Vladimir Putin, the Thug behind the Myth

Robert Amsterdam translates an op-ed from the German newspaper Die Welt that tells the reals story of Vladimir Putin, the “problem kid and street hoodlum.”

A washing machine. That is all that Vladimir Putin, 37 years old at the time, had to show as the fruit of his labors from his KGB career. Alright, let’s not be unfair. He had also scratched together enough money to buy a Volga. The washing machine was a gift, however. It was a modest present from Putin’s German neighbor in the Stasi building where he lived. Today Putin no longer drives a Volga, but rather an Audi with BMW engine and a license plate that seems to sneer: 007. In the James Bond novels by Ian Flemings the double zero is the symbol for the license to kill. There is no doubt that Putin has made generous use of that right, but we will return to that in a moment. First, back to the washing machine. It doesn’t really fit what one would imagine for a top agent. And anyway, (with all due respect to the Saxons) Dresden?! Why didn’t the KGB heads send Putin to Berlin, on the front lines of the Cold War? Why not to West Germany, to see the whites of the class enemy’s eyes? Couldn’t it be that Putin (a washing machine!) was more of a modest secret service agent, a bland civil servant.

We know for certain that he wanted to go to the KGB as early as 15 years old. Before that he spent his childhood as a problem kid and street hoodlum, of which he seems to be proud even today. What kind of person wants to be a KGB agent at 15, not an astronaut or something? “A mean, little-minded and vindictive person,” answers Nataliya Gevorkyan, who has interviewed Putin extensively after being tasked with writing his official biography through some haphazard means. Nataliya Gevorkyan has had a lot of experience with secret service officers. Putin is no different from the others, she says today, “by far not the most interesting person I ever interviewed.” To her Putin seems poor at making decisions and not particularly brave, and he is consumed by envy for anyone who has shown real bravery. How could such a man become the head of Russia’s government, in charge of all the nuclear weapons, oil and dashed hopes? If Masha Gessen is correct, it was the horrible miscarriage of the Russian casting show “Who Wants to be a Superboss?”

At the end of the Nineties President Yeltsin was desperate. All of his loyal followers had left or betrayed him, and there was no replacement in sight. His political family, including his daughter, her husband and the superrich Boris Berezovsky, searched for someone to save the Russian democracy. They found the faceless Putin, who was presented to Russian voters as young, energetic, fresh and ready to reform. Once in power he formed Russia to the rules that had once garnered him a washing machine. “In the end he introduced a military regime,” wrote Masha Gessen in Vanity Fair. “The percentage of uniformed officers in leadership positions went from 13 to 42 percent, and many others are secret agents in plainclothes.” In the Soviet Union, she continued, there was still a two-pronged power structure; the party and the KGB fought with each other over influence and advantages. Today only one of these branches is left. Russia is the first country in history run by a secret service. A secret service that, as mentioned above, has monopolized the license to use kill. “There is a clear pattern through Putin’s history, in that anyone who knows anything about him is either in exile, dead, or works closely with him in the Russian government.”

In Putin’s Russia there are still schools, and history is still taught. The teachers must adhere to the rules however, which were drawn up by two men named Gleb Pavlovsky and Pavel Danilin. Both have compiled schoolbooks. Pavel Danilin also has a blog, where the 30 year-old writes that he has never in his life given a lesson. “You might sweat blood, but with the help of these books you will teach the children exactly as the needs of Russia dictate. As to the royal nonsense that you drag around with you in your misshapen goat head, either you blow it out or you will be blown out of the teaching profession.” What is in the new schoolbooks? The Gulag Archipelago is mentioned exactly once, to warn the children not to overestimate its influence on the Soviet Union. No quote from Solzhenitsyn’s “A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.” No paragraph from Varlam Shalamov’s “Kolyma Tales.” No scene from “Life and Fate” by Vasili Grossmann, from the most important Russian novel of the 20th century. Of course, only the “attempts at global dominance” on the part of the United States were the cause of the Cold War after 1945. Stalin is favorably quoted when he called Churchill a “war criminal.” The subjugation of Eastern Europe under Communism served legitimate Soviet security interests. Israel was the “aggressor” in the 6-day War of 1967, etc. etc. ad nauseam.

