From Anna Zafesova’s book, “Navalny against Putin”, Countries editions “Who is Mister Putin
When Konstantin Chernenko died in 1985, KGB agents stationed in Dresden stole a case of Crimean sparkling wine from their boss to celebrate the imminent end of the old communist regime. Vladimir Putin, in his early thirties, toast with his colleagues. In the closed environment of one of the “residences” of the Soviet spy network abroad, the “little one” – as Putin was called, to distinguish him from a colleague of the same name – was the most skeptical of the regime he served. He admired academician Andrey Sakharov, exiled to Gorky for dissent, and was disgusted by the system’s anti-Semitism, scandalizing his colleagues with statements such as “Jews are absolutely normal people.”
On the strength of his university legal training, he theorized with his astonished colleagues that the USSR made the world more fearful of the United States because it did not have a democratic procedure: to launch an atomic war, the American president would have to be accountable to Congress, and also to opinion. public, while a PCUS leader in the throes of Alzheimer’s could push the red button without anyone daring to contradict him. The “little one” – in name and in fact, given that he was at the beginning of his career in espionage, in his first unprofessional mission abroad which would also prove to be his last – could not have known that fifteen years later he would rule the Kremlin just abandoned by Chernenko, and twenty years later he would meet an American named Bush, a theorist of the same idea,
He knew that thirty years later he would put his power, the ambition of a Nobel Peace Prize winner and the Time covers to annex the peninsula famous for the sweet sparkling wine he was drinking. And another five years later he would have revealed that he is ready to push the nuclear button in the event of an attack: «A world without Russia can also perish. Besides, we [Russians] would end up in heaven as martyrs, and they [the Americans] would die without even having time to repent, ”I proudly explain.
As did a man who as a young man toasted the beginning of the end of a regime – that the physical death of his last leader Chernenko represented the demise of Soviet communism, accelerated and certified by his successor Mikhail Gorbachev, was a perception at the time. almost unanimous – to end up regretting it and trying to restore it down to the most absurd details, such as the competition with nuclear missiles
. and one of the darkest careers in Russian history. At the Davos Forum in 2000, Western journalists asked the Russian government ministers for information on the new head of state, still an illustrious unknown.
The question «Who is Mr. Putin
I sink into an embarrassed silence that made history, and which still remains in a certain sense the symbol of a regime obsessed with secrecy. Even today we know almost nothing about the Russian president: for example, where he hides when he disappears from the media monitors, how many and which residences he has, who lives in them, and even where he is at every single moment, given that he had himself built. offices practically identical to that of the Kremlin in its various dachas. But even if numerous circumstances and facts – including those about illnesses, palaces, secret children and hidden accounts – will probably be revealed only after the end of his reign, it was Putin himself who told and told himself with an almost sincerity at times. impossible for a supreme leader, in an emblematic journey of a regime whose mystique eventually coincided with the ideas, phobias and tics of its regent and symbol. Which in turn drew its main strength from a singular harmony with its constituent.It could have been worse
Not many now remember that Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, born in 1952, born and raised in Leningrad, was appointed premier by Boris Yeltsin and “successor” to the presidency in August 1999, the latest in a series of heads of governments and hereditary principles of which each lasted less than the previous ones, in a court overwhelmed by the physical and mental decline of its sovereign as well as by scandals that had reduced its popularity to percentages with more zeros in front than behind. To the Family – as the intimate circle of the first Russian president was called – Putin had appeared anonymous enough, shy and zealous enough to entrust him with a series of operations that required a delicate touch and a noticeable lack of scruples, and then promoted him to dolphin.
Oligarch Sergey Pugachev, at the time one of the family’s close friends and now a refugee in London, told in a series of interviews with Cathrine Belton of the Financial Times (who reconstructed the birth of the Russian president’s empire in the monumental volume Men of Putin, published in Italy by La nave di Teseo) that the choice fell on the St. Petersburg official precisely because he was considered lacking the skills and ambitions that would make him autonomous. He was supposed to guarantee the safety of the Yeltsin clan, and that already made him seemingly doomed to quick failure. But in a few weeks Putin endowed himself with a resource of which he then maintained the monopoly for more than fifteen years, and which completely overturned the games and history of Russia: I acquired immense, spontaneous and profound popularity.
