In a lawless and consequently weak state, man is defenceless and unfree. The stronger the state, the freer the individual.
Vladimir Putin, ‘Open Letter to Russian Voters’, 25 February 2000
The answer to ‘where have we heard that before?’ is usually: ‘in Russia.’ The notion of despotism masquerading as liberation was part of the Victorian liberal stereotype of tsardom. It was remembered outside Russia throughout the Soviet epoch, even while the idea was expressed in Marxist-Leninist terms. When Solzhenitsyn criticised the permissiveness he found in Western society, Enoch Powell growled: ‘No Englishman needs to take lessons in freedom from a Russian.’
As I write, the news from Putin’s Russia arrives in little packages done up in the same prejudice. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the young billionaire who was suddenly thrown into jail last year on suspicion of tax fiddling after he had funded parties opposed to President Putin, has made one of those abject prison-cell confessions which recall Darkness at Noon. How blind and wrong he was to raise an impious hand against the throne! How wise and just were those who punished him! Meanwhile Igor Sutyagin, a consultant with the USA-Canada Institute, has been convicted of treason for passing to foreigners defence information which had already been published in newspapers. Only two out of 20 defence witnesses were allowed to testify at his trial, which was halted more than two years ago so that the prosecution could gather fresh evidence against him. Sutyagin was sentenced to 15 years.
Is it all too bad to be true? It is undeniable that Putin’s Russia is reverting to a heavily authoritarian style of government. The overwhelming popular vote he won in March’s presidential election was delivered after a campaign more like a rigged plebiscite than a fair contest between several candidates. And yet, as these three books show, Putin is also an agent of sweeping change. The impact of these changes, most of them innovative rather than restorative, might – only might – make possible a relatively law-abiding and governable Russia with a rising standard of living. In such a Russia, genuine political pluralism and freedom of expression might – only might – cease to be perceived as a menace to national security. As Richard Sakwa’s book suggests, Putin has a choice of two directions. One is simply to ‘reconcentrate state power’. The other is to ‘reconstitute’ that power in a new form by imposing the rule of law.
Putin talks a lot about ‘the dictatorship of law’. It is easy to retort that a law-bound society cannot be ‘imposed’ or established by the dictatorship of anything. Equally, Putin’s actions often show that when he says ‘law’ he means what we would call ‘order’. Where is legality, as we understand it, when it is considered perfectly normal for the police and public prosecution staff to break into a defence lawyer’s office during a trial and seize all his files on his client – as happened last October in the case of Platon Lebedev of the Yukos oil corporation? Those who try to justify this sort of thing have to fall back on an argument which is venerable, brutal, dangerous and yet not to be dismissed out of hand. The argument is that legality is not an adequate weapon against those whose power is itself illegitimate, and who consider themselves above the law.
Andrew Jack points out that Vladimir Putin belongs to a special, transitional generation. He was ‘born too late to share any of the Bolsheviks’ original ideals or struggles, but too soon to be fully inculcated with the culture of corruption and chaos which took hold from the 1980s’. Whatever he is striving for, it is certainly not the restoration of the Soviet order. There is nothing of the revolutionary about him, and nothing millennial. Nor does he hanker after the colossal bureaucratic machine which stifled Russia in the time of Brezhnev. But, like many Russians, he has a patriotic nostalgia for Soviet ‘greatness’. He has said: ‘You would have to be heartless not to regret the disintegration of the Soviet Union. You’d need to be brainless to want to restore it.’
Strobe Talbott, the veteran Moscow correspondent who became Clinton’s adviser, formed a low opinion of Putin. He wrote in his memoirs that Putin ‘seemed to have a knack for being in the right place at the right time with the right protectors; he’s been promoted far beyond anything his experience or apparent abilities would have prepared him for; he was tactically adroit but, I suspected, strategically at sea’. Much of that was true when Talbott met him, soon after Putin had become president. A couple of years earlier, the idea that this taciturn little man could lead Russia would have seemed ridiculous. But two points should be made. The first is that luck in politics is a qualifying virtue, and Putin has been incredibly lucky. The second is the Harry Truman principle: insignificant figures on the edge of the photograph can become dominant personalities after only a few months in office.
