Russian pregnancies
end in abortion; at least 75 percent of pregnant women have serious
pathologies. "It's horrendous," says Murray Feshbach, Emeritus Research
Professor at Georgetown University, who is the leading U.S. authority on
Russian demography. "Anemia during pregnancy has quintupled during the last
decade. The syphilis rate among young females from 10 to 14 has gone up
roughly 40 times since 1990-that really means 10- to 14-year-olds who are
doing drugs and having intercourse. Among 15- to 17-year-old males, only 10
to 30 percent are healthy." Feshbach also has shocking statistics on the
environment in Russia today. One recent health minister, he says, "issued a
list of 13 Russian cities where he advised the population, 'It doesn't pay
to go outside.'" Meanwhile, in May, Putin abolished the State Committee on
Heroin addiction has exploded in Russia in the last two years. Heroin from
Afghanistan is cheaper than marijuana. As a result, Russia has one of the
fastest growth rates of H.I.V. infection in the world, up more than 350
percent between 1998 and 1999, spread mostly by dirty needles. An estimated
300,000 to 500,000 are infected with H.I.V., and there is no way the
collapsed health-care system can provide for them. In England, The Guardian
reported in May that only 13 percent of the youths conscripted for the
Russian Army actually show up, and of those, according to the Committee of
Soldiers' Mothers of Russia, an advocacy group, about 1,000 commit suicide.
Their pay is less than $2 a month. More than half of the Russian people
live below the poverty line, with incomes that are 40 percent lower than in
1991. "For Russia, to restore a sense of national pride, you must think
about things as mundane as living like a human being," former prime
minister Sergei Stepashin, who is now head of the State Audit Chamber, told
me. "The average Russian pension is $25 a month."
"We are in danger of becoming a senile nation," Putin told the country in a
forceful first State of the Nation speech in July. "It is difficult to
live. Year by year, we, the citizens of Russia, are getting fewer and
fewer. If this continues, the very survival of the nation will be under
threat." That was the first time a top Russian leader had spoken publicly
about this issue. The fact is, some 800,000 more Russians are dying per
year than are being born. One member of the Duma's Parliamentary Committee
on Health glumly predicted that by 2025 the population, currently at 146
million, will be down to 100 million. "The situation is apocalyptic," says
Meanwhile, filthy-rich Russians have replaced Arabs as the most conspicuous
consumers in the chic watering holes of Europe. In the last decade, an
estimated $300 to $500 billion has been siphoned out of Russia into
offshore companies and foreign banks. In the summer of 1999, for example,
Vladimir Posner, the Russian broadcaster, witnessed the "baby billionaire"
Vladimir Potanin, who was 36, sailing a 250-foot yacht into Nice "with a
bevy of Russia's most stunning models, and the money flowed like the
champagne." He added, "The Russian people would love people to go after
these guys." And the oligarchs know it. After Putin's tax police arrested
Gusinsky, 18 of the country's top tycoons wrote an open letter to the
president: "We have no doubts that the law-enforcement authorities could
have serious questions concerning his activities, as can be applied to any
substantial and successful businessman in Russia." Indeed, Potanin, the
founder of Oneximbank, now stands accused by the government of underpaying
$140 million in the privatization of the gigantic Norilsk Nickel.
"How shall I explain to my readers," I asked a leading Russian oligarch,
billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky, 36, the chairman of Russia's
second-largest oil company, Yukos, "how a handful of men in your country
ended up with 30 percent of one-seventh of the entire world's resources?"
Khodorkovsky is also the former chairman of a failed bank, Menatep, whose
depositors lost hundreds of millions of dollars when the ruble crashed in
August 1998. He is featured in Robert I. Friedman's recent book, Red
Mafiya, because in 1995 the C.I.A. claimed that he was "controlled by one
of the most powerful crime clans in Moscow," and that Menatep "had set up
an illegal banking operation in Washington," a vast money-laundering scheme
connected to offshore companies in the Caribbean. Khodorkovsky denies the
With a straight face, Khodorkovsky likens the situation in Russia to the
need in Silicon Valley to import skilled managers from India. "Chances are
you will not find personnel for a justifiable wage. It's a seller's
market." He explains that in Russia "there's a total absence of managers,
so somebody who was a skilled manager could pick and choose his company."