Its legitimacy no longer depended on the good will of Yeltsin’s oligarchs and family members. If anything, it was their well-being that depended on the condescension of the young prime minister. Numerous analysts, correctly, attribute the birth of the Putin we know to the brutal threat to “couple terrorists in the toilet”, pronounced after launching the new war in Chechnya. But the other key phrase to understand the phenomenon of him I pronounced a year later, in August 2000, speaking with the family members of the crew of the sunken submarine Kursk, a disaster that should have shaken a presidency that has just begun.
Arriving at a garrison in the Arctic, a cold and dilapidated military citadel of unsettling squalor, he told the desperate widows that he was ready to take responsibility for the tragedy, but that as far as its root causes – lack of funding, were concerned, the absence of help, the unpreparedness of the navy in the last decade – he preferred instead “to sit next to all of you and ask questions”. Together with his subjects, the tsar declared himself not to be the architect, but the victim of the collapse of communism, dissociating himself from those forces and political ideas that had catapulted him to the top.
In the following years this narrative was summed up in the rhetoric about the “cursed nineties”, with which Putin still tries to terrorize the voters, countering any manifestation of discontent with a reminder about the past from which Russia was emerging, a “could have been worse Which for nearly two decades worked almost magically. The first Kremlin leader after Lenin to be born not in a peasant village but in a large city, to speak languages and to have lived abroad, and the first (along with Gorbachev) to have studied at a prestigious university, was however especially the first leader not to come from that high nomenclature who, from a very young age, lived in a personal communism.
The son of a poor and humble family, raised in a kommunalka (shared apartment) in a working-class district of Leningrad, Vladimir Putin had managed to enter the Soviet bourgeoisie, of which he had just begun to climb the hierarchy at the time of the end of the system. In his biographical book of 2000, he told two voices with his wife Lyudmila about their dreams and needs: they had queued for hours to buy food and clothes, they had saved up the money for the car during their stay in Germany from which they had returned. also enriched with a used washing machine, donated by German friends. They had sought well-being, in exchange for the obtuseness of propaganda.
His roommate in Dresden, Vladimir Ussoltsev, said in a 2003 book, The Colleague, that Putin had struck him precisely for his disenchantment, pragmatism, a precise, anaffective mind, almost mathematical in his cold skepticism. According to Ussoltsev (to whom we also owe the story about the Crimean champagne), his colleague did not believe in anything: he was “a finished conformist” who in public showed himself a fervent communist and in private advised his friend not to be too critical because “Keep family”.
Typical product of the cynicism of the Brezhnev era, that is, when the faith in communism was now extinct and Orwellian double thinking was universally practiced pending the end of the regime, which seemed imminent. Putin had the opportunity to preview the collapse in 1989, a few days after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, when he had to hastily burn down KGB and Stasi documents before crowds stormed the offices of the political police. . No directives or protection ever came from Moscow.
Returning to a city that in the meantime had changed its name, the future president saw the end of the party of which he was a member, and of the secret service in which he had placed all his hopes for a social lift. At thirty-nine, he no longer had a job and had to support two young daughters. He said he seriously considered becoming an abusive taxi driver, with the Volga – a status symbol inaccessible to those who were not part of the nomenclature – bought with the savings of his life in the GDR. He did not need it: thanks to his German and the contacts inherited from the KGB, he was recovered by the liberal mayor Anatoly Sobchak as head of foreign relations. But I report that fundamental trauma that unites him to all the former Soviets who were over thirty in 1991: having to start from scratch,Russian novel
Probably, one day, a great Russian novel will be able to tell the mental catastrophe experienced at the same time by hundreds of millions of people, but for now it remains a trauma that is still being reworked. In a few months, we know, I change everything: jobs, studies, clothes, food, money, ideas, what you saw on TV and what was (or more often wasn’t) in the refrigerator. New professions were born (from banking to advertising), while old and prestigious professions such as the teacher of Marxism-Leninism disappeared, and even the existing occupations, such as those of the doctor or the salesman, had to be rethought from top to bottom, and an army of state-hired engineers and researchers had to reinvent themselves as taxi drivers and hawkers.
