Homo Sovieticus

Nina L. Khrushcheva is senior fellow at the World Policy Institute of The New School and the granddaughter of Nikita Khrushchev

First, there was Pavlik Morozov, a legendary Soviet folk child who so believed in the bright future of communism that he enthusiastically informed on his father for having more grain than an average “builder of communism” in a collectivized state was allowed. Then there was the Soviet children’s classic, “Timur and His Team,” the story of an honest and endearing Pioneer (communist Boy Scout), who, in his romantic zeal to become a perfect communist, devoted his childhood to unmasking the imperfections of less enlightened and faithful citizens.

Other books and movies throughout Soviet history have glorified those who passionately confronted enemies from all sides who sought to undermine the Soviet Union: A novel, “Kortik” (A Dagger), by Anatoly Rybakov; a thriller and movie, “Mesto vstrechi izmenit nelzya” (Meeting Place Cannot Be Changed), by Arkady and George Vainer; a TV series, “Semnadtsat Mgnovenii Vesny” (Seventeen Moments of Spring), which included a gorgeous state-of-the-art spy-hero, Shtirliz; and “Shchiet i Mech” (The Sword and the Shield), which turns out to be Russian President Vladimir Putin’s favorite movie.

Now there is “First Person: Conversations With Vladimir Putin” (or, as the English subtitle bluntly announces, “An Astonishingly Frank Self-Portrait by Russia’s President”), a collection of interviews and monologues about and with Putin, his friends, former teachers, colleagues and his family. The book portrays Putin as a “hero of our time.” As the early socialist glorification of Pavlik Morozov and Timur were emblematic of the freshly established totalitarian regime, so Putin’s memoir is an excellent piece of neo-Soviet post-liberal propaganda. Released on the Web in Russian right before the Russian presidential elections in March, published in English right after the presidential inauguration in May, the memoirs acquaint the world with Russia’s president, descendant of the brave, honest and devoted heroes of the Soviet cultural canon. Putin himself tells us with proud shyness, “I was a pure and utterly successful product of Soviet patriotic education.”

“First Person” exhibits Russia’s new leader as unbendable, tough, honest and very romantic. A perfect “product of Soviet patriotic education,” Putin decided on a career in the KGB because he was so enamored with the heroic deeds of Soviet detectives and intelligence officers, exactly as they were portrayed in such stories as “The Sword and the Shield.” “What amazed me most of all,” he says, “was how one man’s effort could achieve what whole armies could not.”


Putin wanted to serve his country so much that when he was in the ninth grade, he went to the office of the KGB Directorate in Leningrad “in order to find out how to become a spy.” He was told that, first, the KGB did not “take people who come to [them] on their own initiative” and “second, [one] can come to [them] only after the army or after some type of civilian higher education.” “What kind of higher education?” asked young Volodya. “Any.” “But what is preferred?” “Law school.” Putin went on to take a law degree.

So forcefully and willfully has Putin pursued his career that one might have trouble distinguishing him from a young Vladimir Lenin. However, there is a softer, modern side to the story, one without the harshness and burning fanaticism of his early socialist years. Written from the presidential pulpit, his memoirs portray him as a more human, less official apparatchik. We almost immediately learn, for example, that he “was a hooligan, not a Pioneer,” an informal and popular street leader: “If I had to compare it with my adult life, I would say that the role I played as a kid was like the role of the judicial branch, and not the executive.” Although he continued as a good college student, we are told, he was neither a Komsomol (“Young Communist League”) functionary nor an active obshchestvennik (one not involved in any extracurricular activities).

What is surprising, however, is to find out what a meritocracy the KGB was at the time Putin became an agent in the mid-1970s. His experience suggests that it was possible to be hired by the KGB on the basis of good college grades alone. In addition, Putin seems interested in portraying the agency as a society within a society, consisting of good and devoted enthusiasts who “work for the interests of State.” Of course, in the late 20th century, it was no longer necessary to report on one’s parents to prove oneself worthy of communism. Socialism had by then developed more subtle methods of influencing society and enforcing conformity. These means were, as Putin puts it, “less coarse,” a characterization that allows him to present himself as a “boy from our street,” an “invisible” hero of the state.

Putin has selected his material in order to meet all the necessary requirements for being a “good man"--good neighbor, good friend, good everything. We see his family sharing a communal apartment in Leningrad with an old Jewish couple; we learn that the young Vladimir befriended them. The message is clear: Some of my best friends are Jews. Putin tells us that he sang songs of Vladimir Vysotsky, a semi-dissident bard, whose words became part of Russia’s modern Soviet-mocking folklore. He joined a judo club while others were fashionably doing karate. “Karate,” he explains, “we viewed . . . purely as moneymaking enterprises. . . . Judo is not just a sport--It’s a philosophy.” He attended Leningrad University, one of the most prestigious schools in the country, but got there on his own merit, with no connections, at a time when the only way to advance in the Soviet Union was by way of privileges. Putin’s best friend is a violinist who taught Vladimir to understand music and art.


