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.”