[previously in series:Erdogan, Modi, Orban, Xi]

I. Vladimir Putin’s Childhood As Metaphor For Life

Vladimir Putin appeared on Earth fully-formed at the age of nine.

At least this is the opinion of Natalia Gevorkyan, his first authorized biographer. There were plenty of witnesses and records to every post-nine-year-old stage of Putin’s life. Before that, nothing. Gevorkyan thinks he might have been adopted. Putin’s official mother, Maria Putina, was 42 and sickly when he was born. In 1999, a Georgian peasant woman, Vera Putina, claimed to be his real mother, who had given him up for adoption when he was ten. Journalists dutifully investigated and found that a “Vladimir Putin” had been registered at her village’s school, and that a local teacher remembered him as a bright pupil who loved Russian folk tales. What happened to him? Unclear; Artyom Borovik, the investigative journalist pursuing the story, died in a plane crash just before he could publish. Another investigative journalist, Antonio Russo, took up the story, but “his body was found on the edge of a country road . . . bruised and showed signs of torture, with techniques related to special military services.”

Still, I’m inclined to doubt the adoption theory. Vladimir Putin’s official father, a WWII veteran and factory worker, was also named Vladimir Putin. The adoption story requires that a child named Vladimir Putin was coincidentally adopted by a man also named Vladimir Putin. Far easier to believe that an old Georgian woman had a son who died or was adopted out. Then, when a man with the same name became President of Russia, she assuaged her broken heart by pretending it was the same guy. Records of Putin’s early life are surprisingly sparse. But there are a few photos (admittedly fakeable), and people who aren’t face-blind tell me that Putin looks very much like his official mother.

undefinedVladimir Putin, age 6, with his official mother Maria Putina.

As for the investigative journalist deaths, it would be more surprising for a Russian investigative journalist of the early 2000s not to die horribly. Both were researching other things about Putin besides his childhood. and had made themselves plenty of enemies. Russo was in Chechnya at the time, another known risk factor for horrible death. I wouldn’t over-update on this.

Still, I found the adoption controversy interesting as a metaphor for everything about Putin. Vladimir Putin really did seem to appear on Earth - or at least in the corridors of power in Russia - fully formed. At each step in his career, he was promoted for no particular reason, or because he seemed so devoid of personality that nobody could imagine him causing trouble. This culminated in his 2000 appointment as Yeltsin’s successor when “The world’s largest landmass, a land of oil, gas, and nuclear arms, had a new leader, and its business and political elites had no idea who he was.”

My source for this quote is The Man Without A Face: The Unlikely Rise Of Vladimir Putin by Masha Gessen, a rare surviving Russian investigative journalist. As always in Dictator Book Club, we’ll go through the story first, then discuss if there are any implications for other countries trying to avoid dictatorship.

II. The Agony And The Ex-Stasi

Officially, Vladimir Putin was born in 1952 to Vladimir Putin Sr. and Maria Putina, two middle class laborers who had lost their previous two children in the hellish Nazi siege of Leningrad a decade before.

Putin’s paternal grandfather was Spiridon Putin, “personal cook to Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin”1. Also:

[Spiridon] Putin worked at the famous Hotel Astoria, where he once served Grigori Rasputin. Rasputin gave Putin a gold ruble as he was impressed with the cuisine and noticed the similarity between their names.

…but his family was otherwise normal. Putin was a mediocre student; schoolmates who remember him at all recall that he was easily-offended, often got in physical fights, and always won.

Around age ten, Putin got a burning desire to join the KGB. He credits the many pro-KGB propaganda kids’ TV shows of the time, but Gessen suspects that his father might also have been a secret KGB informant. Schoolmates remember he kept a portrait of the founder of the KGB on his desk. And Putin’s otherwise mediocre transcript was boosted by excellent grades in German; KGB employment required a foreign language. And so:

At the age of sixteen, a year before finishing secondary school, Vladimir Putin went to the KGB headquarters in Leningrad to try to sign up. “A man came out,” he recalled for a biographer. “He did not know who I was. And I never saw him again after that. I told him I go to school and in the future I would like to work for the state security services. I asked if it was possible and what I would have to do to achieve it. The man said they don’t usually sign up volunteers, but the best way for me would be to go to college or serve in the military. I asked him which college. He said a law college or the law department of the university would be best.

