Putin the Apostate We thought he would be our bastard. Then, he became his own bastard. Matt Taibbi Feb 28, 2022 The president of the Council of Foreign Relations, Richard Haass, made an extraordinary statement over the weekend. “Just days ago much of the world was focused on the unwanted prospect of regime change in Ukraine,” he tweeted. “Now the conversation has shifted to include the possibility of desired regime change in Russia.” Senior Brookings Institute fellow Benjamin Wittes was even more explicit: Benjamin Wittes @benjaminwittes Regime change: Russia. February 27th 2022 184 Retweets1,800 Likes For anyone expecting me to be outraged about this — I am, after all, almost daily denounced as a Putin-lover and apologist, so surely I must want the Great Leader to stay in power forever — I have to disappoint. If Vladimir Putin were captured tomorrow and fired into space, I wouldn’t bat an eye. I would like to point out that we already tried regime change in Russia. I remember, because I was there. And, thanks to a lot of lurid history that’s being scrubbed now with furious intensity, it ended with Vladimir Putin in power. Not as an accident, or as the face of a populist revolt against Western influence — that came later — but precisely because we made a long series of intentional decisions to help put him there. Once, Putin’s KGB past, far from being seen as a negative, was viewed with relief by the American diplomatic community, which had been exhausted by the organizational incompetence of our vodka-soaked first partner, Boris Yeltsin. Putin by contrast was “a man with whom we could do business,” a “liberal, humane, and decent European” of “alert, controlled poise” and “well-briefed acuity,” who was open to anything, even Russia joining NATO. “I don’t see why not,” Putin said. “I would not rule out such a possibility.” The New York Times Magazine, noting that the KGB of the seventies that Putin joined was no longer really a murder factory but just another “thinking corporation,” even compared him once to Russia’s first true Western-looking leader: In him, Russia has found a humane version of Peter the Great, a ruler who will open the country to the influence of a world at once gentler and more dynamic than Russia has ever been. I’ve been bitter in commentary about Putin in recent years because I never forgot the way the West smoothed his rise, and pretends now that it didn’t. It’s infuriating also that many of us who were critical of him from the start are denounced now as Putin apologists, I think in part because we have inconvenient memories about who said what at the start of his story. The effort to wipe that history clean is reaching a fever pitch this week. Before they finish the job, it seemed worth getting it all down. In late 1996, Vladimir Putin was at a career crossroads. His boss, Anatoly Sobchak, the first democratically elected Mayor of St. Petersburg, had just lost an election and with Putin’s help, was gearing up to flee the country to avoid corruption charges. Should Putin, too, flee abroad, perhaps to Germany, where he’d enjoyed a posting in his KGB days? He had his own reputation issues, having been inveigled in scandal in his time as Sobchak’s adviser and Deputy Mayor. In 1992, while head of a Petersburg Committee to attract foreign investment, he’d been given over $120 million in export quotas for timber, oil, and rare earth metals by the federal government, to trade for desperately needed food. The deal was approved by Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar and then-trade Minister (and future Alfa Bank heavy) Pyotr Aven. The raw materials were not bartered but pawned off to “various commercial structures,” as the newspaper Smena put it, and the city got back just two tankers of cooking oil. The Federal Accounting Chamber ended up writing a letter recommending that Mr. Putin not be considered for promotions. But the little man from the northern capital was destined for a higher calling. I’d been a Petersburg resident through much of Putin’s tenure in the Mayor’s office, having fallen in love with Leningrad and its people as an exchange student in 1989 and moved back after college, with dreams of a writer’s life. Having no interest in politics I barely knew Sobchak’s name, let alone Putin’s, until after leaving town to take my first job at the Moscow Times. Properly assessing my level of intellectual seriousness at the time, the paper first had me cover sports, then gave to me a nonspecific brief to cover anything odd that hit the news desk. If a teenager mailed his mother’s head in a cardboard box to a high school teacher, or a Russian tried to set the Guinness bottle-cap pyramid record, I got the assignment. In that summer of 1996 I met a Mongolian student playing pickup ball at Moscow State University. He told me of a new league in his home country that used NBA rules, but allowed players to smoke on the bench. I had visions of a more drunken version of Paper Lion and decided to head there immediately. When I told the Times’s Australian editor Geoff Winestock that after anguished consideration I’d decided to give up the head-in-a-box beat to play professional basketball, he replied: “You’re making a terrible mistake.” He was almost right. In Mongolia I contracted a mysterious pneumonia, nearly died, then returned to Moscow to co-edit a new nightlife guide called the eXile. I was responsible