The best account of Putin’s origins in these three books comes from Peter Truscott. He can be an annoying writer, pausing often to puff out his feathers and crow about how well he knows the great and good, or to gloat over the boring protocol details of state visits at which he was present (Truscott was an MEP, with excellent Russian connections). Boris Berezovsky figures as ‘the swarthy tycoon’, while Putin holds ‘wall-to-wall meetings’. But Truscott can be very acute in spite of these weaknesses. His book is almost entirely a cuttings job, sourced from newspaper stories, which at least gives his narrative a vivid flavour of events as they happen. And for family reasons (his wife is a Petersburger), he knows intimately the city where Putin began.
Vladimir Putin was born in 1952, to working-class parents who had survived the Leningrad siege. Two older brothers had died in the course of it, and Vladimir was a late, solitary child. Although these were still Stalinist times, his mother ensured that he was baptised (he now wears his baptismal cross round his neck, and has become a believer). For a time he drifted on the edge of junior crime gangs. There was a threat to put him in youth detention, but his father (a war veteran and party member) got him pardoned and took the belt to him instead. At about 13, he steadied. He started to work at school, and became a junior judo champion: a sport he still practises, and which has become part of his lithe, fit public image. And, around this time, he began to read Soviet spy thrillers and was swept off his feet by the film Sword and Shield – a heroic movie about the KGB.
Apart from the judo, there was nothing outwardly special about this rather repressed boy. But now he had a dream about serving his country. At 16, he tried to join the Leningrad KGB. They sent him away, but came back to him when he graduated, and in 1975, aged 23, he was recruited. At last he was a Chekist, a knight of the Revolution. But the work seems to have been dull, and he was not a distinguished knight. Ten years later, by now married to Ludmila and with two small children, he was posted to Dresden. Much has been made of this, but it was a dead-end job which offered Putin no real responsibility. Four years later, however, he saw the people of Dresden surge onto the streets as the system crumbled and the Wall fell. They besieged the KGB offices. But when Putin rang for Soviet military help, the army replied: ‘We can do nothing without Moscow. And Moscow is silent.’
The world in which he had grown up was ending. But Putin took it all pragmatically. In 1990 he returned to St Petersburg, where the KGB seemed to have lost interest in him. Then came his first stroke of luck, and his first important protector. Anatoly Sobchak, the boisterous democrat who had become mayor of the city, remembered teaching Putin at university and hired him. In August 1991 came the failed putsch in Moscow, which led to Yeltsin’s rise and the eventual fall of the Soviet Union. Sobchak, like Yeltsin in Moscow, loudly and bravely opposed the plotters. Putin seems to have had mixed feelings; he thought the aims of the conspirators were noble, but their methods fatal. None of this bothered Sobchak, any more than Putin’s admission that he was a KGB officer (he soon resigned). Putin rose rapidly to become deputy mayor, where he gained a reputation for silent, chilly efficiency. In a period of wild gangsterism and corruption, he was considered clean.
Some who knew him think that he suffered from pathological coldness, a deficit of feeling. Truscott describes his reaction on the day Ludmila and his daughter Katya were injured in a car crash; after seeing that they were admitted to a good hospital, he spent the rest of the day escorting Jane Fonda and Ted Turner round St Petersburg. But in other ways this is an emotion-driven man. He has displayed almost irrational loyalty to friends. He stood by Sobchak as the mayor’s popularity dwindled, and ran his last, unsuccessful election campaign in 1996. Then, as corruption allegations turned Sobchak’s defeat into disgrace, Putin arranged for his old boss to be smuggled abroad and secretly returned when the scandal had died down. A few years later, this impassive man wept bitterly over his first patron’s grave. He never forgave Vladimir Yakovlev, the candidate who ousted Sobchak, and apparently still regards him as a traitor.
