24 August 2016

Back in the USSR

In the latest news from Lake Woebegone, we have a reshuffle at the top of the ticket - no, not the Trump campaign, but the inner circle of the Kremlin. Sergei Ivanov, the president's chief of staff, one of Putin's senior guys and one of the last holdovers from the good old days in Leningrad, where the two of them made their bones with KGB, just got thrown under the train by his boss.

This didn't use to be that odd an occurrence, of course, usually followed by a trip to the basement of the Lubyanka and a bullet in the back of your head. I think people were actually surprised when Nikita Khrushchev was allowed to retire to his dacha, instead of being disappeared. Milan Kundera has a wonderful aside in LAUGHTER AND FORGETTING (or maybe it's UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS, sorry about that) about a Czech political figure from the Soviet era who gets erased from the history books and from collective memory. He's in a group photograph with some other party hacks, reviewing a parade or whatever, and he's cosmetically removed from the picture, but whoever retouches it leaves the guy's hat visible. So our guy's weightless, not even a shadow, while his orphaned hat floats in the empty air. For the luckless Ivanov, we ain't talking metaphorical, and the job market's tight for his particular skill set. He serviced one client and one client only. Maybe he got too big for his boots, or maybe he kept faith, but whichever it was, he outlived his usefulness.

Back in the day, a cottage industry sprang up in both media and intelligence circles. Kremlin-watching, reading the tea leaves - whose star was rising, whose sinking? This is a science still being practiced with regimes like China's and Iran's, where the workings of government are utterly opaque to outsiders, but Russia these days seems almost transparent by comparison. (Does anybody under the age of sixty remember Malenkov and Bulganin? Does anybody over the age of sixty remember them?) It seems like a throwback to the Cold War to wonder what Sergei Ivanov's political disgrace signifies. I venture there'd be more speculation if it happened on a slow news day, but it seems like a tree falling in the woods with nobody to hear it.

An informed guess? Putin has achieved escape velocity. He doesn't need his old gang, or their street smarts. He's shaking off the past and gathering new recruits. Medvedev is just about the Last Man Standing. He's a year younger than Putin. Ivanov is a dozen years older. Ivanov's successor, his former deputy, is twenty years younger than Putin. Putin has effectively been holding the reins for the past seventeen years, since he took over from Yeltsin - and if not without dissenting voices at the time, those voices have been silenced since. It's all about the chronology. These guys Putin is sidelining, pushed into retirement or promoted to some meaningless sinecure, aren't geriatrics. They're the Establishment, ready for prime time, with every expectation of putting both feet in the trough. All of a sudden their golden parachute has turned into a box of rocks. They've been traded to the minors.

The new kids, like Ivanov's replacement, Anton Vaino, have no power base independent of Putin. And more than that, they've risen in the apparat while Putin's held office. In other words, they have no basis for comparison. So far as they're concerned, Putin is the state. Fairly obviously, this isn't a view Putin discourages. It's also been remarked that some Russians in the older generation are nostalgic for Stalin, or at least for an iron hand, and Putin doesn't discourage this sentiment, either.

I don't think we're talking about a culture of Yes Men, or not entirely. Putin isn't delusional, and his policies - Ukraine and Crimea, in Syria and the Caucasus - aren't being questioned. What's happening is simply that he's eliminating possible challengers. Having secured his position, Putin is now making himself irreplaceable. Nobody's waiting in the wings. It's only policy. When a new king takes the throne, he smothers his close relatives, thinning the herd.

For some reason, I've been slow on the uptake, along with quite a few other people, but I don't know why this should come as any surprise. Everything in Putin's methodology has always been about turning back the clock. He once said that allowing the dissolution of the Soviet Union was one of the great political mistakes of the twentieth century - I think he called it 'historic,' meaning a wrong turn, historically - and his attitude toward the Near Abroad, the former Soviet republics, bears this out. But has he actually decided to raid Stalin's closet and try on some of his old clothes? If the shoe fits, well and good.

