I try to have a clinically cold eye towards Putin. For the life of me, I cannot see the sense in extrapolating pure evil from him being former KGB. Where else were Russian leaders with real skills and training in managing a complex mass society going to come from?
And the KGB in the 1980s was a very different beast from the KGB in 1954 or OGPU in the 1920s. People might be surprised to know that towards the end of the USSR period the KGB did such enlightened things as release their files on Babel, Florensky, Pasternak, etc, and let the world (or as much of the world as was interested) see the truly dreadful things it had been up to in former eras.
We have more verified facts about the gulags from the opening up of Soviet files even in the Soviet era, and from interviews with survivors published in Russia, than we do from the works of that celebrated dissident Solzhenitsyn. And I do not say that as an excuse for the gulags or the repressions and purges – they were terrible things and reading the genuine detail about what happened to these real people is a very tough experience. But for me the people who are far more difficult than Putin are figures like Gorky, who maintained himself in an aristocratic lifestyle in Italy by dobbing in writers to an increasingly paranoid Stalin, whenever he felt his own position was fragile, and consigning the people he was responsible for as secretary of the writers’ union to torture, imprisonment and death. Such are the attractions of a plate of mortadella and a glass of prosecco!
But back to Putin. His real achievements have been:
- to reunite Russia under a new national mythology,
- to win the war with the plutocrats who emerged in the 1990s and threatened the existence of the state,
- to punch way above his weight in international fora despite Russia having a fairly weak economy for its size,
- to protect the Russian diaspora communities in the Ukraine, and to take back for Russia strategic control of the Black Sea.
All these things go directly against NATO policy and dominant European interests. Apart from the first item in that list – the point about national mythology – they are generally unrelated to Putin’s domestic policy of extreme moral conservatism, which imposes severe restrictions on Russians in terms of aesthetic expression, sexual preference, etc.
This anti-libertarian theme is convenient from two points of view: It aligns with the anti-Western rhetoric and sentiment inherited from the Soviet and helps define a specifically Russian and non-Western identity and keeps the Orthodox Church on side. Putin understands better than anyone that the force that ultimately brought down the USSR was the enemy the Bolsheviks should never have made: the priests. The wound with faith in a people who had been sustained by faith through centuries of hard lives and dreadful repression was poisonous. Putin understands that, and is too clever to repeat such a mistake.
None of what I have said above means I approve of Putin. But I cannot see anything to be gained by placing him in a narrative of heroes and villains. History is not like that.