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Newsweek Poland
December 20, 2001
Who is Vladimir Putin?
The Russian leader has demonstrated a healthy disdain for ideology, but he’s still a product of his KGB upbringing
By Andrew Nagorski

Mikhail Margelov is a fastidious dresser. On the day I come to interview him, he’s wearing a lavender-striped shirt with a white collar, a deep red bow tie, matching cuff links and suspenders. A tall, beefy young parliamentarian, he exudes confidence and charm. At 37, he’s already the chairman of the Russian Federation Council’s Foreign Relations Committee—and, more importantly, close to Vladimir Putin. Like Putin, he has a KGB resume and is quick to let you know it.

“WEREN’T YOU HERE in the early 1980s?” he asks with a grin as he ushers me into his office. One of the benefits of hooking up with the KGB early, he explains, was that he got to read my dispatches from Moscow that led to my expulsion from Russia in 1982. He speaks in nearly flawless English, and speaks Arabic, too. He studied both languages at Moscow State University, and then became an Arabic-language professor at the KGB Academy. His grandfather, he notes, was a famous Red Army commander of the Pskov paratrooper division, and his father, who bounced his family around the world “pretending to be a diplomat,” is now deputy chief of the SVR, the Foreign Intelligence Service.

Although this introduction takes the form of a casual conversation, it sends a couple of clear-cut messages. First, a KGB background in today’s Russia is a decided plus, and those who have it are proud of it. Second, outsiders should realize that, contrary to their popular image, KGB veterans have the knowledge, experience and breadth of vision that so many of their countrymen lack. In other words, they are among the best and the brightest precisely because their jobs allowed them to see and learn more than anyone else. So, Margelov and others from the Kremlin implicitly argue, no one should be surprised that Putin is proving to be just the leader Russia needs to usher in a new era of political stability and economic growth at home, and to win new respect abroad.


Those whose political memories stretch back to the early 1980s can be forgiven if they have a sense of déjà vu. After all, Yuri Andropov received similar billing when he was preparing to take power then. Although he had presided over the KGB for 15 years as it methodically persecuted a dwindling dissident movement, his supporters claimed that he represented a much-needed chance for renewal after the stagnation and demoralization of the Leonid Brezhnev era. “You Westerners see him as a man of the KGB,” a Soviet official told me at a reception in 1982, when Andropov was positioning himself for the top job. “But he is intelligent, open to new ideas. If he succeeds Brezhnev, he will be more liberal than the current leadership.” Andropov’s minions also spread the word that he spoke English, played tennis, listened to jazz and read mystery novels—most of which was patent nonsense.

All of which suggests that a healthy dose of skepticism is still in order when evaluating who Putin is and where he will take his country in 2002 and beyond. But make no mistake: these are very different times than the 1980s, and Putin is a very different leader than Andropov. Putin really is a sportsman—a former judo champion who still knows how to take an opponent to the mat—and really does speak a foreign language, German, very well. More significantly, he is demonstrating both in word and deeds a healthy disdain for ideology—unlike Andropov, who not coincidentally took over the ideology portfolio of the Central Committee before he became general-secretary. This has led to some sensible economic reforms, like a personal-income flat tax, and, of course, Putin’s remarkable overtures to the United States in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11. Even after President George W. Bush announced last week that the United States would withdraw from the antiballistic missile treaty in six months, the Russian president offered only a muted dissent, telling The Financial Times of London that this decision wouldn’t jeopardize “the spirit of partnership and even alliance” between Moscow and Washington.

Nonetheless, Putin’s KGB credentials are, to put it delicately, something less than an unadorned blessing. His growing popularity is both impressive and troubling because of the means he has used to achieve it. It would be far too simplistic to label Putin as a throwback to the Soviet era who is trying to rebuild the Soviet system. When he insists that he doesn’t want to restore the Soviet Union, he means it. Above all, he’s a pragmatist and, as such, understands that Russia must chart a new course both at home and abroad. But in his own words, he was “a pure and utterly successful product of Soviet patriotic education,” and the evolution of his thinking has to be measured from that starting point. The beliefs he still clings to, as well as those he has jettisoned or at least claimed to have revised, are all part of the answer to the question about what his leadership will mean for Russia and the world.


Even a cursory examination of the young Putin suggests that, as he was growing up, he questioned nothing in the system he lived in. On the contrary, he was fixated on the idea of joining the KGB because of the organization’s image in “romantic spy stories.” Asked by a Russian interviewer whether he thought about the years of Stalinist terror when he signed up for his dream career, he replied: “To be honest, I didn’t think about it at all.” Referring to the late 1970s when he received his training and began practicing his trade, he blithely added: “Now people say that was when Leonid Brezhnev was beginning to tighten the screws. But it was not very noticeable.”

