In my last two posts I responded to an article in Foreign Affairs (hereafter, FA) by Joseph Biden, Jr. and Michael Carpenter on why and how we should stand up to the Kremlin. I will continue my response this week, but it will be a different kind of response. It is a difficult article to rebut, but not for the usual reasons. The usual reasons have to do with debating someone who has command of the facts, presents the hard evidence and his or her interpretation of that evidence cogently, and gives further support with appeals to others whose knowledge of the area has been demonstrated. None of those things apply to the article in FA. I try to read as much as I can on both sides of the disagreements over Russia. Obviously some are more convincing and present more insights than others. This article, however, is without question the worst I’ve ever read on the issues concerning Russian/American relationships. To respond to the errors, inaccuracies, distortions and fabrications would mean responding to most every paragraph. Thus, while I still intend to address later specific claims made about the so-called invasions of Georgia and Ukraine and the alleged murders of Putin’s enemies, I decided to go about things in a different way for now.
One of the main—if not the main – underlying accepted dogmas of the anti-Russia brigade is the demonization of Vladimir Putin. Even among my acquaintances and friends who grant that I may have some valid points when I indicate positive things about Russia, they usually feel compelled to voice their disapproval of Putin. When I ask why they think this way of him I almost always get vague responses about him murdering opponents, attacking other countries, longing for a return to Communism, and a few other assorted but unsupported “facts.” I then press for details in order to discuss. The responses are usually sighs or eye-rolls of amazement that I could even hint that Putin is not guilty of a litany of international sins. It’s an accepted part of their confession of faith. It’s in their creed. One doesn’t need to know details to know what a dangerous person he is to freedom and democracy. The unstated conclusion is you cannot be a patriotic American (or a responsible scholar) and say good things about Putin.
I find Putin very interesting. My American friends usually interpret that to mean I like Putin. I don’t know enough to make such a statement. I like his foreign policy, and I believe it is quite misunderstood by most in the West. I study it as closely as possible. But, as an American, there are other details of his leadership and domestic policies with which I am not familiar. Putin’s opponent in the upcoming election from the Communist Party, Pavel Grudinin, indicated Putin doesn’t care about the common people in Russia, and many of his advisers would be in prison in any other country. I don’t know enough about his cronies to know if they are “dirty” or not. I know there are still poor people struggling in Russia, but I am not familiar enough with domestic policy to know if that is Putin’s fault.
American accusations against Putin are often either vague allusions to motives or name calling. They allude to his KGB past and the associated stereotypes. They allude to secret bank accounts or plans to restore Communism to Eastern Europe. In other words, Putin longs for the good old days of mystery and intrigue like in his KGB days. On the CBS news program Face the Nation in December of 2016 John McCain said, “Vladimir Putin is a thug and a murderer and a killer and a KGB agent.” In April of that year Hillary Clinton referred to him as Hitler, although clarifying the next day that his going into Crimea and maybe Eastern Ukraine was the same thing as the Nazis did in the late 1930s. You sense that Putin is like the leopard who will not and cannot change his spots. When I suggest something otherwise, I have been told I don’t understand Putin or Russia by people who have never been here and by others who have not been here since he became president in 2000. So what can we know of the real Vladimir Putin?
I decided to start with a survey of his early life and examine what events or persons shaped Vladimir Putin. Although it is too early for a biography of Putin, many books have been written that have a lot of biographical information about him. Unfortunately many in the West still remain fairly uninformed of many of the significant issues of Putin’s early years. Perhaps a small blog like mine will be read by those who have not read the more substantial works available. In addition to what I have learned from the books on my shelf, I hear other tidbits from folks I am around here in Russia. The news, of course, but also the perspectives from my doctor who chats politics for 40 minutes each week as he works on the bad disc in my neck; and, not least, the reports I get from my Russian father-in-law who is a certifiable “newsaholic.”
Everyone who writes has a “target” audience in mind. My target audience is the Westerner who has heard many bad things—and maybe a few good ones—about Vladimir Putin, but is still open to learning more. If so, maybe the next couple of blogs will be helpful. If not, I again recall the words of G.K. Chesterton, whom I quoted in my last blog. Chesterton once wrote at the beginning of one of his literary arguments, “After this, I began to sketch a view of life which may not interest my reader, but which, at any rate, interests me.” I’ll wait and see if my sketch of Putin’s life interests anyone but me.
