Putin's KGB past may help, not hinder


IT IS impossible these days to read about Russia's new president, Vladimir Putin, without immediately coming upon references to his KGB past. The very mention of that dreaded political police invokes images of lawlessness, with young Mr. Putin hounding political dissidents into labor camps, internal exile and psychiatric hospitals.

This, of course, provides for instant opportunities to blame Mr. Putin in advance for future sins.

The KGB was arguably one of the most repressive organization of the 20th century; the man was undoubtedly affected by it. What is worse, the new president not only refuses to repudiate this past but is proud of it. Here, according to the latest punditry, is a telltale clue to his character and his convictions. Mr. Putin is the wrong man in the wrong place -- not someone who is going to bring democracy and individual liberty to Russia.

The problem with this conventional view is that it offers no real insights into Russia's current situation. While dismissing Mr. Putin as a former KGB "agent," this view entertains the dubious assumption that all Russia needs is a courageous and enlightened leader who would show his people how they would benefit if only they would embrace Jeffersonian values.

The Russia of the Romanovs as well as the Russia of the Communist czars was an empire run on the military model with power flowing from above. In 1881, there was a sharp and enduring break with the past: the autocracy institutionalized police rule.

The Communists continued that tradition and even enhanced the standing of the political police, which became the elite organization within the establishment.

Yet, as the best-informed part of the Communist establishment, the KGB was the first to grasp the catastrophic consequences of Leonid Brezhnev's long rule. Yuri Andropov, the ultimate insider, began the reformist course in the early 1980s which paved the way to Mikhail Gorbachev and, later, Boris Yeltsin, who botched things up, each in his own way. Mr. Gorbachev, while trying to reform socialism, dismantled the empire and failed the ruling Communists. Mr. Yeltsin, who wrecked the Communist system, salvaged the position of the establishment but left a ruined society and a broken economy.

In nominating Mr. Putin for president, the establishment has turned to a reliable insider. While we cannot accurately identify the key players who made this selection, there are strong indications that they come from the morphed old security elites. They clearly wanted a younger, modern man to rebuild the state.

Mr. Putin may lack conventional political acumen, but he is a consummate cynic. The cynicism of the men who joined the KGB in the 1970s had its roots in a profound arrogance that went with privileges, the possession of real information and foreign travel and which set them apart from the rest of the population.

Men like Mr. Putin devoted their lives to the idea of strengthening the state and learned practical ways of going about it. Even Mr. Putin's first political experience (serving as deputy mayor to the reformist mayor of St. Petersburg, Anatoly Sobchak) was a KGB assignment. (The KGB continued to pay his salary, he says in his autobiography.)

But it may be a mistake to judge him by his bland exterior. Mr. Putin subsequently headed today's version of the KGB and served as Mr. Yeltsin's national security adviser, positions that gave him the heart of the state machinery.

There are echoes of Yuri Andropov in Mr. Putin's initial pronouncements. He has called for "the dictatorship of law," vowed to reform the country's medieval tax system and to protect "the rights of property holders." He also made it clear that the state's key interests cannot be compromised on account of human rights concerns and that foreign opinion would be taken seriously as long as Russia is treated as an equal partner by other nuclear powers.

What ultimately will make or break his record, of course, is how he performs. But his past, despite its notorious nature, may not be the worst for handling the job he now faces or the most indicative of how he will tackle it.

Writer and journalist Dusko Doder is the author of several books on Russia and Eastern Europe, including "Gorbachev: Heretic in the Kremlin" and, most recently, "Milosevic: Portrait of a Tyrant."

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