Poutine’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took on the West by Catherine Belton is a book about how an obscure establishment within an unstable country used political turmoil to empower and enrich itself to the point that he now controls most of the state and the country’s economy. It is truly a story of our time and, as such, serves as a historical warning to Pakistan.
The People of Putin speak openly about the rise of Russian strongman Vladimir Putin and the economic and political system – “Putinism” – that he and his allies have created over the past 25 years or so. But Putin presents himself here as a representative figure of the reach and power of the Soviet Union’s main security agency, the Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti, better known as the KGB.
So it’s a story about the power of the deep state and how it weaves that power through visible state institutions, non-state actors, personal networks, and ultimately brute force. It is also a story about the use of wars, the threat of violence, calls for nationalism and patriotism, and unfettered corruption. It is, ultimately, the precariousness of democracy and the corrupting nature of power in the modern state.
The book begins – like many good stories – with a tumultuous storm. In this case, the storm is the 1989 popular uprising in East Germany. Huge crowds march past state buildings in cities across the country, destroying symbols of the oppressive state, including, more symbolically, the wall separating East Berlin from West Berlin. These crowds also arrive at the door of the local KGB office in Dresden, seeking to break in and destroy all traces of the Soviet spy agency, then working hand in hand with the hated East German secret police, the Stasi.
Putin – at the time a mediocre KGB agent in the agency’s office in Dresden – is forced to hastily destroy the agency’s files, then flee to a nearby Soviet military base. Shocked by the collapse of the East German state and its possible obliteration, by absorption in West Germany, Putin promises never to allow such a fate for his homeland.
Revealing book, currently the best study on Putinism and the politics of the Russian industrial oligarchy, offers a warning in history
However, the Soviet Union in fact followed suit. It collapsed shortly after its satellite in East Germany and split into a number of constituent states, the largest of which was Russia. In this turmoil, the old Russian order is abandoned by the new government led by Boris Yeltsin. Communism was disowned, democracy instituted, and a free market economy adopted.
Those associated with the old order also lost their power. Mikhail Gorbachev, who had done so much to usher in the end of the Soviet Union, was himself removed from the presidency. The Communist Party was banned and KGB figures lost their jobs. The once all-powerful agency has been split into four separate organizations.
Through interviews with some of the leading figures of those years, as well as her intimate knowledge of Russian politics, journalist Belton explains how the KGB, in fact, did not simply disappear.
Although the agency was disbanded, many of its senior and middle-ranking officials reappeared during the Yeltsin years to reassert their power and bring back much of the culture and prerogatives of their former employer. Belton’s book is a story of this KGB-ism, an afterlife of the organization that materialized by Putin and his supporters.
The backdrop to the rise of this KGB-ism is the disastrous form of the Russian government’s finances shortly after the transition to a market economy in January 1992. Yeltsin’s cash-strapped government raised funds by selling auctioned off state-owned industries to well-connected businessmen, creating overnight billionaires who emerged as the new power brokers during Yeltsin’s reign. By one estimate, nearly 50% of the country’s wealth was in the hands of just seven business tycoons when Yeltsin left office.
Economic problems continued to pile up on Yeltsin, however, and he became increasingly indebted to these newly emerging oligarchs. A disastrous currency devaluation in 1998, followed by a default on public debt and a subsequent war in Chechnya, forced Yeltsin to resign and install a figure who would be acceptable to his growing critics, but who could also be controlled by him and his family. . He mistakenly thought Putin was such a man, and Putin was appointed interim president on New Years Eve in 1999.
Putin was a popular choice. After returning from East Germany, he ended up leading the remnants of the KGB in Moscow, and later took a leading role in the strong Russian response to Chechen separatism. The strong man appealed to a population tired of political and economic turmoil.
âTo the Russians,â Belton writes, âit felt like a breath of fresh air. Compared to the sick and ailing Yeltsin, they suddenly had a leader in charge. An election was quickly called and Putin was categorically elected President of Russia in March 2000.
Putin brought in several former KGB men into his administration and, through him and his supporters, the agency was finally able to get revenge for being excluded from power during the Yeltsin years. Seeing himself as the guardians of the nation – and the oligarchs a threat – Putin and his guard set out to restrain the power of the new billionaires. Yeltsin’s oligarchs have been threatened, blackmailed and bribed into handing over their industries to Putin’s allies.
With the old billionaires under control, Putin and the new oligarchs – who now controlled Russian industry – turned to expanding their influence abroad through investment and the mobilization of foreign capital. In 2005 alone, they raised more than $ 4 billion in stock sales in London, compared to $ 1.3 billion in all markets in the 13 years following the Soviet collapse. The London establishment, in turn, has met Putin’s oligarchs with open arms. Russian stock quotes have brought in huge profits for London bankers, lawyers, consultants and public relations firms.
The road to acceptance has been paved with public relations coups, such as Putin’s close confidante Roman Abramovich’s purchase of the London-based Chelsea Football Club in the summer of 2003. new club . They have devoted copious inches of column to its luxury yachts, including the world’s largest, the Eclipse, a 168-meter floating palace equipped with two helicopters and its own submarine … not many people have asked where his money was coming from.
London has become the new playground for the oligarchs, known to the Russians as “Londongrad”, or “Moskva-na-Thames” (Moscow on the Thames). âIn London, money rules everything,â boasted a Russian tycoon. âAnyone and anything can be bought.â
Even US real estate mogul Donald Trump has been drawn into Putin’s orbit. With the possibility of a lucrative Trump Tower in Moscow as the bait, Trump became an empathetic supporter of Putin in the 2000s, and their mutual support during Trump’s election campaign and then the presidency is, of course, well known.
Trump is now gone, but Putin and his deep state remain. Democracy in Russia is in tatters, and a state within a state controls the country’s economy, military and foreign policy. Its reach and influence extend beyond the country into international financial and political power centers such as London and Washington, DC.
Putin’s People is a revealing book, and currently the best study we have on Putinism and the politics of the industrial oligarchy and the KGB during Putin’s reign. While many of the processes described are unique to Russia, the book nonetheless serves as a warning about the fragility of democracy and the dangers of the deep state.
The Examiner is Associate Professor of History at Lahore University of Management Sciences. He tweets @WaqrHZaidi
Putin’s people: how the KGB took over Russia and then attacked the West
By Catherine Belton
HarperCollins, United Kingdom
Posted in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 30, 2021