To everyone’s surprise, mediocre student Putin applied to university and got in. Then:

All through my university years I kept waiting for that man I spoke to at KGB headquarters to remember me . . . but they had forgotten all about me, because I had been a schoolboy when I came . . . But I remembered they do not sign up volunteers, so I made no moves myself. Four years went by. Silence. I decided the issue was closed and started looking around for other possible job assignments . . . But when I was in my fourth year, I was contacted by a man who said he wanted to meet with me. He did not say who he was, but somehow I knew right away.

Putin trained relentlessly, both at the official KGB school and in his hobby of judo, though he took time out to marry his sweetheart:

Putin’s own descriptions of his relationships paint him as a strikingly inept communicator. He had one significant relationship with a woman before meeting his future wife; he left her at the altar. “That’s how it happened,” he told his biographers, explaining nothing. “It was really hard.”

He was no more articulate on the subject of the woman he actually married - nor, it seems, was he successful at communicating his feelings to her during their courtship. They dated for more than three years - an extraordinarily long time by Soviet or Russia standards, and at a very advanced age: Putin was almost thirty-one when they married which made him a member of a tiny minority - less than ten percent - of Russians who remained unmarried past the age of thirty.

The future Mrs Putin was a domestic flight attendant from the Baltic Sea city of Kaliningrad; they had met through an acquaintance. She has gone on record saying it was by no means love at first sight, for at first sight Putin seemed unremarkable and poorly dressed; he has never said anything about his love for her. In their courtship, it seems, she was both the more emotional and the more insistent one. Her description of the day he finally proposed paints a picture of a failure to communicate so profound that it is surprising these people actually maanged to get married and have two children.

“One evening we were sitting in his apartment, and he says ‘ Little friend, by now you know what I’m like. I am basically not a very convenient person.’ And then he went on to describe himself: not a talker, can be pretty harsh, can hurt your feelings, and so on. Not a good person to spend your life with. And he goes on. ‘Over the course of three and a half years you’ve probably made up your mind.’ I realized we were probably breaking up. So I said, ‘Well, yes, I’ve made up my mind.’ And he said, with doubt in his voice, ‘Really?’ That’s when I knew we were definitely breaking up. ‘In that case,’ he said, ‘I love you and I propose we get married on such and such a day.’ And that was completely unexpected.”

They were married three months later.

Life as a KGB officer was disappointing. Gessen describes it as sitting in a Leningrad office, cutting articles out of newspapers, and sending them to superiors who would ignore them. Putin probably worked in “counterintelligence”, which meant the newspaper articles he cut out were about dissidents. There was no interesting dissent in Leningrad in the late 1970s.

After five years, Putin got his “big break”; he was assigned to be a spy in East Germany. This, too, underwhelmed him. The East Germany assignment consisted of sitting in the KGB offices in Dresden, cutting articles out of East German papers, and sending them to superiors who would ignore them.

Putin drank beer and got fat. He stopped training, or exercising at all, and he gained over twenty pounds - a disastrous addition to his short and fairly narrow frame. From all apeearances, he was seriously depressed […]

He spent most days sitting at his desk, in a room he shared with one other agent (every other officer in the Dresden building had his own office) . . . Former agents estimate they spent three-quarters of their time writing reports. Putin’s biggest success in his [five year] stay in Dresden appears to have been in drafting a Colombian universtiy student at a school in West Berlin, who in turn introduced them to a Colombian-born US Army sergeant, who sold them an unclassified Army manual for 800 marks.

In 1989, the Soviet Union began to collapse. East Germans protested in front of KGB headquarters; Putin was sent out to negotiate and got screamed at and insulted. HQ refused to defend them or even give them orders, before finally telling them to burn all their records - the records Putin had wasted the past five years of his life meticulously collecting. He and his fellow spies spent a few tense days shoveling their lives’ work into stoves while people outside hurled curses at them. He stayed and watched briefly as his East German friends and colleagues were fired and banned from all good jobs for collaborating with the Soviet occupiers - then was recalled home to Leningrad, where nobody had any idea what he should do. Feeling abandoned, even betrayed, he handed in his resignation to the KGB.

