Putin Russia Russia's Revolution From Above Russian Domestic Policy Russian politics

WORKING PAPER: Towards a Political Biography of Vladimir Putin: From Commissar to Opportunistic Revolutionary From Above, Part One, 1975-1999

by Gordon M. Hahn


Western analyses and perceptions of Russian President Vladimir Putin if not caricatures are most often distortions that take the man outside the realm of the common mortal – with his/her nuances, changes over time, positives and, to be sure, negatives. He is portrayed as made in the KGB as nothing but a colorless, cynical, Soviet-style secret policeman and unwavering apparatchik so beginning from his entrance into the organs in 1975 inevitably ending so in the grave. In fact, Putin is a significantly complex person. One can question his moral and ethical qualities as a person and leader, but there is significant evidence that Putin is a decisive leader.

Although Putin’s political and leadership “smacks of a strong, decisive, authoritarian streak,” keener observers have also noted his human complexity; very few — political complexity. A former US State Department psychiatrist specializing in ‘political psychology’ convincingly described the complexity of the man: “In 2000, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, then a relative unknown outside of Russia, visited Japan.  Part of his trip included a visit to the Kodokan, the historic Judo school founded by Jigoro Kano. Putin participated in a demonstration, showing off his martial arts skills with a young Japanese student, who threw him using a classic hip throw.  Afterwards, Putin bowed formally to her with grace and good cheer, and the crowd gave him a proper ovation. Several years later, after the tragic terrorist attack in Beslan, where over 300 schoolchildren lost their lives in its carnage, an emotionally-distraught Putin spoke to a sorrowing nation, reminding Russia that it had been beaten because of its weakness.”[1] One might add the even more emotionally distraught Putin at the February 2000 funeral of his perhaps most important political mentor, law professor and first mayor of post-Soviet St. Petersburg, the pro-democratic Anatolii Sobchak.[2] 

Similar to the way Putin’s political psychology is more complex than the KGB/Soviet stereotypes, so too his biography includes several formative episodes and resulting character traits and political orientations that contradict the Western-made oversimplified image of the hardline, neo-imperialist strongman and ‘Stalin of today’ forged by 16 years in the KGB. For example, Putin’s main formative experience outside the home before pursuing a KGB career was his adoption and deep attachment to judo as a disciplinary and social art, instilling in him, self-control, respect for one’s opponent, and loyalty to his allies and mentors. Former U.S. consul to St. Petersburg notes, I think accurately, how this may have influenced Putin’s development: “Most Western analysts have focused on the fact the sport requires the player to use the strength and weight of his opponent to his own advantage.  That theory conveniently supports the contention that Putin has played Russia’s relatively weak hand well in dealing with stronger adversaries, but there is another aspect that is usually overlooked: the sport comes from the East, Japan, I believe.  Contestants prepare for combat in a friendly, collegial way. They bow to each other as a sign of respect before engaging, and again afterwards. It is a bloodless affair, almost courtly, with strict rules and formalities, although it does require real strength, agility, and skill. Putin has won numerous black belts.  But he is a good sport: memorably, he allowed himself to be thrown by a much younger opponent while visiting Japan. It also requires sobriety, flexibility, and self-control, qualities that Putin exhibits in abundance.”[3]

Usually, Putin is associated strictly with the negative and stilted aspects of the USSR; no other influences dare be broached: not his Petersburg period, not his early years in Moscow, nor his years in top positions in the FSB, government, and finally the presidency. The Putin of these early, post-KGB, post-Soviet years, covering the 1990s and the first few years of Putin’s first term as president, the formation of his early and mid-career political and ideological orientation, and the development of the man as a political leader are the main foci of this study. These periods encompass Putin’s transformation from: (1) a loyal KGB operative to (2) quasi-liberal ‘revolutionary from above’ driven to abandon his prior biography and much of his belief system for new values in the brave, chaotic, and dangerous world of post-perestroika Russian life and politics, and finally to (3) his development of significant leadership skills during his rise up the political hierarchy in Moscow.

Leningrad-Dresden: 1970-1990

The story of Putin’s request to join the KGB as a high school student and his entering Leningrad (St. Petersburg) State University’s (LGU/SPGU) Faculty of Law in 1970 as he was advised to do when he was first rejected is well-known. There he met his future mentor, then law professor Anatolii Sobchak. Entering the KGB in 1975, after training Putin was assigned to counterintelligence in Leningrad keeping tabs on foreigners and was then transferred to Moscow. At the dawn of perestroika with the rise to the CPSU CC General Secretaryship of Mikhail Gorbachev in March 1985, Putin was stationed to Dresden, East Germany.