He makes it sound as if he had done the government a favor by taking a
two-million-barrels-a-day oil enterprise off its hands. Yet it has been
reported that the state accounting chamber charged Menatep with using
government money being held for other purposes, such as paying workers'
salaries, to make a sweetheart bid for Yukos in a less-than-transparent
Such auctions were part of the infamous loans-for-shares scheme designed to
help the cash-strapped Russian government pay its debts and speed
privatization. In the mid-90s, private Russian banks were given shares in
state enterprises in return for loans. These shares were to be held in
trust, and if and when they were turned into equity, the banks could bid
for them at auction. Many of the auctions were outrageously rigged.
"The loans-for-shares auctions were conducted according to the same
principle of clan tribute and cronyism that had reigned in Russia during
Soviet years," Matt Taibbi wrote in The eXile, a scathing expat alternative
newspaper published in Moscow. "The only difference was the scheme punished
the average Russian economically in a way that was much worse than the
Soviet system had.... By 1997, it was no longer unusual for employees of
companies like Norilsk to go six months to a year, if not longer, without
receiving their meager salaries. Russian newspapers even reported scenes of
people collapsing from hunger in the streets in the towns surrounding the
industrial centers." The beneficiaries of the auctions, naturally, were the
oligarchs' banks, says Taibbi.
Last February, while Putin was acting president, three Family-friendly
oligarchs-Roman Abramovich, a principal owner of Sibneft Oil, media mogul
Boris Berezovsky, acting through his company Logovaz, and a Siberian
magnate-ended up with more than 60 percent of Russia's multibillion-dollar
aluminum reserve in a questionable takeover that was found not to violate
the country's anti-monopoly laws. Berezovsky has been the pet Tyrannosaurus
rex oligarch of the Yeltsin Family, dark, voluble, cunning, a thoroughly
political animal who takes credit for getting Yeltsin elected in 1996, by
rallying other oligarchs to pony up millions to keep the Communist
candidate, Gennady Zyuganov, from winning, and also for getting Putin
elected in 2000, by discrediting Putin's opponents on the state channel
ORT, of which he owns a minority share. His rival, Igor Malashenko, claims
Berezovsky has a very simple principle: "If we have complete control of TV
and unlimited financial resources, we can elect anybody president." Yuri
Luzhkov, the mayor of Moscow and a presidential candidate, for example, was
eliminated from serious contention after being portrayed on state TV as a
corrupt murderer, which caused him to erupt at one point and cry,
"Berezovsky is Satan!"
Yevgeny Primakov, 71, the other leading candidate, who as prime minister in
1998 had wanted to put Berezovsky in jail, was depicted in the media as
being on his last legs. "You have to separate politics from human-rights
activities," says Berezovsky, who readily admits to me that the way
Primakov was treated was "immoral but legal. Human-rights protection
doesn't allow for immoral acts; politics does allow immoral acts." He adds,
"The actions of the team of which I was a part were totally rational within
the conditions and forms of law." "So the ends justify the means?," I ask.
"If legal, yes," Berezovsky replies.
Swiss prosecutors have frozen Berezovsky's assets in Swiss banks, and
accuse him of having misappropriated an estimated $700 million from
Aeroflot, Russia's national airline. At first, few believed that Russian
prosecutors would pursue him, but lately things have soured. Putin thinks
Berezovsky talks too much, and Berezovsky split with Putin over the
president's plan to strengthen the federal government's grip on the
governors, some of whom, according to Vladimir Posner, "sit deep in his
pocket." The government now appears to be going after Berezovsky's stake in
ORT TV, and it might use its leverage in the Aeroflot case to strike a
deal. Berezovsky, 54, a onetime mathematician, resigned his seat in the
Duma, which provided him with immunity from prosecution, and has spoken of
forming a party in opposition to Putin.