Vladimir Putin’s father’s name was Vladimir Spiridonovich Putin, and his mother’s birth name was Maria Ivanovna Shelomova. Like most men in the Soviet Union of his age, Putin’s father served in the Soviet military fighting the Nazis. The most significant event of his service came in November of 1941. The Nazis had invaded Russia in June of that year in what was called “Operation Barbarossa.” They besieged Leningrad (aka St. Petersburg) September 8, 1941. The siege would last until January 27, 1944. In November of 1941 Putin was sent with a comrade with orders that looked a lot like a suicide mission. They were to capture any German soldier they met so the Soviets could interrogate him. They did find a German soldier, but they were caught off guard when they happened upon him. He was able to throw a grenade which killed Putin’s comrade and left Putin with severe leg and hip injuries. He lay there for hours believing he would die, but his company found him and returned him to the regiment. A former neighbor happened to see him and literally carried him on his shoulders across the frozen Neva river to a hospital where he began a long process of recuperation. He was left with a severe and at times painful limp for the rest of his life.
Maria Putin had fled to Leningrad when the word of the Nazi invasion came. The long siege was horrible, and many died of starvation and disease. At one point Maria herself was placed outside in the street among those believed to be dead. While in the morgue (which was in the open air) she moaned, and that saved her life. Vladimir and Maria had had one son, Oleg, who had died in infancy. Their second son, Victor, died from diphtheria he got during the siege. Children were kept separately during the siege for their protection, but this meant that no family was present when he died. In June of 1942 he was buried in a mass grave. His parents never knew when or where he was buried. It was only in recent years when someone traced the records through Putin’s father’s name, that the site was discovered, and President Putin was able to visit it. The war took quite a toll on the older Vladimir and his wife. Maria’s mother died on the front lines, and her brother “disappeared” after being convicted of dereliction of duty. Vladimir Spiridonovich had two brothers killed by the Germans.
After the war the couple remained in Leningrad. They lived in a small communal apartment where their third son—and future president—was born. When I was a boy our teachers inspired us with the story of Abraham Lincoln, who was born in log cabin, but eventually went on to be president of the United States. I’ve been in a log cabin much like the one in which it is believed Lincoln was born. I’ve been in communal apartments in St. Petersburg. I would, without hesitation, much prefer the log cabin. The Putins had one room of their own (180 sq ft). They shared a kitchen and bathroom with an elderly couple and also a Jewish couple and their daughter. The bathroom was actually a closet turned into a bathroom. There was no hot water and no bath tub. Young Vladimir formed close relationships with both families apparently. He called the older lady “Baba” (endearing term for “grandmother”) and later in life spoke out strongly against anyone who voiced anti-Jewish feelings in his presence.
Putin’s parents had a strong marriage, which is remarkable considering their significant philosophical differences. Putin’s father was active in the Communist Party, and he became the Party spokesman for the local factory where he worked as an engineer. He was not a high ranking officer obviously, but it did show his dedication to Party affairs. Putin’s mother worked a number of menial jobs. She worked mostly at night so she could spend more time at home with her son during the day. She was a devout Orthodox Christian. When little Vladimir was seven weeks old, she and the older lady in their apartment sneaked off to Transfiguration Cathedral in Leningrad and had him baptized. She was careful never to embarrass her husband or to do anything that would hurt his reputation with the Party. At the same time she remained very strong in her faith during a time when being a devout Christian was certainly not acceptable.
As a young boy Putin was not a good student. He neither applied himself academically, nor exhibited good conduct. His teacher visited the parents more than once concerning his behavior and his lack of academic motivation. She recalls that at one point his father said in sarcastic exasperation, “What should I do? Kill him?” She says that in the home they did not display affection or coddle him, but at the same time it was clear they were quite protective of their only living child. When he became old enough he was not asked to join the Pioneers. Pioneers was a very important organization for children during the Soviet period. Sort of like the Scouts when I was growing up, although a child had to be asked to join. First, one had to have good study habits and do well in school. My wife, who was in the Pioneers, has told me also of the good deeds they would do for the elderly. They would also help clean up the city or do other duties that would teach them to be good students and good citizens. Putin’s behavior and lack of academic discipline meant he was not invited. Putin harbors no hard feelings about not being asked to join: “I was a hooligan, not a Pioneer.”