His next break came from fellow Petersburgers in the Kremlin, who brought him to Moscow to work in the Yeltsin presidency. Putin held several medium-rank posts, and then in 1998 took over the FSB, successor to the KGB. This was a chaotic period. Press and television found their freedom, but Yeltsin sent tanks to shell the Russian parliament. The transition towards capitalism began, but turned into a monstrous scramble for wealth as a handful of plunderers acquired privatised national assets at knockdown prices. Violent crime – including the habit of dealing with business competitors by murder – terrorised Moscow and Petersburg, as living standards collapsed. By the end of the century, male life expectancy in Russia had sunk to 58 years.
At the core of this corruption were the ‘Family’, the nexus of Yeltsin’s relations and cronies. But they were Putin’s new protectors, and to them he transferred his wolfish loyalty. While the president himself collected $16,000 a month in cash from his London bank account, Putin dealt with Yuri Skuratov, the public prosecutor, who was investigating the Family’s affairs. His men distributed to the media videos of the prosecutor wallowing in a bath with prostitutes. Skuratov resigned. But when Jack interviewed him, he was surprisingly mild about Putin, dismissing any idea that he had acted for personal gain. ‘He has the psychology of a person from the special services,’ he said. ‘While for us the law is God, for him the president is God. The interests of the state come first.’
The Family appreciated his loyalty. Yeltsin was particularly impressed. Drunken, erratic and ill, he was looking for an heir who could be trusted not to turn on the Family once he was in power. Yeltsin had appointed and then fired a rapid succession of prime ministers, but in 1999 he at last selected one who could be relied on to grant him a safe exit. Putin became prime minister and then, almost at once and unexpectedly, was named as Yeltsin’s choice to run as his successor. His first gesture as acting president was to issue the infamous ‘Guarantees for the President of the Russian Federation and His Family Members after Completion of His Exercise of Power’ – a blanket immunity from prosecution.
Putin’s loyalty – more like the German notion of Nibelungentreue, or gang honour, than an ethic of friendship – didn’t extend to policy. Yeltsin’s bungled reforms had pauperised most Russians, but they had also created a tiny class of New Russian yuppie billionaires who proceeded to act as if the state and the political leadership were theirs to buy and sell. The source of that class was the corrupt decision to sell off the state’s assets (above all in energy and minerals) at giveaway prices and without open competition, in return for huge kickbacks. This grotesque privatisation, known as the ‘loans for shares’ deal, gave the new ‘oligarchs’ instant wealth on an unimaginable scale.
The oligarchs took Putin to be a mere Family steward, and as they had made the Family rich, they expected no trouble from him. They were wrong. Putin could not reverse the privatisation process, but he saw the oligarchs as a menace to what was left of Russian state authority and made clear that he was going to tame them. Jack, the long-serving Moscow bureau chief of the Financial Times, provides an intricate but fascinating account of these men, their deals and their pretensions. He knows most of them. He visited Berezovsky in his Cap d’Antibes palace and flew with him in his private jet. He interviewed the nickel emperor Vladimir Potanin, Roman Abramovich (the happy owner of Chelsea football club), the unhappy Khodorkovsky and many others. In a brilliant comic passage, he describes the sale of the oil concern Slavneft in 2002, publicised as a modern, ‘Western-style’, ‘transparent’ auction. Jack soon found that it was just another outrageous stitch-up. The bids had been fixed in advance between two fat cats, while competitors were excluded by threats or lies or were simply locked out of the hall.
