[original post:Dictator Book Club: Putin]

Table of Contents:

1. Comments Further Illuminating Putin’s Rise To Power
2. Comments Questioning Masha Gessen’s Objectivity
3. Comments Claiming Putin Is Very Slightly Less Bad Than The Book Suggests
4. Comments On Putin As Culture Warrior
5. Comments Expressing Concern That The FBI/CIA Are Capable Of Undermining Democracy In The US

1. Comments Further Illuminating Putin’s Rise To Power


The Soviet Union post-Brezhnev was made up of a series of power blocks in negotiation with each other. Brenzhev was about as democratic as a Soviet leader could have realistically been (which is not very). The Soviet Union had always had a conflict between the security services and the military going all the way back to Stalin’s time. Generally in direct confrontation the military won as with Khruschev or in 1991. But the security services could gain dominance when the political elite sided with them.

The security services, being Communist security services, had very little obligation to maintain more than the appearance of law and order. Their primary goal was protecting the party and waging the spy war abroad. As you can imagine, this involved all kinds of shady dealings and ties and international connections. When the Soviet state collapsed they attempted to preserve it (1991 again). When they failed they… just kind of kept all those contacts with criminals, foreign entities, and untraceable bank accounts for bribes or whatever. They never really accepted the fall of the Soviet Union and resented they had lost the confrontation in the early 1990s. But there was also money to be made in the new Russia and they set about making it through crime and through oligarchs.

Putin was in many senses a post-Soviet reaction by this KGB-oligarch-criminal nexus. He had no interest in literally returning to communism. But once these surviving KGB networks (criminal, intelligence, business) saw he had a chance of getting the presidency they all backed him to the hilt. And it worked. Putin got into power, the security services returned to prominence. Putin didn’t do anything different than what tens of thousands of similar minded thinkers would have done. And they aren’t loyal to Putin more than the changes Putin represents. But Putin, uniquely, attempted to chart a somewhat different course because he wasn’t that successful post-Soviet. He joined politics partly as a way to get out of being a cab driver and then, through hook and crook and more than a little luck, was in a position where he could be boosted into a useful position.


This account misses something fundamental in my view. I myself was born in Russia and lived most of my life there, participating in some of the events described in the post, such as the 2011-2014 protests. What is really crucial for understanding how Putin came to power is how bad the 90s were. The GDP per capita fell by half (by way of comparison, the GDP per capita fell only about 25% during the Great Depression in the US).

It was not just economical too, a lot of people who used to have a stable or even respectable occupation (manufacturing workers, doctors, teachers, scientists) lost their jobs or saw their income evaporate. The amount of misery was simply enormous, and it explains the real support for someone who promised and seemed to deliver a measure of stability and even growth. This level of support is of course less that the percentage Putin gets in elections but it’s real nonetheless. When I was an observer at the elections in Moscow, seeing the whole process at one polling station, Putin got almost exactly 50% and the next candidate got thirty-something.

The experience of the 90s also had another, more subtle effect. The people who were against Putin from the beginning and understood what he was up to were mostly associated with the “liberals” who were held responsible for the disastrous reforms in the 90s. Since they were almost universally hated, their calls were for the most part ignored. Now you might say that this is irrational - Putin was an active participant in the 90s looting, probably more so than many “liberals,” but that’s how it was felt.

Polscistoic tries to explain why the 90s reformers used “shock therapy”:

“….The people who were against Putin from the beginning and understood what he was up to were mostly associated with the “liberals” who were held responsible for the disastrous reforms in the 90s.”

I assume you are referring to the privatization programmes and the “cold turkey” approach to shift to a market economy. And yes, it did create a lot of suffering, plus it unfortunately has discredited the “liberals” for decades. But you must remember the context. The argument back then was that privatization would have to happen fast, and be extensive, because there was a real possibility that the old guards in the Communist Party might get back into (absolute) power. Fast, massive privatization was assumed to create a power base for other actors (oligarchs, but so be it) that would reduce this risk/probability. Essentially, the idea was to get the toothpaste out of the tube as fast as possible, assuming that it would then be very difficult for the Communists to put it back in.

My point is that this strategy made a lot of sense. Many people at the time were well aware that this risked a lot of “collateral damage” in the form of corruption, temporary economic decline and so on. The point is that it was seen as a risk worth taking, considering that the alternative - the risk that the Communist Party would regain absolute power - was regarded as a greater evil. And I still think that - given the context, which everybody now forgets - this was a rational and understandable way to think.

