Putin's Unwillingness to Repent
NEW YORK TIMES
October 9, 2003
Putin's Democratic Present Fights His K.G.B. Past
By STEVEN LEE MYERS
OSCOW, Oct. 8 - There is a question that irritates President Vladimir
V. Putin of Russia, and it is the one about his past as a foreign
intelligence operative of the K.G.B.
"They cannot forget about that agency," he replied, seemingly to his
aides, when asked a version of it in an expansive interview at his wooded
presidential estate outside of Moscow. He chuckled, but not warmly.
Does the president of a newly democratic Russia - or, as some say, an
increasingly autocratic one - regret any part of the K.G.B.'s history?
"No, of course not," he said brusquely and, surprisingly, personally.
"There was absolutely nothing that I could be ashamed of."
The question, and his answer, lie at the heart of today's Russia,
because fairly or not, much of what is happening here is viewed through the
prism of Mr. Putin's first career: the war in Chechnya, government control
of news organizations and elections, the growing role of former security
officers like himself in all ranks of government.
But there is another side to Mr. Putin, too, the one molded by his
second, post-Soviet career as an apparatchik in a democratic, reformist
government of St. Petersburg, the city built as Russia's "window to Europe"
and the birthplace of the revolution that slammed the window shut after
"We remember, and we are obliged to remember, everything negative,
everything horrible that we encountered in the 20th century," Mr. Putin
said. "We should draw conclusions from this. We have paid a very great price
for this. Millions of people died in the camps. The totalitarian regime
brought the country to a national catastrophe and to the collapse of the
Soviet Union. And we are fully aware of this, and the people of Russia have
drawn conclusions for themselves."
And so, he ended, "We firmly stand on the path of development of
democracy and of a market economy."
After meeting him for the first time in 2001, President Bush famously
said he had looked into Mr. Putin's eyes, got "a sense of his soul" and
liked what he saw. To most Russians, Mr. Putin's "soul" remains a far more
complicated, conflicted question.
A wealthy businessman who is close to him - and spoke anonymously to
remain that way - said there were in fact two Putins, a security agent and a
democrat, struggling for equipoise. Or as Viktor Erofeyev, a writer who was
and still is something of a dissident, put it: Mr. Putin has "a dark angel"
on one shoulder and "a light angel" on the other.
In the four years since Russia's first president, Boris N. Yeltsin,
plucked him from political obscurity and anointed him the second, Mr. Putin
has steered Russia onto a stable, democratic and Western-looking path that
he said was irreversible, if still incomplete.
At the same time, he has overseen what his critics call a steady
erosion of democratic rights.
His press ministry closed the last independent national television
network in June and gave its frequency to a government-owned sports channel.
His government pushed through new election rules this summer that, taken
literally, prohibit media coverage of candidates and anything they say or
Russia, 12 years after the collapse of the Soviet state, still has an
opaque judicial system. It still has closed cities, where foreigners and
even most Russians cannot go. Its security services again wield significant
The businessman said Mr. Putin's conflicting instincts - between
freedom and state - mirror the struggle within his government and country.
This struggle will dominate his second term, his re-election next March
being considered a given. While the outcome could determine the country's
course, he said Mr. Putin himself might never resolve it.
"I believe that the struggle within Putin will go on until the end of
his life," he said.
In person, Mr. Putin comes across as exceedingly disciplined and
concentrated. His office at the compound in Novo-Ogaryovo, a stylish suburb
of Moscow, reflects a focus on power, not its trappings. It is ornate, but
The president, who turned 51 on Tuesday, listens intently and builds
lengthy, meticulously constructed answers. He has a strong command of detail
and a sense of humor, albeit a sardonic one.
The interview, which took place Saturday, was conducted in Russian and
English, through a translator, with Mr. Putin occasionally interjecting in
At several points, he sought to draw moral equivalencies between
Russia and the United States in the same way Soviet leaders once did - and
as before, some were simply strained.
He avoided a direct question about the growing influence of the
security officials - known as siloviki - by saying he had simply
restructured law enforcement agencies the way the Bush administration
created the Department of Homeland Security. "To talk about a return to the
Soviet times in connection with would be like talking about the times of
McCarthy, referring to the ministry of homeland security in the United
States," he said. "This is rubbish that has nothing to do with reality."
Of his own service in East Germany in the last years of a dying Soviet
empire, he expressed pride. He derided "various clichés and labels" -
presumably meaning those applied to him - as "very ineffective" and "even
"You know, we haven't fallen from the moon," he said at another point
of those who, like him, served in the security services. "We were born in
this country. We live here. We are products of the time in which we lived.
That is a fact."
The Communist Party of the Soviet Union - and the secret services that
kept it in power - represented the state itself, intertwining "more than 20
million people," including himself, into its bureaucracy but not necessarily
into its historic culpability, he argued.
"And what now - must all of these 20 million people cover their heads
in ash and whip themselves?" he said.
Referring to Mr. Yeltsin, he said: "The former president, the first
president of Russia, was a member of the Politburo of the Central Committee.
Meanwhile, he probably is the person who has done the most important thing
in the contemporary history of the country. He gave it freedom."
That is the essence of Mr. Putin. He, like Russia, he has sought to
reconcile the past and the future. He portrays himself as part of a new
generation, one shaped by the past, but looking forward.
Addressing the issue more directly perhaps than he ever has, Mr. Putin
described what he called the "very harsh, black periods" of Soviet history -
the Stalin-era purges. He acknowledged that the "state security apparatus
served as the main tool of these repressions." At the same time, however, he
insisted the security services that became the K.G.B. he worked for were
only a tool wielded by the controlling hands of the real power, the
"This was in the 1930's - in the last century - but continued
practically until the death of Stalin in 1953," he said. "I will draw your
attention to the fact that I was born in 1952."
Mr. Putin noted that he had studied law at St. Petersburg University,
an institution known, he said, for "its democratic traditions." He also
studied a foreign language, German, and is learning English now. Perhaps
because of that, perhaps because his roots lie in "a window to Europe," he
spoke of a vision of Russia closely intertwined with Europe, economically,
socially and politically.
He does not ascribe to theories of Russia's unique Eurasian
character - nor of a Russian claim of exclusivity when it comes to
establishing democratic freedoms.
"By their mentality and culture, the people of Russia are Europeans,"
Mr. Putin curtly dismissed the notion that his - and Russia's -
commitment to democracy was still somehow wavering, even as he frankly
acknowledged shortcomings in elections and press freedoms.
"Of course many things are still in a stage of evolution," he said.
When he first came to power, he said he hoped to create a
"dictatorship of law," a phrase that received more attention for the first
word rather than the last. In the interview, he said the most important
lesson from his education was "respect for the law."
Whether Mr. Putin adheres to that lesson, and whether the rest of
Russia embraces it, remains to be seen. Russia is a place where corruption
is rife and where few share a sense of civic responsibility.
Mr. Putin clearly desires order, and to him that means a strong
central government. Asked about reports that ExxonMobil was negotiating to
buy a large share of the newly merged YukosSibneft, Russia's largest oil
company, Mr. Putin said Russia welcomed foreign investment. Then he added
that the government ought to have a say in so significant a deal.
"I think it would be the right thing to do to have preliminary
consultations with the Russian government on this matter," he said.
On Tuesday, an official in Mr. Putin's government amended his remarks,
the Interfax news agency reported, saying there was in fact no legal
obligation requiring any foreign investor to consult the government.
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