there for writing thousands of words in every issue, including, usually, the entire news hole. Even though the paper was designed to be a parody of a straight-press product like the Times — it contained corrections to nonexistent articles and the “editorial” in every issue was just 600 words of denouncing something ending in, “One thing’s for sure, time will tell” — I did finally have to learn a lot about Russian politics, if only to make fun of it. This was my first experience learning that “experts” lie. I’d believed all the tales of a benevolent American aid program helping Russia convert to democracy. Unfortunately the real story of Russia during those years was that it was leapfrogging both Europe and America in its progress toward a purely predatory capitalist model. It became overnight what America’s own future would eventually resemble. Occupy Wall Street would not identify the “1%” in America until 2011, but Russia achieved the parody version — a handful of mega-billionaires surrounded by a vast population with negative wealth — as early as 1995-1996. The revolution of 1991 was really a greed-fueled intelligence mutiny, in which a collection of senior communists and KGB officers worked with Western partners to dismantle the Soviet Union. A happy by-product was that these insiders got to act as the bulwark to counter-revolution by privatizing the country’s wealth into their own hands, becoming the billionaire owners of obscene mega-yachts and jets and sports teams like Chelsea football and the future Brooklyn Nets. They became the instant-coffee elites whose personal investment in the survival of their states’ institutions are a consistent element of modern neoliberal democracies everywhere. Instead of explaining this, Western reporter colleagues based in Moscow sent mountains of stories home about Russia’s “remarkable progress” (the term regularly used by the West’s aid community) toward a free-market, Western-style paradise. They churned out hagiographic profiles of the English-speaking, often Western-educated politicians like Anatoly Chubais, the aforementioned Gaidar, Maxim Boyko, and other architects of Yeltsin’s transition. The crucial events were the privatizations of Soviet industry, conducted at every step with the counsel of American (and specifically Harvard-trained) economists. These transactions were often described as “rough” or “bumpy.” Some of the more corrupt episodes, like the loans-for-shares auctions in which the Yeltsin government lent cronies money needed to buy controlling stakes in companies the size of Exxon or AT&T for pennies on the dollar, were described using mind-boggling euphemisms like “relatively fair” (the Washington Post formulation) or “relative transparency” (Euromoney, in naming Chubais “Central Banker of the Year”). The oligarch class was formalized in a stroke via a deal brokered at Davos in 1996. A handful of biznesmeni would be handed the loans-for-shares gifts in exchange for a promise to fund Yeltsin’s campaign against the communists. The bankers had reason to worry. No less a source than Canada’s current Finance Minister and former Financial Times writer Chrystia Freeland reported that they’d been warned by George Soros. Soros, Freeland said, told the oligarchs that Yeltsin, who initially polled at 7% nationally, would lose in 1996 to communist Gennady Zyuganov, who would certainly re-take their riches. “Boys, your time is up,” he reportedly said. Instead of fleeing, they agreed to throw their weight behind Yeltsin, putting the West-friendly Chubais in charge of the campaign. My good friend Leonid Krutakov was fired from Izvestia for reporting on the fee Chubais was paid for this service: an interest-free $3 million loan given by Stolichny bank. The “relatively fair” privatization auctions were historic events. As my friends and former Moscow Times reporters Matt Bivens and Jonas Bernstein reported, “financiers” like Vladimir Potanin and Mikhail Khodorkovsky were loaned the capital to become controllers of, respectively, a third of the world’s nickel and a fourth of its cobalt, and 2% of the world’s oil reserves. Meanwhile murderous gangsters like Boris Berezovsky were gifted controlling stakes in companies like Aeroflot (from which he siphoned to a Swiss shell company roughly a third of its annual $400 million in revenues) and Russia’s seventh-largest oil concern, Sidanko. After Yelstin’s win, the resultant new billionaires — Russia’s 1% — were lavished with praise as they absconded with wealth belonging to the Russian people. The Wall Street Journal called Potanin a “Russian Bill Gates,” while the New York Times compared Berezovsky to “Commodore Vanderbilt.” Meanwhile ordinary workers fainted from hunger on the job or were ground to bits in increasingly unsafe machinery, with everyone from miners to construction workers reduced to Matewan-style indenture. While at the eXile I did a tour with Siberian bricklayers who worked long hours in frostbite conditions for chits to the company store worth a couple of bags of rice or flour a month. A scene I’ll never forget, from around the time of these privatizations: stopping for a smoke at a railroad station past midnight in a random factory town en route to Cherepovets, and meeting a row of female plant workers who’d been paid in drinking glasses. Their longshot method of getting paid involved trying to exchange glasses for cash in