“Take Care of Russia”: Thomas Fasbender’s Biography of Vladimir Putin, Part 2Michael Walker
In the several chapters which deal with Russia’s transformation from a state-run to a mixed economy, Putin is described as frequently involved, but only indirectly: never the main mover and never in the spotlight. Fasbender is frustratingly coy about his own experiences at this time, but these words are undoubtedly written in the light of personal experience (Putin at the time was head of the Leningrad University Committee of Foreign Affairs):
International companies appreciated the head of the committee. When a foreigner wanted to achieve something in the bureaucratic minefield and often hostile attitude of the Russian administration, he was well advised to turn to Putin’s office for help. (pp. 115-116)
Putin was connected with but never prosecuted for a sensational scandal at the time he was working for Sobchak: the export license scandal of 1992. In 1992, Saint Petersburg was suffering under a serious food shortage, exacerbated but not exclusively caused by the free market system introduced by the newly independent, formerly Communist Balkan states. Russian farmers travelled there to sell their produce at much higher prices than those which either the Russian state or Russian consumers could afford to pay. Milk, meat, and vodka (!) was being rationed in Saint Petersburg, doubtless evoking bitter memories of former times, while Russian produce was sold abroad.
It emerged that the Saint Petersburg City Council was running a business model (critics might call it a racket) whereby they issued export licenses for timber and other raw materials in direct exchange for imported foodstuffs, while the details of each deal were negotiated by private traders contracted by the Council. The body responsible for approving and signing contracts and for the issuing of export licenses was called the Komitet po vneshnim svyazym (Committee for Foreign Relations), or KVS. The director of the KVS was none other than a certain Vladimir Putin.
The deals were technically illegal, since the City Council was not authorized to issue export licenses in the first place; worse, virtually no foodstuff was actually being imported in return for the hugely valuable goods that were being exported. As if that weren’t enough, the KVS charged a hefty commission for services rendered. Even measured by the Russia’s very low ethical standards in the aftermath of the Soviet Union, this was clearly a scandal. Putin’s Committee had issued licenses for oil, metals, rare earths, timber, and more for which, according to the findings of the investigating Council committee, half the so-called contracts lacked the requisite signatures or stamps. When customers failed to meet their obligations by payment in kind, penalties were minimal. The valuation of the exported resources was considerably lower than world market prices, while the KVS charged commissions for their liaising services of between 25% and 50% of the estimated value of the exported merchandise. The bodies which officially negotiated the deals on behalf of the City Council are described by Fasbender as
questionable companies with names like Progressor and Interkomzentr-7, dubious, unknown companies which were often founded for the purpose of the single business in question. Many were to vanish into the same thin air out of which they had first abruptly appeared. (p. 122)
12 of the questionable contracts covered goods at the modest estimated value of $122 million. Commission on those contracts payable to the KVS amounted to $34 million. The total value of the deals made was estimated at a staggering $1 billion. It is during this period of his life that Putin is reputed, perhaps not surprisingly, to have become fabulously rich. Fasbender notes archly that “several of those who obtained wealth and influence during Putin’s presidency were connected in one way or another to the scandal” (p. 122).
Although Fasbender writes that the scandal threw a shadow over his career, Putin evaded prosecution and survived the scandal with his reputation largely unscathed, a feat of a kind he has pulled off again and again in the course of his life.
How do we understand Putin in all this, and how do we understand Russia? It is a cliché to state that Russia is an enigma or that Russians have a different concept of justice, rights, and priorities to those of people in the Western democracies, yet, as with many clichés, there is truth in it. Putin’s undying loyalty is to the state and to the nation, not to individuals and/or their personal rights. Neither Communism, capitalism, religion, globalism, justice at an individual level, or legality for its own sake have ever been placed above Russia in his eyes or above the need to uphold a strong state.
A second point, made by Fasbender and which strikes this reviewer as valid, is that in the entire tradition of Russian autarchy before, including, and after the Communist epoch, the leader of the people is regarded as the living embodiment of the people, and the people are the ruler’s little children. For better or for worse, in sickness and in health, the ruler is their sacred guiding light. It is entirely beneath his or her dignity as well as the nation’s to enter into long public discussions about personal impropriety or fallibility. To do so is to run the risk of lowering the prestige of the head of state, the state, and even Russia itself. Putin is not one to wash any dirty linen in public, however much washing may be — and undoubtedly has been — carried out by him behind closed doors.
