When will Putin’s patience run out?

Wacław Radziwinowicz:  Russian and international public opinion alike accepts that while civil liberties have been significantly curtailed in the ten years under Vladimir Putin, order has been restored.  A strong machinery effectively carries out orders of the central government.  Would you agree with this assessment?

Andrey Piontkovsky:  I agree that liberties have been curtailed. But I don’’t agree with singing the praises of an alleged reform of the state machinery and the restoration of order in the country. That is a lie, a Putin propaganda demagoguery imposed by the Kremlin TV, which is the only source of information for 95% of Russians. A large segment of Western public opinion and many Western leaders have also fallen for it because it suits them.  For Europe, Russia is primarily a source of raw materials and energy.  Why complicate our relations by asking Putin difficult questions about democracy? They’’d rather focus on his successes.  Except that, by focusing on our nation’’s leader’’s successes they mix up two things: a strong state and a strong bureaucracy. And those are two very different things.  Particularly since our bureaucracy is not just a bureaucracy but a kleptocracy. Just look at the state of our police and you will see there can’’t be any talk of a strong state or a phenomenally effective state apparatus.

That’’s quite a depressing picture you’’re painting.

It’’s not depressing.  It’s tragic.  For the ordinary citizen the police are the face of the state that he sees on a daily basis. Yet it is the police that rob him and force him to pay bribes. Lately hardly a day goes by without some report of a policeman shooting, raping, badly injuring or running someone over.  The police as an institution that protects citizens simply does not exist in our country. These days Russians are more fearful of uniformed officers than of gangsters. This has been confirmed by opinion polls.

And what about the administrative apparatus, the strong vertical power as it’’s called in your country? Has it really become an effectively functioning tool of wielding control over the regions such as the Urals, Kaliningrad, Vladivostok, as they keep telling us on TV?

Oh, Vladivostok!  That’’s a brilliant example.  Just the other day our young President, a liberal, an expert on Roman law, reappointed Sergei Darkin as the Governor of the Maritime Territory, the region of which Vladivostok is the capital. Darkin, aka Shepelyavy (The Lisp) is a notorious criminal entrepreneur who grew up under the patronage of a Far Eastern mafia boss known by his gangster pseudonym Winnie the Pooh. It was Putin who first appointed Darkin, soon after abolishing democratic gubernatorial elections. He explained at the time that the locals might elect criminals and God-knows-whom to govern the regions.  And look whom they themselves appointed, and now reappointed. And why is that?  I no longer believe that Darkin has to bribe them to get the nomination. And I know they don’’t particularly like him either. For me Medvedev’’s decision is an admission of failure. The Kremlin understands that only a representative of the criminal world can control the economic and social life of the Maritime Territory. They admit that the country has reached a stage when this is the only way they can maintain an appearance of stability.

Vladivostok, as Lenin used to say, is a city that is distant but ours. It’’s a key city because the Maritime Territory borders on China and North Korea.  Why can’’t they appoint a general, someone who would be tough enough to at least crack down on the gangsters?

Generals like that are just characters in fairytales of Russia that are popular in the West.  Can you name at least one such real tough general?

Vladimir Shamanov.

What an excellent example. There’’s a front commander, as solid as rock.  A recipient of the Hero of Russia Medal for his achievements in Chechnya.  He was made governor of Ulyanovsk, a region completely controlled by gangsters. He got sucked into this quagmire, he could not handle it and failed. He had to be removed.  Another combat general was sent to the Far East to rein in the governors there.  The effect was the same as in the case of Shamanov in Ulyanovsk. A total flop.

And what about Chechnya?  Ramzan Kadyrov is also a Hero of Russia, a police general who rules with a hand of iron. Isn’’t he quite effective?

But not as an executor of Moscow’’s will.  Chechnya was handed lock stock and barrel to Kadyrov who has much more autonomy than Dzhokhar Dudaev and Aslan Maskhadov could ever have dreamt of.  He has the most effective military units in the entire Russian Federation at his disposal, ten thousand brilliantly equipped and trained soldiers. He has complete control over the republic because he holds Putin himself hostage.  Russia started the second war in the Caucasus with the promise of restoring constitutional order.  Now we hear our propaganda trumpeting 24 hours a day what a success it has been, how Putin has protected us from terrorists, how he has won the war and handed power over to Kadyrov, a loyal friend of Russia. Many people, particularly in the military, believe it’’s a mistake. They would be happy to rap Kadyrov’’s knuckles.  However, that would mean that Putin’s great victory in Chechnya was not such a great victory after all.  The situation is similar in all the other republics in the Caucasus.  The next president of Dagestan is due to be appointed soon.  Huge bribes from Dagestan have been arriving in the Kremlin, in the President’’s office. And that means that the region will be entrusted to a representative of the local clans and mafia.