the middle of the night on the train platform to passing travelers. I bought every available glass, but my traveling companion, a Russian circus clown named Alexei, offered to pay double for one set if the women would smash them. The mostly older babushki looked like Satchel Paige hurling their wares against a concrete wall. Bivens and Bernstein Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who of course eventually went a bit nuts, in saying of this time: Former members of the communist elite, along with Russia’s new rich, who amassed instant fortunes through banditry, have formed an exclusive . . . oligarchy of 150 to 200 people who run the country. The CNN-informed reader, head full of sickening images of current carnage in Ukraine, is already seething, expecting me to argue now that the economic rape of Russia inspired the later nationalist revolt, making America somehow to blame for Putin and all his current crimes. No, this is going in another direction. Putin didn’t start out as a revanchist. He rose as a member of Our Team, a thief of his own accord but also a bagman to fake, wealth-extracting “democrats.” This began with Sobchak, the man the Washington Post mourned as a “reformist” and “intellectual” upon his 1996 loss. Westerners fawned over the former university professor like he was Vaclav Havel, beaming over his impassioned speeches denouncing the Soviet system, endlessly flattering his Jeffersonian contributions to Russian democracy (he is said to have been the primary author of the Russian Federation’s first constitution). Sobchak however ended up acquiring a reputation as an autocrat and was dogged by accusations that he’d privatized apartments into the hands of friends and relatives. Upon his death the New York Times described these charges: Relatively minor compared with the compromising material that has since surfaced against other Russian public figures, they tarnished not only Mr. Sobchak's reputation, but also that of the democratic movement generally. It is true that Sobchak had powerful political enemies, and how trumped up or not some of these charges were remains in dispute. What’s not in dispute is that Putin’s aid in helping Sobchak escape prosecution proved to be his big break, as Boris Yeltsin somewhat incredibly admitted in the last of his “autobiographies,” Midnight Diaries. As the New York Times later put it, “Mr. Putin’s star rose in Mr. Yeltsin’s eyes… because he was willing to circumvent the law when his mentor, the former St. Petersburg mayor, Anatoly Sobchak, was under criminal investigation.” Yeltsin wrote that Putin’s record of guaranteeing passage for Sobchak was a factor in attracting his attention: Using his connections in St. Petersburg, Putin made a deal with a private airline and brought Sobchak out to Finland. From there, Sobchak made his way to Paris… In early 2000, the Russian newspaper Kommersant published excerpts from six interviews of Putin conducted by three journalists. These interviews would later be collected into a book entitled, In the First Person: Conversations With Vladimir Putin. One question involved how Putin came to Moscow. Putin said it was at the behest of Pavel Borodin, head of the Kremlin State Property Committee, who at the time was at the center of a major scandal involving bribery and money-laundering that put Yeltsin at serious risk of prosecution. Shouldn’t Putin have “sorted out” those “scandalous accusations” before coming to Moscow? No, Putin said, that wouldn’t be democratic. Note: Putin’s efforts at pretending to be a democrat were unusually transparent. In this respect he was a bit like Yeltsin, whose village-drunk exterior was self-consciously designed to make him look more nash, our “ours,” compared to his spiffy predecessor Gorbachev, who came across like a man who’d blow Hitler’s corpse for a Brooks Brothers gift card. Putin in the same way wanted it known he struggled to orate like a “technocrat,” while American-educated peers like Chubais and Gaidar were fluent spouters of neoliberal wankery. You can imagine how it sounded when, asked about Borodin, Putin cited “a golden rule, a fundamental principle of any democratic system,” that was “called presumption of innocence.” The section about Borodin ended up being just one of two interview passages removed from In the First Person. Why would Putin, a man not abashed by accusations of murder or war crimes, be embarrassed by that particular line? Because he knew: the framework for the nineties-era looting of Russia, that according to some estimates caused millions of premature deaths, depended upon insiders with intelligence backgrounds working the machinery of capital flight while political front creatures like Yeltsin were given Swiss bank accounts, French villas, and millions or billions in carrying charges as compensation for effecting the façade of “democracy.” The passage revealed him as a whore to the West, one of the few truths he’d be embarrassed to admit. Remember those Russiagate stories about Putin’s history of using sexual blackmail? Few mentioned that his most famous caper of this type involved the protection of Yeltsin, by kneecapping Prosecutor General Yuri Skuratov. The latter’s grossout prostitute romp was broadcast on TV by newly appointed FSB chief Putin after Skuratov took aim at the Yeltsin family’s acceptance of bribes and no-limit credit cards from the Swiss construction