In my last blog I wrote about the early years of Vladimir Putin, addressing particularly his parents’ early life and struggles as well as his own. I ended with the fall of the Berlin wall and the end of his time as a KGB administrator in Dresden, Germany. I mentioned my “target audience” was the Western, mostly American, readers who are unaware of much of Putin other than what they read in the daily news. I was gratified to hear from a number of such readers who told me that they appreciated the entry because they knew almost nothing about Putin’s past. It was also good to hear from readers outside the West who already knew the details but had positive things to say about the review. So in this current blog I’ll pick up where I left off. I’ll summarize the years between his departure from Germany and his rise to the presidency of the Russian Federation. “Russiagate” just will not go away in America, and even this week John McCain found a way to interpret the uproar over the releasing of “the memo” as doing Putin’s “work for him.” The caricature of Putin continues, so I think it important to offer another, and I believe more accurate, portrayal.
When Putin left Germany in 1990 he was offered a position at a strategic office of the KGB in Moscow. He turned it down for a lesser position in Leningrad. Leningrad was his hometown, and his parents, who still lived there, were now aged and their health was declining. His work was at Leningrad State University. While his “official” job was in the special affairs department for the Dean of the university, actually he was monitoring foreign students and their documents and relationships with Russian students for the KGB. While there his name was given to Anatoly Sobchak, who had been a law professor at the university while Putin was there. Sobchak was a democrat who would go on to be mayor of St. Petersburg (Leningrad) and become quite an influential politician. He was a very impressive speaker who broadcast lectures on democratizing on Leningrad TV. More than one source says he became the most well known politician in Russia after Yeltsin. Putin had been a pupil of Sobchak’s when he was a student there, but it isn’t clear that Sobchak remembered him.
Sobchak, based on the recommendation and a personal meeting, asked Putin to be an advisor. Putin was hesitant for two related reasons: First, Sobchak had said some pretty nasty things about the KGB. Was he sure he wanted a KGB officer to advise him? Second, what would the KGB think of Putin advising Sobchak? Sobchak assured Putin there was no problem. With KGB approval, Putin became an advisor to the democratic Sobchak while continuing his other work with the KGB.
That situation would soon change, however. The KGB backed a coup attempt on Gorbachev in August of 1991. As soon as Putin learned of it, he resigned his KGB appointment in a rather quiet protest. Fortunately, the coup failed. Sobchak offered Putin a full-time position, and Putin accepted. With all his charisma and insight, Sobchak preferred to leave the administrative work to former government workers.
Some question how it is that Putin could work for someone who had been so vocal in his opposition to Communism and the KGB. As I mentioned in my last blog, Putin was a man of the 70s, a part of a generation consisting of many who never felt a great affection for or devotion to Communism. A former colleague in Dresden has recounted the negative things Putin said about the Communist leaders of that time. After he returned to Russia and saw how bad things had become for the people there, his feelings grew even stronger. He saw the economy no longer worked. Good, hard working people had nothing. The military was a shadow of its former self. The health care system was in horrible shape. He no longer believed in Communism at all.
The significant point that we Westerners often miss is that Putin and many others, e.g., Sobchak himself, distinguished between Communism and the USSR. They wanted to replace Communism with democracy—a “Soviet” democracy. That does not mean they wanted the dissolution of the USSR. The Soviet Union was a UNION of 15 interdependent republics. In the USSR they did not function individually. Some readers may recall that I said Jack Matlock, Ronald Reagan’s “Man in Moscow,” stated in a recent interview that he and others did not want to see the dissolution of the USSR. The republics, they feared, were totally unprepared and would fall into the hands of a few tyrants. The question we cannot answer is what would a democratic Soviet Union have “looked like” or how would it have functioned. We will never know.