Was Putin taking bribes? Fasbender, agreeing with Boris Berezovsky (one of Putin’s many opponents who died suddenly and unexpectedly) with what sounds like a grudging admiration, notes that
[T]here is no evidence he took the cheap, low way of making money — through kickbacks for services — but secret funds, nameless funds, unaccountable funds: That is another matter. This doesn’t put him above the corrupt system which he heads; it is just that, from the beginning, Putin was playing in the first division. (p. 151)
What is striking in this sober and cautious account of Putin’s life, which contains few direct accusations or assertions but constant invitations to the reader to draw his own conclusions, is the fact that Putin is supremely skilled at emerging from violent and heated conflicts and disputes unscathed; indeed, with greater power than ever. Also evident is the skill with which Putin is able to use people and to play rivals off each other on the principle of divide and rule — a principle which once characterized British imperialism. It was a principle which Putin was to adopt with great success.
The list is long of those who, coming into conflict with Putin or investigating corruption in which he might be involved, meet an untimely death. One example is Michael Manjewitsch, who was a member of the St. Petersburg Town Council when Sobchak was Mayor and who was subsequently assassinated, along with his wife, in 1997. At the time of his death he was working on a dossier on city shares which were issued (when Putin was Director of the KVS), but for which no owner could be found. Better known is the murder of the journalist Galina Starovoitova, who was close to Boris Yeltsin and an outspoken critic of Putin. She was found shot dead at the bottom of the stairwell in the apartment block where she lived. Fasbender comments:
These attacks heralded the end of the era of the Banditisky Petersburg. The trail is red with blood; hundreds of contract killings in a decade. Russia was in a state of outrage. The demand for law and order could not be overheard. (p. 159)
In other words, Putin turned a reaction against events in which he may himself have had a hand to his own advantage. Typically, Fasbender does not say that the demand for law and order served Putin’s interests, but he knows that is the conclusion which any reader of this biography is likely to draw. So the often depressing accounts continue: a trail of blood and misadventure which does not exactly point at Putin, yet which never points away from him and always somehow or other works to his advantage. As to answering the question one naturally asks when hearing about any violent political death — was Putin involved or not? — the reader will be no nearer to a conclusion after having read this long biography. Fasbender, like his subject, chooses to be cryptic about those responsible for Russia’s political murders.
Fasbender argues that 1996-1998 were decisive years in Putin’s rise to power. In this short time, as a still relatively unknown figure, he was promoted to positions which made it possible for him, in the murky waters of Russian politics — where contacts, ties, obligations, and influence are even more important than in other lands — to make a bid for the highest office. Yeltsin had won the Presidential Election of 1991 and had set about what came to be known as “shock therapy” in enacting liberal reforms. The Soviet Union was officially declared dead at the end of 1991 and the Communist Party was made illegal. But after the celebrations of freedom following Communism’s demise came a national hangover. A very small number of individuals, advantageously positioned at the right moment, became immensely wealthy, seizing former state assets at knockdown prices whilst the majority of Russians faced dire poverty and average living standards fell sharply. The free market economy had been introduced into the former Soviet Union too suddenly, like letting a half-starved person gorge himself without restraint.
The ruble tanked, suffering a fall in value of 1,000% in one year; salaries were paid in kind, often with products which manufacturers had not been able to sell. Crime was rampant. Drug addiction became epidemic. Despite the humiliating experience of Afghanistan, Russia confronted the Islamic enemy again when Yeltsin ordered the invasion of the breakaway republic of Chechnya in 1994, thereby taking Russia into another very cruel and long war, even crueler and longer than that of the Soviet Union against the Mujahidin in Afghanistan.
A reaction against “free” Russia set in. Increasingly, people began saying that most Russians had been better off in the Soviet Union. The leader of the resurrected Communist Party, Gennady Zyuganov, had done well enough in the 1996 Presidential Elections to fight Yeltsin to a second round, which sent alarm bells going off in the West as well as in the ranks of Russia’s nouveaux riches. Significantly, the Communists made common cause with Russian nationalists in their hostility to a free market economy and in their critique of what they saw as a caving in by Yeltsin to Western interests.
Yeltsin, whom Fasbender portrays as a shrewd player and not at all a drunken buffoon, understood that the reputation of the free marketers and pro-Western groups had suffered principally because the majority’s standard of living had not improved. Yeltsin no longer thought that his then Vice Minister and free market guru, Boris Nemtsov, whom he apparently had considered as his successor, stood much chance of winning an election against the Communists. Yeltsin opted for Putin instead. Nemtsov, who shortly afterwards became an outspoken critic of Putin, was to join the ever-growing list of Putin’s critics who depart this life early. He was shot dead in broad daylight yards from the Kremlin in 2015. The assassins were linked to Islamic terrorism.