firm Mabetex. This was the case that involved Borodin. Putin would go on to help the whole Yeltsin clan slither out of Russia with their stolen millions. The eXile, and the Russian-language paper Stringer where I worked, went after Putin from the moment he appeared in Moscow. We depicted him in covers as a leather dominatrix forcing Russia to kneel, while taking considerable risk in publishing — in what in hindsight was not the brightest move — transcripts of wiretaps we obtained of Putin’s vicious chief of staff Alexander Voloshin. We warned that Putin was becoming the Russian Michael Corleone, whose style was to “mix not- so-oblique public symbolism with energetic off-camera ruthlessness and violence,” using intimidation to settle all family business against the free press and “reformers.” We weren’t alone in the expat community. Bivens, by then editor of the Moscow Times, committed multiple reporters to a painstaking investigation of election irregularities in Dagestan suggesting Putin’s 2000 election was badly tainted. Few took up the story, except to report the Putin administration’s denials. Instead, the West hailed the cleanliness of Putin’s 2000 election. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, one of the world’s primary election observers, said the “2000 presidential election represented a benchmark in the ongoing evolution of the Russian Federation’s emergence as a representative democracy.” Harvard advisers Andrei Schleifer and Daniel Treisman as late as 2005 wrote a paper called A Normal Country: Russia After Communism that favorably contrasted the OSCE’s assessment of Russian democracy under Putin with that of its ex-Soviet neighbors like Georgia (“ballot stuffing and protocol tampering”), Azerbaijan (“primitive falsification”), and Ukraine (“flagrant violations of voting procedures” and a “widespread, systematic, and co-ordinated campaign by state institutions at all levels to unduly influence voters”). As noted in this space just last week, Bill Clinton upon Putin’s election praised Russians for “voting in extraordinary numbers against a return to the past,” adding that they’d “just completed a democratic transfer of power for the first time in a thousand years.” From 1991 on, Russia developed a community of ferocious muckrakers who took on the mob state and risked their lives almost every time they published. I was in awe of these people and tagged along with them over the years, trying to soak up any knowledge they were willing to give. By 1999, their ranks had been diminished by assassinations, takeovers, and newspaper closures. Still, they were determined to make a stand against Putin before his rule was cemented. They dug in when the second Chechen War was re-ignited after a series of suspicious bombings of Russian residential buildings in late 1999 were attributed to Chechen terrorists. A crack in the story developed when local police in the city of Ryazan, acting at cross-purposes with the new Putin government, tracked the source of an unexploded hexagen bomb found in the basement of a Ryazan building to Moscow-based FSB agents. The main oppositional paper, Novaya Gazeta, had multiple reporters on the story. I remember lunches where investigative reporters like Anna Politkovskaya, Oleg Luriye, and some of the Stringer reporters strategized how to report the affair. Anna ended up dead, Luriye was brutally attacked, and the NG offices in Ryazan were ransacked. Meanwhile, the Chechen campaign turned increasingly vicious, with Putin approving the use of “vacuum” bombs that devastated civilians. This “father of all bombs” is rumored to be ready for use against Ukraine, properly inspiring outcry — a CNN team claims to have just seen a device for launching them — but we didn’t hear many of those complaints back in 1999 and 2000. In fact, even after the beginning of the second brutal Chechen campaign, and the beatings of Novaya Gazeta reporters, and the seizure of the Media-Most network (whose station NTV was the last regular source of opposition to Putin on broadcast TV), and the escape of Yeltsin with his nineties-era thefts, Putin was still gushed over. A Canadian paper asked him during this time in a fawning piece how he felt about being considered the sexiest man in his country. Putin replied, in Caesarian tones, “I endure it.” People like current Canadian Finance Minister Freeland talked in the New Statesman about his presidency as a reason to fall back “in love” with Russia. A World Bank spokesperson initially hyped Russia as “substantially better off” with him in power, cheering the fact that he would be a bulwark against a “centrally planned economy.” The World Bank statement is useful to look at in retrospect. Addressing the moral issues of the Putin regime: It is evidently true that any country’s economic process has to be rooted in its own values and systems. And that those values and systems in Russia itself are in transition. There has been a tendency at times in the West to see things in simple terms — sometimes in terms of standards that Western countries don't apply to themselves. That really comes back to what I said earlier — it's going to be a messy process with setbacks as well as progress. The West, in other words, was willing to overlook the “messiness” of Putin because he seemed a good candidate to be the silnaya ruka (strong hand) guaranteeing stability of trade the comatose