In the last fifteen years post-Soviet Russia has been transformed in unprecedented positive ways. We are not facing a dangerous country anymore. But we are still dealing with a kind of samoderzhaviye, the traditional Russian form of autocracy traceable to the 16th century’s Ivan the Terrible, in which a feudal lord ruled the country secretly with his personal political police.
A few months ago, the ever-optimistic President Bush told the Russian TV about Vladimir Putin: “We’re friends, and that’s important.” Unlike his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, Putin is indeed always sober and friendly. But so was Stalin. According to KGB general Ivan Agayants, the brain behind the 1943 Tehran Summit and one of the masters of my other life, Stalin went out of his way to charm Franklin D. Roosevelt and cried out in delight when the latter called him Uncle Joe. “The cripple’s mine,” Stalin reportedly exulted.
When you get right down to it, Putin’s magic derives from his following the tradition of Russian/Soviet rulers who cloaked themselves in secrecy and started being known only after they were gone.
In March 1953, while trying to sober up in a scorching sauna, Stalin suffered his fatal attack. Few are now willing to admit they ever glorified him, just as there were no Nazi followers to be found in Germany after World War II ended. In 1953, however, millions wept when Stalin was buried. I did myself. Sirens wailed, bells tolled, cars blew their horns, and work stopped across one third of the world. Moscow had long made the manipulation of symbols an art, but on that day it surpassed itself. We felt the weight of history on our shoulders, as an entire era passed into oblivion along with the man whose name had been synonymous with the Kremlin for almost three decades. It only took three years, however, for Stalin to be denounced as an odious butcher who had accomplished the largest genocide in contemporary history.
Today we may get a glimpse of Putin’s wife and hear about his love of karate through occasional self-controlled appearances, but on the whole we know even less about him than we knew about Stalin at the time of his death. Putin looks even less three-dimensional than Stalin’s caricaturish successors. Why should Putin be so secretive about himself in today’s Internet age? For one thing, he spent most of his life as a spy and has secretiveness in his blood—no one was supposed to know what he did, just as my own daughter knew nothing about my real work when I was Romania’s spy chief.
Also, Putin is not an “ideologue,” whose work and speeches can be parsed and analyzed. He is not a creator, but rather a creation. He is a product of the KGB, not a Lenin who built that KGB. He is a product of the Kremlin’s anti-Americanism, not a Stalin who spawned that anti-Americanism. He is also a product of the Kremlin’s nuclear proliferation and anti-American terrorism, not a Khrushchev who authored both.
As a Communist general, I met Nikita Khrushchev many times, both sober and drunk, but I am still trying to figure out when he was telling the truth and when he was lying. Putin continues that tradition. He became the first foreign leader to express sorrow to President Bush over the tragedy of September 11, and to promise strategic and intelligence aid to the U.S.’s war on terror. This has led to a warming in American relations with the Kremlin and to Russia’s honorary admission as a junior partner in NATO. Once formed to contain Soviet expansion, now the two former foes are “joined as partners, overcoming 50 years of division and a decade of uncertainty,” as President Bush has said.
A few short months later Putin shifted his country back over to the side of the Soviet Union’s traditional clients—precisely the three terrorist governments named by President Bush as an “Axis of Evil.” In March 2002 Putin began helping the government of Iran to develop the Shahab-4 missile, which can carry nuclear or germ warheads. In August 2002 he concluded a $40 billion trade deal with Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Then, while the U.S. was preparing to mourn its victims of the previous year’s terrorist attack, he threw down the Moscow welcome mat for North Korea’s despicable dictator Kim Jong Il, with grand honors.
It is tough to tell which Putin is the real thing, but the Russians seem to be enthralled with him for precisely that reason. They love Byzantine deception. Generations of Russians have kidded themselves about the glorious state of their country, and Putin makes them feel clever again. They call him the “Gray Cardinal” for his Vatican-like mastery of backroom intrigue. They admire his icy blue eyes as indicative of the strong, silent type, a real man, who chooses his few words with great care.
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It is difficult for any Communist intelligence officer to acculturate to democracy. In 1978, when I was granted political asylum by President Carter, I was a Romanian Putin myself, and sometimes I still feel like a fish out of water. Yet I had many advantages over a man such as Putin. My father spent his life working for the General Motor’s representative in Romania, and he passed his love for America on to me. I broke with Communism in 1978, when it was riding high. And yet, 23 years after living in the world’s freest country, I am still learning democracy. Putin is by contrast no Westerner, and his experience with democracy is nil. He served Communism down to its last dying gasp while working for the KGB, and he is still surrounded by its officers.
