Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, born 7 October 1952, is a Russian politician who has served as both President and Prime Minister of Russia. He was re-elected as President in March 2012.
Mr. Putin is a career KGB officer who spent 16 years of his life in the KGB. He graduated from then Leningrad State University from the law department, which like many things didn’t prepare laws since law didn’t exist at the time of the Soviet Union but prepared governmental bureaucrats. So he was well prepared for this job.
Putin joined the KGB at the end of his study and first he worked in Leningrad in so-called intelligence from the territory. It’s not a pure intelligence in the Western meaning of this word, it’s the sort of the work where KGB guys were looking after foreign businessmen and tourists.
He probably was pretty good. Since he was able to get a promotion and to get a year-long study in the famous intelligence academy now named after Andropov. For someone with his background in the class sensitive Soviet Union, it was extremely difficult to get this promotion because intelligence as a whole and this institute in particular was a designated place for the elite of the Communist society, for those sons of the Central Committee of the Communist Party employees and generals of the KGB.
Probably one of the reasons he got this promotion … he was very loyal to his superiors through his entire life. And second, Putin was very capable to suppress his individuality, whether he had and has one or not. In the Soviet Union, the rule of the game was if one wanted to make a career one had to obey the following saying: “Never stick your head out of the tram window.”
In 1995, he got an assignment in the second biggest KGB intelligence office, in East Germany, in Dresden. … He wasn’t very successful despite of all the stories that you often can read in the foreign press. I mean Putin never been a sort of James Bond. And got another setback. For the third time in his life intelligence didn’t invite him to join its ranks. And he got a position as assistant to the Dean of the Leningrad University, the kind of position that was usually assigned for the resigned KGB colonels. I mean it meant his career in the KGB was over.
At the same time, Anatoly Sobchak, the very well-known politician of this new wave of Russian politicians’ from sort of democratic circles, he became a mayor of St. Petersburg, then Leningrad. Legend goes that Sobchak asked Putin to help him because Sobchak knew Putin since the time he was a professor at Leningrad University and Putin was his student.
I don’t buy this legend. What is known that back in 1989, 1990, KGB internal regulations required its officers to penetrate new civic situations. And, in fact, if you talk to those who worked in the mayor’s Subchak’s office of the time they will tell you that all of them were perfectly aware that Putin was assigned to this new democratically-elected mayor to watch after him, to advise him.
However, those who worked with Putin at the time in St. Petersburg say that he was very effective manager and he was the one who was capable, unlike many others, to make a decision. Putin has a reputation of an honest guy–something very rare for one who made a career inside the Russian bureaucracy.
Obviously, I don’t think that’s a good idea to judge Putin just by his KGB past. Because that’s the way KGB used to judge us, Soviet citizens, just because we are not party members or had wrong last name or belonged to wrong nationality or religious confession. I do believe that people are capable to change. And that 10 years in the democratic circles did make a certain impact on Putin.
I have no doubt that his own experience both in East Germany–and he frequently travelled to West Germany as well as his experience in Leningrad made him a believer in the market economy. If you talk to the intelligence officers who were stationed abroad, the absolute majority of them say that market economy is much more effective way of running the country than the type of economy and regime that existed in the Soviet Union.
So, I’m not concerned about whether he’s going to conduct the market reforms or not. I’m more concerned about his approach towards democracy, human rights and personal freedoms and liberties.
The mentality of the KGB officer is such that they were taught to be an extreme statist. In Russian language it [is] derzhavnik–by saying derzhavnik, we mean those who believe in the Russian greatness, in the Russian imperialistic notion of being a great empire. That’s the kind of mentality that was taught and developed inside the KGB. And we clearly can see that Putin is that sort of extreme statist. For him, as for many of those who worked in the KGB, the state always goes first.
Everything else democratic institutions, personal liberties, personal freedoms, individuality, human rights–everything else is after this. Therefore, I’m afraid that if, if this notion of creating strong Russian state demands from Putin to crush democratic institutions he won’t think twice before doing that.
To make the long story short, for Putin democracy in Russia is not an end. He doesn’t have personal stakes in that like, for instance, Yeltsin had. For him, democratic institutions are the means. [If] sometimes effective means, then he will use them. Sometimes not effective, then he will screw them up.
I think that Putin is a pretty much pragmatic guy. He does understand that Russian economy cannot survive without the help from the West. On the other hand, he does know that Russia is lacking the capabilities to blackmail the Western countries with its nukes. Therefore, Putin will try to do his best in order to save this democratic face, in order to receive Western help.
He also understands that for those foreign businessmen who are afraid to come to Russia now but who are looking to the Russian market, they do want to have a stronger state in Russia. And it’s true that the kind of state that exists now in Russia is pure chaos. And therefore, we do need to strengthen the State and those institutions who are responsible for law and order in the country.
My concern is that Putin may choose order without law. However, I do think that he’s smart enough and he does understand the Treasury will be unable to sustain market reforms without help from the Western countries. Therefore, I think that he will preserve some sort of a democratic face, at least for the foreseeable future.
Russia is a very infantile society. We got accustomed to having a state that was responsible for everything in our lives: medical care, schools, you know, even the way we made kids. The State was responsible for everything; the State got involved in everything.
Compared to the sick and incapable Yeltsin, Putin has this image of the guy who is ready to give you his hand and lead you in the bright nice future. And all you have to do is just to grab this hand and say, “guy, take me in this bright future. I want to go there with you, whatever it takes. And if on your way to this bright future, you need to create another Gulag, that’s fine with me, as long as, you lead me.”