In a country as vast and diverse as Russia it is obvious that there will be regions where the situation is particularly difficult.…

I would advise all Putin’’s apologists, who use these arguments to defend him, to carefully read the article signed by Dmitry Medvedev and entitled: Forward Russia!  It contains a killer diagnosis not just of the state of these exceptionally depressed regions but of the country as a whole:  an undeveloped natural resource economy, bribery, systemic corruption, an underdeveloped political system, Caucasus in flames, a population dying of alcoholism and drug addiction, a foreign policy driven by nostalgia and prejudice.  I agree with the President’’s every word. Although he did not say who is to blame for such a state of the country the text sounds like an indictment of his predecessor.

How come Putin did not manage to create a strong state apparatus and curb corruption despite tightening the screws and muzzling people?

Because he’’s a businessman.  And he’’s involved with completely different matters. When the Marquis de Custine, author of the famous Letters from Russia, met Nicholas I, the Emperor complained: In this country everyone except me steals and there is nothing I can do about it. Now the emperor himself steals.

Doesn’’t that metaphor go too far?

It’’s not a metaphor at all.  Let me remind you of the sensational testimony the oligarch Roman Abramovich gave to the Royal Courts in London two years ago. He described how he had bribed top officials in order to gain ownership of the oil company Sibneft.  And in 2004 Putin paid Abramovich 13.7 billion dollars for the very same Sibneft’.

Was it Putin himself or the state?

Of course, the President did not pay out of his own pocket. But ‘‚I am the state’‘ is a slogan that obviously rules in this country.  It is also clear to me that some of the money did not end up in Abramovich’’s private account but in the ‘‚obshchak’‘ (kitty in Russian thiefs’’ argot). Another example is Gunvor, a company trading in Russian crude oil.  The head of this mysterious organization, Gennady Timchenko, is a friend of Putin’‘s. And the Rossia Bank, which sits on Gazprom’’s money, is headed by the Kovaľchuk brothers, also friends of the Prime Minister.  There are plenty of similar examples.

There are two power centres in Russia that present two different diagnoses of the state of the country.  The Prime Minister is full of optimism, while the President paints a very pessimistic picture, and not only in his article Russia Forward!

I don’’t think Medvedev’s diagnosis expresses just his personal view, rather it expresses the views of his circle, people from INSOR (Institute of Contemporary Development) led by Igor Jurgens.  These people are not stupid.  It’s not the first appearance in our history of such a 

 …Mikhail Speransky.

Yes, a kind of collective Speransky, i.e. the kind of people who – just like the famous reformer under Czar Alexander I – say that things can’’t go on like this any more.  And share their views with the Emperor.  And he lends them his ear and sometimes they even succeed in achieving something.  As did Speransky, until the arch-conservative Aleksey Arakcheyev inveigled himself into court’’s favour and the reformer was sent into exile.  Another collective Speransky managed to achieve quite a lot under Alexander II before the Czar was assassinated.  So did Prime Minister Piotr Stolypin under Nicholas II – before he got killed. Even in Soviet times there were timid attempts at reforms, such as Aleksey Kosygin’’s under Brezhnev.  Even Lavrenty Beria, the notorious NKVD boss, tried to launch large-scale reforms after the death of Stalin, whom he most probably murdered himself.

So what we see in Russia today is history repeating itself?

Except that the situation of present-day Speranskys is exceptional because their Emperor is not really an Emperor.  He is certainly not omnipotent and he is not the one and only.   There is another one out there.  After Stalin’s death and later, after Brezhnev’’s death, we were able to say with the poet Alexandr Galich: Our father has turned out to have been a bastard rather than a father.  We were able to blame this father for everything and we could get on with modest little liberalization programmes. But now the bastard is still alive. That rather dampens enthusiasm.   As recently as the middle of November 2009 some bold publications could appear in our country.  Vladyslav Inozemtsev appealed to Medvedev:  Forward, Dmitry Anatolievich!  I could not believe my own eyes.  I was happy. The sort of things I had been writing for 10 years underground and for which I was imprisoned as a terrorist, now appeared in a serious, officially published paper such as Vedomosti,  signed by serious people with access to the highest Kremlin circles.  But now these voices have fallen silent, they are hiding somewhere on the internet.