Putin’s stint in Dresden was rather unremarkable as KGB careers might go. A former KGB colleague in Dresden, Vladimir Usol’tsev, in his 2003 book Colleague (Sosluzhivets), states that Putin and his colleagues were well aware that the USSR was in decline. He describes Dresden Putin as a run-of-the-mill KGB agent, competently and thoroughly carrying out tasked functions, mostly recruiting KGB agents among the Soviet students in communist Eastern Germany, technology theft, and monitoring and reporting on the East German leadership. Putin was “pragmatist” and “complete conformist,” who thought one thing but said something else,” taking no political risks, as most Soviets who sought to protect their position had to. However, according to Usol’tsev, Putin was a very different person in small company with close colleagues. In small groups, such as during his Dresden office mates’ weekly sojourns to the sauna, he opened up and surprised his colleagues with his politics. Putin was clearly disturbed about the abuse of the law in the USSR and sympathized with the regime’s leading critics, including dissident Andrei Sakharov, whom he “respected for his consistency.” He disagreed with the view prominent in the organs that Jews were innately anti-Soviet and regarded them as “completely normal people.” On the other hand, he thought the Soviet system could not change and doubted that the extent of the crimes under Stalin were as great as revelations under glasnost’ evidenced. According to Usol’tsev, as summarized in the New York Times: “Putin concealed his energy behind a studied air of politeness and courtesy. When interacting with his superiors, he gave the impression of being extremely obedient, even dependent. This…made him the constant favorite of his superiors, in Dresden, at headquarters in Karlshorst, and probably later on with his political mentor Boris Yeltsin.”[4] Thus, Putin was already demonstrating some ideological flexibility and tendency to a moderate conservatism punctuated by splashes of what passed for liberalism in those days and that career path. Consistent with the approach of his first top boss, KGB Chairman Yurii Andropov, recommended to KGB case officers to “work with the people,” Putin was developing some promise as a “specialist in human relations,” as he later described himself.[5]

With the collapse of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 and a certain amount of revolutionary chaos in the GDR, Putin was forced to go out and confront an angry crowd of Germans hoping to enter the Soviet consulate, warning that his colleagues inside had orders to shoot should the crown break in. This and the general Soviet collapse formed the first trial of Putin’s political career, summed up by his complaint that when he phoned Moscow for assistance as to what should be done he received no satisfaction. In recounting this in 2000, he recalled: “I had the feeling that the country was no more. It had disappeared.” This likely a harrowing sense for someone on the wrong end of a revolution.

To sum up the influence of Putin’s KGB career on his future personal and professional development, it seems that he must have imbibed some of the suspicion of others and hidden enemies, especially those tied to the West. However, these attributes became recessive or at least less dominant than in his hierarchy of values and attitudes by dint of confusion created by the collapse of the Soviet Bloc he once viewed as invincible. This shock and resulting ideological confusion could only have been compounded in the next few years as the Soviet demise proceeded.

Putin as ‘Revolutionary from Above,’ St. Petersburg, 1990-1991

In 1990, Putin returned to a late Soviet Leningrad transmogrifying into St. Petersburg and would end up on the right side of Russia’s ‘revolution from above’ consummated in the limited August revolution from below that resisted a restorationist coup attempt by CPSU hardliners and siloviki.[6] Leningrad was experiencing growing political polarization like the rest of the country reformed and inadvertently destabilized by CPSU General Secretary and later USSR President Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika. In the city of the first Russian revolution and where Bolshevik power was born, Putin began hedging his Soviet bet, siding with the creeping revolution from above.

His KGB bosses inadvertently gave him an exit path from the sinking Party-state regime. It was apparently they who assigned him or supported his appointment to the post of assistant to the deputy rector in international affairs department of SPGU. There, although Putin continued working for the KGB, carrying out recruitment and surveillance, he renewed ties with Sobchak, who was now a star in the democratic opposition movement and an ally of the democratic opposition’s top leader Boris Yeltsin in the USSR Congress of People’s Deputies. In April 1990, Sobchak was elected to Leningrad City Council (LenSoviet), and the council elected him its chairman in May, making him the de facto mayor of the city.

Under the combined liberalizing effects of simultaneous revolution from above and perestroika, both Leningrad and Moscow saw free and fair popular elections for their respective mayors, held simultaneously with popular elections for the new office of the Russian presidency on 12 June 1991. Yeltsin won the Russian presidency, and Sobchak won the Leningrad mayoralty. This deepened the revolutionary situation by exacerbating the condition of dual sovereignty in the country, as a powerful set of completely non-Party state institutions emerged in Russia alongside the still Party-penetrated state institutions of the USSR. Putin became Sobchak’s first deputy mayor for international affairs. In that position he actively resisted the 19-21 August 1991 Party-state hardline coup at Sobchak’s side in Leningrad, while Yeltsin fought off the putsch in Moscow.[7] The Washington Post reported in January 2000 that during the coup Putin had “quietly played a key role” on August 19th in securing Mayor Sobchak’s safe return to Leningrad from Moscow, where he had declared his support for Yeltsin against the coup plotters.[8] Sobchak then led the northern capitol’s resistance to the coup. Putin claims that he did not resign from the KGB until 20 August 1991, the second day of the Party-state hardline coup against Gorbachev and Yeltsin.[9]

It appears that up until that day Putin had been hedging his bets and did not make a final decision on whether he would stand with his old (Sobchak) or new boss (the KGB) in any confrontation. On that day, August 20th, the confrontation had arrived, as 400,000 Leningraders massed on Palace Square in support of Sobchak and the Leningrad government’s fight against the Soviet coup plotters—a clear demonstration, along with the comparable demonstration before the Moscow White House, that Russia’s revolutionaries from above would prevail in the August standoff, given their mass public support. In a documentary film about Sobchak, ‘Delo Sobchaka’, produced by his daughter Kseniya in 2018, Putin described his situation when the coup began as a dilemma in terms of a certain indecision: “On the one hand, I worked with Anatolii Sobchak, and he was on the side of the acting authorities (Gorbachev and Yeltsin). But on the other hand, there is this coup attempt, and the coercive organs, they were on the side of those who carried this out; I could not be there and there simultaneously.”[10] During the coup Putin told Sobchak: “I have made my choice.” In the 2018 interview, he added that he said to Sobchak: “I should feel, first, confident, and therefore in the given situation the most correct (thing) for me (to do) is to write a report on my resignation, and to that he (Sobchak) said to me: ‘Good, do that. I will phone (KGB chief Vladimir) Kryuchkov’.” Sobchak called and Putin’s resignation from the KGB was accepted.[11] The August 20th popular resistance to the coup, like nothing earlier had pushed Putin to get off the fence.

