Two hundred years ago, when the Russian historian, Nikolai Karamzin visited France, the Russian émigrés he met there, asked him, ‘What is happening back home, in two words?’
Karamzin didn’t need two words. He simply said, ‘Stealing’
– Sergei Dovalatov, The Suitcase (1986)
“Volodya, prikhodyat bistro! Eto krysy!!” It was his mama screaming and 10-year old Volodya soon found out what the cause of her terror was – a rat, cowering in the corner of the kitchen, next to the garbage can, in their one-room apartment in Petrograd (it wasn’t St.Petersburg then). Cornered, it had nowhere to run.
When he advanced toward the wretched little creature, a small plastic pan in his hand, poised to bring it down on the rat and imprison it, the rat did something that the 6th century BC Chinese military strategist, Sun Tzu, would have been proud of and which has since been the guiding principle in his life – it leapt, straight at the boy.
The boy watched paralysed, as the rat came flying at him, grazed his cheek and landed somewhere on his shoulder, before bouncing off. As he swivelled around, it landed on the kitchen floor, skittered around trying to get traction on his feet and zipped down the little corridor into the bathroom with Volodya in hot pursuit. By the time the little boy had raced to the bathroom door, the rat was nowhere to be seen. The bathroom window was open and the boy concluded that the rat had made good his escape.
The rat had not given up. Faced with odds that were stacked up high against it, it had correctly figured that it had nothing to lose. It had jumped right at what it assumed was it’s tormentor.
Now grown up, the boy still likes to tell the cornered-rat story to his staff, aides, ministers and members his personal fiefdom, the Duma. It is a point that he wants to bring home to all who work for him – If I am cornered, I will fight back, to the finish, with every weapon in my command.
Meet Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin – the unemployed spy who made himself a Tsar. I hope that, before it’s too late, the ‘prim and propah’ west realizes that Putin will never back down. He will do serious damage to any coalition that the west throws at him, with complete disregard to Russia’s physical and economic health.
Leaked KGB files and those of the defunct East German intelligence agency, Stasi, show that Putin was an agent of KGB’s Directorate ‘S’, the section that carried out illegal intelligence gathering, preparing and planting “illegal agents” abroad, conducting terror operations and sabotage in foreign countries, biological and industrial espionage and recruitment of foreign citizens on the Russian territory. By all accounts Vladimir Putin seemed to have a natural talent for subversion and intrigue, standing by colleagues, helping his seniors out of jams and keeping his mouth shut.
He must have really excelled at his job because by the early 1990s, this stand-up-guy-for-crooks had been noticed in the Kremlin, which was then being run by a tight cliché of super-rich oligarchs led by scientist-turned billionaire oligarch, Boris Berezovsky, with Yeltsin as a mere figurehead.
As Yeltsin’s health failed and it became obvious that his days as President were numbered and he realized that he needed a stand-up guy to take over, someone whom he could trust not to prosecute him and his family after he relinquished office, for the massive pillage of Russia that they had jointly perpetrated. He brought in Putin, a virtual outsider, into his inner circle.
In the initial days, Berezovsky and the other Yeltsin oligarchs thought they had a malleable pushover who would try not to rock the boat or interfere with the continuing plunder of Soviet assets. Turns out that the Yeltsin oligarchs had grossly underestimated Vladimir. Today most of them are gone. In 2013, Berezovsky (net worth: $3 billion) – exiled by Putin and on the run, found dead under mysterious circumstances at his Berkshire mansion in England. Chemical engineer and ex-communist apparatchik, Mikhail Khodorkovsky (net worth: $15 billion) – incarcerated for nine years, released and kicked out after he had handed over all his billions to Putin. Baker’s assistant and black marketeer, Alexander Smolensky (net worth: $500 million) – sentenced to two years of hard labor, his wealth stripped and distributed among the Putin oligarchs. Ex-taxi driver and media tycoon, Vladimir Gusinsky (net worth $2.2 billion) – fled Russia and took refuge as a Jew, in Israel, leaving his billions behind for Putin and his cronies to pick over.
A few of the Yeltsin oligarchs, the crafty ones, quickly fell in line after watching what was happening to the others. These, like ex-army mechanic turned rubber ducky salesman, Roman Abramovich (net worth $9 billion) fell in line and have been spared and allowed to prosper under Putin, becoming a member of a cabal that came to be known as the Putin oligarchs.
As Putin consolidated power during his first three terms in office, his PR guys had the media regularly paint him as a macho man. Putin – subduing a Siberian tiger, Putin – flying a jet fighter, Putin – flinging opponents to the mat in martial arts, Putin – fishing and riding horseback, shirtless, Putin – in a motorcycle gang. In short, he was the rugged superhero whom the Russians could look up to.
These photo ops continue, having gained a certain momentum, their purpose being to show Putin as a strong, decisive leader who can be counted upon to solve challenging problems with a convincing mixture of cool levelheadedness and the implied ability to use force if needed, a masculine leader who is giving Russia back its balls, after the humiliating collapse of the Soviet Union.
The macho man
In real life however, according to folk who were at one time close to him, Vladimir Putin is a petty, mealy-mouthed, shifty, perennially suspicious individual who, except for a manic readiness to go the whole hog if pushed to a corner, has nothing else going for him. Don’t get fooled by all those videos of him flinging another judoka to the mat. If you are sparring with Putin, it is either the mat or Siberia.
Historians see an uncanny similarity between Vladimir Putin and Josef Stalin – the same steely stare, the same cold, emotionless demeanor, the same willingness to have even the closest of his aides eliminated and the same desire to appear larger than life.
And the same petty-mindedness. The story goes that a respected American TV anchor and Putin fan once went to interview him and after the interview was done, he took out his expensive Sheaffer ballpoint pen and a notepad and held them out to Putin for his autograph. The Russian strongman signed with a flourish, handed the anchor back the notepad. He then slipped the Sheaffer into his breast pocket with an unsmiling, steely-eyed ‘Spasibo’, turned around and walked off.
Nevertheless, it has been an amazing story – a breathtaking rise that, according to Russia expert Karen Dawisha, has managed to ‘turn Russia from a democracy that failed to a kleptocracy that succeeded’. It has been almost as if an unseen diabolical force has held his hand all the way to the top.
Russia has always been a kleptocracy but building it into an organized, well-oiled machine is something that only Putin was able to do, in much the same manner as the way that the gangster, Dawood Ibrahim, was able to bring order inside the Mumbai underworld. He is known to have told the Mumbai city administration’s corrupt honchos, ‘give me Mumbai and I’ll straighten things out so there won’t be any killings and no innocent bystanders need die. You and I, we will all make a ton of money.’
Today, only 110 people in Russia own 40% of Russia’s wealth, a distribution that is so skewed that it’s per-capita wealth, at $550, is just about half that of one of the world’s poorest nations, India. Of these 110, Putin is by far the richest, with personal assets estimated to be $60 billion plus. One single piece of real estate, under construction on prime land by the Black Sea, close to the resort town of Sochi, a mansion that his friends, the Putin oligarchs, are said to be building for him is going to cost $ 500 million by the time he moves in.
For Russian oligarchs, their President is their ‘Krysha’ which in Russian means ‘roof’ or ‘shelter’, in this case – shelter from prosecution. The Russian President in effect runs a massive protection racket, allowing the oligarchs to make money, for a fee.
In a way, Putin’s life is a false-flag operation, like the 1999 apartment bombings were. Nothing of his life is really what it seems to be.