'We oligarchs believe in Russia," Berezovsky assures me in his "club," a
heavily guarded town house in Moscow, where he is surrounded by a white
grand piano, faux French furniture, a bar, and surveillance cameras. "Then
how come so many billions have gone out of Russia?," I ask. "Because in
Russia today there are no laws to protect capital." "Will Putin establish
those laws?" "I think so." Then he smiles. "It's not a fairy tale that
Primakov wanted to put me in jail, but it is a fairy tale that Putin does."
In many ways Berezovsky echoes Khodorkovsky in declaring that he deserves
his riches because, unlike his colleagues during the early perestroika
days, he was willing to take a risk. "The Russian people have a slave
mentality," Berezovsky declares. "They didn't believe in new developments.
We [oligarchs] are rational to spend less energy and get more profit, and
if the state would have formulated other rules, we'd fulfill those....
[But] the legal system is inadequate and incomplete for business reality."
I am curious to know to what extent Berezovsky understands how he is
viewed. "In the West you are perceived as a caricature of an oligarch, a
crook and a clown," I inform him. "Why would you want that reputation for
"There are two reasons why not only me but Russian business has a bad
reputation," Berezovsky replies. "First, the revolutionary transition
Russian business has undergone gave birth to colossal corruption, and the
cause is the historically unprecedented redistribution of wealth. In 1990
everything belonged to the state. By 1997 almost 75 percent of the property
was held privately. The redistribution of property was in the hands of
bureaucrats who made salaries of $100, $200 a month. And with a single
signature ... " He trails off, then adds, "I am sure there are no corrupt
American bureaucrats. There wouldn't be many bureaucrats who in the same
situation would refuse bribes."
"So many millions of people have suffered because of policies you've
perpetrated," I say. "Don't you feel bad about that?"
"I don't feel bad about it, though I can't say I feel comfortable,"
Berezovsky replies. "Russia was grappling with the problem of transforming
itself into a new economic and political system. By any measure this would
be called a revolution, and the basis of such a transformation is always
the redistribution of property.... This was done without a civil war. The
way to judge whether a transformation was successful or not was that there
was no civil war."
Obviously, there is no love lost between Berezovsky and the
second-most-hated man in Russia, St. Petersburg economist Anatoly Chubais,
the chief architect of the loans-for-shares program. Before I met Chubais
in Washington, I spoke in Moscow to one of his top aides, Leonid Gozman,
who told me that massive privatization had been the only way to rescue a
floundering state that was in danger of going back to Communism. "Yegor
Gaidar [the prominent economist and former prime minister] and Chubais
saved the country. We had no bread or sausages. We were in the process of
losing everything." Premier Russia-watcher David Johnson, publisher of an
extensive daily E-mail digest of Russian news called Johnson's Russia List,
disagrees. "The Soviet Union was dead, the population had moved on, but
they wanted a bogeyman to legitimize their claim to power." Gozman told me
that, "certainly, we're a fantastically corruptible system," but that
America in its early capitalist days had its robber barons, too-"Carnegie,
the first Mayor Daley."
Whenever I hear that argument I think of the testimony that former C.I.A.
Russia chief of station Richard Palmer, who after retiring served as a
consultant to Russian banks, gave to the House Committee on Banking and
Financial Services in 1999. Palmer, who runs Cachet, an international
due-diligence-and-asset-recovery business, has spent a decade studying
Russian financial and organized crime. This is his chilling analysis of
what Putin faces in attempts to impose a "dictatorship of law."
For the United States to be like Russia is today, it would be necessary to
have massive corruption by the majority of the members of Congress as well
as by the Departments of Justice and Treasury, and agents of the F.B.I.,
C.I.A., D.I.A., I.R.S., Marshal Service, Border Patrol, state and local
police officers, the Federal Reserve Bank, Supreme Court justices, U.S.