Back in Leningrad, he briefly got a position at the university as “assistant chancellor for foreign relations” on the grounds that he was one of the only people in the city who had ever been to a foreign country. After only a few months, the new mayor offered him a high position in city government, for the same reason. This was Anatoly Sobchak, a two-faced politician who had climbed to the top by convincing both the pro-democracy protesters and the communists he was on their side. Gessen speculates he promoted Putin both because of his foreign experience, and because “it’s better to choose your own KGB handler than to have one assigned to you.”

Wait, hadn’t Putin already resigned from the KGB? Yes. He did this several times throughout his life, always at dramatic moments. When the next dramatic moment arrived, he would hand in his resignation again. Partly this is because Putin is lying about all of this, and he can’t keep his lies straight. But partly it’s because resigning from the KGB is futile; once you’re a part of the network, they will always feel free to call on you when needed. Putin could resign as often as it felt dramatically appropriate to do so, secure that this wouldn’t affect his membership in any way.

Also, it seems unclear whether you can disband the KGB. Around this point in the story, the Soviet generals launched their coup, Yeltsin defeated them, and the KGB was replaced by various other security agencies more congenial to a newly democratic state. But everyone continues to act as if this isn’t true, and Putin continues to call on and be called upon by his KGB connections. I don’t have a great sense of exactly how this worked - maybe the new security agency, the FSB, had strong institutional continuity? Maybe the formal network gracefully transitioned into an informal one?

Deputy Mayor Putin with his boss, Mayor SobchakDeputy Mayor Putin with his boss, Mayor Sobchak (source)

Putin became Deputy Mayor In Charge Of Foreign Affairs, in charge of making business deals with foreign cities. In this position, he was notably corrupt even for 1990s St. Petersburg, one of the most corrupt cities in one of the most corrupt eras in one of the most corrupt nations in history. People who challenged his corruption tended to have bad things happen to him; probably he called on his KGB connections here, though it seemed he also had some connections to local organized crime. Mayor Sobchak, who was equally corrupt, stood behind him the whole way. Eventually the electorate got tired of all the corruption and voted Sobchak out; Putin moved to Moscow and got various mid-level positions on the strength of being boring, loyal, and not having enough personality to offend anybody - others say the KGB was involved in some way.

Around this time, President Boris Yeltsin was floundering. He had descended into alcoholism, become temperamental, fired all of his competent ministers, and mismanaged the country to the brink of economic collapse. His approval rating was 2%. The only people in Moscow who didn’t hate him were his daughter Tatyana and friendly oligarch Boris Berezovksy. Their job was to pick new officials when Yeltsin would fire the previous ones in a drunken rage. When an opening in Security opened up, Berezovsky remembered Putin, who he had met a few times doing business in St. Petersburg. Putin had refused a bribe - something so shocking it had seared him in the oligarch’s memory2.

If Berezovsky is to be believed, he was the one who mentioned Putin to Valentin Yumashev, Yeltsin’s chief of staff. “I said ‘We’ve got Putin, who used to be in the secret services, didn’t he?’ And Valya said ‘Yes, he did,’ and I said, ‘Listen, I think it’s an option. Think about it: he is a friend, after all.’ And Valya said, ‘But he’s got pretty low rank.’ And I said, ‘Look, there is a revolution going on, everything is all mixed up, so there . . . ‘“

As the description of the decision-making process for appointing the head of the main security agency of a nuclear power, this conversation sounds so absurd, I am actually inclined to believe it.

Putin got to work filling the FSB with his old KGB pals, and Yeltsin got to work tanking his reputation still further. By this time, the most likely scenario was that the opposition party - the Communists - would win the upcoming election, then prosecute Yeltsin for corruption. Berezovsky and Tatyana Yeltsin tried to come up with an exit strategy. All they could think of was resigning in favor of some handpicked successor who would give him a presidential pardon. But who?

Well, there was always Putin again. He still seemed loyal. The security forces seemed to like him. There were a bunch of wars going on in Chechnya, and it would look good to have a strong scary-looking guy in power. But mostly he was just in the right place at the right time.