As Leon Aron explained in the “New Republic,” all this corresponds exactly to the image of history drawn by Vladimir Putin at a conference, where the schoolbook authors named above were among the guests. According to Putin there was only one problematic phase in the Soviet Union, namely the “Great Cleansing” of 1937. “But other countries,” said Putin, “had no less of it, they even had more. At least we never dumped chemicals over thousands of kilometers and dropped seven times as many bombs as were used in WWII on a small country, such as happened in Vietnam.”

That would bring us to the good old Soviet Union days under Brezhnev, in which certain “outgrowths of the Stalin personality cult” could be criticized, but the mass murder of millions of Ukrainians and Kazakhs, the nameless deaths in camps near the polar circle, simply did not take place. There have certainly been eras in the past in which Russian schoolchildren were fed an extremely sweetened version of history. Under Czar Nicholas I, around 1826, the motto of the day was “Russia’s past was wonderful, its present is more than great, and its future supersedes anything the wildest fantasy might dream up.” (At least that last bit was true in a literal sense.) Joseph Vissarionovich himself took pen in hand and corrected the schoolbooks with a red pen. What makes Putinism so original and different is that he is grabbing for the rehabilitation of truth, after the Glasnost of the Gorbachev years, which were a “moral revolution.” A society free of fear took itself to the stand, which lead to an “explosion of journalistic and intellectual brilliance.” Now the lid is going back on, and may the Lord take pity on anyone who protests. “It is impossible,” wrote Pavel Danilin in his blog, “to let any kind of shit-stinking or any other amoral idiot teach Russian history. We must wash out the dirt, and if that doesn’t help we must wash it out with violence.”

The Russian intervention in Georgia fits this unhappy picture, but not in the way one might think. It does not change the relationships of power, it just shows that they have been changed for a while. The Americans are in the Middle East with their hands tied, and all promises they once made to their allies in the Russian periphery are worthless. The Europeans have no troops and are dependent on Russian natural gas. In Russia’s view it is only taking what belongs to it, according to George Friedman in the New York Review of Books. “The war in Georgia… is Russia’s return as a great power. That did not just happen, it started as Putin took over power and has been getting stronger over the past 5 years.”

This may all be true. At the same time, it remains distressing that America’s leftist liberals hate the Republicans so much that in their blindness they actually have friendly things to say about Imperialism á la Putin. The famous commentator William Pfaff wrote about the “gossip in Washington” regarding “democratic Georgia,” which had itself taken over South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and he asked rhetorically, “Ok, so who is democratic now and who is not?” Even Barak Obama first placed the blame for the conflict equally between Russia and Georgia, and called for temperance from both sides. David Greenberg, a stated critic of the George W. Bush government, almost reflects with nostalgia on the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. At that time Adlai Stevenson, the democratic presidential candidate, showed unequivocal solidarity with the freedom-loving Hungarian people. The left-liberal “New York Times” wrote in a front page article, “We accuse the Soviet government of murder.”

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13 responses to “Vladimir Putin, the Thug behind the Myth

  1. The West failed in the 1990’s to make a case for democracy and a market system. They left Russia to its own devices and offered perfunctory support. I worked in the Russian Television and Film industry in the 1990’s. The studios were left to rot. Mosfilm sound stages were used as warehouse to store campbell’s soup, canned dole fruit cocktails, and ramen noodles. Instead these sound stages should have been filled with actors, cameras, and lights, showing the story of what it means to be free. The seeds were sown in the 1990’s. The Russians are now reaping their Putin harvest.

  2. The west was fighting an uphill battle trying to convince the cynical, brainwashed Russian masses who instead of throwing communists in jail, they were elected to the Duma, where they could continue to subvert all attempts at real democratic reform. It seems the idea of freedom in Russia just meant it gave the biggest thug the freedom to rip off his neighbor any way that he could. The communist system left the average person with little or no ability to think as an individual. And the average person was nothing more than cannon fodder for those in control, the state comes first, top-down government. I think it’s a bit simple minded to just blame the west for Russia’s inability to embrace a democratic government. The Russian system will need to be turned on it’s head from the bottom up for any real chance at reform, and the Russian people just don’t seem to be equiped for that task.