District court judges, support of the varied Organized Crime families, the
leadership of the Fortune 500 companies, at least half of the banks in the
U.S., and the New York Stock Exchange. This cabal would then have to seize
the gold at Fort Knox and the Federal assets deposited in the entire
banking system. It would have to take control of the key industries such as
oil, natural gas, mining, precious and semi-precious metals, forestry,
cotton, construction, insurance and banking industries-and then claim these
items to be their private property. The legal system would have to nullify
most of the key provisions against corruption, conflict of interest,
criminal conspiracy, money laundering, economic fraud, and weaken tax
evasion laws. This unholy alliance would then have to spend about 50
percent of its billions in profits to bribe officials that remained in
government and be the primary supporters of all of the political
candidates. Then, most of the stolen funds, excess profits and bribes would
have to be sent to off-shore banks for safekeeping.
Yet even today, as Russia suffers with a mostly barter economy, where the
average wage has recently risen to $82 a month, Anatoly Chubais remains
Washington and Harvard's golden boy. Chubais, who accrued oligarch status
if not wealth in Russia for becoming synonymous with the manipulation of
U.S. aid and billions from the International Monetary Fund (I.M.F.), is
husky and genial and speaks good English. He is now head of United Energy
System of Russia, a vast electrical utility with more than 700,000
employees which is 34 percent owned by foreign shareholders, who have
recently challenged his leadership. Chubais, along with Yegor Gaidar,
Harvard professors Jeffrey Sachs and Andrei Schleifer, and Sachs's aide
Anders Aslund, is known for having been the driving force behind the
Russian-American aid program which advocated "shock therapy" to push a
market economy in Russia. Chubais had the run of both the Kremlin and the
Clinton White House, where Harvard graduate Vice President Al Gore was the
point man on Russian policy. The group's mentor was Treasury Secretary
Larry Summers, who had been an economics professor at Harvard and chief
economist of the World Bank. "The whole ideology for the privatization of
Russia was worked on American calculations," Yuri Skuratov told me.
Chubais's role in the U.S.-aid-to-Russia program has been incisively
dissected in a controversial paper by University of Pittsburgh professor
Janine Wedel, published in The National Interest: "The ideology, that of
radical privatization and marketization, applied in this instance in a
cold-turkey manner to a society with no recent experience of either, is
well known. The way in which advice and aid were given is much less
familiar." In June 1997, the U.S. Agency for International Development
suspended funding to the chief funnel for U.S. assistance, the Harvard
Institute for International Development, because two of its chief
executives, Jonathan Hay and Andrei Schleifer, were accused of using inside
knowledge and speculating in the Russian stock market through Hay's
girlfriend and Schleifer's wife. Until that point, Wedel charges, U.S. aid
to Russia was managed by a small cabal of Harvardites and a handful of
Russians-namely Chubais-whom they felt comfortable with. Approximately $350
million was managed by the Harvard Institute for International Development,
which, as Wedel says, left "it in the unique position of recommending U.S.
aid policies while being itself a chief recipient of that aid." Members of
the clique would often switch sides, with Americans helping to write
Russian proposals and vice versa, the result of which was exploitation and
"A very small group of people acting as one were able to use the
institutions at their disposal-the U.S. government, the Russian government,
even the I.M.F.-to further their own agendas," Wedel tells me. "The [U.S.]
economic-aid program has been a disaster largely because of this strategy."
Wedel's critics charge that her judgment is too harsh, that shock therapy
has in fact worked in Poland. Not in Russia, however.
"Don't give us any more economic advice," Sergei Karaganov, chairman of the
Moscow-based Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, said at a
Harvard-sponsored Washington seminar shortly before Putin's election. "It
will be D.O.A."
"I know the common understanding here in the U.S. of what Russia is,"
Chubais told me at a Carnegie Endowment lunch arranged by Stanford
professor and Carnegie senior fellow Michael McFaul. "Russia is corruption,
bribes, oligarchs, Mafia, murder. I disagree with that completely. This is
an extremely superficial understanding of the forces of change which are
fundamental to the revolution. If you go deeper, you need to see that the
absolutely fundamental institutions, which never existed previously in my
country, are now accepted." He listed freedom of speech, division of power,
democratic elections, private property, and the Russian Constitution. "The
fact that wages and pensions are being paid is a visible positive tendency
to the Russian economy and political life." In Putin's pre-election
manifesto, Russia at the Turn of the Millennium, he said that if the
Russian economy grew 8 percent a year (a fairly Utopian notion) for the
next 15 years it would reach the per capita gross domestic product of
When Volodya Putin was studying chemistry in a technical high school in
Leningrad in 1970, he already knew that he wanted to be a spy. He set his
sights on the law school of Leningrad State University, which would put him
on the path to the K.G.B., and he took extra courses in Communist ideology.