Misha Evtikhievwrites:

1. The most likely reason why Putin was accepted to the university, in my opinion, is because he was quite decent in sports (his official biography says he twice won city competitions during his university studies), and Soviet / Russian universities sometimes admit and keep mediocre students who are good in sports to score some cookie points with the higher authorities (saw that during my studies myself). For what I know from my dad, who did his university studies in USSR in 70’s as well, KGB used to approach students in their second or third year of studies, and they usually tried to enlist the most mediocre ones (which kinda fits Putin’s description), so I think it’s most likely he was enlisted to KGB while studying.

2. There was a high degree of continuity between KGB and FSB (with FCS in between): for example, two of the heads of FCS / FSB before Putin out of three also had a career in KGB, a better one than Putin had, though.

3. For explanation why Sobchak hired Putin: I heard a story that Sobchak was looking for a loyal subordinate and asked then-chancellor of the university if he had someone on his mind (it makes sense for Sobchak to ask that person, since he spent most of his career in the university), and the chancellor recommended Putin. It’s worth noting that Putin was quite loyal to Sobchak and even helped him to flee Russia in 1997, when Sobchak was investigated for bribery. The death of Sobchak in early 2000 is, however, very mysterious and foul play was suspected.

4. For the search of Yeltsin’s successor: the search was quite active from circa 1998 and many people were considered for the role (Nemtsov, Stepashin, the now-forgotten Aksenenko, to name a few). I think Putin got the job for two reasons: first, he was lucky to get not the financial crisis (which Nemtsov got), but the rebound from it, and second, he got the rally-around-the-flag effect from 2 Chechen War beginning.

MostlyCredibleHulk withan analogy to the rise of Stalin:

Stalin [had] not been prominent in any pre-revolution groups, and the big guys treated him rather condescendingly - sure, he’s useful for many tasks that do not require particular brilliance, but that’s it. He’s certainly not part of the elite. His rise to power was very slow and included a lot of alliances with one powerful group against another, and somehow at the end he was always the last man standing, and nobody really noticed that until it was too late. Very similar to what is described about Putin - maybe that’s how real dictators are made?

Comments Questioning Masha Gessen’s Objectivity


I’m reluctant to play the person instead the ball, but Masha Gessen isn’t a brilliant choice for a biographer of Putin. The Gessen siblings come from a particular milieu of Russian expatriates in New York, strategically fostered by the nickel magnate Mikhail Prokhorov. He was a m

ajor beneficiary of the state asset fire sale during the Yeltsin 1990s, the end of which (and partial repatriation) is perhaps Putin’s one genuinely positive achievement.

This isn’t to imply that Gessen is a mindless mouthpiece of the oligarch, or that the book is useless. But the trajectory of making Putin appear as an inhuman cipher is rather locked in, and it takes away from the purpose of the Book Club, which I take to be an understanding of the autocrat in terms of external force vectors and available levers.

Perhaps Philip Short’s or Steven Lee Myers’s books might have been the better choice, a little more detached from Russian inside baseball. (Or perhaps inside basketball; there’s a Nets joke in there somewhere)

Ivan Fyodorovichwrites:

Having read Gessen’s biography and Short’s biography, I now view Gessen’s as almost worthless. This is partly because I read “Brothers” by Gessen, about the Tsarnaev brothers and Boston Marathon bombing, which made flagrant errors when discussing American law and by the end was filled with utterly incoherent and evidence-free conspiracy theories. For example, Gessen gives serious weight to the possibility that the Tsarnaevs were innocent, but that when they saw they were wanted for the bombing they killed a cop and then threw homemade explosives (which I guess they had lying around?) at other cops. They also argue that Dzokhar’s note in the boat was not a confession. They’d become friends with the Tsarnaev family by that point and were willing to propose whatever FBI frame-up would make them look less bad. It was sad to read, and my reaction at the time was to think I now had to unlearn everything Gessen said about Putin.

Interestingly, Short begins his biography by explaining why he doesn’t think the apartment bombings were Putin’s doing. Among other things, there was a smaller bomb in Volgodonsk set off by gangsters a few days before the apartment bomb which had appeared in Moscow press in a manner that could fool a parliamentarian into thinking another apartment bombing had occurred. Also, for some stupid reason, it really was KGB/FSB practice to conduct drills like the Ryazan incident. Finally, the bombings occurred in the context of a Russian counteroffensive in Dagestan, and the conspiracy version requires us to believe that insurgents like Shamir Basayev were willing to lie about the origin of the bomb to help Putin for some reason.