Possibly the most bizarre fact about Putin’s ascent to power is that the people who lifted him to the throne know little more about him than you do. Berezovsky told me he never considered Putin a friend and never found him interesting as a person . . . but when he considered Putin as a successor to Yeltsin, he seemed to assume that the very qualities that had kept them at arm’s length would make Putin an ideal candidate. Putin, being apparently devoid of personality and personal interest, would be both malleable and disciplined.

And what did Boris Yeltsin himself know about his soon-to-be-anointed successor? He knew this was one of the few men who had remained loyal to him. He knew he was of a different generation: unlike Yeltsin, [communist opposition leader] Primakov, and his army of governors, Putin had not come up through the ranks of the Communist Party and had not, therefore, had to publicly switch allegiances when the Soviet Union collapsed. He looked different: all those men, without exception, were heavyset and, it seemed, permanently wrinkled; Putin - slim, small, and by now in the habit of wearing well-cut European suits - looked much more like the new Russia Yeltsin had promised his people ten years earlier. Yeltsin also knew, or thought he knew, that Putin would not allow the prosecution or persecution of Yeltsin himself once he retired. And if Yeltsin still possessed even a fraction of his once outstanding feel for politics, he knew that Russians would like this man they would be inheriting, and who would be inheriting them.

On December 31, 1999, Boris Yeltsin resigned in favor of Putin, effective immediately. That same day, Putin signed his first presidential decree - a law saying Yeltsin would not be prosecuted.

III. Doubt Creeps In

From the beginning, Putin had strong support. Westerners and liberals liked him because he was Yeltsin’s handpicked successor. Oligarchs liked him because he wasn’t communist and seemed potentially controllable. The Soviet nostalgia contingent liked him because he was ex-KGB and seemed to share their values.

As for ordinary citizens - a few months earlier, when Putin was still Yeltsin’s second-in-command, there had been a series of four apartment bombings, killing a total of 300+ people. Everyone suspected the Chechens, a group of Muslims with a history of terrorism who Russia was in the process of invading at the time. Vladimir Putin, as head of the security forces, got up in front of the country and gave a firm-sounding, profanity-laced speech where he vowed justice for everyone involved. His men quickly caught some Chechens, who were found guilty, and sentenced to life in prison. The bombings stopped. Putin was hailed as a hero.

Over the next few months, people started noticing weird things that didn’t add up. Most concerningly, a fifth bomb, in the city of Ryazan, had been discovered beforehand by an alert resident. The local police were called. They brought in a bomb squad, the bomb squad confirmed it was a bomb and defused it, and the apartment was saved. More heroics! Except a few days later, everyone involved backtracked and said no, it was fake, it was just a training exercise, no bomb at all, nothing to worry about. This was clearly false; the bomb squad had tested it and the bomb was as real as they come. Several members of the local police said this, then quickly changed their story. It started to look like a coverup.

Russia’s investigative journalists had not yet all been murdered, and some of them started looking into the case. It seemed that when local police successfully defused the bomb, they had found clues pointing to the perpetrators, who appeared to be associated with the Russian security services. The security services had then strong-armed the police into denying that a bomb ever existed.

Also, some people noticed that the speaker of the Russian Parliament had announced on September 13 that they had just received word of a bombing in Volgodonsk, but the bombing in Volgodonsk had not occurred until September 16. It would seem that someone had passed him the wrong note.

Seen on satirical conservative website Babylon Bee. This was exactly what happened with the Volgodonsk apartment bombing.

The standard position in the West is now that Putin orchestrated the apartment bombings himself - killing 300 Russians - as a justification for escalating the war on Chechnya and to make himself look good after he framed some perpetrators.

The plan worked. Putin won re-election handily. By the time people started questioning the official story, his power was already secure. The questioners faced harassment - typical “warning shots” would be burglaries of their houses with all the valuables left intact, or getting beaten up by random thugs while they were out walking, or being accused of a series of crimes - tax evasion, but if they proved themselves innocent of that, then it was taking bribes, and if they proved themselves innocent of that too, then it was failing to register their businesses correctly. Soon media oligarchs faced the same treatment, and either fled the country or handed their newspapers and TV channels over to the state. Boris Berezovsky, the oligarch who had originally helped put Putin in power, kept his own TV station until 2003, when the Russian submarine Kursk sank and Putin faced criticism for bungling the rescue.