When one of his teachers announced that a pure Communist state would be
achieved by 1980, Volodya jumped up. "It's not possible. This is a lie.
Nobody believes this. Let's vote, guys. Who believes this?" "No one put his
hand up," says Raisa Sergeevna, another of his teachers. A lively woman
living on a $20-a-month pension in a tiny apartment not far from the
school, she pulls out a tattered file and shows that Volodya came in second
in the school paper drive for being "the hardest-working person."
"Volodya's father was very tough on him, but Volodya never challenged him,"
says Sergei Roldugin, Putin's close friend and the godfather of his older
daughter. A cellist with the Mariinsky Theater Symphony Orchestra, Roldugin
taught Putin about classical music and got his two daughters started on the
piano and violin. Putin's father, a factory worker and the son of one of
Stalin's cooks, had gone through a tough time in the war and was, says
Roldugin, "a member of the party, a strong believer. He hated democracy."
Volodya came to his parents late in life, after two other young sons died,
and so, says a classmate, Aleksandr Matveev, "he was like a light in the
window to them." When they won a car in a state lottery, they could have
sold it and lived off the proceeds for several years. Instead, Putin became
the only student at the university with a car.
At Leningrad State University, Putin, at 18, was younger than many of his
classmates, who had served in the army. Sports occupied a lot of his time,
and he passed up privileges by sticking with Coach Rakhlin and not joining
the university team. He was focused on his goals, disciplined, quiet, but
with a good sense of humor. His friend Leonid Polokhov, the outspoken,
piano-playing son of a Soviet general, recalls, "He told me he wanted to be
a spy, and of course I tried to talk him out of it." But Putin was
determined. "We had a pretty closed society," says Nikolai Egorov, of the
law firm Egorov, Pughinsky, Afanasiev & Marks, another close friend and a
former Supreme Court Justice of Russia, "so in the opinion of many Russian
people at that time, the K.G.B. was seen as a highly respected
organization, very difficult to get into, an honor." Pavel Koschelev, a
classmate and later a colleague, says, "We came to the K.G.B. to serve the
According to his K.G.B. officemate, Valery Golubev, Putin's work in
Leningrad was "gathering information from Russians with contact with
foreigners." "We were taught to be secretive," says Koschelev. "You could
not show your real emotion." Sergei Roldugin once asked Putin what he
actually did. "I'm a specialist in human relations-people, that's my
profession," Putin told him. "He never spoke of the K.G.B.," says Roldugin.
"The goal is to establish connections with people when they come to Russian
cities," says Golubev, who told me Putin's K.G.B. class studied Dale
Carnegie's How to Win Friends & Influence People.
According to Polokhov, after a few years in the K.G.B., Putin became
restless and wanted to go abroad. By 1985, when he was assigned to Dresden,
East Germany, where he recruited Stasi (East German secret police) and kept
tabs on German Communist political figures, Putin had spent considerable
time in training in Moscow. He had also married Lyudmila Aleksandrovna, a
stewardess from Kaliningrad, Russia's westernmost city. In 1985, they had
their first child, Masha, and in 1986, Katya was born in Dresden, East
Germany. German is their daughters' first language.
Lyudmila would fly to their dates in Leningrad. Outspoken and energetic,
she has devoted herself to providing a comfortable home for a husband who
often appears oblivious to time and place. Putin has always worked long
hours. Egorov told me he was once in their home when Putin came in and
Lyudmila asked him, "Did you eat lunch?" "I can't remember," he said. "Do
you want food?" "I don't know." "Do you need food?" "Yes, probably I do."
"Women like him," says Roldugin. "He has some kind of mystery. He knows how
to treat and take care of women."