With the coup’s collapse, the Party-state regime met its demise and by December the Soviet state itself had collapsed, all symbolized by Leningrad’s return to its former name, St. Petersburg. In sum, Putin was a reluctant, perhaps, ‘revolutionary from above’ or at least a situational, opportunistic ally of Yeltsin’s revolution from above against the remnants of the Soviet regime. Like Yeltsin himself, along with many Soviet regime soft-liners-turned revolutionaries from above, Putin had limited knowledge and commitment to the fledgling democracy and free market of post-Soviet Russia’s brave, if tumultuous new world. In essence, he positioned himself as moderate liberal: something like today’s state or ‘system liberals,’ who are typically more liberal than the Putin of today, especially as regards non-economic issues. For comparison, Putin’s future tandem partner, the more liberal former president and prime minister Dmitrii Medvedev, was studying with Sobchak and working for his election to the LenSovet in spring 1989, while Putin was still working for the KGB in Dresden.[12] 

It appears as for most Soviet citizens Gorbachev’s glasnost’ had its effect on the now former KGB operative’s thinking on Lenin, Leninism, and Soviet history. Although Putin has never addressed the issue of Lenin’s collusion with the Germans in the making the February revolution and especially the October coup, Putin seemed to hint at it in accusing Lenin of “treason” twice in 2012. Otherwise, he has been highly critical of Lenin, the Bolsheviks, and at times even Soviet power. Like many Party-state apparatchiki who jumped the sinking Soviet ship of state in 1990-91, then deputy mayor of St. Petersburg Putin rejected “that person” and Marxism-Leninism in a 1991 interview. (It is characteristic of Putin to refuse to mention the name of people he has come to dislike; not his perfect record in never mentioning Russian opposition figure Aleksei Navalnyi by name.) Specifically, Putin stated in the interview that he had come to understand as he matured “more and more clearly the obvious truth” that communism was but “a beautiful but harmful fairy tale; harmful because its implementation or any attempt to carry it out in life in our country brought in the end enormous damage.” He charged that the Bolsheviks “destroyed what glues, molds the people of civilized countries – market relationships. They destroyed the market, emerging capitalism. The only thing that they did to keep the country together within common borders – was a barb wire.”[13]

Two decades later, at the beginning of his third term as Russia’s president, the glasnost’ effect on Putin still held. He accused Lenin and the Bolsheviks of “national treason” in World War I. At the July 2012 ‘Seliger’ Youth Forum, Putin accused Lenin and the Bolsheviks of “a unique, major example of national treason” for having “wished the defeat of their own country in the First World War,” making “their own contribution to the extent they could in Russia’s defeat,” and for the “amazing situation” of having “capitulated” so that “Russia lost to the losing side, Germany.”[14] At a June 2012 session of the Russian legislature’s upper house, Putin repeated the accusation of “national treason” and capitulation in war to the losing side, which, he exclaimed, was “a unique situation in all of mankind’s history.”[15] А year later, Putin again castigated Marxism-Leninism and by implication Lenin himself, telling a meeting at the Jewish Museum and Center for Tolerance that the Soviet regime was “guided by false ideological thinking, they moved to arrests and repression of both Jews and Orthodox, representatives of other faiths, Muslims. They raked them all in together. Now these ideological blinders and false ideological constructions, thank God, have collapsed.”[16]

Putin’s views on Lenin and the Bolsheviks provide context for understanding Putin’s infamous lament that the collapse of the USSR was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century for which he has been accused of lamenting the fall of the Soviet regime. Putin had no problem with the end of the communist form of rule (regime) and credits both Gorbachev and Yeltsin for “giving the country its freedom”, which he calls “a historical breakthrough.” Putin regretted and regrets the collapse of the state and only so far as it left 25 million ethnic Russians outside of their historic homeland, Russia: “(A)fter the disintegration of the Soviet Union, 25 million Russians—in a blink of an eye—found themselves abroad. In another country. That’s one of the greatest catastrophes of the 21st century. People used to live in one country; they had relatives, work, apartments, and they had equal rights. And yet in an instant they found themselves abroad. And there were certain signs and then full-fledged civil wars.”[17] To be sure, this also meant that non-Russians, many of whom sought independence from the USSR and any prospective Russia should the former collapse, received their independence. For them, the Soviet breakup was no catastrophe, but Putin is a Russian, president of Russia, speaking from the Russian point of view.  

Although Putin’s views on Lenin have remained constant, Putin’s life in the corridors of power would change this still uncommitted democratizer, market reformer, and rather typical ‘revolutionary from above.’