The change in young Vladimir’s life came neither through the ideals of his father’s Communism nor the Christianity of his mother. Against his mother’s wishes, when he was in the fifth grade he joined the Trud Club. (Trud is a Russian word meaning labor or something difficult.) He took Judo and eventually the Russian martial arts/self-defense sport called Sambo. (The full description was “Самооборона без оружия, ” i. e., “self-defense without a weapon”.) He went on to compete in various places in the Soviet Union and was quite successful in the judo competitions. The discipline he learned in martial arts gave him inspiration and devotion in other areas. Martial arts literally changed his life. In addition to exercise, he also became more devoted to his studies and improving his behavior. After observing the changes in him, the authorities invited him to join the Pioneers, and he eventually became one of the official leaders of that group.
The other inspiration in his life were the “spy”movies of the era. Some believe that the movie, “Щит и Меч” (“Shield and Sword”) had a particularly strong influence on him when he was 16 years old. The film, which lasted over five hours, was based on a very well-known book that had been out for about three years. The main character was a Soviet spy, Major Belov, living in Germany. The plot focused on his various exploits and adventures as a secret agent who was very clever and also fluent in German. As a teenager Putin found it fascinating and inspiring. He decided that one day he would become a spy. He even started studying German at school. He went to the KGB building in Leningrad and asked how he could become a spy. One agent told him he needed to get an education and, if possible, study law. Putin eventually went on to study Law at Leningrad State University.
After receiving his degree in law, Putin was assigned to the Leningrad office of the KGB. His own comments indicate he thought it was a coincidence he got the appointment he wanted. Others think maybe the KGB had been following his progress without him knowing it. Either way, in 1975 he joined the KGB and received his training. He did not become a field agent, however. He was placed in administration, starting out as a junior bureaucrat at the central office in Leningrad. After some time he was put in the counterintelligence area. The function of this section was to keep an eye on Russian KGB agents and make sure they did not “cross over.” Putin still lived with his parents. They were able to get a better (non-communal) apartment. Finally, when he was 25 years old and a member of the KGB, Vladimir Putin got a room of his own for the first time in his parents apartment.
In March 1980 he met Lyudmila Shkrebneva, a flight attendant with Aeroflot. They were married in 1983 and moved into a two room apartment. He had not told her that he was in the KGB. They had two daughters together. They were married for 30 years before announcing their divorce. Of course, rumors spread he had had an affair, the main one focusing on an Olympic gymnast. Nothing substantial was ever forthcoming, however, and it remains speculation for those who enjoy such things. What we do know is that Lyudmila could have only friends that were approved. Her husband had to do background checks on potential friends, and he chose her friends for her. While she confided in a couple of them about how much pressure she felt, she could not open up with the whole truth of his KGB status. Further, her friends knew what long hours her husband worked. He usually got home very late and left very early. She endured this schedule for years.
He was promoted to Major and transferred to Dresden, Germany in August 1985. Just like the character Major Belov in the movie, Putin was sent to Germany as a KGB agent. It was not like the movies, however. He was a case officer who never went undercover. Berlin was the real center for KGB work there. The Dresden office was a small office with 6-8 officers. Again, the bulk of the work was administrative and sometimes he had to do work which would normally have been below his rank, like arranging hotel rooms and travel for visiting dignitaries. One colleague joked that the most dangerous weapon used in the Dresden office was the hole puncher used for the reams of useless reports they sent to Moscow. Putin would work in that office for the next four and a half years.
His evaluations by superiors both in Leningrad and in Germany were similar. He was known as a hard and determined worker. He was commended for staying with a task until the job was completed no matter how meticulous the details. Throughout his KGB career his superiors wrote in his records about the admirable fact that Putin was not a “careerist” (almost a slur in Russian) who wanted to outshine his superiors. He accepted his role and did his job without trying to get notoriety. On the negative side, in earlier evaluations, while he was in the Leningrad office, he was evaluated as being “non-communicative” and even withdrawn at times. He was more sociable in Germany, but was never one for small talk or office banter.