In “First Person,” the series of interviews published in book form when Putin was running for the presidency, his first somewhat critical remark concerns the collapse of East Germany, where he worked during much of the 1980s. “Actually, I thought the whole thing was inevitable,” he claimed, referring to the fall of the Berlin wall. “To be honest, I only regretted that the Soviet Union had lost its position in Europe, although intellectually I understood that a position built on walls and dividers cannot last. But I wanted something different to rise in its place. And nothing different was proposed. That’s what hurt.”

Putin, of course, was speaking with the benefit of hindsight. It’s impossible to know whether he truly saw the collapse coming, particularly since he had been blind to so much else before. But the passage is extraordinarily instructive. He doesn’t bemoan the end of communism; he does bemoan the loss of the Soviet Union’s place on the world stage. He longs for “something different” to take its place, clearly a powerful and once-again proud Russia. But that doesn’t happen. Polish writer Ryszard Kapuscinski, whose book “Imperium” chronicled the end of the Soviet Union, concludes that this defines Putin’s current agenda. “He still has the complex about Russia’s loss of great power status,” he says. “That’s what he wants to get back. His strategy is to rebuild Russia as a great power. Everything else is secondary to him. He won’t achieve this goal, but he’ll get as close as he can. And this will make him very popular with his own people. Russian pride always dictated that you are willing to endure anything to be a great power.”


If Putin was confused and resentful in 1989 and its immediate aftermath, his reeducation began in the 1990s. He started a new job as deputy to St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak, a leading reformer. Reforms in this period went hand in hand with massive crime and corruption, and St. Petersburg was one of the leaders in this department, as well. Putin managed to maintain a reputation as Mr. Clean in the midst of all this, despite a couple of close brushes with local scandals. As head of St. Petersburg’s Committee for Foreign Economic Relations, he had the chance to work closely with Westerners and travel to the West for the first time. In Hamburg, he admitted later, he went with his wife Lyudmila and some friends to an erotic show. He claims to have been reluctant to go, and, he added in “First Person”: “You won’t believe me, but I was assigned to study their red-light district as part of my job. At the time we were trying to bring order to the gambling business in St. Petersburg.” The night out ended melodramatically, when his friend’s wife fainted as “a huge black man” and “a black woman who was just a little girl” began to strip.

But the serious side of Putin’s new role was that he began to expand his field of vision. The West, particularly Western investors, were no longer the enemy. In looking for clues to Putin’s dramatic embrace of the United States after Sept. 11, officials close to him point out that this was the period when he began to depart from the assumptions that many of his former colleagues still cling to. Interestingly enough, another veteran of the secret services, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, reacted totally differently to the terrorist attacks. Four days after September 11, Ivanov angrily ruled out the possibility that United States and their allies would be allowed to use former Soviet bases in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan for their offensive. “It’s not very strange that it took some time for him to adjust the way he sees the world,” says Margelov, the former KGB Academy professor. He notes that Ivanov spent the 1990s in the SVR headquarters on the outskirts of Moscow while Putin was “polishing his attitude toward another civilization” by working with Westerners in St. Petersburg. Putin quickly set Ivanov straight, and the president’s willingness to see the deployment of U.S. troops in Central Asia as a positive development represents a dramatic break with old-line Russian thinking.

Putin is convinced that Russia no longer has to fear the West; he believes that the main threats are coming in the south, where Islamic fundamentalism is on the rise, and in the Far East, where China’s huge population is pressing against sparsely populated Russian territory. In that scheme of things, the next round of NATO expansion, while still irritating, should be no cause for alarm. Especially if the new talk of expanding Russia’s relationship with the 19-member alliance really does develop into a new “NATO at 20,” giving the Kremlin an active role in some of its decision-making. But if Putin’s St. Petersburg experiences changed his thinking about the West, they didn’t dim his pride in the KGB. Igor Shadkhan, a local documentary filmmaker, got to know Putin well in that period-and began making films about him. At one point, Putin urged him to make a film about the KGB building in St. Petersburg. Shadkhan balked, explaining that his grandparents went through the Gulag. “He asked me to do it so that I could see that the new people who worked there had the same feelings about the Gulag as I do,” Shadkhan recalls. But as much as Putin wanted to prove that the KGB had changed with the times, there were clear limits to his new thinking. When a friend of Shadkhan asked Putin what he thought about the writings of Viktor Suvorov, the famous defector from the Soviet military intelligence agency GRU, the future president of Russia snapped: “I don’t read books by traitors of the homeland.”


After Sobchak was defeated in the 1996 elections, Putin left St. Petersburg and rapidly began rising through the ranks in the Kremlin. By 1998, Boris Yeltsin appointed him head of the FSB, as the former KGB is now called. For all of Putin’s attachment to St. Petersburg where he grew up, he was enjoying the excitement of power in Moscow. When filmmaker Shadkhan visited him and asked him whether he’d return to the city where he grew up, Putin replied: “It’s boring in St. Petersburg.” In August 1999 Yeltsin plucked the faithful bureaucrat out of relative obscurity and made him prime minister. At that point, his approval rating stood at 2 per cent; for most Russians, he was a complete unknown, and the general assumption was that he would be just another in a string of short-term prime ministers. How Putin turned into a president who now boasts an approval rating of about 75 percent reveals a lot about his concept of leadership.