The Kremlin’s p.r. engines have touted a delightfully Europeanized Putin, although his only foreign experience was in East Germany, which during those years was closed off from the real Europe by the Berlin Wall and other barbed wire ramparts. This portrayal harks back to the allegedly Western-leaning predilections of the tsarist Russian nobility, who spoke French and drank the waters at Baden-Baden in western Germany, while nevertheless clustered in a tight little society around their Russian Orthodox church.
In 1999, to see where Putin had spent his Europeanizing years, I visited the remnants of the Soviet-German House of Friendship, headquartered in Leipzig and Dresden, which Putin had headed until 1988. From the Gauck Commission—a German panel researching the Stasi files—I learned that this House of Friendship was a KGB front for spying against the United States, and that in fact its undercover officers worked at the headquarters of the Stasi—one of the most criminal of the Communist political police organizations. Putin’s drab office there resembled those of the mid-level case officers who used to work for me at the more far-flung regional outposts of the Romanian Securitate.
After Putin was sworn in as Russia’s president, Moscow insinuated he had held an important job in East Germany and had been decorated by that country’s government. According to the Gauck Commission and the German magazine Der Spiegel, however, Putin had merely received a routine bronze medal from the East German Stasi as a “typical representative of second-rank agents.” [
There, in the bleak, threatening former Stasi headquarters in Leipzig and Dresden I was unable to detect any seeds of democracy that might have helped to turn the KGB officer Putin into a liberal democrat. Yet the Kremlin’s propaganda breathlessly implies that Putin’s experience there was that of a latter day Peter the Great on tour in the parlors and ballrooms of Western society.
Boris Yeltsin spent most of his life as a party activist, rising all the way up to the Politburo, but he broke with this past when Communism came crashing down. His presidential biographies spin him mostly as an engineer rather than a politician, describing at length how he “mastered twelve construction worker skills (stonemason, carpenter, driver, glazier, plasterer, etc.), a unique achievement.”
Putin became a KGB officer at 17 and had no other career training or experience. He speaks openly about his years in the KGB and his love for it, which he claims he inherits from his grandfather, once a cook at one of Stalin’s dachas, and from his father, who had “links” with the KGB. He asks his nation to understand that the KGB worked “in the interest of the state.” He argues for patience on the grounds that “90 percent” of all KGB intelligence was collected with the collaboration of ordinary citizens. He tries to rebuild the country’s confidence in the old Soviet symbols and institutions, the only ones he has ever known. Putin’s openness has been disarming—but suspiciously so.
Yeltsin distanced himself from the Soviet Union, but Putin has put this process into reverse. He ordered Andropov’s statue reinstated at the Lubyanka and his office transformed into a shrine. Indeed, Andropov is the only other KGB officer to have been enthroned in the Kremlin. (His likeness had been removed after the 1991 coup.)
On the anniversary of his taking power, Putin also ordered the Soviet national anthem, which had been banned in 1990, resurrected with new lyrics penned by Stalin’s and Khrushchev’s lyricist, Sergey Mikhalkov, now 87. Mikhalkov let it be known that he still admired Stalin and disdained Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Boris Pasternak. Nostalgia for the old Soviet days was officially back in style. Yelena Bonner, the widow of Nobel peace prize winner Andrey Sakharov, called this a “profanation of history.” Putin politely disagreed, saying: “We have overcome the differences between the past and the present.”
A couple of days later, in a 14-page article entitled “Russia on the Threshold of a New Millennium,” Putin defined Russia’s new political future: “The state must be where and as needed; freedom must be where and as required.” In the same article he labeled the Chechens’ effort to regain their independence as “terrorism,” and he pledged to eradicate it: “We’ll get them anywhere—if we find terrorists sitting in the outhouse, then we will piss on them there. The matter is settled.”
Does Putin have imperial dreams? Since Peter the Great, all Russian tsars have been obsessed with a land route to the New World. Putin is said to be planning to build a 60-mile tunnel between Russia and the United States under the Bering Strait from eastern Chukotka to western Alaska, costing some $55 billion and taking 20 years to complete. The World Bank may even put up the funds, says Viktor Razbegin, director of Moscow’s Center for Regional Transport Projects.
Putin is also busy restoring a tsarist palace in St. Petersburg for his second residence, at a cost of $35 million, as well as the beautiful old 18th century Baroque Palace near the Peterhof palaces on the Gulf of Finland, to serve as his personal seaside resort. Another $30 million has been spent embellishing Putin’s “Air Force One,” an Ilyushin 96.
By 2002, Russia was mass-producing official portraits and busts of Putin. This Stalinist touch Putin says is just state symbolism, like the flag or the national anthem. He adds that he would be charmed if his portraits and busts stayed on the people’s desks and walls after his term of office. The Russians will have to wait to see if there is in fact an “after” to Putin’s term of office.