St. Petersburg, 1991-1997

As a consequence of the brutal and raucous political and economic turmoil of the 1990s, Putin, like many Russians, would become a reluctant, doubting democrat, more cynical, and ‘practical’ in building and pursuing power. As Sobchak’s deputy mayor for international relations, Putin would manage such operations such as the US-Russian Goodwill Games and food supply for the city as the economic crisis deepened through the early 1990s. Almost everyone in the former USSR at that time was involved in some form of corruption, and Putin was no exception. The average citizen paid bribes to officials, police and traffic cops and stole supplies from his place of work, if he had one. Those inside the state had broader opportunities. Putin was accused by some in the Leningrad Soviet of engaging in corruption while bartering oil for food supplies for the city but no charges were ever brought. The investigation found no evidence that Putin benefited personally from the scandal, and Putin denied signing the documents, though his signature appeared on them. Moreover, those making the charges against Putin personally had issues with veracity and an axe to grind against any former KGB man.[18]

Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the illegal barter deal occurred and under Putin’s watch. A later investigation found that the scandal also saw a bankrupt company doing other international business repeatedly getting loans form the Petersburg government and building a dacha on Ozero (Lake) Komsomolskoe outside the city for Putin and his closest associates, later called the ‘Ozero’ group, suggesting that Putin did benefit personally from the deal.[19] Again, during the great post-Soviet Russian depression, the collapsing state, and theft of its massive property holdings corruption was ubiquitous. For many what began as a means of survival or providing comfort for one’s family and friends would become a way of life justified for the ‘sacrifice’ made in serving the state. Putin was also accused of having ‘ties’ to the Tambov Gang organized crime group, but ‘ties’ seemed to amount little more than the likelihood that Putin took bribes from front companies tied to the Tambov group. Putin may or may not have known who stood behind these companies, and bribe-taking was almost incumbent for many officials, either because to refuse to engage in such led to ostracization from other officials or because of the possible threat to one’s life refusing bribes made by organized crime entailed.

Some Americans who had contact with Putin at the time he served in the St. Petersburg government attest to him being a conscientious and honest official. Indeed, by Russian standards at this crisis time, he may indeed have been, relatively speaking. Former US consul to Russia in St. Petersburg John Evans has written that the Petersburg deputy mayor Putin he and others he encountered was not motivated “primarily” by money also “had not failed to take advantage of opportunities that have come his way.” At the same time, he “had the reputation as the only bureaucrat in the city who did not take bribes (this is an exaggeration; there were others).” He was “well regarded on the whole” and “devoted” to the democratic Sobchak.[20] Putin was indeed close to him and he and his wife Lyudmilla spent a good deal of leisure time with Sobchak family. Putin’s political program, according to Evans, at the time was focused entirely on domestic concerns and had three tracks: economic reconstruction, fighting crime, and court reform. Putin was not anti-American, anti-Semitic, anti-gay, or a communist.[21]

According to Evans (and others), the mayor was more of an intellectual than an organizer or manager and it fell to Putin run the city’s daily operations. Putin “was credited with bringing some order into the chaotic crime-ridden business world.” On one occasion, according to Evans, when a group of Californian investor, who had established a Subway fast-sandwich restaurant in the city sought from the consulate because they were being squeezed out by a criminal mob, Evans called Putin who first asked for a copy of the contract and “assured” him that he “would order the mob to back off” so the Americans, fearing for their safety, could depart for Helsinki, adding that the issue would have to go to court. Evans reports that the case did go to court but does not reveal (and perhaps does not know the results). Presumably, the Americans made it to Finland with Putin’s assistance. Evans concludes reasonably enough that Putin’s request for the contract and expectation that a court would need to decide the issue was one of a trained lawyer “intent on seeing that the matter was resolved in accordance with the law.”[22]

It is noteworthy from Evans’ account that Putin tried to settle the Subway case by using the law to contain the conflict but not to punish the criminals who instigated it. This might remind some of Putin’s laxity in pushing his law enforcement organs to solve the many high-profile murders of politicians and journalists that have occurred under his rule. As I have noted elsewhere Putin is a soft authoritarian balancer and manager not a democrat. Evans is quite correct that this episode was characteristic for the “Wild East” that Russia was in the 1990s, but it should be noted also that Putin was obviously being drawn into its criminalized culture. Putin was able to ‘assure’ the American consul that he would call off the crime group, suggesting that he knew how to contact them and halt their action without, perhaps, fear of retribution. At the same time, from Evans’ account there is no evidence that Putin promised or attempted to bring the criminal gang to justice for their actions. As I discuss below, Putin’s biography and personality are no more static than they are simple. Putin has changed over time, and power has been the main driver of that change.