Shortly after he became prime minister, a series of explosions tore apart Russian apartment buildings killing hundreds of their inhabitants. Putin promptly emerged as the tough new boss, blaming the Chechens for these killings and vowing to prosecute a new war in their breakaway territory until the army would “wipe the terrorists out wherever we find them, even if they are sitting on the toilet.” Despite the rueful precedent of the first war in Chechnya, most Russians applauded. “In a difficult situation, people look to the boss for leadership,” notes Alexander Oslon, the president of The Public Opinion Foundation, which works mainly for the Kremlin. “At the time, the West didn’t understand what was happening with Putin’s approval rating. Now, we see the analogy with Bush after September 11.” (What he fails to mention, however, is that a small but not insignificant minority of Russians believes the persistent rumor that the FSB was responsible for the apartment building bombings.) Oslon and others who seek to bolster Putin’s image claim that much more than Chechnya accounts for his growing popularity. They point to his early, successful drive to end the problems with irregular payments of pensions. Then he put an end to much of the squabbling in the Duma by cutting a deal with the communists and neutralizing other potential opponents. His reorganization of the Federation Council meant that he ended the virtual autonomy of many regional governors and brought federal policy in line with “the vertical chain of government” that he espouses. He also pushed through a sensible budget, and began pressing for a series of reforms in other areas—taxes, the judiciary, private land sales and education.

Much of this is still in the early stages, but he has convinced many of his countrymen that he is dedicated to bringing order out of the chaos of the 1990s. As in foreign policy, he has demonstrated a willingness to rethink economic priorities. In a meeting with American correspondents in November, he criticized Russia’s “excessive dependence on the fuel and energy sector over the last decade” and the failure to create “a genuinely modern and cost-effective economy.” This would suggest that he will be aiming for that goal in the years ahead, and that he will try to convince foreign investors who were burned in the economic crisis of 1998 that it’s safe to return. It’s on the home front, though, that troubling signs remain. Pollster Oslon finds nothing wrong with explaining that another key reason for Putin’s high approval ratings was his successful campaign “to distance big capital from politics.” Or, in plain language, the pressure that led to the takeover of media outlets, like NTV and the weekly newsmagazine Itogi (which was published in cooperation with NEWSWEEK until then) that had been critical of his policies. Media mogul Vladimir Gusinsky was briefly imprisoned then fled the country, as did another once-powerful “oligarch,” Boris Berezovsky.


To Putin and his team, media criticism was the problem, for instance, when the Kursk submarine sank last year—not the president’s initial reluctance to cut short his vacation in Sochi or his seeming indifference to the plight of the doomed submariners and their families. “If the subject exists in the mass media, it exists in public opinion,” says Oslon. “If it doesn’t, it doesn’t exist in public opinion.” Ergo, take control of the messenger. While praising the vision of the late dissident Andrei Sakharov, Putin calmly explained during a radio interview in the United States last month that “the Russian mass media are as free as in any other nation.” At the same time, a new campaign was already underway to seize control of TV 6, the last major station to provide a haven to journalists who lost their jobs in the previous crackdown. Such actions are conducted with total deniability. The struggle for ownership of TV 6, Putin’s chief of staff Alexander Voloshin told me, is “a question for businessmen.” Similarly, the fact that successive anticorruption campaigns often target political foes is purely coincidental, Putin’s people say.

But this was a tactic that Andropov used in the old days, and critics maintain that the echoes are eerie at times. They note that many of the current reforms—for instance, of the judiciary—provide the state with more levers of influence rather than less. And recent arrests of “spies” on hazy charges, and prosecution of environmentalists and scholars for violating new secrecy laws in their contacts with foreigners only accentuate those fears. “We’ve been warning for years that the special services have a growing influence in this society, and no one wanted to listen,” says former political prisoner Sergei Grigoryants, the president of the Glasnost Foundation. “Now you can see the result.”

In Putin’s Russia, the president is no longer billed as Yeltsin’s successor. Instead, the same imagemakers who ran Yeltsin’s 1996 reelection campaign now present the two men as opposites. According to them, Yeltsin was “a destroyer,” someone who performed the unpleasant if necessary task of destroying the Soviet Union and its way of life. Putin, however, is “a builder,” someone who is building the new Russia that he so sorely missed when the Soviet system collapsed. Judging by his high approval rating, this strategy is working—and Putin genuinely deserves credit for some bold initiatives. But it helps that there are fewer and fewer avenues to seriously challenge the hold of the man whose formative years were spent in the KGB.

NEWSWEEK POLAND (Newsweek Polska) is Newsweek’s newest foreign-language edition. It was launched in September.

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