Little Vova was a babe in arms then, but, as Stephen Glover advised the other day, we must take an historical perspective. He then demonstrated his woeful ignorance of Soviet history, but that’s a different matter.
Yet even many Westerners who have a better command of that subject prove that knowing facts and understanding them are, as they say in Odessa (still in the Ukraine), two big differences.
If all knowledge was comparative to Descartes, outsiders have no way of understanding Putin’s Russian state. There’s nothing to compare it to. A state formed and run by a blend of secret police and organised crime has never existed before – not in Russia, not anywhere else.
How did it come about? What’s the true meaning of the ‘collapse of the Soviet Union’ that, according to a particularly silly neocon, was supposed to spell the end of history?
I knew since the late ‘80s that glasnost and perestroika were nothing but a transfer of power from the Party to the KGB. The knowledge was mostly intuitive because the dozens of well-documented books now available hadn’t yet been written.
However, someone cursed with native understanding of Russia and blessed with a modicum of analytical ability could see enough readable signs. One such was an uncanny similarity between Gorbachev’s programme and one proposed by security chief Beria immediately after Stalin’s death in 1953.
There he was, a monster Stalin introduced to Ribbentrop in 1939 as “our Himmler”, insisting on a whole raft of seemingly liberal reforms. Every sacred cow was being slaughtered: Beria called for disbanding collective farms, loosening the Party’s grip on power, increasing the production of consumer goods, ending the war in Korea, allowing Germany to reunite and so on.
Did Beria suddenly find God? Had he succeeded, Western commentators would probably have seen those proposals in that light. They were as ignorant then as they are now.
Beria’s ideas didn’t come out of the blue. They were new salvos fired in the war that started in December, 1917, when VCheKa, precursor of the KGB/FSB, was founded. From its very inception, that sinister outfit began to compete with the Party for supreme power.
Under Stalin, the NKVD (as it had become) had to resort to guerrilla warfare only – Stalin was too powerful and ruthless. As it was, of the four security heads before Beria’s 1938 arrival, two were executed by Stalin, and plenty of evidence suggests that the other two had some help in their natural deaths.
When Stalin died, Beria made his move. He was driven not by a sudden onset of virtue, but by strategic considerations, something he knew ideologically blinkered Party bosses couldn’t quite grasp.
As a career Chekist, Beria knew how to recruit and cultivate agents. And as a strategic thinker, he wanted to apply that knowledge not to individual Westerners but to the West as a whole. The West, he kept repeating, wants to love us – so let’s make it easy.
Let’s present a more liberal façade, while keeping our hand on the real levers of power. The West will be happy to build up our economy, while at the same time reducing their own military strength. Those capitalists are perpetually demob-happy – give them even a flimsy reason to churn more butter at the expense of making guns, and they’ll grab it with both hands.
His proposals scared the Party bosses and they killed Beria in gangland style, faking his trial post-factum. The Party won and, under Khrushchev, warded off all subsequent attacks from the secret police.
That changed in 1982, when Yuri Andropov, who had served as KGB chief since 1967, took over as Secretary General after Brezhnev’s death. Andropov died two years later, but he still managed to lay the foundation of a KGB state.
The KGB had permeated the whole society even before Andropov. Every sizeable outfit had a personnel department, and just about every such department was headed by a retired or seconded KGB officer. In addition, larger setups also had so-called First Departments, responsible for keeping a vigilant eye on ideological purity.
Those departments employed both retired and active KGB officers. For example, my father ran an engineering company of about 800 employees. His First Department head was a retired KGB general Lebedev, who often regaled me with stories about the good old days at Lubyanka. When I turned out to be a treacherous vermin, it was Lebedev who got my father the sack.
All those officers operated in the open. Everyone knew who staffed First Departments, as everybody knew who was in charge of personnel. Yet KGB representatives only monitored their posts; they didn’t run them.
Andropov changed that by introducing a system of so-called Active Reserve. The idea was to infiltrate ‘former’ KGB officers into every walk of life (“There’s no such thing as ex-KGB,” Putin once said). It was under Andropov that ‘former’ officers moved into the upper echelons of management in industry, commerce, art, literature, sport, you name it.