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During the old Soviet days the West invented Kremlinology, a discipline trying to decode whatever was going on behind the Kremlin’s wall of secrecy by, for instance, comparing the annual photos of the May Day parade to see which Politburo member stood closest to the ruler. Today we have Putinologists, like professor Stephen White of Glasgow University, professor Michael McFaul of Stanford University, and the Hoover Institution’s John Dunlop. They do their best with the meager information available, but it is nigh impossible for an outsider to put himself in the shoes of a man whose career was spent in the darkness of Soviet espionage.
In a 2000 official picture, three men stood immediately behind Putin during his swearing-in as Russia’s president. All three had come from the KGB: Sergey Ivanov, now head of the Kremlin’s Security Council; Nikolay Patrushev, head of Russia’s current political police, the FSB; and, most notably, Viktor Cherkesov, the former chief of the KGB’s infamous Directorate V charged with crushing internal dissidence, now the FSB’s first deputy director—who before long would become a member of the federal government. Soon after that an essay published by an FSB spokesman, Yevgeny Lukin, shifted responsibility for all the mass killings committed by the KGB as a whole onto Jews working within the KGB.
A few days later Putin divided Russia into seven “super” districts, each headed by a “presidential representative,” and he gave these new posts to former KGB officers. In a brief interview with Ted Koppel of the ABC News program Nightline, Putin claimed that he had brought KGB officers to the Kremlin because he wanted to root out graft. “It has nothing to do with ideology. It’s only a matter of their professional qualities and personal relationship.”
In reality, filling the most important governmental positions with undercover intelligence officers is another Russian tradition. The tsarist Okhrana planted its undercover agents everywhere: in the central and local government offices, as well as in the political parties, labor unions, churches and newspapers. Until 1913, Pravda itself was edited by one of them, Roman Malinovsky, who rose to become Lenin’s deputy for Russia and the chairman of the Bolshevik faction in the Duma.
Yury Andropov Sovietizied this traditionally Russian concept. All Soviet bloc diplomatic, foreign trade, economic and even religious personnel working with the West should be made undercover intelligence officers, he told me in February 1972. “That will help us educate the government’s bureaucrats to despise America the way the KGB officers do.”
In January 1974, during a meeting held with employees of Romania’s foreign trade system, the prime minister, Ion Gheorghe Maurer, whispered into my ear: “Do you know what would happen if you smeared shit over every undercover officer of yours in this building?” He did not wait for an answer. “This whole huge damn place would stink of shit from cellar to attic!” Hardly an elegant image, but telling.
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Germany could never have become a democratic country if Gestapo officers had been retained to run the government and its secret services. In Russia, however, nearly 50% of the top government positions are now occupied by Putin’s former KGB comrades , who are turned virulently against what the KGB had for half a century defined as the country’s “main enemy,” the United States.
In April 2000, just seven days after Putin had been overwhelmingly elected Russia’s president, American businessman Edmund Pope was arrested by the FSB and charged with espionage. His trial evolved into a farce. Professor Anatoly Babkin, the main FSB witness against Pope, recanted his testimony and stated he had been forced to sign it. The FSB threatened to put Babkin in jail, according to tapes broadcast in Russia, but he still withdrew the false evidence. The Russian research institute where Babkin worked provided the court with documents showing that all the technical material given to Pope was unclassified and had been legally sold to him. Nevertheless, Pope was found guilty and was sentenced to 20 years in prison based on a verdict that was written in just two and a half hours. Then, on December 12, 2000, Pope was magnanimously pardoned by President Putin, just as other Americans ludicrously framed by the KGB had been pardoned by Putin’s Communist predecessors.
The United States was again framed to look like an enemy of Russia.
According to a March 2001 press release of Russia’s government, a series of trumped-up, closed-door espionage trials against the United States were underway in Moscow on charges described in the West as “so lacking in evidence and so far-fetched in their suppositions that at least three of them have been thrown out even by Russian courts.” Those setbacks did not discourage Putin’s FSB, however, which, in each instance, responded to the not-guilty verdict by re-opening the case against the target. In March 2001, for instance, Vladimir Moiseyev, a career Russian diplomat, was on his third trial for the same charge—spying for the U.S. and its main ally in Asia, South Korea. The “incriminating” document presented as “evidence” by the FSB turned out to be a copy of a speech that Moiseyev, an expert on South Korea, had delivered publicly. Nevertheless, since July 1998 he had been jailed by the FSB, whose then chairman, Vladimir Putin, had publicly declared that the case “was proven beyond a doubt.”
In 2003 Putin created a new anti-American axis, Moscow-Berlin-Paris, aimed at opposing Washington’s intention to free Iraq from Saddam’s tyranny. It is no mere happenstance that the St. Petersburg summit on Iraq attended by the leaders of this new axis coincided with the April 12, 2003 huge anti-American demonstrations, when millions of Europeans took the streets to portray the U.S. as being run by pro-war fanatics. The Soviet-created World Peace Council (WPC), whose honorary president was still the same KGB asset, Romesh Chandra, who chaired this outfit during the years I was a Communist general, acknowledged that the WPC had organized these mobilizations.