One of the interesting questions that some scholars have investigated is how is it that the Soviet Union fell apart so quickly. If there were “true believers” in charge in Moscow, how did the break up come so abruptly? What happened is exactly what Matlock, and others within Russia, feared. Leaders, like Yeltsin and others who had no commitment to the greater good of all, came to power. Corruption became rampant throughout the former republics, which were now nations on their own. The former leaders and others with financial resources exploited the resources as best they could. They didn’t mind dissolving the USSR because they became extremely rich. The truth is that the dissolution of the nation into 15 nations was not by the “guiding hands of an enlightened NATO” as Joe Biden would have us believe. It was a massive power grab. The collapse of the USSR was a horrible catastrophe for millions of people. They descended into an economic and existential nightmare. Twenty-five million Russians were now living outside their own country. Again, the important point is that many like Putin did not want Communism to continue, but they did want the USSR to continue. He commends Gorbachev for recognizing the need for drastic change, but he does not believe Gorbachev had the skills to carry out the change in the right way.
Boris Yeltsin was elected President of the Russian Federation in June of 1991. At first he had a working relationship with Sobchak for whom Putin still worked. Putin, as in his days with the KGB, earned the reputation of a hard worker who was not afraid to take on tasks requiring a great deal of meticulous work. He also had to be decisive in handling very different groups. Many still adhered to the old Communist system and ideology. At one point a number of Communists, who worked in one of the newer government buildings in Leningrad, flew the old Hammer and Sickle flag of the Communist days over their building. Putin sent workers to take the flag down. The next day, a new Hammer and Sickle went up. Putin again ordered his workers to take it down. The same thing happened the next day. Putin ordered his workers to go with a crane and cut down the flag pole. It’s a rather humorous anecdote, but it showed the kinds of things Putin did to show his determination.
Sobchak was a different leader, however, after he had power. The corrupt practice of accumulating personal wealth proved to be too great a temptation. Crime ruled in St. Petersburg. (The official name change to St. Petersburg when Sobchak was elected.) The economy was going horribly across the country, and St. Petersburg was suffering as well. The city council tried to get rid of Sobchak in 1993, but Yeltsin came to his rescue and dissolved the council. Still, investigations began into Sobchak’s financial matters. He was widely seen as dishonest. He was defeated in a run-off in May of 1996, despite the fact Bill Clinton came to town in support of Sobchak. Putin was now out of a job. He hung around his office for a few days, but then was told very sternly it was time to clear out.
Putin was extremely disappointed at the loss. He had been named with Sobchak in some of the corruption charges but nothing was ever proved against him. He was charged publicly for corruption, but countersued for libel and won. Now he had no job, however, and his loyalty to Sobchak left him with no options to continue in government work. He and his wife invited his former secretary and her husband over to their dacha to relax and have a meal. Putin referred to it as a “wake” over his lost work. His assistant’s husband and Putin went out to the banya, a steam room located adjacent to the house (very common in Russia). After the steam bath the two men went for a swim in the nearby pond. Suddenly they saw smoke. Putin ran back toward the house. There had been a spark from or small explosion in the furnace of the banya, and the fire reached the house. Putin rushed in the dark house, which was filled with smoke, and lowered his two young daughters to safety. Then he went upstairs to retrieve a briefcase containing their life savings. Firemen arrived quickly, but they had no water. Putin told them to get the water from the lake. They replied they had no hose. Everything burned to the ground.
After the fire they found the money was unharmed. It was $5,000. Putin’s friend later said he was shocked that Putin had been a bureaucrat for so many years and only had $5,000. People at much lower levels in city government had accumulated far more personal wealth than that. The other surprise was for Putin. The fireman sifted through the rubble, but only found one thing unharmed. When Putin had gone with Sobchak back in 1993 to Jerusalem, his mother had given him a small aluminum cross to have blessed at the church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Putin marvelled that the little aluminum cross had withstood the heat and flames of the buildings burning to the ground. He took it as a sign of hope and committed to wearing it every day.
Putin’s glimmer of hope was quickly realized in the form of certain people who worked in the Yeltsin administration and knew him (Putin) from his work under Sobchak. Sobchak and Yeltsin were no longer allies, but earlier when Yeltsin was running for re-election Putin had worked with people from his re-election campaign in St. Petersburg. Three days after the dacha fire Yeltsin’s Prime Minster appointed a cabinet which consisted of a former city council member from St. Petersburg. Eventually someone convinced him to reach out to Putin as someone who could work in legal matters. So Putin and his family moved to Moscow, he began work in the Yeltsin administration. His wife came to love living in Moscow, but Putin flew back to Petersburg every Friday to visit his parents as long as they lived.
