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Place of the Year nominee spotlight: Russia

This year, Russia was chosen as one of the nominees for Oxford University Press’s Place of the Year. Russia dominated the news cycle throughout the year—from investigations on their interference in the 2016 US elections to Kremlin’s interventions in Ukraine and Syria.

The following excerpt from Russia: What Everyone Needs to Know provides an overview of President Vladimir Putin and his meteoric rise to power.

Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin (b. 1952 in Leningrad), was the first ruler of Russia to be a child of the latter half of the twentieth century; the first since Lenin to be city- born, to be fluent in a foreign language, and to have lived abroad; the first to have cut his teeth in the special services; and the first to enter politics after Soviet rule capsized.

Putin’s working- class father was gravely wounded during World War II, behind enemy lines; his mother almost starved during the Nazi siege, and an older brother died of diphtheria. Putin was a “hoodlum” as a boy, he said; only in his teens did he buckle down to his books and to workouts in martial arts clubs. “You can consider me,” he went on about his political attitudes, “the product of a patriotic Soviet upbringing.” Animated by “romantic tales about the work of secret service agents,” the ninth- grader asked a desk officer at the city KGB office if he could train as a spy. He would need a college education, he was told. In 1975, when Putin got his law diploma from Leningrad State University, al­ready a member of the CPSU, the KGB recruited him.

Vladimir Putin at school age, date unknown. Image credit: “Vladimir Putin as a child” provided by kremlin.ru. CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Little has come to light about the decade and a half in the KGB. After six months monitoring foreign tourists and Soviet dissidents, Putin was appointed to the intelligence director­ate, boned up on his grade-school German, and attended the agency’s Red Banner Institute; he was de-enrolled from the institute after one year as punishment for getting into a fist­fight with hoodlums on the Leningrad subway. In August 1985 Putin was sent to Dresden, East Germany’s third city, where he liaised with the Ministry of State Security (Stasi) of the German Democratic Republic. Posting to a backwater was not the badge of a wunderkind. Putin missed out on perestroika back home—he and his wife, Lyudmila, “watched it only on television,” she says in From the First Person—but he did express support for Gorbachev’s political reforms. Dresden was a hothouse for the local opposition. When the Stasi compound was stormed by protesters in December 1989, Putin requested instructions from Moscow; he was aghast that no one picked up the phone. “I realized that the Soviet Union was ill. It had a terminal, incurable disease called paralysis, a paralysis of power.”

Putin was stoical about the downfall of Soviet Communism, doomed by the system’s congenital imperfections, as he saw it. But when it came to results, he felt the losses more than the gains, above all in geopolitics.

“To be honest, I had nothing but regret for the loss of the Soviet Union’s position in Europe, although I understood intellectually that any position based on walls and barriers cannot last forever. But I had hoped that something different would rise in its place, and nothing dif­ferent was proposed. That’s what hurt. All we did was toss everything away and leave.” 

Back in the Soviet Union in 1990, Putin was reassigned to his alma mater, Leningrad State, as a low- status watchdog in the department handling contacts with foreigners—another sign of mediocre grades from the KGB. A turning point was the confidential relationship he struck up with Anatolii Sobchak, a department head in the law school where Putin had studied in the 1970s. Sobchak was a member of the USSR Congress and, with Yeltsin, of the Interregional Deputies Group; chair of city council in May 1990; and in June 1991 mayor of what was again St. Petersburg. Putin trailed him to city hall and “made himself indispensable” in a quiet way. By 1994 he was first deputy mayor. Putin’s remit, for international trade and invest­ment, put him in touch with Russia’s newfound capitalists— breeding possibilities for corruption about which biographers have endlessly conjectured. Putin also got his feet wet in elec­toral politics in Sobchak’s repeat campaign in May 1996.

Putin made it through a second career hiccup when Sobchak lost the election (he was to die in obscurity in 2000). Out of a job for three months, Putin made the trek to Moscow. Coworkers from St. Petersburg found a spot for him in the Kremlin business office. Over the next half- year he somehow ingratiated himself with Yeltsin, who in March 1997 made him deputy head of the presidential administration. In July 1998 Putin vaulted to directorship of the FSB.

President Boris Yeltsin meeting Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, 31 December 1999. Image credit: “Vladimir Putin with Boris Yeltsin-1” provided by kremlin.ru. CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

What possessed Yeltsin to make the momentous decision to select Putin as his seventh prime minister and heir-apparent? Did an interested party put him up to it? Was it all because Putin promised Yeltsin and his biological family to exempt them from prosecution? This makes no sense. Any pretender to the brass ring would have agreed to the limited decree of 31 December 1999, which made no mention of family members. No one was so foolish as to think this scrap of paper would protect Yeltsin in a pinch.

Putin completed his meteoric ascent by working with a se­lectorate of one—Boris Yeltsin. His leverage inhered in being acceptant of Yeltsin’s endorsement but not presumptuous, and in satisfying the president’s desiderata for a successor. Yeltsin was adamant that the next leader be from the coming genera­tion of “new faces,” as he said in his goodbye speech, and have the qualities to keep Russia in one piece after its whirlwind of change. In 1998 he had appointed Nikolai Bordyuzha, a career KGB officer, as chief of Kremlin staff. Bordyuzha ran afoul of Yeltsin months later for being too cozy with Primakov, and was removed. As Yeltsin wrote in Presidential Marathon, he hoped for someone who combined an understanding of the un-Soviet Russia with a “steely backbone that would strengthen the political structure of authority.” “We needed a thinking person who was democratic and innovative, yet steadfast in the military manner. The next year such a person did appear … Putin.” In retrospect, “steely,” “thinking,” and “innovative” sit well with Putin; “democratic” does not.

Featured image credit: “President of Russia Vladimir Putin & Prime Minister Lebanon Saad Hariri in Sochi, 13 September 2017” provided by  kremlin.ru. CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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