Putin never ceased to be active in intrigue and in maintaining useful contacts. Indeed, he excelled in the art of knowing whom it was useful to know. In 1996 he was called to Moscow by Nikolai Yegorov to be his Deputy Head of the Presidential Administration, but Putin soon lost the job when Yegorov was replaced. There were many influential persons working in Putin’s interest, however, ready to put in a good word for him. Putin soon had a new job, again in Moscow, as head of the Kremlin’s public relations, for President Yeltsin was alarmed by the threat posed by resurgent Communism and relied upon the famous/infamous oligarchs for support, their media, and their money. This included men such as Berezovsky and Valentin Yumashev, the men who had profited from privatization to make their fortunes. They gave Yeltsin the political and economic backing to ensure that Russia would never again be Communist. In a lengthy, at times wearisome account, Fasbender shows how Putin skillfully followed Yeltsin, won his favors, and used the oligarchs to stop the Communist resurgence; then, when their usefulness had played out, he turned against them and crushed them. Divide et impera.
Boris Yeltsin won the 1996 Presidential Elections, but it was no landslide. Yeltsin garnered 26.5 million votes to the Communist Gennady Zyuganov’s 24 million. Alexander Lebed, the popular nationalist military officer, won ten million. Had the French two-round presidential election system been used, it is likely that Zyuganov would have won. Fasbender provides the facts showing how popular nationalist and Communist sentiment in Russia was at the time, but he does not underline how this later played into Putin’s hands — or if one prefers, reflected Putin’s own vision. Similarly, Fasbender says nothing about the phlegmatic attitude in both the United States and the European Union both to what Putin’s ambition was on the one hand, or to how close Russia was to returning to Communism on the other. Most Western commentators interpreted Yeltsin’s (narrow) victory as proof that Russia had “joined the world community” of right-thinking nations. Russia was invited to join the G7 and accepted the invitation, turning the G7 into a G8.
Putin became first deputy to the Chairman of the Presidential Office, Valentin Yumashev, an appointment which, as Fasbender notes, could hardly have been made without the knowledge and approval of President Yeltsin. Putin’s new job must have been after his heart: Keeping a tight leash on the provinces and assuring, so far as possible, their continued adhesion to the Russian Federation. Putin’s aim as head of state in this respect remains constant: to restore Russia’s prestige and power without the ideological shackle of Marxism holding it down. Yeltsin, on the other hand, was a committed anti-Marxist. He saw in Putin the man best able to prevent the dissolution of the Federation and at the same time stave off the Communist resurgence, so in 1998 Yeltsin appointed Putin Director of the Federal Security Service, or FSB (Federalnaya Sluzhba Bezopasnosti), the successor organization to the KGB. For Putin, it must have felt like a homecoming.
Fasbender repeatedly quotes from Yeltsin’s memoirs where Yeltsin refers not only to Putin’s “patriotism,” but also to his “service to democracy.” Fasbender leaves it to the reader to think what he will of this. Perhaps Yeltsin meant by “service to democracy” Putin’s determination not to allow the Communists to return to power, or perhaps he meant the genuine personal loyalty Putin showed to Yeltsin. Of Putin’s dedication to Russia there can be as little doubt, but the same cannot be said about supposed “service to democracy.” Putin at no time in his life has showed any affection for democracy in any shape or form. He would serve democracy to the extent — and only to the extent — that democracy serves the state and benefits the nation. It is not clear to what extent Yeltsin had fooled himself in considering Putin to be someone who served democracy, or simply wished to leave a good impression in his memoirs. Yeltsin’s own notion of democracy was anyway itself selective; he famously used military force against his own parliament in 1993 and closed it down unconstitutionally while widening the Presidency’s power base.
Once the appointment was confirmed, Putin set about filling FSB positions with people whom he could absolutely trust. What becomes clear from reading Fasbender’s account is that Putin was recreating and reforming the FSB so as to turn it into the KGB mark 2 — a KGB without the Marxist dogma, but as ruthless, efficient, and loyal to the state and to Mother Russia as the old one had ever been.