  3. Let’s remember that the economic “criminals” of the Soviet days, who learned that the only way to get ahead was through “blat” and dealing under the table, are the same ones that rose to become the criminal underworld of the new Russia. All the young Komsomol leaders of the 1980’s are the current leaders in the Kremlin! The Russians mindset cannot accept law and order and fairness. If you obey the law in Russia, then they look at you like an idiot. “You must be too stupid not to think of a way around the law,” is something they would think of a law abiding western citizen. With a mindset like that, is it any surprise they admire their Thug-in-Chief?

  4. sigh, fully agree with Bill. I hope that changes… One way is to crush down the Oil prices and put serious financial sanctions on Russia, to make Putin’s regime weak.

  5. I would just add to what Oleg said on October 14, 2008 at 7:53 pm – “If you obey the law in Russia, then they look at you like an idiot” .

    There is even special name for it – ” loh”.

    Meaning decent, cultivated, un-cunning, law-obeying citizen, which is easy to cheat or rob, too weak to defend himself against brute force or impudence.

    Seems that West in general is regarded as “lohs” by Russian elite these days and treated accordingly.

  6. Guess I’m just a dumb, gullible “loh”. To bad the Russian people don’t really understand what America/freedom is about. Sure I abide by the laws, but I’m also equipped with 3 handguns, 3 shotguns, and 4 rifles of various calibers with plenty of ammunition on hand. And there are 80 million other gun owners who would prohibit a Putin from ever taking over here. I actually feel sorry for the Russian people, they’ve been screwed over as much or more than any people on planet earth throughout history. It’s really unfortunate they actually believe their life is better if ours is worse, that’s just a shame they’ve been led to believe that to be true.

  7. Bill, won’t you be my neighbor? It may sound like a joke, but I really mean it.

  8. seanquixote,
    Where do you live? Do you fear for your life? Lucky for me, my neighborhood is very safe, neighbors look out for each other.

  9. Personally, I disagree with a lot of this article. I’m not personally acquainted with Russian textbooks, so I can’t say if that’s right – however, interpretations of it are wrong. For example, believe it or not, Israel WAS the aggressor in the six-day war. They had as much intelligence on the matter as the US did prior to the Iraqi war, and look how that turned out – wrong intelligence. If someone could provide a respectable link that shows that Israel found indisputable proof that an attack on them was planned, I’ll believe otherwise. And on subjugation of Eastern Europe, excuse me, but since when has the US NOT tried to assassinate and overthrow hostile, or even just socialistic ‘regimes’ in the Americas? Cuba is a very obvious example, but there are others.

    For the ex-KGB running a state, I suppose it’s possible. However, as long as the people are happy and security is kept, I don’t see any problem with that. 75% of Russians still approve of the government, and that’s more then what I can say for the US. Legislative OR executive branch.

    As for Obama placing blame on the conflict on both Georgia and Russia – has is this not true? Which attacked first? What country was stupid enough to attack what was essentially a protectorate of a powerful neighbor? What country killed hundreds of its owned citizens? (Yay democracy!)

    Georgia isn’t democratic. It’s as much as a democracy as Russia is. It has active riot-police, it uses force to keep itself intact, etc. And after the initial war-fervor died down, Saakashvili ended up with less popularity in Georgia than Putin or Medvedev have enjoyed in Russia.

  10. Bill, that is exactly what I mean. Your neighbors should be greatful.

  11. I’m safe, but your concern is overwhelming. Keep doing what you do, for the sake of all of us.

  12. As for Obama placing blame on the conflict on both Georgia and Russia – has is this not true? Which attacked first? What country was stupid enough to attack what was essentially a protectorate of a powerful neighbor? What country killed hundreds of its owned citizens? (Yay democracy!)

    This kind of idiocy cannot be cannot be countered, but in the spirit of my forefathers, I will try.

    Point 1, Georgia never violated Russian soil.

    Point 2, was Russia really a protectorate, or was it casting a shadow over their prosperity, if extortion on a national level, could be prosecuted, Russia would be serving 5-10.

    Point 3, what country killed millions of its “owned” citezens. (Yay tyranny!)

  13. By no means am I defending Obama, but Anon has absolutely no historical perspective. He has the prose of an eighth grader.

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