Last autumn, the US journal The National Interest carried an interesting article, written by Dmitry Simes, a lobbyist used by the Kremlin to signal serious issues.  It said that, when asked about the disparity of views at the top in Russia, a key person in Russia warned: Vladimir Vladimirovich’’s patience is not endless.  I think Vladimir Vladimirovich must have said something along those lines to Dmitry Anatolievich. And that is why the wave so boldly unleashed by Jurgens and his colleagues from INSOR has now subsided.  Instead they are repeating timidly: We are a microscopic minority, the supporters of Medvedev comprise hardly 10-15 percent.  And Inozemtsev now writes that since support for the country’’s modernization is so low political liberalization is not only impossible but also undesirable and dangerous.  And that is why it can only be imposed from above.  Only recently these same people talked about the country being milked dry by Putin, Abramovich and Timchenko and called for putting an end to the ubiquitous thievery.

So Medvedev and his people have been defeated and are on the retreat?

They lost not only because they spent two years just talking. They are not stupid and understand they are facing obstacle No. 1.  What was it they expected Medvedev to do?  Give Nikita Khrushchev’’s 20th Communist Party congress speech that exposed the crimes of Stalin when he was no longer alive? But they wanted Medvedev to give this speech not at the 20th but at the 19th Congress, in the presence of the exposed leader.  Did they want their Khrushchev to expose and condemn his crimes knowing that Iosip Vissarionovich was sitting behind him in the Presidium puffing on his pipe?  C’’mon — that’s impossible. And now, to cap it all, Vladimir Vladimirovich lets it be known that his patience may run out. And there is another thing that frightens them. Let’’s say Putin is gone.  A thaw can begin in earnest.  The first step – because how else can you begin – is to expand media freedom.  And the next day the whole country learns from the TV of a report written by Vladimir Milov and Boris Nemtsov, leaders of the Solidarity movement and entitled ‘‘Putin’’s results’’, which includes information about tens of billions of dollars that had disappeared from Gazprom at the time when Medvedev chaired its  Board of Directors.  Do you think this is what Medvedev, Alexandr Voloshyn, the former Kremlin chief of staff, and Abramovich need? Our kleptocracy is afraid of Putin but it is also afraid to be left alone, without Putin – face to face with society.  This double fear paralyzes them and condemns them to failure.

So you don’’t see hope of any real turnaround?  

There may even be a negative turnaround. Putin’’s patience will run out and he will get rid of the new Speranskys.  But I have the impression that our authoritarian regime is reaching the end of its cycle.  It is funny but over the past ten years we have repeated the whole Soviet cycle in caricature.  The victory over Georgia played the triumphant role the victory over Germany represented for the USSR.  At the same time, the price of a single barrel of crude soared to 140 dollars. Nicolas Sarkozy was on his knees begging the Kremlin to stop the war; our leaders travelled the world telling everyone that Russia was an island of stability in an ocean of crisis.  To sum up, it was a climax, a pinnacle, a triumph.  And soon afterwards it turned out that the crisis on the island was more profound than anywhere else.  There is hopelessness, there are no prospects. The Moscow elites feel the end is nigh. In our country changes have never been brought about by mass social movements but by the elites.  I don’’t know the configuration of power at the top right now. I don’’t think anybody knows.  But eventually a father will have to be identified who has turned out to be the bitch.  But at the moment the father is alive and well and does not want to be the bitch.


Andrey Piontkovski (1940), Russian political scientist, journalist and political activist.  A mathematician by training, he works at the Institute of System Analyses of the Russian Academy of Sciences and is a member of the board of the anti-Putin party Yabloko.  In 2007 he was taken to court and charged with promoting extremism in his book The Unloved Country. The charge was dropped in 2008.


Translation: Julia Sherwood

The interview first appeared in Gazeta Świąteczna  on 6.2.2010

Foto: AP, Gazeta Wyborcza