I change the way of thinking: practically everything that had been considered positive by communist propaganda was scrapped by the new reality, which introduced as values what the past system despised and punished: wealth, resourcefulness, independence. I change the relationship between superiors and subordinates, parents and children, spouses and relatives. A belated sexual revolution further increases the spectrum of sudden possibilities that are already too broad for a people accustomed for generations to have no choice; while the rush to imitate the West seen in the films stumbled upon a fundamental misunderstanding of democracy and the free market, delivered without an instruction manual.
Time splits into a before and an after, and even those (more numerous than is often believed) who in the “after” had a higher material standard of living than in the Soviet Union, have retained the trauma of the earthquake which destroyed any certainty, leaving the survivors in the anguish of having been abandoned to their fate. The Putinian phenomenon was born in that primordial shock, and the characteristic features of his method would no longer be changed, contrary to the ideas and alliances.
Educated in a hypocritical and disenchanted environment, the president would always have considered power as an end in itself: the early pragmatic Vladimir Putin launches economic and fiscal liberalizations, summoning economists including the opposition and taking notes in his accelerated course as a self-taught statesman, and he closed the too expensive ex-Soviet bases in Cuba and Vietnam, making himself hated by the military. Drawn into a court intrigue, with zero public policy experience – the only election in which I participate as deputy mayor of Petersburg he lost it, along with confidence in the electoral instrument – he would have remained wary of democratic procedures, always rejecting even the electoral debates.
Betrayed by a regime that turned out to be too fragile, he would have manifested a total skepticism towards any system (singular fact for one trained to function within an entity like the KGB), preferring relationships of personal trust, and relying on the loyalties of individuals rather than equal rules. for everyone. For this reason, he immediately hand over the country’s greatest wealth in the hands of his trusted St Petersburg secretaries, KGB colleagues and fellow judo gymnasiums; just as in recent years he has even begun to appoint his bodyguards as governors of regions as large as a medium-sized European country.
Mindful of the collapse of all certainty, he would have been a control freak, an obsessed with chaos, and those who know him claim that the final turn towards authoritarianism is accomplished by watching, over and over again, the film of the atrocious death of Muammar Gaddafi torn apart by the crowd. The man who for twenty years had carried a Communist Party card in his pocket, and was part of the KGB devoted to the cause of the proletarian revolution all over the world, called himself a “conservative” at the beginning of his career as president.
It was not immediately clear how much a Russian could use that term in the same sense as Europe, given that until a few years earlier in Moscow the liberal anti-communist forces were called “left” and the reactionaries of the CPUS “right”. In the following years, Putin would openly draw inspiration from the most reactionary rulers in Russian history, Nicholas I of the autocracy-Orthodox-people triad, and Alexander III convinced that Russia had “only two allies, the army and the fleet”.
He would have quoted the philosophers Nikolay Berdyaev (“The sense of conservatism is not in hindering the upward and forward movement, but the backward and downward movement, the chaotic darkness, the return to the primordial state”) and Ivan Ilyin , a nationalist monarchist who sympathized with Hitler. He would have proposed himself as a defender of the “traditional values” forgotten by Europe degraded in its “asexual and sterile tolerance” (the crusade against gays and the abundance of icons and saints in the aesthetics of the regime are only the most visible expressions) , and he would always be repulsed and terrified by the revolutionary chaos of the street uprising like the Ukrainian Maidan.
He never misunderstood the terminologies, he knew what he was talking about: a tsar does not promote revolutions, and he who stops them. Years ago, political scientist Vasily Zharkov identified Putin as an instinctive follower of Thomas Hobbes: like the English philosopher of Cromwell’s time, he was so shocked by the fall of a regime that he learned, once and for all, that revolutions are evil supreme: «They destroy the state, bringing entire peoples to anarchy, poverty and backwardness. Ergo, if we want peace and progress, we must protect the state. What will this state then be, a democracy or a regime of personal power, is a secondary question. If a democracy comes out, great. If it fails – either because the people are not ready, or for other reasons – a strong power is enough, as long as it gives control and some order ».