Putin settled in to the task of dealing with corruption. That was a very messy business, because there was a LOT of corruption, and Putin had to be careful not to “ruffle the wrong feathers.” It was a horrible time for Russia. The Russian stock market collapsed in 1998. Russia could not process oil cheap enough to make any profit from sales. The outlook was bleak.
Putin went through three jobs in the Yeltsin administration in three years. He did not know Yeltsin when he moved to Moscow. As he had everywhere he had worked Putin gained a reputation for doing jobs that were difficult and required long hours. On July 27, 1998 he became the Director of the FSB, which was essentially the Russian Federation version of the KGB. Again, he set about to combat corruption and streamline the system. Then, in another surprise move, on August 9, 1999 Putin was appointed Prime Minister and approved on August 16. He was the fifth Prime Minister appointed by Yeltsin in the last 15 months. He was a political unknown, and almost no one believed he would last any longer than the others. Yeltsin had decided, however, he would resign the Presidency. He told Putin he wanted to appoint him President for the New Year. He would have to run for election within three months. Putin initially told him he did not think he was ready or qualified to be president. Eventually, after more conversations, he agreed to Yeltsin’s plan.
Why did Boris Yeltsin choose to turn over the presidency of the Russian Federation to Vladimir Putin, a man he did not really know that well? Yeltsin’s later reflections indicate two main reasons.
First, Putin’s old boss, Anatoly Sobchak was linked with more corruption charges which had, oddly enough, originated in the middle of Yeltsin’s anti-corruption campaign. Virtually no one came to Sobchak’s defense, and he and Yeltsin no longer got along at all. In October 1997 armed guards showed up and brought him in as a material witness in a big corruption case. He was being questioned in the prosecutor’s office when he complained of chest pains. He was taken to the hospital and his wife reported he had had a heart attack, though some doubted her story. He remained in the hospital for a month. Putin heard of his old boss’s dilemma. He arranged funds, papers, and an airplane to fly Sobchak to Finland to a hospital there. Putin called on old friends in law enforcement to get him to the airport and on the plane. Technically, Sobchak had the proper documents, e.g., passport, etc., to leave the country. He was officially under investigation, however. It was not clear if Putin had broken the law or not. What impressed Yeltsin was that Putin was willing to risk his career to help his old boss. That was a degree of loyalty he rarely—if ever—had seen. He admitted to being deeply impressed.
Second, Yeltsin had originally thought Putin was distant or rather cool in his manner. He was impressed with Putin’s work, but Putin always relayed the pertinent information and nothing more. Over time, Yeltsin began to see what others had seen. Putin was not a careerist. He did not try to endear himself to the boss. He would stand or fall on the merits of his work. Putin did not play political games. He was forthright and spoke what he saw as the truth. Putin was what Allen Lynch called a “first rate second rate man.” He saw his job as helping his superiors look good. When he was given orders either by Sobchak or Yeltsin, he carried out his orders without drawing attention to himself. When I was in the U.S. Marine Corps in the early 70s we had a saying: “Ours is not to reason why, but simply to do or die.” I get the impression Putin carried much the same motto.
Did his loyalty ever bleed over into joining in the corruption? Some said yes, but even the chair of one committee who investigated Putin said she thought Putin must have been corrupt, but she could find no proof of it. Obviously the ethical waters were very murky. Corruption abounded in the 90s in Russia. I doubt it was possible to be completely separate from it. I’ve worked in relatively pure waters and still found complete honesty was often a very “fuzzy” thing. One man who became a later opponent of Putin was Boris Berezovsky. Berezovsky had worked with Sobchak, but went on to head Aeroflot and other businesses. Berezovsky said one time he wanted to start a new car dealership quickly and without questions in St. Petersburg. He did what he always did: offered a bribe to the official in charge. Putin was the man. Berezovsky said, “He was the first bureaucrat not to take bribes…Seriously, it made a huge impression on me.”
Both Yeltsin and Putin kept their “deal” about Putin becoming President a secret until the last day of the year. Yeltsin taped his New Years Eve midnight speech privately and no one saw it other than those who taped it until it was shown on TV. Even Putin’s wife did not know about it. When someone called to congratulate her, she thought it was just a New Years day greeting. So as January 1, 2000 dawned on Russia, the country had for a new president a man who had never run for office.