Short’s biography certainly isn’t pro-Putin, but very different from Gessen’s. His Putin is somewhat defensible until the mid-2000s: not corrupt in Saint Petersburg, loyal to Sobchak and not responsible for his heart attack, not bombing apartments to come to power, willing to cooperate with the west until criticisms of the War in Chechnya pissed him off. Ultimately Short acknowledges that Putin became very evil with time, but it’s quite a different biography than Gessen’s in the aggregate it seemed better researched and more convincing.

Mallard mentions , scattered across several comments, the incident described here. Gessen writes a positive article about Putin opponent Alexey Navalny, describing one of his videos as “an argument for gun rights”. But watching the video shows it’s about “cockroaches” (presumably immigrants?) “sneaking in”, and how they deserve to be shot.

Seems bad. Also, at least Hitler could manage Triumph Of The Will. This guy sounds like he’s doing a genocide infomercial.


As someone, who left Russia less than a year ago, I agree. Gessen is a really talented journalist and writer, but boy is she biased. First of all, Putin is smart. For example, he is no economist, yet he’s been able to choose qualified (and quite liberal) IFC-style people to run Ministry of Finance and the Central Bank. When several years ago local industrial lobby tried to criticize inflation targeting (and thus high interest rate) policy of the RCB, he came back with “look at what happens in Turkey”. His prime-minister is actually one of the most capable technocrat of his generation. And the apparent incompetence of the military and secret services looks more of a feature (coup-proof) than a bug.

Actually, the amount of reforms that Putin conducted in the 2000s s quite remarkable (e.g. there is private property for agricultural land in Russia; there is none in Ukraine for that matter).

So I think the story is actually much more simple: a smart and capable, but cynical bureaucrat gradually gets corrupted by the absolute power and 23 years of sitting on top of a post-soviet system of governance.

It’s a cautionary tale that power inevitably corrupts and peoples of the world have to enforce the goddam term limit if they want to be governed properly.

Nick, Cont.writes:

An investigative journalist named Much Guessing, eh?

Comments Claiming Putin Is Very Slightly Less Bad Than The Book Suggests

Sergey Nikolenkohas an innocent explanation for why the Duma announced the Volgodonsk explosion days before it happened:

Just a quick comment on one of the most striking coincidences in the post: most probably there’s nothing strange or sinister about the Duma speaker’s early announcement of the Volgodonsk explosion. There was a different explosion in Volgodonsk, much less serious (three injured, none dead), on September 12, 1999; it made the news but was never linked to Chechnya, it was a local crime thing and was quickly forgotten. Gennady Seleznev (the speaker) mentioned a Volgodonsk explosion on September 13, and most probably he meant that one.

Source (Russian only): https://ru.wikipedia.org/wiki/%D0%A2%D0%B5%D1%80%D1%80%D0%BE%D1%80%D0%B8%D1%81%D1%82%D0%B8%D1%87%D0%B5%D1%81%D0%BA%D0%B8%D0%B9_%D0%B0%D0%BA%D1%82_%D0%B2_%D0%92%D0%BE%D0%BB%D0%B3%D0%BE%D0%B4%D0%BE%D0%BD%D1%81%D0%BA%D0%B5


Quote: “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.”

This sounds like a conspiracy theory on par with “9/11 was an inside job”.

It is an unlikely theory because it presupposes a scenario somewhat like the following: Putin and some cronies sit around a table, brainstorming how to improve their popularity come the next election. Someone - let’s call him Vlad - says: “How about killing hundreds of innocent countrymen by placing bombs in apartments and then blaming it on terrorists?” To which the others, assuming they are sane people who know a minimum of decision theory, are likely to say things like: “Great idea Vlad, you are always very creative at our meetings. But have you thought of the risks? For starters, dozens of people beside us in this room must be in on this in order for it to work, such as those who place the bombs, and we must be certain they will never talk, ever…” And: “Isn’t it easier to simply rig the election?” And so on. (Matt Taibbi wrote a hilarious story along these lines related to the “9/11 was an inside job” conspiracy theory).

4. Comments On Putin As Culture Warrior


On Putin and Russian Orthodox Church.

You already know about Putin’s ties to KGB. What is missing is the links the ROC has to the KGB, and there are many.

Current Patriarch Kirill “used to be” a KGB agent, and there many other officials in higher hierarchy of ROC with that sort of background. And the previous patriarch Alexei was covering up for KGB aswell.

Corruption runs deep.

So it’s only natural for Putin to ally with ROC.

The Irrationalist (blog) writes:

a deliberately provocative punk band called Pussy Riot invaded a cathedral and sung a song whose chorus was “the Lord is shit”

This is incorrect. The chorus contains the words “Срань господня” which is originally a translation of English phrase “Holy shit” or “Holy crap”. More direct translation back to English would be “the Lord’s shit” (the ‘s indicates a possessive). The phrase is used to express displeasure at the situation in Russia.