Contrasted by Zharkov to a Barack Obama who, like John Locke, is a revolutionary who considered freedom as the primary source of benefits for humanity, Putin year after year has become more and more consciously supporter of an archaic model of war of all against all. and a zero-sum game in relations between state and political subjects. When John Kerry, US secretary of state at the time of the annexation of Crimea, accused him of a foreign policy that “uses nineteenth-century categories”, he probably took it as a compliment. Without compromises
Born on the ruins of a clumsy empire, Putin’s government project is all on the defensive: the key words of 2000 such as freedom, mobility, equity, liquidity, the Net, the multi and the micro, are all abhorred. It is a world that chases authority and solidity, where men are men and women are women, where everything has its place, and the boss is right even when he is wrong. In Putin’s Russia, government psychologists include inciting children to “disrespect their parents” among the criteria of the crime of gay propaganda.
It is no coincidence that Putin uses the “vertical of power” as one of the first mantras of his reign. And the so-called “Culture 2″, theorized by Vladimir Paperny in his brilliant essay Architecture in the age of Stalin which, starting from architecture and then expanding to every sphere, from language to geography, describes the eternal Russian antagonism between ” horizontality “and” verticality “, which offers everyone a place in the hierarchy and the possibility, in their own small way, of being the tip of a pyramid of power that has children, employees, students, customers, at worst the cat .
Putin took direct inspiration from Nicholas I in proposing a conservative alliance to Europe against the chaos of liberal individualism. It is no coincidence that one of the most frequent phrases of his constituents is “with Putin we are safe”, even if they often struggle to explain from which threats they feel protected. A post-traumatic conservative, a president by chance who, together with his people, tries to cushion the shock of the fall of the empire: a mission that in other hands could also have meant a controlled transition towards a European model.
To which Putin was undoubtedly attracted, if only for the obvious superiority of the economic and social offer. And from which – again in harmony with his electorate – he felt rejected. Or rather, it has found itself incompatible as an outdated software. For the political scientist Stanislav Belkovsky, who after being one of Putin’s spin doctors for years now investigates him more with the methods of psychoanalysis than the social sciences, the president is the victim of his complexes as a kid in the suburbs of Leningrad, a childhood that he himself had told how dominated by the gopniks, the thugs of the neighborhood gangs.
A world in which to yield was tantamount to showing weakness, and fear was equated with a sign of respect. The compromise chip, in fact, does not seem to have been mounted in Putin’s head. Whenever it came to choosing between dialogue and prevarication, the seemingly shy and controlled president opted for the latter. He did it with Chechnya. He did so at the crucial crossroads of 2003, when instead of agreeing to co-manage power with the opposition, oligarchs and regions, he chose to jail Mikhail Khodorkovsky, ban the liberal parties from the Duma and ban elections for governors.
He did so with dissidents in the streets of 2012, refusing even to meet them. He did it with Ukraine that ousted its candidate Viktor Yanukovych, another son of the Soviet sub-proletarian suburbs. He did it again with Alexey Navalny, treated much harsher than Brezhnev did with Sakharov. Compromise is not an instrument contemplated by the Russian authoritarian tradition. Those who challenge power are annihilated: as a lesson for others, but above all to avoid showing a weakness that a strong man cannot bear.
The leaders most despised by the Russians are Gorbachev and Yeltsin, two politicians who have never sent their enemies to jail, and who have given up power without a fight. Dictatorship, which often fascinates as a complex mystery, in reality inevitably prefers simple solutions, binary contrasts and rigid scaffolding, and delegating and sharing are two words that autocrats abhor. His strength ends up becoming his own trap, as Alexey Navalny himself demonstrated, masterfully playing on the fears and automatisms of authoritarianism to transform himself into the hero and martyr of the regime.
The color revolutions and the Arab springs have been a nightmare for the Kremlin that teaches how even a tattered and apparently minority protest can explode by surprise, in a political system that does not want to mediate and that is too rigid to bend; yet the only answer that a dictatorship can offer is to increase the repression even more. A road that has already led Arab, Asian and Latin American despots into a dead end from which it is difficult to get out alive. Those who leave vents in the media, semi-autonomous parties and dissident intellectuals on a long leash live longer, and sometimes even die in their own bed. But this is a lesson that the KGB High School was not taught.
From Anna Zafesova’s book, “Navalny against Putin”, Countries editions “Who is Mister Putin