The thing is, you're not going to get too many people who don't think Stalin was a psychopath. Vladimir Putin has his fair share of vanity, I'm sure, and he may have an inflated idea of his self-importance, or his place in history, but nobody's suggested he's a fruit loop. Not yet. Calculating, manipulative, and ruthless. Let's face it, those aren't disqualifications. Blood on his hands? Sure. Not to plead any kind of moral equivalency, but he's not the only one.

It's an inexact science, reading the leaves. Probably best left to those of us who don't have a dog in the fight. We could go back and forth about this, and never settle our differences. Let's put it this way. When you eat with the Devil, use a long spoon.


  1. A good piece that makes me thankful for our different political system however flawed it might be. How hard it is to escape history. Of course, in Putin's case, escape isn't the point.

  2. Many years ago Art Buchwald, who wrote a political humor column, wrote about the Kremlinologists. One piece went something like this.

    "Did you notice that K. spilled a glass of vodka on S.?"
    "That probably doesn't mean anything."
    "It does when S. is the one who apologizes."
    "K. also spilled some on V."
    "Everyone spills vodka on V. He's practically a dishrag."

  3. What always struck me is that Boris Buy-me-a-drink Yeltsin was savvy enough to appoint Putin as Acting President at midnight on December 31, 1999 - right when the whole world (especially we crazy Americans) was obsessed with the coming Y2K apocalypse. The result was that no one seemed to notice that Yeltsin had resigned and handed over the reins to a former KGB Lieutenant-Colonel with mind-boggling ambition and a clear knowledge of how to get wherever he wanted to go. It took almost a week for anyone on the news to even comment about it, as everyone was gasping with relief that all our clocks flipped correctly.

  4. David, could you say that Putin has a fear of aging and thus surrounds himself now with younger people, has a young girlfriend, and shows himself with shirt off doing manly things. Meanwhile, the old guard reminds him of how old he's actually getting, plus they know where all the old skeletons are buried, which can potentially be a dangerous situation. He also acquires total loyalty from his younger new appointees because they owe their positions strictly to Putin. Younger men are also more reckless, which serves Putin's current purposes, whereas older men are generally more cautious because of what they've already seen and lived through.

  5. David, I don't know nearly as much about Russian politics as you do (in fact, I know practically nothing), but I found these reflections very interesting. I think they'll help me read the news with more insight. Thanks.

  6. David, not so long ago I saw a North Korean photograph digitally retouched to remove a disappeared character. Not only had the Photoshopping left artifacts like the guy’s shadow, but the original had already made its way onto the internet. Of course Pyongyang doesn’t care– their audience is local.

    I confess I had to look up both Soviet premiers. Like some of the Roman emperors who lasted mere months, Khrushchev didn’t take over immediately after Stalin, which often gets glossed over in the public mind.

    Putin should learn a lesson. Some of those young turks might grow restless. But in a way, the W/Cheney administration inadvertently advanced this neo-Soviet attitude by their Cold War policies, which seemed to invite a Russian response. I believe someone at the time said Cheney seemed to miss engagement with the old Soviet empire as it was something he understood and was familiar with.

    David, I enjoy your articles.

  7. I LOVE the cartoon. I agree with BK and Leigh about your unique articles. No does them like you do.

  8. Leigh,

    I picked Malenkov and Bulganin because they ARE, in fact, pretty obscure these days. You might remember Kosygin, who carried Brezhnev's water for a while - Kosygin is the guy who gave Dubcek the bad news in 1968, that the Kremlin wouldn't tolerate any Czech deviation.

    Speaking of the Cold War (but outside the scope of what I was writing in this post), there's what I think is a great quote from Curtis LeMay. One of his aides refers to the Russians as the Enemy. "No, no," LeMay says. "The Russians are our Adversaries, the Navy is our Enemy."
    Talking of course about the competition for budgets and weapons systems.


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