But a serious problem loomed: The Russian state went officially bankrupt in 1998. Would the Communists try to seize power? The new Director of the FSB issued a clear warning on television: “Anyone who attempts to harm the constitution or to undermine the Russian system by unconstitutional means, or to weaken it by the use of force, will be dealt with in kind. You can be sure of that” (p. 204).
A Communist member of the Duma, Albert Makaschov, proposed a quota system for Jews in positions of power in Russia. Anti-Semitic placards were appearing at Communist demonstrations. This gave Putin the opportunity to ward off anti-Semitic and Left-wing extremists while gaining prestige among the oligarchs. The oligarchs, many of whom were Jewish, were all the more willing to support Putin after this denunciation of anti-Semitism. Putin was later to be the first Russian president to visit Israel. While the West was fixated on Bill Clinton’s Monica Lewinsky scandal, in Russia Yury Skuratov, the Russian Attorney General and a possible competitor with Putin to become Yeltsin’s successor, was toppled by a sex scandal. A few days later, Nikolai Bordyuzha was replaced as Secretary of the Security Council of the Russian Federation by Vladimir Putin.
Fasbender credits Yeltsin with eagerly promoting the old dream of a Moscow-Berlin axis, the Eurasian continental power bloc often urged by political radicals and critics of the “Western” European Union, including those anti-Western European writers who believed that Europe’s destiny should be in the East such as Jean Thiriart, Francis Parker Yockey, and Guillaume Faye. Practical attempts to move in the direction of closer European-Russian cooperation came to nothing, however, partly — according to Fasbender — because London, and more importantly Washington, stymied all attempts of continental European states to strengthen ties with Russia. It is certainly the case that American policy since 1945 has been focused on ensuring that Europe and Russia remain mutual foes, not least through the creation of NATO. Fasbender quotes Yeltsin in his memoirs, where he states that he was naïve in believing that Western European leaders would ever agree to such a development (p. 217). Does Putin imagine that a great Euro-Russian federation could somehow emerge in the future? Fasbender, with a lack of geopolitical vision which is another failing of his biography, does not even ask the question.
On August 9, Yeltsin dismissed Sergei Stephashin as Prime Minister and appointed Putin in his place. There were reports that the oligarch Berezovsky had masterminded the reshuffle. In his very first interview, Putin announced that he would stand as a candidate for the presidency in the next presidential election in 2000, as Yeltsin was not constitutionally entitled to stand for a third term. Fasbender now begins to refer to a “Putin majority,” by which he means not an electoral majority bought by promises, campaigns, or even electoral chicanery, but the solid base of support in Russia for Vladimir Putin — a solid base which seems hardly ever to have been seriously shaken.
Putin, like Napoleon, was to successfully weld together two opposing patriotic narratives of his nation. He reconciled the religious pre-revolutionary Imperial Russia of the Tsars with the atheistic Soviet Union, creating a new non-ideological national confederation which employs both Communist and Christian icons. The welding together of these two apparently contradictory and hitherto hostile traditions may be seen as one of Putin’s greatest achievements. He was successful in part because this union reflected his own deepest passion and care. One year later, in March 2000, Putin was elected the second President of the Russian Federation.
Putin’s premiership and subsequent first presidency was marked in its early years by his handling of the Second Chechen War. It was a war which Fasbender states “Putin entered into with all his heart” (p. 232). It is no wonder that he did so. The Chechen separatists under Shamil Basayev and Ibn al-Khattab must have incorporated everything Putin abhorred: terrorism, separatism, anti-Russian fanaticism, the putting of religious loyalty above loyalty to the nation, replacing the nation-state with a global religious caliphate, putting religious faith before pragmatic or national interest, and challenging state authority with physical violence.
For Fasbender, the most sinister aspect of a harrowing war which left much of Chechnya environmentally and economically ruined were the acts of supposedly Chechen terrorism carried out in Russia, starting in 1999. They were acts in which Fasbender evidently believes the FSB had a hand, although he stops just short of making a formal accusation. The terrorist attacks and the Russian response unfolded like the scenario of a bad film. A 700-pound bomb destroyed a nine-story apartment building in Moscow, killing 100 and injuring 690 people. Another 124 people died in a subsequent bomb attack on an eight-story apartment building in Moscow a few days later, leaving no survivors. A further 19 people were killed by a bomb in Volgodonsk.