Some claim that Putin was close to the infamous Tambov organized crime group. However, acccording to Andrei Konstantinov – the leading journalistic expert on organized crime in St. Petersurg, author of Banditskii Peterburg, and editor-in-chief of a newspaper on organized crime published in St. Petersburg in the 1990s and early 2000s, Kriminal’nyi vestnik Peterburga  – though he tried he could never find any evidence whatsoever that Putin had ties to the so-called Tambov organized crime book. Konstantinov called the idea in a 13 March 2019 Ekho Moskvy interview “complete stupidity” and “malarkey.”[23] What is more likely is that Putin had little choice but to cooperate with the powerful Tambov Group while deputy mayor in wild St. Petersburg of the 1990s. Necessity became the mother of adaptation and compromise, and Putin may have very well taken bribes from the group rather than become a potential target for assassination. The slippery slope could be exited from only when Putin became president when Putin ordered a nighttime military-style raid to Petersburg to arrest Tambov’s founder and godfather Vladimir Barsukov (born Kumarin) and have him brought back to Moscow, where he was soon tried and sentenced to 23 years in prison. Any ‘ties to organize crime’ may have had were mostly a consequence of his becoming “Sobchak’s fixer” or less malignantly his troubleshooter, responsible for getting corrupt enterprises to play by informal and formal rules and “deliver,” as noted by Hill and Gaddy put it.[24] But given the ubiquity of crime in Russia, Putin could never have escaped from, and likely grew accustomed to ‘dealing’ with organized crime groups, subordinating them to the state once he had the power of presidency and risking attacks on the most powerful criminals only when necessary for his political or personal security.

Putin’s hardening would begin in greater earnest after his mentor Sobchak’s fall from grace among the populace and thus from power. In 1996, as Sobchak’s mayoral term neared its end and elections were over the horizon, some in his inner circle began to discuss the possibility of promoting from an alternative to Sobchak as candidate. Among the many they approached to make a run at Sobchak, was Putin, who declined, saying: “Better to be hanged for loyalty, than awarded for betrayal.” All who were approached declined, save one, Vladimir Yakovlev.[25] Sobchak lost at the ballot box to the far more corrupt Yakovlev. This turn of events may have jaundiced his view of democracy and reinforced the idea that at least ‘corruption pays’ in more way than one. Putin was out of a job, bringing the St. Petersburg period of Putin’s early political career to an end.

Belokamennaya (Moscow), 1997-1999

At this stage, in his political career Putin had experienced three character-forming trials. The first came when the Berlin Wall collapsed, and Putin was forced to go out confront an angry crowd of Germans hoping to enter the Soviet consulate in Dresden. In the second, the fall of the Soviet regime, Putin had equipped himself well and with some modicum of courage, supporting Sobchak and the democrats in a potentially treasonous act should the August putsch had succeeded. The third was the defeat of Sobchak and his own fall from the corridors of power back to the streets of St. Petersburg. However, he had been given few opportunities to show any outstanding political leadership, which these experiences may have been helping him develop.

Now Putin got a lucky break that kept his political career alive. А series of colleagues from Petersburg, some from Sobchak’s government, had received positions in Moscow. Anatolii Chubais, the lead Petersburger in Moscow was deputy prime minister, and Aleksei Kudrin, former Petersburg deputy mayor for economic reform, appear to have played a key role in securing Putin a job.[26] Kudrin, deputy head of Boris Yeltsin’s Presidential Administration (PA) and head of its Trade, Economic, and Scientific-Technological Cooperation Department since August 1996, supposedly put Putin up in his apartment when he first arrived in ‘Belokamennyi.’ Putin’s first Moscow job was deputy head of the Kremlin’s Property Management Department under the corrupt Pavel Borodin (June 1996 – March 1997). His second was to succeed Kudrin as head of the PA’s Main Control Administration and simultaneously held to post of deputy head of the PA (March 1997). It was at this time that Chubais and Kudrin began to promote Putin in his career, according to then PA head Valentin Yumashev.[27] Moreover, Chubais had been promoted to deputy prime minister and Kudrin to deputy finance minister at this time.

In November 1997, Putin helped his mentor Sobchak to flee to France as he was under threat of arrest by the Yakovlev administration in Petersburg for supposed abuse of office. This clearly demonstrated Putin’s loyalty to those who at one time or another supported him in his career. Putin had now grown ties to the Yeltsin extended political family, in particular Yumashev. At the same time, Putin was getting a close up look at ‘wild Moscow’ of the 1990s and the massive corruption and penetration of the state by Russia’s oligarchs, which made Petersburg look tame. In a later interview, he described his impression of the situation: “I remember when I moved to Moscow from St. Petersburg, I was astounded and shocked by how many of them (oligarschs) had gathered here in Moscow. And their behavior was so astounding I couldn’t get used to it for a very long time. Those people didn’t have any scruples at all.”[28]

But Putin would have been less able to keep himself clean in participating in Kremlin politics, than he could in St. Petersburg. The family was searching for prospective successors for Yeltsin in the presidency, who might guarantee the family with immunity after Yeltsin’s last term. Yumashev seems to have seconded the Petersburgers’ recommendation of Putin to the post of PA first deputy head and oversaw the Main Legal Department. In this post from May 1998 Putin got a close up look at the wild asymmetrical hyper-federative, near confederative system that Yeltsin had allowed to take shape in Russia after the Soviet collapse, with tens of regions having constitutions and laws that violated the federal constitution and laws. Putin would move strongly to reduce asymmetry and regional autonomy upon becoming president, a position he could now reasonably be in contention for.

Putin’s potential in this regard was upgraded in July 1998 when Yeltsin appointed him director of the FSB, returning Putin to his old haunt, which he undertook a reform of. In July 1999, came the first of three controversial and perhaps curious events at the time of the Yeltsin succession struggle occurring in a period of seven months, from July 1999 to February 2000. With Putin as FSB Director and the ChRI militants about to cross into Dagestan, there was a biological weapons event in the village of Oblivskaya in Rostov region in which an agent with some characteristics similar to the Congo-Crimean Haemorrhagic and West Nile fevers was released. According to official data, at least some 769 people were hospitalized and 42 people died during July 1999 peak of the outbreak in Oblivskaya and across the regional border in the Volgograd province. There were 700 people hospitalized and 36 people died. The outbreak also affected Stavropol and Astrakhan regions.[29] It is unclear whether this was part of the whirlwind being stirred up by the succession struggle, but the confluence of events is striking as we shall see.