Yeltsin never quite could be. We thought he would be our bastard. Then, he became his own bastard. Putin first insisted on kicking American advisers out of the Kremlin. Later, he booted from Russia organizations like USAID, the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute, claiming these organizations existed to meddle in elections and “stir up revolution.” These decisions magically transformed him from “intelligent, strong leader” leader as Tony Blair called him into an anti-West bogey man of the Noriega and Saddam Hussein type, i.e. a former client elevated to supervillain status. All of this history has been whitewashed. In 2000 Putin began the process of re-writing the terms of the privatization arrangement brokered at Davos in 1996. It was the same deal, with one important change. Putin would allow the ex-Soviet crooks and Komsomoltsi who’d been gifted wealth beyond the dreams of even the richest Americans and Europeans to keep their ill-gotten gains, in exchange for absolute allegiance to him and a promise to get out of politics. “I want to draw your attention to the fact that you built this state yourself, to a great degree through the political or semi-political structures under your control,’’ Putin reportedly said. “So there is no point in blaming the reflection in the mirror.” Nikita Khrushchev returned from America so impressed he turned Ukraine into a cornfield. Putin never thought much of us and was not interested in living like Yeltsin, hated at home, his political life hanging by the thread of IMF loans. Like Chinese counterparts, he burned to throw off the stink of colonial servitude and be a superpower rather than depend on one. After Chechnya, Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Crimea, I’m embarrassed I didn’t see him going this far, but the story itself isn’t surprising. Whether or not expanding or not expanding NATO to Ukraine would have altered the current picture is irrelevant. We were never not going to try, and Putin was never not going to respond as he has. He’s been saying for a long time he would not accept a post-Cold War security arrangement that meant “one single center of force, one single center of decision making,” bemoaning the “world of one master, one sovereign” and America’s “almost contained hyper use of force in international relations.” When the United States recognized independent Kosovo, he said it was a “terrible precedent” that would hit the West “in the face” and “blow apart the whole system of international relations.” This seems to be more or less exactly where we are. Not unlike Donald Trump, Putin made a wager early on that his country would fare better taking the nationalist path than it would as a vassal state to a global economic system he believed was declining. Now that he’s made such a dramatic commitment in that direction, his story is destined for the same treatment in the Western press as Trump’s election, as an unspeakable evil whose origins are a taboo subject. Anyone who even brings them up must be an apologist. What sort of person cares from whose womb the devil emerged? Condoleezza Rice was on Fox Sunday, where host Harris Faulkner asked her to comment on Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, saying, “When you invade a sovereign nation, that is a war crime.” Rice answered with a straight face: “It is certainly against every principle of international law and international order.” This dovetailed with Mitt Romney saying Putin’s invasion is “the first time in 80 years a great power has moved to conquer a sovereign nation,” and EC chief Ursula von der Leyen claiming Putin has “brought war back to Europe,” as if a whole range of events from Iraq to Afghanistan to Kosovo never took place. If you’re wondering why the levels of media insanity in response to Putin’s attack have been cranked up to levels never before seen on the Internet — “as if there had been Twitter on 9/11” is how one reporter friend put it — it’s not just because Putin’s act in isolation is horrible, and barbaric, and a tragedy for Ukraine and the region. It’s also because the event creates a massive propaganda imperative. Even though the pre-emptive war pretext Putin invoked was identical to the one Rice, her boss George Bush, and current media hero David Frum deployed to attack Iraq, there will be an effort now to hammer home with younger audiences especially that Putin’s war is the first violent break of the international order since the Sudetenland. For people like Rice and Frum, Ukraine is a ticket to absolution. We’re watching a clash of civilizations, in which the international order needs to see its most infamous apostate, and the nationalism he represents, crushed both as an idea and as a military power. The situation is particularly dangerous because Putin has always operated on the understanding that the only political error that is not survivable is a show of weakness. Which means, to me, that if he has to turn Kyiv into a vacuum-bombed moonscape like Grozny, he will. It’s horrific to contemplate. But to those demanding another denunciation of the man, I checked that box a long time ago, during the Frankensteinian portion of this story, when America had its best shot at fixing its Putin problem and chose not to try. We’re past all that now. All that’s left to do is hold on, and pray all of this madness cools somehow, before someone dusts off the button.