Putin was right to see the oligarchs as intolerable. Their power was an insult to any notion of fairness, let alone equality, and no stable political structure could be rebuilt while they held sway (several, including Berezovsky, Khodorkovsky and Abramovich, tried to entrench themselves by getting elected as deputies or governors in remote regions). To deal with them, Putin has used ‘the dictatorship of law’, mostly directed at tax swindles, but his methods are more dictatorial than legal: a technique Jack calls ‘hyperlegalism’. Berezovky and the media tycoon Vladimir Gusinsky were hounded into exile. Khodorkovsky and his partner Platon Lebedev were arrested. Abramovich seems to have snitched to the authorities on Khodorkovsky, his rival in the oil business, and has so far been spared. Potanin, aware that his tax returns were under study, diversified into something like normal business.
The age of the Jurassic oligarchs is now passing. Russia under Putin is retreating from anarchy, and there will be no return to the years when a hundred executives in the aluminium industry alone were murdered. But Putin pushes on with his programme of saving ‘freedom’ by strengthening the state. As the recent presidential election confirmed, the great majority of the Russian people accept his thesis that their country requires strong, austere leadership. They had blamed Gorbachev for destroying the Soviet Union, and rapidly lost respect for the stumbling Yeltsin and his disastrous ‘reforms’. Putin, in contrast, seems young, healthy and determined. Above all, he gives the impression of knowing where he is going. In his first presidency (2000-03), he made few mistakes. His only real error, from the Russian point of view, was his failure to act swiftly when, in August 2000, the submarine Kursk sank with all hands. It was ten days before a furious media campaign forced him to abandon his Black Sea holiday and meet the families of the dead. His popularity fell by nearly ten points in a week. By contrast, his decision to open a second war in Chechnya met with general approval. So did his ruthless handling of the Dubrovka Theatre crisis in Moscow in October 2002, when Chechen fighters held the cast and audience hostage. Although the use of disabling gas to storm the theatre killed 129 of the hostages, few contradicted Putin when he proclaimed the operation a complete success. Truscott gives full, detailed narratives of the Kursk and Dubrovka tragedies, while Jack – the professional journalist who goes for causes and effects rather than colour – concentrates on Putin’s feud with media tycoons after the Kursk sinking and the relevance of the theatre siege to his Chechnya policy.
Nothing is more ominous, in Western eyes, than Putin’s successful campaign against critical and independent journalism. As Jack shows, Putin regards media criticism as a conspiracy on the part of his political enemies, led by the oligarchs (Berezovsky and Gusinsky in particular) who had come to own most television stations and newspapers. Journalists are seen merely as paid agents of somebody else’s ambition. When a correspondent from Le Monde asked Putin about his hyperlegal methods with the Yukos oil group, Putin angrily replied that the only reason he was asking the question was to earn his fee from Yukos.
The Kursk affair confirmed Putin’s worst suspicions. Gusinsky was arrested, and in April 2001 armed security guards from the Gazprom conglomerate burst into Gusinsky’s NTV television station and installed a new, compliantly pro-Putin editorial staff. Berezovsky was ousted from the ORT television station, whose evening news soon became ‘a case-study in sycophancy’. Elsewhere, state control of the media was established by the threat of commercial writs, libel cases and the older methods of telephoned menaces and close news management by the Kremlin. Self-censorship returned. As one media-watcher told Jack, ‘we thought that the guard inside each journalist’s head had left his post and gone away. Now we have found out that he was just asleep and is waking up.’
The rest of the world is increasingly unsure about Putin. His foreign policy has shown astute opportunism, as when he hitched Russia’s brutal war in Chechnya to America’s ‘war on terror’ after 11 September. But he has also shown boldness and independence, as when he shocked Bush and Blair at the Security Council by joining France and Germany in opposition to the war on Iraq. At the start of his presidency, Bush had paid little attention to Russia, which Condoleezza Rice may have presented to him as a potential ‘rogue state’. Then, in June 2001, he met Putin and suddenly decided that this little guy was a delightful buddy he could do business with. Agreement about the ‘coalition against terror’ prolonged the honeymoon, until the prospect of the Iraq war put an end to it in 2003.