Also as FSB Director, he underwent a test of loyalty to President Yeltsin, when he took the co-chairmanship of a commission to investigate the activities of Prosecutor General, the communist Yurii Skuratov. Putin famously publicized a video of ‘someone looking like” Skuratov cavorting with prostitutes. In April 1999, Skuratov, who had been investigating graft in the Yeltsin family, was duly fired based on the commission’s findings and presumably the FSB’s ‘data collection.’ Putin’s stock also rose in the Skuratov affair as a result of what was assessed by Yeltsin’s PA chief Aleksandr Voloshin to be Putin’s impressive self-command compared to MVD chief Sergei Stepashin, who co-chaired the investigative commission with Putin. When they reported to Yeltsin on their findings, Stepashin was supposedly nervous and embarrassed, while Putin displayed calm and even quietly smirked in discussing Shuratov’s activities.[30] Whether he knew it or not, Putin was now in contention to succeed Yeltsin. Although he had joined in the rather dirty nature of the Moscow political scene, Putin remains in denial about the path he was on. In an interview two decades later, he pontificated on the issue of Edward Snowden’s revelations about the U.S. NSA’s massive global surveillance: “So we are witnessing that all across the world. We know about surveillance of private lives and the private lives of political leaders, which I believe is a very bad practice.”[31]

The Clinton Administration and NATO in Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and bombing in Yugoslavia helped to clear the path for siloviki to the presidency. As the Yugoslavia war intensified and the West increasingly sided against Russia’s traditional Orthodox Slavic Serbian ally, top level discussions in winter 1998-1999 led to the notion that was needed was an “intelligent silovik.”[32] As Pavlovskii relates: “According to research commissioned by the Kremlin, sociologists conducted an amusing, but very revealing study, asking: “What kind of movie hero would you like to see as the next president?” First place was shared by two characters. One was expected – Peter the Great played by Nikolai Simonov. The second was the unexpected one: Stirlitz (a Soviet film spy) played by (Vyacheslav) Tikhonov. The coup in the minds was produced by the NATO operation against Yugoslavia. Today it is hard to imagine. … But then the war in Yugoslavia was perceived by society as the image of our future, a model of what might happen to Russia. The public atmosphere changed dramatically, a political consensus developed: communists, liberals, and patriots united around the unacceptability of the Yugoslav precedent. The rating of (Foreign Minister) Primakov, who deployed his plane over the Atlantic (Evgenii Primakov was on an official visit to Washington on March 24, 1999 but canceled it after receiving information about NATO’s decision to launch a military operation in Yugoslavia.), began to grow like a snowball. I will permit myself a hypothesis: if the NATO bombing had begun a month earlier, then Primakov would most likely have become Russia’s president.”[33]

Yeltsin soon appointed Primakov as PM. However, Primakov began allying with Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov, Tatarstan President Mintimer Shaimiev, and others in order to promote himself as a candidate for president. Posing a threat to the Yeltsin clan, he was replaced by deputy PM and former FSB and MVD chief Sergei Stepashin. Primakov had been appointed PM on the back of his rising popularity in response to his ‘turn about over the Atlantic’ in response to NATO’s bombing of Belgrade. MVD chief Sergei Stepashin, who had led the MVD and FSB in different periods, succeeded Primakov as PM. There were now two leading candidates to succeed Yeltsin: Stepashin and FSB Director Putin. Among the oligarchs at the time, in addition to the notorious Boris Berezovskii’s backing of Putin, the more traditionalist oligarch Sergei Pugachev also proposed Putin to Tatyana Dyachenko, Yeltsin’s daughter who was functioning de facto as acting president on her ailing father’s behalf.[34]

Putin had equipped himself in Moscow as in St. Petersburg as an effective administrator, whom his colleagues came to respect. Upon Putin’s replacing him as PM, Stepashin himself seemed to recommend Putin in announcing he had resigned: “I believe him to be a decent and worthy man. I would like to wish him good luck, specifically good luck because he has the rest.”[35] Many others attested to his Putin’s leadership and administrative competence by this time. Gleb Pavlovskii, a Kremlin advisor in the 1990s recalls Putin as a “centrist” — like many revolutionaries from above inevitably were given their limited commitment and understanding of democracy and market economics — in 1997 and how Putin effectively shot down his proposal to institute an emergency situation in the wake of the 1998 default. Putin had argued this could be done in only two circumstances: “if the authorities are one with the people or if they terrify the people.” Since, in Putin’s view, neither of these conditions held, he opposed Pavlovskii’s idea of instituting a state of emergency. Putin’s clear, decisive argumentation left Pavlovskii “impressed.”[36] Pavlovskii notes Putin was “a very good manager” and that Yeltsin was enthusiastic about his abilities.[37]  Yeltsin’s PA head Yumashev notes that after a few months of his working in the PA, Putin had proven himself a “very powerful figure” “absolutely precisely formulating everything” and exhibiting “superb analysis and healthy ideas.”[38]

This competence bolstered his reputation and thus his candidacy to be Yeltsin’s successor and added to Putin’s own sense that he possessed leadership qualities. This in turn raised his self-confidence, which in his early public appearances was far from apparent.

