Why Putin Is Really a Bad Guy
Yes, you know that Putin is dangerous. But how much do you know about him?
To learn more about Putin, I read The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin by journalist Masha Gessen, who reported on Russia from the end of the USSR to 2013. This book covers Putin’s life to 2012. I then read The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia, her book that covers Russia to 2017, showing the rest of Putin’s regime; the beginning of independent academic inquiry, which he squelched; and the lives of several young people who came of age in the post-Communist years.
Gessen is brilliant, and I am proud to say that she is a lesbian. She was born in Russia, brought by her dissident parents to the United States when she was 11, and in her 20s went back to Russia to report on it, which she did for two decades. She left Russia because she and her partner have three children, one of whom is adopted. In 2013, Russia passed a law saying that the state had the right to take away the adopted children of gay and lesbian parents. Gessen now lives in New York City.
Putin was always a bully. Since he has been in the public eye, he has bragged that he was a “thug” when he was young, beating up other boys when he chose. He joined the KGB, the secret service, where he undoubtedly continued to bully people in a more intimidating way. He wanted to be a spy and was disappointed in being assigned to Dresden, East Germany, where the most he could do was look for dissidents. He was furious when in 1989 a group of civilians tried to break into the KGB office in Dresden where he was stationed. The civilians were persuaded to withdraw. But when the KGB asked the Red Army for help, the army said it could do nothing without orders from Moscow. Moscow was silent, and Putin was enraged that his country seemed impotent.
But how did Putin come to the public eye? He became a deputy to mayor of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). There, Gessen learned, he took millions of dollars’ worth of food that was supposed to go to the hungry city, sold it, and kept the money. That sort of profiteering helped him accumulate a fortune. Some say he is now the world’s richest man.
From that not particularly central post in Russia’s second city, he caught the attention of people like billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who recommended him to Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s first elected president, as a good head for the FSB, the successor organization to the KGB. (Khodorovsky later decided to support Putin’s critics, and Putin jailed him – and took over his oil company.)
Yeltsin was democratic by Russian standards. He engaged in electoral politics and supported free speech. But he had alienated the people by letting profiteers become wealthy through taking over businesses that had been state owned in the Soviet Union. He did nothing to ease the sudden loss of people’s life savings when the Soviet Union collapsed. Yeltsin also was frequently drunk and disorderly.
The people at the top liked Putin because he seemed rational and compliant. Yeltsin’s alcoholism and sometimes erratic behavior caused him to lose popularity. An election was coming up in 2000, and reformers were going to contest the presidency.
In Russia, the head of the government (it used to be the head of the Communist Party) goes on television on New Year’s Eve to greet the nation. On the cusp of the new millennium, Yeltsin went on TV and resigned, telling people that Putin was their new president, even though there was no legal basis for Yeltsin to hand over his job to his choice of successor. Once Putin held the office, he was poised to win the election in March 2000.
Why did people accept Putin, a man scarcely known at that point? The public had already become disillusioned by the sense of chaos and the collapse of the economy. Moreover, there had been a series of bombings destroying apartment buildings, and the government said the Chechens, who had rebelled against Moscow a few years earlier, were to blame.
Gessen investigated the bombings as much as she could and is convinced that the FSB, not the Chechens, was to blame. The bombings set the stage for people to want a strong leader, and Putin was portrayed as strong.
Many people had lost their life savings under Yeltsin’s move to capitalism, which in turn made many distrust democracy, which has had almost no history in Russia. Rule by a strong man was more familiar.
Gessen suggests that Putin’s rise might have been stage-managed starting years before his presidency.
Analysts in the West and those few independent academics in Russia long believed that Putin was an authoritarian ruler, not a totalitarian one. Authoritarianism could be seen as a political system that controls the public arena but doesn’t care much about people’s lives as long as they are compliant. Totalitarian regimes try to control people’s thoughts as well as the public sector.
In her second book, Gessen says that totalitarianism is authoritarianism plus an ideology. Putin’s regime now has an ideology: supposed support of “traditional values.” The government has conflated homosexuality with pederasty and convinced the population that “western values” like democracy and acceptance of lesbians and gays are destroying the West and have no place in Russia. His government has formed links with right-wing groups in the United States and Europe to promote that ideology.
In the early 1990s, college social science departments, long bastions of Communist ideology that discouraged research, began embracing intellectual inquiry. But that has been squelched in recent years.
Polls by the Levada Institute, an independent organization in Russia, show that in the early 1990s Russians were much more accepting of people who different from them, such as rock enthusiasts and “sexual minorities,” than they are now. When Russians are asked who was the greatest person in history, the choice is often Stalin, with Putin coming in second.
When the Soviet Union had few consumer goods for its citizens, Russians prided themselves on their country’s size and importance in the world. When it lost its empire, Russians felt a sense of loss. For many, their country’s hard-won victory in the Great War (their name for World War II) is still its proudest hour. The government and media focus on nostalgia for those times, so even children today look to the victory over the Nazis as their country’s greatest achievement. Books and movies still celebrate KGB agents as heroes, and young people fall into believing that.
The young people whom Gessen followed through the past two decades have either become protesters or dropped out of society. All were disillusioned and believe that Russia has no future.
The government has not only moved to imprison more dissidents in recent years, but also is clearly behind the murder of some, most notably Boris Nemtsov, the most well known of them. I suspect that dissident Alexei Navalny, who has had acid thrown in his face, won’t live to be old. He plans to run for president in 2018, but is barred because of probably false charges of embezzlement.
