Vladimir Putin was born in 1952 in Leningrad. He had impeccable Communist credentials; his father was a manual laborer, his mother was a school teacher. He studied law in university (like Mikhail Gorbachev), then took a job with the KGB. (See: irony.) Here he was an intelligence officer, operating in East Germany. When the USSR began to withdraw its forces from its East European empire Putin came home to Leningrad. Here he worked for a number of politicians in the new democracy. One of these was Boris Yeltsin.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 had not thrilled the Russians. Street crime and white-collar crime exploded, while the economy decayed, and Russia fell from the status of a superpower. People around Yeltsin piled up immense fortunes by seizing control of Russia’s natural resources, banking, and media. Mikhail Khodorkovsky got control of the Yukos oil company, which established a virtual monopoly on Russian oil production and exports. Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky created media empires. Generally, nobody paid taxes. A few people got rich while most suffered.
In 1998 Yeltsin appointed Putin to run the FSB, heir to the KGB. Two years later in 2000, when the ailing Yeltsin left government, Putin ran for President of Russia. During the campaign someone bombed an apartment building in Moscow, killing 200 people. The suspected bombers were Chechen separatists. Putin promised to wipe them out. He won the presidency.
In power, Putin turned on the “oligarchs” who had risen up during the Yeltsin era. Khodorkovsky went to jail and Yukos Oil was nationalized, Berezovsky and Gusinsky fled abroad. Taxes got collected. Street crime got squashed. Putin’s nationalization of Yukos Oil coincided with a sharp increase in demand for oil around the world. By 2007, Russia was earning about $170 billion a year from oil exports. Prosperity returned to Russia. Putin has distributed favors on a far more prudent basis than Yeltsin ever did. He uses them to build support for himself without harming the interests of the Russian people. At the same time, Putin has been ruthless in dealing with critics: he has used control of the media to prevent opposition candidates from getting out their message; and he is suspected of having prompted the assassination of dissidents Anna Politkovskaya and Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006. In the December 2007 elections voters had to mark the ballots in public view—of soldiers. This is a lot like mid-19th Century elections. Not exactly the Australian ballot. Still, it seemed to work. Public opinion polls showed Putin enjoying a 70 percent favorable rating among ordinary Russians. In December 2007 Putin’s United Russia party won 400 of 450 seats in the Russian parliament (the Duma).
Where is he headed? He appears to be aiming at a restoration of Russian power. He has begun a $200 billion rearmament program. He has tried to block the extension of an American anti-missile system into Eastern Europe. He has challenged the idea of America as the sole super-power. He is still fighting the Chechen war. He turns off the flow of oil to the Ukraine whenever it seems too independent. Then there’s the Crimea.
The question is not whether Russia could have been held down permanently after the collapse of Communism. It could not. But could Russia have become a Western-style democracy? Is a collision inevitable between a reviving Russia and the West?
“Why Russia Loves Putin,” The Week, 21 December 2007, p. 11.