Gorbachev was Andropov’s man through and through. Though he never held an official KGB position, unofficially he was a KGB man in all but name. Twice he was actually put forth for KGB jobs. The first time was under Brezhnev in 1970, when Gorbachev was supposed to take over the Stavropol KGB branch. The second time was during Andropov’s KGB tenure, when he wanted to make Gorbachev his deputy.
Both times the nominations were blocked, first by KGB head Semichastny, then by Suslov, second only to Brezhnev in the Party hierarchy. But Gorbachev’s political career proceeded apace. It was thanks to Andropov’s patronage that the little-known provincial Party secretary vaulted over several steps in the career ladder to land in Moscow as Secretary of the Central Committee in 1978.
Andropov was grooming Gorbachev as his successor, the man who’d pick up the relay baton of phony liberalisation. Beria lived on in Andropov, as the latter hoped to live on in Gorbachev.
It was under Gorbachev that a KGB state began to take shape. Active-reserve KGB officers started to move up to take over vast organisations de facto, if not always de jure. It was also then that the KGB began to work cheek by jowl with the criminal underworld, especially in the area of transferring the Party’s funds to the West.
The KGB was the only organisation with the requisite international expertise. But the Mafia was invaluable domestically in providing financial conduits lying outside state channels.
Infiltration continued at full speed under Yeltsyn, whose career was as closely intertwined with the KGB as Gorbachev’s. Under the Soviets he was First Secretary of the Sverdlovsk province, whose biggest industry was the manufacturing of nuclear arms.
That industry was tightly controlled by the KGB since birth, midwifed as it was by Beria in his auxiliary capacity as head of the atomic programme. In effect, the Party committee of Sverdlovsk was there mainly to provide services for the KGB, so Yeltsyn was a grown-up too.
At the very beginning of the ‘90s Russia looked like a nascent Western state, whereas in fact the KGB, now FSB, solidified its hold on power. Most prominent politicians, starting with Yeltsyn himself, now had an active-reserve overseer assigned to them.
Yeltsyn’s minder, officially his bodyguard and adviser, was KGB Major-General Alexander Korzhakov. Petersburg mayor Sobchak only rated a lower-rank officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Vladimir Putin.
Eventually Putin was transferred to Moscow, where he held progressively higher posts, including FSB head, prime minister and, since 2000, president. Putin became Yeltsyn’s successor by promising immunity to the man himself and his extended family, all of whom had been stealing the country blind.
But the FSB was going to win even if Putin had lost. The two other candidates for the post, Yevgeny Primakov and Sergei Stepashin, were also career KGB officers. Incidentally, the FSB hedged its bets in a similar fashion in 2009 when Vladimir Gundyayev was elected Patriarch. Not only Gundyayev but also the other two godly candidates were career KGB agents. (See the Mitrokhin Archive.)
In the later, more alcoholic stages of his reign, Yeltsyn was effectively controlled by the so-called oligarchs, most of whom also boasted at least some KGB links. At that time men like Berezovsky and Abramovich had veto power over government policy and ministerial appointments.
They, especially the former, were instrumental in elevating Putin to a succession of high posts, in the hope of using him as a puppet on a string. The string eventually turned into the garrotte that ended Berezovsky’s life.
Since the other two presidential hopefuls were also KGB/FSB officers, the KGB Collegium, its governing body, didn’t mind who moved into the Kremlin. And had those three been found wanting, they had other KGB colonels to do their bidding.
KGB generals, on the other hand, mostly moved on to run business empires, nominally as seconds-in-command. Colonel-General Filip Bopkov and Lieutenant-General Evgeniy Pitorvanov were particularly prominent in that capacity.
They and their colleagues turned a loose association of the KGB and organised crime into a homogeneous blend, to a point where the two components became indistinguishable. Putin personifies that symbiosis in every detail.
As Sobchak’s deputy, in effect case officer, Putin squeezed Petersburg dry. His black market shenanigans were amply documented (Google SALYE DOSSIER for details), as was his openly stated intention to become an oligarch. “Make dosh,” went his advice to a colleague.
It took Putin just three years at the helm to make the term ‘oligarch’ meaningless. Berezovsky had to flee for his life (unsuccessfully, as it turned out) in 2000; Khodorkovsky, then Russia’s richest man, was arrested in 2003. Divested of political power, the oligarchs became simply rich men whose continued wealth was contingent on their obedience to Putin.