Putin summoned Berezovsky, the former kingmaker and the man still in charge of Channel One, and demanded that the oligarch hand over his shares in the television company. “I said no, in the presence of [chief of stff] Voloshin,” Berezovsky told me. “So Putin changed his tone of voice then and said, ‘See you later, then, Boris Abramovich.’ and got up to leave. And I said, “Volodya [nickname for Vladimir], this is goodbye.’ We ended on this note, full of pathos […]

Within days, [Berezovsky] had left for France, then moved on to Great Britain, joining his former [business] rival Gusinsky in political exile. Soon enough, there was a awarrant out for his arrest in Russia and he had surrendered his shares of Channel One.

Over the next few years, Putin centralized authority further. He got Parliament to agree to constitutional changes where governors served at his whim, and members of Parliament were elected by governors. “The only official in the Russian Federation directly elected by the people was the President.” Then he made it clear that governors who kept his favor would keep their jobs, and vice versa.

He developed an entire colorful vocabulary for threatening people, moving beyond traditional standbys like “Nice house you’ve got there, shame if something were to happen to it” into new realms of intimidation. A Prime Minister who quit after Putin arrested one too many media tycoon was given the parting words “If you ever have a problem with the tax police, you may ask for help, but please come to me personally.” An urban legend says that leading dissident Marina Salye received a New Year’s postcard from Putin: “I wish you a Happy New Year and the health to enjoy it.”

By the time the next election came around in 2004, the vote counts were clearly fake. Gessen doubts Putin even had to give a direct order to falsify them; everyone was so desperate for his goodwill that they did so all on their own. The problem was less that honest officials refused to stuff the ballot box, and more that some bureaucrats were so desperate to make sure Putin knew they were complying with his (implied) desires that they faked the vote in extremely obvious ways, without even a nod to keeping it plausible.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation In Europe reported “The elections . . . failed to meet many OSCE and Council of Europe commitments, calling into question Russia’s willingness to move towards European standards for democratic elections.” The New York Times reported something entirely different, publishing a condescending but approving editorial titled Russians Inch Toward Democracy.

Putin had sunk far enough to earn the same dubious honor as Stalin: praise from the New York Times.

IV. The Very-Briefly-Reluctant Culture Warrior

One thing missing from this book: anything about religion, nationalism, gays, or the culture wars.

This isn’t because Masha Gessen doesn’t care about these things: when the book was written, they self-described as “the only publicly out gay person in [Russia]”; since then (like everyone else) they have declared themselves nonbinary with they/them pronouns.

In an afterword, Gessen remedies this omission. For his first decade, Putin wasn’t too interested in culture war topics; his ideology began and ended with “Russia strong”. But Gessen says that after another rigged election in 2012, people grew tired and started protesting Putin. Putin’s propaganda department made various accusations against the rioters, and one of them - they’re gay - seemed to stick. Putin had stumbled by coincidence onto a narrative that resonated with the Russian people.

A few months later, a deliberately provocative punk band called Pussy Riot invaded a cathedral and sung a song whose chorus was “the Lord is shit”. Putin announced he was against this sort of thing, again his popularity soared, and again he took notice. Since then, he’s leaned into various culture-warrior roles that other people have cast upon him - protector of traditional values, leader of the conservative world, something something Eurasianism - without giving many clues how much he believes them vs. considers them useful bulwarks for his own power.

Is it true that Putin only leaned into traditional values after 2012? I only looked into this question briefly, and it seems like he was on good terms with the Orthodox Church well before then. But some of this could have just been his native authoritarianism; just as he wanted to consolidate all media and business under his control, he wanted to consolidate all religion, and the Orthodox Church was the natural vehicle for, and a cooperative partner in, doing this. Both shared suspicion of invasive Western religions and Islam; both liked the idea of Russia being united in a top-down structure. God doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with it.

V. Could It Happen Here?

…is the question we ask at the end of every Dictator Book Club.