When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and Russia did nothing to stop it, Putin,
like many of his colleagues, was stunned to see everything they had worked
so diligently for come crashing down around them. "Every morning, to go to
work and hear yourself be described as traitors," says Pavel Koschelev. "It
was worse than the collapse of your ideas and values. We had the feeling we
had been betrayed personally." Putin had been relatively nondescript in his
job, but the European press reports that shortly after Putin returned to
Leningrad, one of his recruits, a former Stasi police detective, gave
information to German domestic intelligence unmasking 15 East German spies,
thereby nullifying much of Putin's work and casting a shadow over him.
Putin says in his book First Person, a campaign biography, that he turned
down a more prestigious position in Moscow and opted to go to Leningrad,
where, as a K.G.B. lieutenant colonel on "active reserve," he took a job as
an assistant to the president of the university, responsible for
international liaison. He also pursued a Ph.D. in international law.
Through Egorov, Putin became reacquainted with Anatoly Sobchak, his
flamboyant former law professor at Leningrad State University, an early
conspicuous democrat, and the leader of the Leningrad city council. Sobchak
became the city's first mayor of the post-Communist era. When Sobchak asked
Putin to work for him in 1990, Putin disclosed that he was in the K.G.B.
"At first my husband was taken aback," says Sobchak's widow, Lyudmila. But
intelligence officers were considered "very reliable. So he said, 'Damn it,
The risk more than paid off. As head of the Committee for Foreign Economic
Relations for the city, Putin soon made himself indispensable as a shrewd
detail man. According to former city-council chairman Alexei Belyaev, "He
became a real shadow mayor, because he signed all the decrees when Sobchak
was absent, and Sobchak was gone a lot." Though Putin shunned the media, he
soon became known as the "Gray Cardinal." Nothing got done without his
knowledge. "St. Petersburg was very open to American business entrepreneurs
who came to visit," says Philadelphia lawyer Jerome Shestack, who once held
the account for the city of Leningrad. "Basically they were all screened by
Putin in advance. His K.G.B. training came in handy." Other visitors
greeted by Putin ranged from Queen Elizabeth II to Ted Turner and Jane
Fonda, and more than once he translated when Boris Yeltsin met high-ranking
Germans in St. Petersburg. In 1996 he campaigned for Yeltsin.
One of Putin's duties was to look after Sobchak's feisty wife, whom he
accompanied to the U.S. twice. Once, they were in a small elevator in
Monaco with an elderly relative of Prince Rainier's. Mrs. Sobchak was
shivering in her backless gown. "'I know the points of the body to touch to
make it warm,'" the randy old nobleman said. "Then he bit me on my neck,"
Lyudmila Sobchak recalls. In Russian, Putin whispered, "You know, Lyudmila,
I'm lost. I have to defend your honor, but I can't take him and beat him
up, because he's the prince's relative." Just then, Lyudmila Sobchak says,
"the elevator door opened, thank God."
Putin got into politics at an auspicious moment. People were giddy with the
idea of democracy and capitalism, but most Russians were dancing in the
dark. Roldugin says that at one point Putin wanted to bring Augusto
Pinochet to St. Petersburg to question him about how he had achieved the
"economic miracle" in Chile, but the idea was dropped. Sobchak and Putin
had to feed a hungry city without the backup of the old Soviet Union, which
collapsed in 1991. "Sometimes he made mistakes about judgments of people,"
says Vatanyar Yagya, a chief adviser to Sobchak and a deputy in the St.
Petersburg legislative assembly who admires Putin. "Along with honest,
talented, and creative people came people with low, immoral interests....
There were newfound opportunities to take bribes and be corrupt."
The most publicized scandal Putin was involved in was a barter deal to sell
oil, wood, and metals for food in early 1992. Some $92 million worth of
materials left St. Petersburg, and just a few bottles of cooking oil came
back. Not only that, the contracts were made out for a fraction of what the
resources would bring on the world market-a scam used earlier by the K.G.B.
to spirit money out of the country for Communist Party chieftains in the
early days of perestroika. Putin became a target of investigation. Marina
Salye, the city councilwoman investigating him at the time, has documents
which show that Putin signed two irregular contracts. He was called as a
witness before the council and accused, according to the investigative
report, of "complete incompetence," but he was not accused of benefiting
personally. The council wanted him fired, but Sobchak refused. One problem,
says Belyaev, was that "there were no competitive bids.... He played like a
K.G.B. man in this situation-one face to one person, another to another."
