Intense academic debate may surround the degree of his likeness to Napoleon, to the Chilean dictator General Pinochet, or to Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia. But no-one has ever suggested any likeness at all to, say, Gandhi or Nelson Mandela. Putin himself says he prefers Margaret Thatcher.
Known as the ‘grey cardinal’ during his 16 years in the KGB – the notorious secret service of the Soviet era – a closer likeness would surely be to J Edgar Hoover, patron of the dark political arts in the US and legendary godfather of the FBI. Very little has to be added to his name to recreate Rasputin, the manipulative courtier to the last Russian Czar at the beginning of the last century.
‘This is a man,’ said Andrey Piontkovsky, Director of the Strategic Studies Centre in Moscow, ‘who has shown a complete disregard for human life, cynicism and hypocrisy, and a willingness to use war and the deaths of thousands of Russian soldiers and innocent civilians as a PR instrument in his election campaign.’
Piontkovsky was referring to Putin’s election as President of Russia in 2000. This was made possible because of his control of the media, which blatantly savaged his opponents. Putin’s populist appeal rested solely on the fact that during his brief term of office as Prime Minister he had reduced the troublesome Muslim region of Chechnya to rubble. The Russian army had been humiliated there in 1996. In 1999 a series of bombs killed hundreds of people in Moscow apartment blocks. Without citing any evidence, Putin blamed ‘Chechen terrorists’. His patriotic revenge – on people who are, after all, Russian citizens – was ruthless, conducted largely by means of indiscriminate bombing.
It continues today. Which is why Putin has profited so handsomely from the events of 11 September 2001 in America. To his mind they bear a striking resemblance to the Moscow bombings of 1999. So the ‘war on terrorism’ can be fought just as legitimately in Chechnya as in Afghanistan. To the extent that the likes of Bush and Blair now appear to agree with him, he’s right.
Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin was born in St Petersburg – then known as Leningrad – on 7 October 1952. There are suggestions that his father, a factory foreman, had connections with the KGB. In any event, Putin developed his own overwhelming ambition to join the KGB. Rejected at the age of 16, his main distinction at college was in sambo (a Russian style of self-defence) and judo. He would give signed photographs of himself to fellow students, carrying inscriptions such as: ‘A healthy spirit in a healthy body.’
By 1990 and the fall of the Berlin Wall he had established himself as a KGB boss in East Germany, only to find he had to shred its records. He moved back to St Petersburg, where he became a skilful ‘fixer’ for the local political mafia, cutting lucrative privatization deals. A charge of corruption against him was quietly dropped.
He soon caught the eye of Boris Yeltsin’s ‘Family’ in Moscow. In next to no time he became head of the FSB, one of the KGB’s successors. Here, in the notorious Lubianka building in Moscow, Putin installed a plaque commemorating Yuri Andropov, Soviet General Secretary from 1982 to 1984, long-time boss of the KGB and advocate of psychiatric wards for political dissidents. Putin has now recruited large numbers of former FSB/KGB officers to his presidential staff.
What he apparently wants to establish in Russia is ‘controlled democracy’ or ‘Soviet power without communists’. This would include privatizing the land, protecting a compliant oligarchy, pushing almost any available deal with the US and applying for membership of the World Trade Organization.
Some of the worst fears about an impending nationalist, ‘elective tyranny’ in Russia have yet to be realized. The Russian economy has improved for the first time in a decade, largely on the back of fickle oil revenues. Apart from his chilling indifference to the fate of the sailors in the Kursk – the nuclear submarine that sank with all hands shortly after his election – Putin has avoided political trouble. Opinion polls suggest his populist appeal remains intact. With their appalling post-communist experiences, many Russians yearn for stability, if not a return of Russian
But a society that has seen a dramatic fall in life expectancy, a huge rise in unemployment, widespread destitution, vast numbers of people locked away in prisons and the entrenchment of a tiny, self-serving oligarchy, is unlikely to remain fixed in aspic for long. The rest of Russia may eventually discover what the people of Chechnya already know about Putin.
If infamous or not-so-famous big shots are beating up