The Man Without A Face makes it sound like Putin was able to consolidate power and become a dictator because:

  1. He led the security services

  2. The security services had total loyalty to him personally, and zero loyalty to the constitutional government / ethics / basic human decency.

This let him do false flag operations to consolidate his power, and intimidate or kill anyone who threatened it. I don’t know exactly how he got the prosecutors and courts to do his bidding in trumping up legal charges against all his opponents, but I assume it was some combination of appointing loyalists and threatening dissenters.

Why were the security services so pliant? The closest MWAF comes to an answer is describing the near-trauma reaction that Putin and his colleagues had when the Soviet Union abandoned them. It suggests that some relic of the KGB ethos or network survived the fall of the USSR, hated its democratic successor, and got reconsolidated by Putin in his FSB. Their loyalty was originally to some sort of spirit-of-the-KGB ethos and not to existing democratic Russia, and it was simple for Putin to transmute that to loyalty to him personally, who promised to restore Soviet-era norms.

Once you have the security services and the courts, it’s not trivial to take over everything else. You still have to threaten, imprison, and rob the right people in the right order, or else everyone else will get common knowledge of your bad nature before you can crush all protests. But it’s do-able by somebody with good political instincts, which Putin had.

So could it happen here? Probably not. The closest US equivalents are the FBI and CIA. Right now they seem more aligned with the Democratic side of the aisle, so Trump or some future Trump would have a hard time winning their total loyalty. As for the Democrats, I think it’s against their ideological DNA to do Mafia-style killings. I’m not being some misty-eyed optimist here. I absolutely believe there are factions among the Democrats who would love to restrict free speech, pack the Supreme Court, divert Congressional powers to the executive branch, and lots of other creepy authoritarian things. But I just can’t take seriously the idea of Joe Biden / Kamala Harris / Chuck Schumer ordering goons to rough someone up3.

And thank goodness. I tried to stick to the facts and the interesting story beats, but the meat of Man Without A Face is a sense of total despair. Vladimir Putin killed hundreds of his people in false flag bombings, destroyed Chechnya, and murdered hundreds of journalists who tried to sound the warning about these misdeeds. He’s stolen $40 billion of Russian money for his personal fortune, driven out those Russians with the means to emigrate, and made an entire country live in fear. Now he is committing similar crimes against Ukraine. I’m glad the Ukrainians are resisting and glad that most of the world has avoided his particular style of thuggish despotism, but can’t help feeling heartbreak for everyone still stuck in Russia.

It seems like an especially unstable time; hopefully things will get better soon.

But also, the man who came closest to overthrowing Putin, Yevgeny Prigozhin, was Putin ’s former cook! Again, this is pretty weird, but I don’t know what the alternative is. Some kind of conspiracy of Russian cooks?

  1. The more I think about this fact, the more confused I am. There is no record of Spiridon passing any advantage on to his son Vladimir Sr, or of the Spiridon connection further Vladimir Jr’s career. It seems like a total coincidence. But surely the chance that the grandson of the chef of one Russian dictator becoems the next Russian dictator is millions-to-one. I can only appeal to Pyramid-and-Garden style reasoning about how in a big world, we should expect many such coincidences.

  2. Given that Putin was otherwise corrupt, why did he refuse this bribe? The book doesn’t explain it, but plausibly he had better sources of bribery income and thought it would be useful to ingratiate himself with Berezhovsky

  3. Reading this has made me seek out concerns about the FBI more, which led me to articles like Why We Can’t Trust The FBI and FBI Helps Ukraine Censor Twitter Users. I absolutely believe the FBI is spreading fear of terrorism for their own gain, often crosses the line between monitoring extremists and entrapping/provoking them, and is part of the general censorship apparatus. But even their enemies don’t accuse them of the tiniest fraction of what Putin and his security services were doing. I’ve also been trying to pay more attention to ways that the administration uses the courts and Justice Department to go after their enemies; although this is a time-honored dictatorship tactic, I think the allegations against Trump are mostly fair and there aren’t a lot of other, unfair ones I know about. I do think it’s a valid question whether, even if the allegations against Trump are fair, we ought not to make them, as part of a norm of making it hard to investigate enemies of the regime. But I’m not sure there has ever been such a norm - the investigations of Nixon and Clinton went further, on less serious charges.