It was, of course, during his time there that the USSR was going into a steep decline. Brezhnev had died in 1982. Even before that his last years were marked by his inability to communicate even the simplest points. Many could hear someone whispering the lines he was supposed to say from the side when meeting with reporters. He was surrounded by many from his generation who were still in power. They lacked, however, the zeal they had once had. Gone were the fiery days of Nikita Khruschev banging his shoe or promising the great expansionist days ahead for Communism and the Soviet Union. After Brezhnev died, Yuri Andropov’s ascension to power raised the hopes of some, but he died suddenly fifteen months later. Konstantine Chernenko replaced Andropov, but he died 13 months later. I recall hearing Ronald Reagan’s response to a reporter’s question about why he didn’t meet with the Soviet leaders: “They keep dying on me.”
Putin and his colleagues realized that the end was coming for the USSR, although it does not appear that they thought it would come as quickly as it did. There were things all along that led Putin to express admiration for men like Alexander Solzhenitsyn or Andrei Sakharov, who were dissidents. He also thought the USSR should hold elections for for their leaders. According to a colleague in Germany Putin called the Soviet’s participation in the war in Afghanistan “senseless and in fact criminal.” One Russian commentator I read some time ago, whose name I cannot recall, referred to Putin as a семидесятник (“semidesyatnik”). The term means, “person of the 70s,” that is, the generation that came of age in the 1970s. While of course there were exceptions, individuals of that generation were known for reaching young adulthood at the time the USSR was turning into an ineffective regime run by tired, old men. Hence, they were very patriotic in so far as their relationship to their country, but they had no strong ideological commitment to Communism or the Party. Chernobyl, the war in Afghanistan, and the declining standard of living combined to make them distrust, at least to some degree, the value of the Communist system.
At the end of his career in Germany, Putin is known for one final act of valor. On November 9, 1989 the Berlin Wall came down. The dividing line between the two “Berlins” was no more. Rioting and rabble rousing continued after the wall came down. On December 5 a large crowd of “rebels,” many of whom were armed, flooded the area of the East German secret intelligence compound, and it appeared they were doing a lot of damage. Some were screaming they were torturing people. The KGB office and yard was located in the same compound. Around midnight a fraction of the large crowd broke off and headed toward the KGB office. Putin’s superiors had already left for the evening, and he was in charge. He had been monitoring the situation all evening and expected the rioters would come. He had phoned Moscow several times for counsel or orders. After all attempts failed, he realized Moscow was not going to respond. He was on his own. He later admitted to his own shock that no one in his home country would advise him or even talk to him. He said, “At that moment I had the feeling that the country was no more.” He must have sensed more strongly than ever that it was the twilight not only of the USSR, the country in which he had been raised, it was also the end of the Communism he had been taught from a child, and eventually it was the twilight of his own KGB career as well.
There are several varying accounts of what happened next. Some more fantastic than others. I will stick with the basics, although I am sure if one had been there that night it would not have looked like a calm event on anyone’s recollection. Putin stopped the telephone calls to Moscow and put on his uniform. Some say he carried a side arm, but others say he left his weapon in the office. As the crowd approached Putin calmly walked out and confronted them alone. He addressed their leader in a normal tone. The German would say later he was taken aback at first because he had never heard a Russian speak such fluent German. Putin informed them the building was guarded. His men were armed, and he had already given them the orders that if anyone entered the yard they were to open fire. There was probably more said than that. Putin indicated that whatever they did to him, his men had already received their orders. He clearly gave the impression that “his men” had more firepower than they actually had. At that point he calmly turned and walked back toward the building—not knowing if they would let him live to complete that walk or not. The crowd had gathered to harrass and harm the German security. They decided they did not want to risk their lives taking on the Russians. For all his KGB career Putin had been an administrator who worked on case files, wrote, reviewed and sent reports. At that moment, on that night, however, I think he would have made Major Belov quite proud.