Belyaev does not believe Putin took bribes, but he admits, "That was the
very beginning of the corrupt system." Today, St. Petersburg is considered
the most criminally infiltrated city in all Russia.
In 1996, Sobchak failed to be re-elected. Putin refused to work for
Sobchak's successor, Vladimir Yaklovev, a former deputy of Sobchak's. "He
said it would be better to be hanged as a traitor than to betray [my
husband]," says Lyudmila Sobchak. For three months Putin and Sobchak spent
their days together in Sobchak's dacha, grieving. Then, through his St.
Petersburg connections, Putin got a job in Moscow in the Presidential
Administration office. He was put in charge of the General Affairs legal
department and the privatizing of hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of
Russian property abroad.
Meanwhile, Sobchak got into serious trouble for the irregular privatization
of apartments in St. Petersburg-charges his wife calls "a smear." As
federal prosecutors were interrogating her husband on videotape, she burst
into the room, saying, "Anatoly, you have a bad heart." Sobchak immediately
announced that he felt sick and called for an ambulance. After being
shielded in a clinic for several weeks, he escaped to Paris in a private
jet. Putin called him regularly. Once Putin was installed as prime minister
by Yeltsin, he saw to it that Sobchak could return to Russia without facing
charges, and he wept openly at Sobchak's funeral last February. None of
these gestures of loyalty was lost on the Yeltsin Family.
Russian reporters have come up with other scandals that appear to have
involved Putin, but they are ignored by the presidential press office. If
these things are not on TV, they don't count. The most intriguing alleged
illegality had Putin giving money for the restoration of an Orthodox
nunnery in Israel from the mayor of St. Petersburg's "unforeseen expenses
fund." Journalist Vladimir Ivanidze, who with his wife, Agathe Duparc,
uncovered the Mabetex scandal, was vilified in a local St. Petersburg paper
for merely asking standard questions about a bank he found operating out of
the St. Petersburg mayor's office and a real-estate development company to
which Putin was attached.
At one point Sergei Roldugin asked Putin point-blank, "Don't you have a
little candle factory somewhere?" Putin, he says, answered, "You know I
don't have anything." Roldugin pressed again. "Bureaucrats exist to take
bribes, and it cannot be that you don't take anything." Roldugin says that
Putin then answered more firmly. "'You know, Sergei, I can survive without
that.' But he knows the prices, the amounts being taken around him. He told
me, 'If I would take bribes, I'd be extremely rich by now.... I could do
nothing but pass information, and people would offer me good money for
that. But I didn't take that, and that's why I'm worth a lot now.'"
In the Kremlin, Putin worked for Pavel Borodin, the Kremlin property
manager who has been indicted by the Swiss for his role in the Mabetex
scandal. Each year from 1996 on, Putin was promoted, from overseeing the
regions to heading the F.S.B., to being secretary of the Security Council
and, in August 1999, to prime minister. The question naturally arises: How
can you work for so many people directly implicated in scandal and not be
"There are no clean politicians in Russia," political analyst Vyacheslav
Nikonov tells me. Putin may not have become rich, but he got ahead.
"Yeltsin used him as an enforcer," Nikonov says, and time and again he
proved his loyalty, especially in 1998 and 1999, when the Duma wanted to
impeach Yeltsin. An American who is a close observer in Moscow told me,
"Every time Yeltsin had serious trouble in the Duma, Putin and the F.S.B.
intervened. They made sure the F.S.B. had information on [Yeltsin's
enemies] and would use it."
Now that he's in power himself, Putin supposedly feels different.
Explaining what Putin meant by "dictatorship of the law," Egorov says his
friend is convinced that "officials never have the right to spin the law in
their own favor." "He is extremely intelligent, part of a new breed we
hadn't seen before," says James Wolfenson, head of the World Bank, who at
the time of Putin's election spent nine hours with him in his Kremlin
apartment. "For a Russian leader, he's as clean as you're going to get. ...