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It has been 15 years since the Soviet Union “collapsed,” and the evidence is in. Putin has no interest in democracy. He is consolidating central authoritarian power like every other tsar before him, from Ivan the Terrible to Lenin and his successors. Some may consider this a domestic Russian problem. But Putin is also trying to turn the old Soviet allies against the U.S. again, and that merits our attention.
Consider that former KGB-financed terrorists are now supplying ideological backing for a new anti-American offensive. Antonio Negri, a professor at the University of Padua, who had been the brains behind the Italian Red Brigades and had served time in jail for his involvement in kidnapping and killing former prime-minister Aldo Moro, recently co-authored a virulent anti-American book entitled Empire. In it Negri justifies Islamist terrorism as being a spearhead of “postmodern revolution” against “the new imperial order.” Negri asserts that American globalization—the new “Empire”—is breaking up the nation-states and creating huge unemployment. He also claims that capitalism stinks and has to go. For 27 years of my other life I was involved in creating various Negris, and I know how easily they can put down roots among liberals. No wonder that The New York Times called Negri’s modern-day Communist Manifesto “the hot, smart book of the moment.”
Consider that the old KGB-financed left in Europe and in America is also being revived. The leftists are again going around nursing their same old obsessions, parroting their same old slogans. As a leader of the Soviet bloc intelligence community, I was once responsible for encouraging belief in those very same slogans—including the accusation that American presidents were liars and that their soldiers were war criminals. I again hear the echoes of all the same old lines in the rhetoric of the left today, especially in the conspiratorial innuendoes of such latter-day propagandists as Michael Moore, and the red-diaper grandbabies who sustain old left-wing and once explicitly pro-Communist organs like the Nation magazine.
Consider that in Russia herself, the secret police and the military that ran the Cold War have remained in place, only with new nameplates at their doors. Consider also how insistently human nature resists change.
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In spite of Putin’s two-faced attitude toward us, a new world is taking shape as a strong ally of the United States. On February 5, 2002, eight European countries signed a Wall Street Journal op/ed article supporting President Bush’s effort to eradicate terrorism by extending freedom worldwide. Ten former Soviet satellites joined in the next day. “Our countries understand the dangers posed by tyranny and the special responsibility of democracies to defend their values,” declared the foreign ministers of Albania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia. On March 8, 2004, the people of Iraq adopted their first self-written constitution. On October 9, 2004 Afghanistan held its first free election. January 9, 2005, marked another milestone: the Palestinians freely elected their own president. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi summed this up: “Every time I see the U.S. flag, I don’t see the flag only as representative of a country, but I see it as a symbol of democracy and of freedom.”
Russia’s borders extend from the North Pole to the 35th parallel, enclosing 12 seas, 270,000 lakes and 150,000 rivers, and that huge country cannot be democratized by the outside world. But it should not be left alone either. In the words of her famous tsarist sociologist, Petr Chaadayev, “contrary to all the laws of the human community, Russia moves only in the direction of her enslavement and the enslavement of the neighboring peoples. For this reason it would be in the interest not only of other peoples but also in that of her own that she be compelled to take a new path.”
During the Cold War we spent trillions to rid Russia of Communism. It is now time to help her also cast off the remnants of the KGB, that peculiarly Russian instrument of power that has isolated the Russians from the real world and left them ill-equipped to deal with the complexities of modern society.
In 1991, when the Soviet Union was abolished, the Russians hated anything connected in their minds with capitalism, i.e., free enterprise, decision-making, hard work, risk-taking, social inequality. Therefore, after a period of upheaval, they have gradually—and perhaps thankfully—slipped back into their historical form of government, the Russian samoderzhaviye,
Now the barriers the Soviets spent over 70 years erecting between themselves and the rest of the world, as well as between individual Russians, are slowly coming down. Property is being institutionalized, and a new generation of Russians seems ready to assume the risk of capitalism. We should try to know this generation, and to help it develop a new national identity.
The U.S is also better prepared to tackle this enormous task. President Bush strongly believes that “freedom will be the future of every nation and every people on earth,” and his secretary of state probably understands Russia better than any other U.S. diplomat before her.
It will not be easy to break a five-century tradition. Nevertheless, man would not have learned to walk on the moon, if he had not first studied what the moon was really made of and where it lay in the universe.
Lt. General (r) Ion Mihai Pacepa is the highest ranking intelligence officer to have defected from the Soviet bloc. His book Red Horizons (Regnery Gateway, Washington, DC, 1987) has been republished in 27 countries.