Putin’s potential as presidential successor rose when Chechen, Dagestani, and foreign fighters and jihadists led by the notorious Chechen terrorist Shamil Basaev and the Al Qai`da-tied jihadist Ibn al-Khattab, crossed the border between the de facto independent ‘Chechen Republic of Ichkeriya’ (as Chechnya came to be called in the interwar years after the Khasavyurt Peace of 1997) into Dagestan in July 1999.[39] Then PM Sergei Stepashin had promised to resolve the issue in weeks, but no quick resolution came, effectively leading to his resignation and replacement by Putin on 5 August 1999. Putin now further recommended himself by demonstrating strong leadership skills that had been developing gradually during the various political challenges he had faced form Dresden to St. Petersburg and recently during his early years in Moscow.



[1] Kenneth Dekleva, “The Many Faces of Vladimir Putin: A Political Psychology Profile,” The Cipher Brief, January 22, 2017, www.thecipherbrief.com/column/agenda-setter/the-many-faces-of-vladimir-putin-a-political-psychology-profile.

[2] See the 4:56 and 5:40 marks in the 2018 documentary film ‘Delo Sobchaka’, https://yandex.ru/video/preview/?filmId=13837034493090773447&text=%D0%B4%D0%B5%D0%BB%D0%BE%20%D1%81%D0%BE%D0%B1%D1%87%D0%B0%D0%BA%D0%B0%20%D1%81%D0%BC%D0%BE%D1%82%D1%80%D0%B5%D1%82%D1%8C%20%D0%BE%D0%BD%D0%BB%D0%B0%D0%B9%D0%BD&noreask=1&path=wizard&parent-reqid=1580767672966489-585595106262015606500114-vla1-2723&redircnt=1580767720.1 or  https://yandex.ru/images/search?pos=7&from=tabbar&img_url=https%3A%2F%2Fupload.wikimedia.org%2Fwikipedia%2Fcommons%2F7%2F7c%2FVladimir_Putin_24_February_2000-2.jpg&text=%D0%BF%D0%BE%D1%85%D0%BE%D1%80%D0%BE%D0%BD%D1%8B+%D1%81%D0%BE%D0%B1%D1%87%D0%B0%D0%BA%D0%B0+%D0%B2%D0%B8%D0%B4%D0%B5%D0%BE&rpt=simage.

[3] John Evans, “The Key to Understanding Vladimir Putin,” The National Interest, 21 September 2019, https://nationalinterest.org/feature/key-understanding-vladimir-putin-82391.

[4] www.nytimes.com/2003/10/19/international/europe/a-complete-conformist.html?searchResultPosition=2.

[5] N. Gevorkyan, N. Timakova, A. Kolesnikov, Ot pervogo litsa: Razgovory s Vladimirom Putinym (Moscow: Vagrius, 2000), www.lib.ru/MEMUARY/PUTIN/razgowor.txt.

[6] By ‘revolution from above,’ I mean the illegal seizure of power by one group of state officials using one or more state bodies in order to institute the new political and social order. For more on my model of revolution from above and its role in the collapse of the Soviet state and its communist regime, see Gordon M. Hahn, Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime (Transaction, 2002 and Routledge 2018).

[7] See, for example, https://topspb.tv/programs/stories/480435/ and the documentary film ‘Sobytie,’ https://yandex.ru/video/preview/?filmId=12714080265208821719&text=%D1%84%D0%B8%D0%BB%D1%8C%D0%BC%20%C2%AB%D0%A1%D0%BE%D0%B1%D1%8B%D1%82%D0%B8%D0%B5%C2%BB%20%D0%A1%D0%B5%D1%80%D0%B3%D0%B5%D1%8F%20%D0%9B%D0%BE%D0%B7%D0%BD%D0%B8%D1%86%D1%8B&noreask=1&path=wizard&parent-reqid=1580603080775213-355990655463223518400169-vla1-0385&redircnt=1580603159.1.


[9] Richard Sakwa, Putin: Russia’s Choice (Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2007), pp. 10-11.

[10] www.kommersant.ru/doc/3636152?tw.

[11] http://www.rbc.ru/politics/22/05/2018/5afd61619a79475ef7d65892?from=main and https://yandex.ru/video/preview/?filmId=13837034493090773447&text=%D0%B4%D0%B5%D0%BB%D0%BE%20%D1%81%D0%BE%D0%B1%D1%87%D0%B0%D0%BA%D0%B0%20%D1%81%D0%BC%D0%BE%D1%82%D1%80%D0%B5%D1%82%D1%8C%20%D0%BE%D0%BD%D0%BB%D0%B0%D0%B9%D0%BD&noreask=1&path=wizard&parent-reqid=1580767672966489-585595106262015606500114-vla1-2723&redircnt=1580767720.1.

[12] http://sobchak.org/site/medvedev.html.

[13] In 2002, he stated to the same interviewer that his views had not changed and he was ready to repeat what he had said “word for word.” See excerpts from both interviews at “EXCLUSIVE: Young Putin denounces communism and Lenin in 1991,” You Tube, 2016, https://video.search.yahoo.com/yhs/search?hsimp=yhs-att_001&hspart=att&p=Putin+on+Lenin#id=6&vid=ceb78447964994fe4ecd979eb450edb9&action=view, last accessed 11 October 2019.