Everybody I've met feels he's the best chance we're going to have."
"Spies must be charming," Ednan Agaev, a former arms negotiator for the
Soviet Union, tells me. But even more important than wooing Western
investors and negotiating for debt relief, Putin must convince Russians
that they can once again believe in the motherland. They have to obey the
law, pay taxes, and trust the state. "The historic mission of Yeltsin was
to destroy Communism without violence, to put Russia on a new track and
then open a door to the future," says Agaev. "Putin's mission is to go
through the door."
'Lots of people surrounding Putin are very anti-American, maybe as a result
of [the NATO bombing of] Kosovo. It looks like a very different moment
between Russia and the U.S.," says Kommersant Daily correspondent Nataliya
Gevorkyan. "It's not nice at all." Gevorkyan was the senior correspondent
of three chosen to interview Putin for First Person. She feels that Putin
likes Bill Clinton personally; however, Putin's election and the U.S.
presidential contest in November signify a new era in U.S.-Russian
relations. In a Special Congressional Task Force Report to be issued this
month, Republicans are expected to criticize Al Gore for his significant
role in U.S.-Russia policy over the last eight years. In addition, Richard
Cheney used his clout as C.E.O. of Halliburton, an energy-services company,
to lobby Congress and the State Department to countermand the State
Department's prohibition against releasing to a shady Russian oil company a
loan of $490 million, of which almost $300 million would go to Halliburton.
"There's a very strong backlash after a decade of being the laughingstock
of the world-that we can't produce anything or get anything right," says
Pavel Felgenhauer. "And the U.S. expects some liberal to come to power,
polished and pro-Western? Hardly!"
"Putin is not a democrat!" says Valery Golubev, who spent several years in
a four-man office with him. "What does 'democrat' mean? In Russian terms,
it's a bit of a curse word."
"Democracy in Russia has become a dirty word," Vladimir Posner told me. "If
you write 'dermocrat,' that's a play on words in Russia. Dermo means
crap-it's a crapocracy. Over the last 10 years, because of what's happened,
for a lot of people democracy has become crap, because it has destroyed
their livelihood, their culture. Also, that specific anti-Western,
particularly anti-American sentiment, that's where the real problem lies.
At first, democracy dazzled them. What it's turned out to be for many
Russian people is misery." Moscow-based Swedish journalist Jan Blomgren
told me, "I'm sure Putin's not good for democracy, but he might be good for
Russia. Democracy is not the highest ideal now."
"Even the most anti-Russia Washington administration cannot inflict more
harm on our country than the true 'friends of Russia' of Clinton's team,"
says one Russian political commentator. "An increase of isolationist
tendencies in the U.S. would be a boon."
"The real issue is, can you establish law and order and respect the
Constitution as written?" says Posner. "Putin has the majority support of
the population, who support the idea: let's curtail democracy and then
we'll come back [to it]." Moreover, Posner says, "Putin is under a lot of
pressure from different groups. He feels a moral obligation to the
oligarchs who put him in. I don't think he feels pressure from
liberals-they don't have any power. I do think he's under pressure from the
military and the more nationalistic elements of the country-those who
believe Russia ... has to be a superpower again." In the words of
Constantin Borovoy, an early business tycoon, "Russia is only important if
it's scary. If you can't solve old problems, you create new ones."
"NATO expansion was an incredible slap in the face-at least a wake-up call
[that Russia] had to start paying attention to its own security needs
again," says Clifford Gaddy of the Brookings Institution, who has an
excellent track record for calling Putin's moves. Poland, the Czech
Republic, and Hungary all got in, but Russia was pointedly excluded.
Now Putin's dreams of reviving his country as a superpower will most
certainly have to be curtailed. After the Kursk sank, Kursk's regional
governor, Aleksandr Rutskoy, said that Russia was "losing not a
submarine-it was losing a national idea." Vladimir Putin's formidable
challenge is to keep hope alive not just for the motherland but for himself.