Spokesmen for Chechen separatists denied all responsibility for these outrages. The Segodnja (Today) newspaper paper, owned by the oligarch Vladimir Gusinsky, reported on rumors of an FSB false flag operation, and Lebed admitted in an interview with the French newspaper Le Figaro that FSB involvement could not be ruled out. Two members of the parliamentary investigating team, which failed to produce a conclusive report, were assassinated in 2000. Whoever was responsible, the terrorist attacks and Putin’s subsequent promise to eradicate terrorism worked to Putin’s advantage. Popularity for the strong-handed patriot who promised to “flush terrorism down the toilet” soared, from 33% in August 1999 to 84% in January 2000.
Putin was extremely skillful at winning over millions of Communists without immediately alarming the oligarchs or the liberals. “Had Putin read his Machiavelli?” muses Fasbender. “He certainly did what the Renaissance philosopher recommended” (p. 273).
Fasbender notes that Putin invited a catholic cross-section of people of power and influence to his first inauguration as President. Vladimir Kryuchkov, leader of the abortive 1991 putsch against Yeltsin; Yeltsin himself; the last President of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev; the deputies of the Duma; and leading members of the clergy. Fasbender makes a telling comment:
Putin realized that he must cover the graves if he was to restore Russia. . . . Only through his (Machiavelli’s) glasses is it possible to understand why Putin considered both major rifts in Russian history in the twentieth century, that of 1917 and that of 1991, as supreme blunders and as betrayals of the state. (p. 268)
President Putin set to work to restore the prestige and power of the Russian state and thereby of Russia, based on the personal prestige he gained from transforming Russia economically. He was not concerned with complete ideological conformity; the success of the state was more important than any doctrine. His response to the repeated criticisms by Andrey Illarionov of the war in Chechnya was to make Illarionov his economic advisor, a post Illarionov retained until 2005. In 2001 a flat-rate income tax of 13% was introduced, and corporation tax was reduced to 24%. In 2000 the President invited the wealthiest and most influential Russian magnates to a meeting and addressed them with a warning. They could keep their wealth and prosper in Russia, but under one strict condition: They stay out of politics.
Fasbender describes well a catastrophe which for a short time threatened to erode Putin’s prestige and brought him on a collision course with the media empire of Boris Berezovsky, the media mogul who had liaised between him and Yeltsin and without whose help he probably would not have become head of state. While the Putin family was on its way to its holiday residence in Sochi (later to be selected for the Winter Olympics), there had been an accident during naval maneuvers onboard the Russia nuclear submarine Kursk. The accident had in fact occurred 12 hours before the President was informed, a fact which in itself reveals the incompetence and irresponsibility prevailing in the Russian navy at the time. The test-firing of a torpedo had caused two serious explosions, killing many crewmembers, but there were survivors, trapped in the Kursk after it had sunk to the sea bed. Those survivors waited in vain for days to be rescued.
The account of the incompetence and failures which doomed them makes for depressing reading and provides a disturbing insight into the psychology of Russia’s new ruler. The government turned down the offer of help from abroad, while the Russian authorities themselves were fatally slow to react. After Western help was finally accepted, a Norwegian diving crew was able to do what was apparently beyond the skills of the entire Russian armed forces, namely to reach and enter the submarine, but by then it was too late. After nine days, all members of the crew had perished. Fasbender describes this utterly shameful event quite rightly as “the scandal of a thoroughly incompetent, morally depraved, and dishonorable army leadership” (p. 278).
Putin’s chief concern — or at least that is the disagreeable impression which Fasbender leaves — was less for the bereaved as for his popularity ratings. He fell out because of this disaster with Berezovsky, whose media issued reports of a slow and incompetent response to the accident. For Putin this must have smacked of disloyalty, the ultimate sin.
Putin had to put his diplomatic skills to good use to extricate himself, and he did. With the power of his rhetoric, he single-handedly won over a hostile crowd of the crew’s bereaved relatives. His anger was focused on the media for “betraying him” with critical reports, and the navy for “betraying him” with incompetence.
After another disaster involving a military transport aircraft which crashed into a mountain in western Georgia just two months later, killing 84 personnel, Putin undertook a radical reform of the armed forces to make them fit for purpose. It is a classic example of his willingness to undertake much-needed reform combined with his low level of tolerance for any public criticism of the Russian state’s representatives. Putin’s response to a question posed to him by Larry King, “What happened on the submarine?”, inspired memes for years and remains a reminder of Putin’s ruthless acceptance of violent death as a necessary part of life. The fatalistic, even mocking, response accompanied by the hint of a smile was, “Ona utonula” — “It sank.”
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