[14] “Vstrecha s uchastnikami foruma ‘Seliger-2012’,” Kremlin.ru, July 2012, http://kremlin.ru/events/president/transcripts/16106, last accessed 11 October 2019.

[15] “Otvety na voprosy chlenov Soveta Federatsii,” Kremlin.ru, 27 June 2012, http://kremlin.ru/events/president/transcripts/15781#sel=39:1:yBw,49:3:XfF, last accessed on 10 October 2019.

[16] “Poseshanie Yevreiskogo muzeya i Tsentr tolerantnosti,” Kremlin.ru, 13 June 2013, www.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/18336, last accessed on 10 October 2019. In January 2016 Putin ridiculed Lenin’s aspirations for “world revolution” and having “planted an atomic bomb under the building called Russia,” that “later blew up,” by creating national-territorial autonomies in the USSR. “Zasedanie Soveta nauki i obrazovaniya,” Kremlin.ru, 21 January 2016, www.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/51190, last accessed on 11 October 2019.

[17] The Putin Interviews: Oliver Stone Interviews Vladimir Putin (New York: Hot Books, 2017), pp. 13-14.

[18] Gordon M. Hahn, “ Putin’s First ‘Killing’,” Russia and Eurasia Studies – Gordonhahn.com, 2 May 2018, https://gordonhahn.com/2018/05/02/putins-first-killing/.

[19] See, for example, in English, www.thebureauinvestigates.com/stories/2012-04-19/putin-and-the-100-million-deal-that-disappeared.

[20] Evans, “The Key to Understanding Vladimir Putin.”

[21] Evans, “The Key to Understanding Vladimir Putin.”

[22] Evans, “The Key to Understanding Vladimir Putin.”

[23] https://echo.msk.ru/programs/personalno/2387867-echo/ and https://echo.msk.ru/sounds/2387867.html.

[24] Fiona Hill and Clifford G. Gaddy, Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin (Washington, D.C, Brookings Institute, 2013), p. 15.

[25] http://sobchak.org/site/111.html.

[26] www.mk.ru/politics/2017/11/23/proekt-putin-glazami-ego-razrabotchika-v-vozdukhe-zapakhlo-pogonami.html.

[27] https://tvrain.ru/teleshow/dw_na_dozhde/nemtsova-499644/?utm_source=yxnews&utm_medium=desktop&utm_referrer=https%3A%2F%2Fyandex.ru%2Fnews and www.rbc.ru/politics/18/12/2019/5dfa654e9a794739cbc4b0e9.

[28] The Putin Interviews: Oliver Stone Interviews Vladimir Putin, p. 199.


[30] Valerii Panyushkin and Mikhail Zygar’, Gazprom: novoe russkoe oruzhie (Moscow: Zakharov, 2008), pp. 71-2.

[31] The Putin Interviews: Oliver Stone Interviews Vladimir Putin, p. 220.

[32] www.mk.ru/politics/2017/11/23/proekt-putin-glazami-ego-razrabotchika-v-vozdukhe-zapakhlo-pogonami.html.

[33] www.mk.ru/politics/2017/11/23/proekt-putin-glazami-ego-razrabotchika-v-vozdukhe-zapakhlo-pogonami.html.

[34] Pugachev also claims that Chubais did not Putin working in the PA. Interview with Sergei Pugachev at “Byvshii drug Putina vpervyie rasskazal, kak to stal prezidentom. Interv’yu Sobchak, Part 1” Program ‘Sobchak’, TV ‘Dozhd’, 25 June 2015, http://tvrain.ru/teleshow/sobchak_zhivem/intervju_sobchak_s_pugachevym-389601/.

[35] See Documentary Film ‘President,’ Rossiya 1 TV, 26 April 2015, http://russia.tv/video/show/brand_id/59329/episode_id/1193264/video_id/1165983/viewtype/picture and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HyNcbVuDJyA&feature=share (from here forward cited as Rossiya 1 TV Documentary ‘President’).

[36] www.mk.ru/politics/2017/11/23/proekt-putin-glazami-ego-razrabotchika-v-vozdukhe-zapakhlo-pogonami.html.

[37] https://echo.msk.ru/sounds/2548011.html.

[38] https://tvrain.ru/teleshow/dw_na_dozhde/nemtsova-499644/?utm_source=yxnews&utm_medium=desktop&utm_referrer=https%3A%2F%2Fyandex.ru%2Fnews and www.rbc.ru/politics/18/12/2019/5dfa654e9a794739cbc4b0e9.

[39] On the rise and development of jihadism in Russia, see Gordon M. Hahn, Russia’s Islamic Threat (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2007) and Gordon M. Hahn, The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2014).


About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is an Expert Analyst at Corr Analytics, http://www.canalyt.com and a Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, www.cetisresearch.org. Dr. Hahn is the author of the forthcoming book: The Russian Dilemma: Aspiration, Trepidation, and the West in the Making of Russia’s Security Culture (McFarland, 2021). Previously, he has authored four well-received books: Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the “New Cold War” (McFarland, 2018); The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland, 2014), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), and Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction, 2002). He also has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media.

Dr. Hahn also has taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia and has been a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Kennan Institute in Washington DC, and the Hoover Institution.

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