I strongly urge you to read Gessen’s books. She also writes for U.S. magazines such as The New Yorker, including articles looking at the Trump administration, which she sees as dangerous.
One of Russia’s paradoxes is that the people detest their finest leader, Mikhail Gorbachev. Gorbachev: His Life and Times, a new biography by Amherst College political science professor William Taubman, tells the story of Gorbachev’s life from childhood to the present. Taubman was able to interview Gorbachev and many people who have known him.
From childhood on, Gorbachev was the antithesis of Putin. Whereas young Vladimir distinguished himself as someone to fear, young Mikhail distinguished himself by feats of farm labor with his father that gained them both medals. Gorbachev became a popular student leader in school and in the Komsomol (Communist youth group) and loved to act in plays.
At Moscow State University, he met his wife Raisa, a philosophy student who became his closest companion until her death in 1999. The men who worked with and for him often resented his listening to her so much. People made fun of the fact that she often appeared in public with him, which was far different from the position of other Soviet leaders’ wives.
He was known for being incorruptible and for drinking little. His squeaky clean persona contributed as much as his intelligence to his rise in the Communist Party. He believed in Communism and acceded to the Party line.
But when Gorbachev became first secretary of the Supreme Soviet in the 1970s, he was able to take several trips to Western Europe, which transformed him. He visited the Communist parties in Italy and France and saw that they operated within a democratic political system. He wanted democracy for his country and began his transition to a social democrat, though at first he wanted democratic competition to take place inside the Party for a lengthy transition period before other parties were included.
When he became leader of the Communist Party in 1985, he tried to democratize it. His mistake apparently was not realizing that trying to bring democracy to his country before enabling people to purchase more material goods was a recipe for failure. (The Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping thought Gorbachev was stupid for putting democracy ahead of economic development.)
One of the first reforms Gorbachev tried was greatly reducing the availability of alcohol because he saw how badly alcoholism affected people’s health and their work. That plan worked as well as Prohibition did in the United States: It made people angry at him.
He made many other mistakes, particularly in trying to keep a balance between old Party hacks who detested him and the reformers who initially supported him, which made it seem that he championed neither.
Though Russians blame him for the collapse of the Soviet Union, this book shows that Yeltsin was the one whose moves led to its dissolution.
The book tells how much Gorbachev hated violence. Even when the USSR was losing its grip on Eastern Europe, he refused to resort to it (except for some repression in Lithuania). He was opposed to nuclear weapons, and he, not Ronald Reagan, was the one we have to thank for ending the Cold War. Reagan’s advisers and Bush’s advisers after him had trouble believing that Gorbachev was sincere, but he was.
I came away from the book convinced that Gorbachev was one of the heroes of the 20th century.
I’ve just read Bears in the Streets: Three Journeys Across a Changing Russia, a book by writer Liza Dickey, who traveled across Russia from Vladivostock to Moscow in 1995, 2005, and 2015. She tried to talk with the same people each time.
Of course she found changes. In some places, like Vladivostock, a Pacific Coast city, the people she met were much more affluent in 2015 than they had been 20 years earlier. The young people were health conscious and fashion conscious. But in rural areas like Buryatia (north of Mongolia), once prosperous farmers had lost much of what they had when they bought land after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Dickey visited the “Jewish Autonomous Homeland” of Birobidzhan set up by Stalin in the Russian Far East, and learned that by 2015 most of the Jews had gone to Israel. A history of harsh discrimination had made them fearful. There wasn’t a real functioning synagogue in 1995, but there is a large one now, and schools now teach Yiddish and Jewish history. Hebrew is being phased out of secondary schools because teachers see it as the language of those who want to emigrate, but it is taught at the university. Now there are large statues of menorahs and shofars in the streets.
Dickey is intrepid, and I’m proud to say that she’s a lesbian. She worried about disclosing her lesbian identity, but by 2015 she came out to a number of the people she met. Many said, “I’m all right with it, but don’t tell anyone else.”
She learned that attitudes toward the United States had hardened by 2015, mirroring the hardening of political relations between the nations after Russia annexed Crimea. Many people said they loved Putin, and they asserted that what Russia does is none of America’s business. They pointed out that Russia has no bases near the United States, but the United States has bases almost surrounding Russia. (They didn’t say that the nations where the bases are located for the most part asked for the bases because they were afraid of Russia, some of them having been occupied by Russia. Dickey didn’t mention that because she didn’t want to get into arguments.) She learned that Russians distrust the United States as much as Americans distrust Russia, although they were willing to make an exception for individual Americans and were friendly to Dickey. People across Russia used the same phrase, claiming that Americans see Russia as a primitive place where “bears run in the streets,” so that must be what their press tells them Americans think.
The Russians also like products from the U.S., though they don’t always know where the products are made. Some Russian friends of Dickey’s were stunned to hear that Coca-Cola was an American brand.
Almost everyone she met said that even though they have far more material goods now, they thought life was better under the Soviet Union because they felt more secure about jobs, education, healthcare, and pensions. One affluent couple who didn’t say life was better then said it was just as good, only different.
The gay men and the one lesbian that Dickey met did not share the nostalgia for the old regime, and neither did the one performer she knows.
I recommend these books to anyone who wants a deeper understanding of Russia.