Vladimir Putin’s Kleptocratic Authoritarianism

The story of a system and a book.

Let us state from the very beginning that professor Karen Dawisha’s book on the origins and establishment of the Putin regime is a devastating one, immensely researched and meant to provide irrefutable evidence for the mafia-like nature of the simulacrum of a state that is today’s Russia. With amazing accuracy and a remarkable passion for documenting even the smallest detail in this archeology of the invasion and seizure of Russia’s resources by a group rooted in the structures of the KGB, now FSB, Karen Dawisha produced not only an insightful analysis, but a proper indictment.

The Putin system is not only a political dictatorship, but also an economic one—which is perhaps the very key to understanding the former. Before conquering political power through sordid maneuvers and Florentine backstage alliances—masterfully playing the role of trustworthy right hand to tycoons such as Boris Berezovsky and Roman Abramovich, as well as earning the support of Boris Yeltsin’s daughter and son-in-law—, “the man without a face,” as journalist Masha Gessen called him, climbed the power ladder to the supreme position which—claims Karen Dawisha— he has not the slightest intention to relinquish in the foreseeable future. Quite the opposite, we might add.

There is nothing sensationalist in this Sisyphean deconstruction of the Putin system that the director of the Havighurst Center for Russian Studies at Miami University of Ohio, a respected expert on communism and post-communism, proposes. The tone is reserved and personalized details are avoided. The goal is scientific, but the implications are obviously moral and point to policy-making issues. This is especially significant since the sanctions implemented a year ago apply precisely to the characters indicated in the book as the architects and beneficiaries of the regime led by the KGB mega-oligarch.

These people hate the West, but they have put all their money in Western banks, spend their holidays in Monaco and Biarritz, go skiing in Austria and Bavaria, and literally buy castles in Spain. Putin is Homo Sovieticus turned billionaire with a Zurich bank account. Perhaps this is the ultimate difference between him and his openly declared role model, Yuri Andropov. The late President of the KGB, then briefly secretary general of the CPSU, also stopped at nothing—including many times death threats and even murder—, but the nature of his goals was different--still malignant, obviously. Putin is a rapacious parvenu, Andropov was in his own way a Bolshevik of the revolutionary ascetic variety, he did not dream of Vacheron Constantin watches, but could make do with a Soviet one...

The story begins in Leningrad in 1975, when Vladimir (Vova, as the Russian diminutive goes) Putin joins the ranks of the KGB. He works in counterintelligence, surveilling dissidents. Some say he even interrogates them. His heroes, then and now, are Feliks Dzerzhinsky and Yuri Andropov. He simulates an ascetic lifestyle, but is captivated by Western consumer items. He ends up an officer in Dresden, recruiting East German citizens as KGB agents. He makes friends among the Stasi officers specialized in technological theft. Some of them would become leading figures in the German banks that opened branches in Russia after 1991. He returns to Saint Petersburg and ingratiates himself with Mayor Anatoly Sobchak, a prominent figure in self-proclaimed reformist and even democratic circles.

He starts big business ventures, taking advantage of his German contacts. This book makes it quite clear that the German connection is essential. He sends his daughters to high school there. The way in which he is perceived in Germany also matters a great deal to him. He promotes Alexander Rahr, a former Radio Free Europe analyst, his German biographer, who receives various honorary titles in Russia and has special access to Putin. At the same time, freedom of expression is being suppressed.

Putin’s wealth and that of his circle (siloviki) of former (sic) KGB agents from Leningrad increases exponentially, reaching astronomical levels. He builds palaces for himself and wears watches worth $700,000. At the same time, he puts on a hermetic, impenetrable mask on his face. He convinces the West that he is committed to the “war on terror,” while waging his own war against liberty, memory and civil society back home. George W. Bush looks into his eyes and feels he can trust him. Later on, Barack Obama goes down the same road when he proclaims the need for a “reset,” i.e., the need to give Putin another chance.

The book does not claim to provide an exhaustive scan of contemporary Russia’s political system, but the tools for understanding its nature. Even so, Cambridge University Press decided not to publish it in England, although Karen Dawisha was a successful Cambridge author. British defamation laws (libel laws) are intimidating. Dictators everywhere use them in a cynical manner. It was not just CUP. Simon and Schuster, the American publisher, also refused to distribute it in England. Fortunately, Edward Lucas, the director of the weekly The Economist, learning about the whole adventure with CUP, made the story public in his journal. Thus, in less than three days, the contract with the American editorial giant came into existence. The book was taken over by Alice Mayhew, the highly influential editor.

Once published, the book enjoyed glowing reviews, including one by Anne Applebaum in The New York Review of Books. The book’s thesis is trenchant and clear: the Putin regime did not emerge accidentally, purely by chance, but is the result of an "intelligent design" of sorts, a systematic strategy to seize Russia’s most important resources, from the exorbitant amounts of hard currency belonging to the late CPSU and stored in Western banks, to oil and gas. “Gazprom” is indeed Putin’s home. What we have here is an unsettling read, one vitally necessary in these times when some voices are trying to justify the unjustifiable and find all kinds of excuses and alibis for a regime that is authoritarian, kleptocratic, corrupt to the backbone, aggressive, militaristic, repressive, and expansionist. A regime which, when coming across indomitable critics, resorts to any means possible in order to silence them, including murder.

Vladimir Tismaneanu is a professor of politics at the University of Maryland (College Park) and author of numerous books, including most recently “The Devil in History: Communism, Fascism, and Some Lessons of the Twentieth Century.” Marius Stan is a Romanian political scientist, author of books in Romanian and Polish, and currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Bucharest. This essay was translated from Romanian into English by Monica Got.

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Tags: KGB, Putin