His KGB training was put to good use, especially in his attempt to turn the West into his witting or unwitting agent. Russian trillions poured into Western banks, tax havens, holding companies and brassplates; Russian gas poured into European storages.
Both money and energy are instruments of political, not only economic, blackmail. Swarms of Western politicians, journalists and financiers quickly acquired price tags, greedily eyeing Putin’s loot.
Putin became the world’s richest man, and his confidants are never far from the Forbes List. But, just as the oligarchs’ wealth depends on Putin’s good graces, so does Putin’s wealth depend on political power. Neither fascisoid politicians nor Mafia bosses tend to retire quietly to enjoy their wealth. The moment they lose control, they lose everything – often including life.
To keep political power, Putin needs to rally his own population to some sort of banner. The one featuring the notorious profiles of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin is no longer possible: the idea of a world revolution has lost whatever appeal it ever had.
But, as Stalin discovered after the first setbacks in the war, nationalism can pick up where Marxism leaves off. And Russian (unlike, say, American) nationalism is inherently aggressive and expansionist.
With his KGB instincts, Putin and his coterie knew they had to repackage Marxist aggression as Russian imperialism. So they did, supporting bellicose words and deeds with propaganda of traditional values, along the lines of the slogan ‘Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Nationality’ originally put forth by a minister to Nicholas I.
As a corollary to the real thrust of Putin’s policy, this approach has shown a great recruitment potential not only nationally but also internationally. Such pronouncements were mellifluous music to the ears of Western conservatives and nationalists, who were illogically comparing Putin’s words with their own governments’ deeds.
There’s only one winner in a battle of wits between secret policemen trained to exploit weakness for strategic gains and Western politicians, who have lost any ability to think strategically. Thus Putin has been allowed to run more or less unopposed.
The good colonel proceeds in incremental steps, carefully probing the ground to avoid possible mines. He knows that the merry-go-round he is on never stops, spinning so fast it’s impossible to jump off.
Putin also knows how to scare the West into submission or at best token resistance. For Western people tend to apply to Russia their customary criteria. Comparing their own economies to Russia’s, they think the KGB colonel is bluffing (Stephen Glover’s article the other day is a good example of this folly).
Yes, agreed Putin in a speech the other day. We can’t match up to the West economically, and Nato’s combined strength is greater than ours. But we have nuclear weapons, and we won’t hesitate to use them.
The Russian nuclear arsenal is the razor brandished by a mugger, or else dirty photos produced by a blackmailer. Putin’s trillions and gas are the carrot; his ICBMs are the stick. Waving both in front of the West’s eyes, the KGB colonel is gauging its reaction.
When he likes what he sees, he takes the next step. When he detects strength, he retreats, as he did in 2014 when stopping short of his objective of capturing Kharkov.
What are the signs he sees now? The EU clearly reluctant to check Putin’s aggression even economically, never mind militarily. Nato rejecting any military action in principle. German, French and even British politicians falling over themselves to get into the queue for Putin’s billions. Our hacks spreading Putin’s propaganda through supposedly conservative publications. Hungarians willing to do an Esau, with Russian gas acting as the mess of pottage.
As Europe stands on the verge of a major war, Putin’s KGB training says the op is succeeding. Further violence may or may not be required to bring it to a perfect conclusion – either way is fine with him.
An Anschluss of Belarus and an escalated war of total or partial conquest against the Ukraine won’t just be steps into Europe. They’ll be strides towards a Third World War, for fascisoid aggressors never stop until they are stopped.
P.S. “She must have been sweltering,” is how Peter Hitchens mocks Foreign Secretary Truss for wearing a fur hat in Moscow the other day. “Climate change has made [Moscow] much warmer.”
That may be but, since the temperature there was still below zero when Miss Truss posed in Red Square, a bit of fur was hardly inappropriate. Of course, Hitchens used meteorology both to establish his own credentials (“When I lived there in the early 1990s…) and to hint that Russia is no longer a threat (“The weather is just one of many things which have changed since then”).
I admire the chap for his persistence, while despising him for his sycophancy to Putin.