Why did Putin break with the US over Iraq? Here, the three books broadly agree. One reason was Russia’s economic involvement: Russian companies held (unfulfilled) oil exploitation contracts worth $120 billion from Saddam Hussein’s regime. Another was Putin’s sense that his fling with America was proving one-sided. Russia had helped the US to acquire bases in Central Asia and had tolerated the enlargement of Nato. The Americans, in contrast, had failed to end Cold War restrictions on trade with Russia, or to encourage investment. But Sakwa, the most subtle and original of these three writers, adds two more factors: ‘Putin’s instinctive Europeanism and his commitment to agreed multilateral approaches to conflict resolution’.
Multilateral approaches to conflict resolution? Putin has always refused foreign ‘interference’ in the Chechen struggle. But ‘instinctive Europeanism’? Sakwa writes: ‘As a Petersburger, Putin has been consistently a Westerniser and repudiated any idea of Russia as a balance-holder between East and West, or as a separate civilisation distinct from that found in the West. As far as Putin is concerned, Russia is part of the West, and that is the end of the story.’ Sakwa evidently has no patience with the easy assumption that this Russian leader marks no more than a relapse into tsarist practices and Slavophile dogma.
I think Sakwa is right. There are several variants of Russian authoritarianism, and one of them – the one displayed by Peter the Great and Catherine II – is modernising and westward-looking. Putin has no time for the slimy, gibbering hydra of Russian ultra-nationalism: racialist, xenophobic and convinced that Russia follows a Sonderweg, that it has a special destiny, different from that of any other nation. Russia, to him, is a nation like any other. And it isn’t perverse to talk about Putin’s ‘Europeanism’. For one thing, he has never tried to use the dispute over Iraq to widen the gap between the US and the European Union – a chance his Soviet predecessors would not have missed. And, secondly, no citizen between the River Bug and the Atlantic could truthfully say that ‘enlightened despotism’ is not an integral part of Europe’s political tradition.
Sakwa writes about Putin’s choice between ‘pluralistic statism’ (imposing the authority of the law without diminishing the structures of civil society or regional autonomy) and ‘compacted statism’ in which civil society is regimented in the name of enforcing the rule of law, while power and patronage are concentrated on an undemocratic elite at the centre. At present, Putin’s Russia looks increasingly compacted rather than pluralistic. Jack shows that Putin’s Kremlin is increasingly composed of ‘enforcers’ – officials who have served either in the KGB/ FSB, or in the military. The proportion of such people among federal officials was under 5 per cent in Gorbachev’s time. Now it is 58 per cent. Democratic self-confidence does not grow well in their shadow.
Jack defines Putin as a ‘liberal Chekist’. He sees parallels with Andropov, the head of the KGB who came to lead the Soviet Union in 1982, when it was too late (and he was too sick) to carry through his ideas. He wanted to liberalise the Soviet economy without corresponding political reform. ‘First we’ll make enough sausages, and then we won’t have any dissidents.’
Putin’s strategy is not nearly so crude. He has no wish to abolish democracy as such. Political authority in Russia has come to be founded on elections, however unfairly they are run. So far, there are no signs that Putin wants to change that. But the path he is following – the rearmament of the state apparatus and the growing suppression of the autonomies, whether in the media or in the regions, that a civil society is entitled to – leads inexorably towards autocracy and away from democracy. Russia, it seems to me, will revive as a vigorous world power in the next ten or fifteen years. But what sort of power?
In Russia, as elsewhere, periods of centralising authority usually follow periods of upheaval, and that is the context in which Sakwa sees Putin. But he illustrates this with an image which is not at all reassuring. ‘If we understand Yeltsin’s rule as a period of "permanent revolution", then Putin becomes the consolidator, the Napoleon . . . who rebuilds the state and incorporates into the new order the progressive elements of the revolutionary epoch that are necessary for social development, but discards the excesses and the revolutionary froth.’ Sakwa means this to sound cautiously optimistic. But exactly the same words could have been used about Stalin in 1928. Compared to that, Bonapartism in Russia – autocracy supported by carefully managed one-party democracy – would be almost welcome.