As Kremlin Rising opens, Vladimir Putin is a minor KGB agent working in obscurity in Dresden, East Germany, where his only notable achievement is becoming fluent in German and English. This depiction is somewhat misleading; he had been an outstanding athlete, winning competitions in judo and dance; moreover, his grandfather had been Joseph Stalin’s cook, a position of considerable responsibility for one of proletarian background. Lastly, Putin’s dour mien and lack of spontaneity made many otherwise astute men underestimate his ambitions and abilitiesand even think of him as a friend.
When the Soviet Republic began to crumble in 1989, Putin left the KGB to work for Anatoly Sobchak, the mayor of Leningrad (soon renamed St. Petersburg), a liberal reformer whom Putin had known from his student days. Under Sobchak, Putin was first responsible for press relations, then in 1994 became deputy mayor. In this office he began to master the skills necessary to advance in rough-and-tumble post-Soviet political cirlces. His experiences made him disdainful of democratic ideals and practices. In 1996, after Sobchak’s defeat in the election, another liberal friend, Deputy Prime Minister Anatoly Chubais, recommended Putin to President Boris Yeltsin, for whom Putin became deputy chief-of-staff. Then, in July, 1998, he became head of the Federal Security Bureau (the successor to the KGB) and the Security Council. He made these into efficient organizationsin fact, almost the only organizations in Russia that were not mired in corruption and incompetence. In August, 1999, the increasingly erratic Boris Yeltsin named Putin prime minister, appreciating Putin’s steadfast loyalty; on December 31, 1999, Yeltsin resigned, leaving Putin as acting president. In the election of March 26, 2000, Putin became president of Russia. It was perhaps the swiftest and most unexpected rise to power in modern history.
Putin moved immediately to consolidate his power. His most important step was to crush the independent press and television empires of Vladimir Gusinsky and Boris Berezovskywho had assisted him previouslyusing intimidation, manipulation of the criminal justice system, and demagoguery. Both men fled the country quickly, Gusinsky to Israel, Berezovsky to Britain. In time, most of their assets were seized. Such was the retribution for their willingness to sacrifice the independence of the press to the reelection of Boris Yeltsin, who was not only ill or drunk through most of the late 1990’s but who also ignored criminality and corruption in the government and in Russian society at large, including the excesses of the oligarchs who took advantage of the chaos to amass huge fortunes. As several of the newly rich media lords were Jews, Putin’s takeover of their stations met with popular approval.
Because the press was now under Putin’s control, when the Chechen war resumed later in 2000, he could restrict news coverage to his version of events. For example, when atrocities committed by Russian troops captured the world’s attention, he could explain away the outrage as anti-Russian propaganda. The war, unfortunately, instead of lasting a few weeks, as Putin had predicted, dragged on, with no signs of either victory or a peace settlement. The public, nevertheless, came to see in Putin the strong leader that Russians have long venerated. Whether Ivan the Great or Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great or Joseph Stalin, such a man could show the Chechens and the world that Russia is still a great power.
The terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001, provided an opportunity for Putin to deflect world attention from the war in Chechnya. By phoning George Bush to offer Russian support (and as the first foreign leader to do so), Putin changed the Chechan War into a part of the war on terror. There was some truth to this spin, but there was also Putin’s manipulation of the American president’s naïve desire to believe that a change had taken...
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