The song is a “punk-prayer” and have religious undertones. It asks the Virgin Mary to relieve us of Putin in it’s first line: “Virgin Mary, deliver us from Putin”. You can probably see why the government wouldn’t like this.

Misha Evtikhievwrites:

For the culture wars: I think Putin uses it as a tool. Majority of Russians hardly believe in God, but find some kind of church desecration (and what Pussy Riot did would qualify in people’s mind) to be disgusting. Thus, Pussy Riot action put the anti-Putin coalition in a kind of trap: on the one hand, their persecution was absolutely lawless (the corresponding penal code article is extremely broad in formulation, but is normally used to persecute people who aggresively brandish their weapons but don’t attack anyone), but on the other hand, the majority of Russian citizens were not happy with the Pussy Riot actions. This allowed Putin to rebrand himself as a savior of the “traditional values” (whatever they are) and claim that the anti-Putin coalition wants to destroy them, getting over the general weariness of Russians with the ruling party (which could be noted from the 2011 parliamentary election: many of the regions where United Russia had bad performance do not have big cities in them).

Afterwards, this tool became too handy not to use.

5. Comments Expressing Concern That The FBI/CIA Are Capable Of Undermining Democracy In The US

I mentioned that the closest can-it-happen-here equivalent to Putin using his KGB and FSB contacts to consolidate power would be the FBI/CIA turning terrorist secret police, and judged that unlikely. Some of the rest of you aren’t so sure.


Schumer actually did say on the news that he expected the security services to sabotage Trump with a kind of “ha ha” tone. The reason American security services can’t do this kind of thing isn’t the virtue of left wing leaders or norms. It’s that they cannot expect the kind of deference the KGB required. When Democrats have tried to weaponize such institutions they have faced backlash. (And Republicans have generally not been able to for the reasons you say.) The reason the security services can’t suppress the Republicans is that the Republicans have real power and will strike back. And the same for the Democrats.

Doctor Mistwrites:

Yeah, my impression is that the FBI all the way back to Hoover was corrupt (to the extent that it was corrupt) not from loyalty to anybody outside but just for its own aggrandizement. This can involve doing favors for an administration when there is something to be gained, but it’s not something an aspiring tyrant could count on.


You said: “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”.


Last century, there were tons of terrorist attacks and bombings from the revolutionary left, over 1,900 domestic bombings in 1972 alone, and the whole time the perpetrators were funded by the National Lawyer’s Guild, getting funding and authority from the New York City government, and were entirely ignored, or even supported, by the mainstream media. Many of the worst perpetrators are still free and supported by the left: For example, Obama commuted the sentence of of Oscar Lopez Rivera, the leader of the FALN Puerto Rican terrorist group.

A summary of this is here: https://status451.com/2017/01/20/days-of-rage/

I stick to my distinction between the mainstream Democrats and FALN, just as I would make a similar distinction between mainstream Republicans and right-wing terrorist militias.

Alistair Young (blog) writes:

> But I just can’t take seriously the idea of Joe Biden / Kamala Harris / Chuck Schumer ordering goons to rough someone up.

I believe the accepted phrase is “Will no-one rid me of this turbulent priest?”

(There is a very convenient synergy between people too delicate to order violence directly and helpful folks willing to interpret indirect orders into existence.)

Misha Evtikhievwrites:

Why this couldn’t happen in US? The key reason, in my opinion, is not because CIA and FBI wield less power than FSB, but because the Russian Constitution of 1993 gives exceeding powers to the president even in its original form. By itself, it was a result of the constitutional crisis of 1993 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1993_Russian_constitutional_crisis), where Yeltsin first illegally dissolved the parliament, then ignored the decision of the constitutional court and his impeachment by the parliament to bomb the parliament into submission and later dissolution. I’d say that this coup was the key blow to the Russian democracy, all that happened afterwards inside Russia were just consequences (which obviously does not absolve the people who brought the consequences into life).


This is a failure of imagination IMO. The Democrats don’t have to have the stomach for killings (which I think you err on) the stomach for political prosecutions and economic blackmail gets you there even faster in the modern age. And they have that stomach in spades.

I agree this is a much more likely threat model, and I’m interested in what factors generally restrain criminal prosecution of opposing politicians and journalists (even if you think it happens sometimes, why doesn’t it happen more?). Virtue/norms/gentleman’s agreement? Or is there some balance of power consideration that makes it hard to do?