At home, Putin is at pains to emphasize his everyman qualities, conceding early love troubles until he met his wife, Lyudmila, with whom he has lived happily ever after with two daughters and a toy poodle. Another family dog also makes an appearance, a Caucasian sheep dog (quite appropriate for a spy), but it died in an accident. Their next pet, the toy poodle, “amazed [Putin] at first--she’s so little,” but then he learned to love the small pet too. All these details are meant to prepare us for a president who can be sensitive, loving and kind but also for a man who never backs down, who is just, honest and zealous for the truth.

Putin mixes his personal “common man” qualities with an astonishingly idealistic, almost blind, fondness for Soviet strength and statehood. He explains his zeal for the KGB by the fact that, during his college years, he “didn’t know much . . . about Stalin’s cult of personality. . . . How deep was that cult of personality? How serious was it? My friends and I didn’t think about that. So I went to work for the agencies with a romantic image of what they did.” It is even more astonishing that Putin insists that, at the time he was a KGB agent, if “there probably were some agents who engaged in persecution of people, I didn’t see it. I personally didn’t see it.”

At several points in the book Putin does, however, mention that after 10 years of being at “the Organs” (of state security), he was no longer a romantic, but it was not until 1991 that his disillusionment with the system became final: “Up until that time I didn’t really understand the transformation that was going on in Russia. . . . But during the days of the [August] coup, all the ideals, all the goals that I had had when I went to work in the KGB, collapsed.”

Even after growing disillusioned with communism after the failed coup, Putin hardly admits that communism has any flaws. It is usually the people, he explains, not the system, who are flawed or, even better, it was the fault of Mikhail Gorbachev, who lost the Cold War too quickly, or the crowds that, in 1989, attacked the German Ministry of State Security in the East German city of Leipzig, where Putin was posted as an intelligence officer from 1986 to 1990. Although Putin “understood those people--they were tired of being watched by the MGB [the East German secret police], especially because the surveillance was so totally invasive,” he insists that the “way in which they expressed their protest was upsetting.


“I regretted that the Soviet Union had lost its position in Europe, although intellectually, I understood that a position built on walls and dividers cannot last,” he explains, “But I wanted something different to rise in its place. And nothing different was proposed. That’s what hurt. They just dropped everything and went away.” The personal tone is striking: Clearly Putin feels that the fall of the Berlin Wall was the first sad step toward the Soviet disintegration; 1991 coup-makers were right in trying to preserve the Union; and the Chechen war has been the necessary step to prevent the further disintegration of Russia.

For a man who has been disillusioned for almost 10 years, who admits at one point that the USSR “didn’t have a future,” Putin, in these early months of his presidency, has shown fond support for the Soviet system, as if he were still a romantic boy who more than anything wanted to serve his country’s greatness. After winning the presidential election, Putin showed his colors, however, when he addressed the Federal Service Bureau (the former KGB). His words seemed to ridicule the election process: “Officer Vladimir Putin reports that his dispatch to the Kremlin has been completed successfully.” To those who know about Stalin-era purges, it is a tasteless, even cruel, turn of phrase. Putin not only draws on nostalgia for the country’s socialist past, the cruel stability which contrasts with the chaos of the post-communist years, he also insists on presenting the KGB in a favorable light. Thus, by capitalizing on public fear, he has created a campaign to restore a security mechanism that will crack down on corruption, crime and liberal disarray. Sensing that the liberalism of the last 10 years has left Russians with a desire for a strong leader capable of imposing order, Putin has been carefully evoking Stalin’s image as a positive one: In speeches, on commemorative coins and on the memorial plaque to the heroes of World War II.

In these memoirs, Putin admires the KGB’s techniques of controlling society “covertly,” as: “it was considered indecent to be too obvious.” If dissidents would call a meeting to protest against communism, the KGB would in turn organize its own event at the same place. That same style was recently introduced by Putin as president: In a policy document published last spring by the Russian newspaper Kommersant, the new government suggests that as society now shows a strong devotion to the democratic process, some necessary although unpopular actions (especially those dealing with media and opposition) should be handled “covertly” by FSB-run presidential directorates.

But “First Person” encourages us not to worry: If the agency’s work is “based on some idealistic principles, then it’s something else” compared to operations in Soviet times--the ends justify the means, so to speak. We also learn that qualities necessary for a president are needed for a secret agent as well: “organizational abilities, a certain degree of tact, and businesslike manner.” An instructor from the Andropov Red Banner Institute, which Putin attended before his German posting, attests in an interview that his former student had it all. In fact, the book suggests that the “art of [razvedka] intelligence” requires a great “ability to come into contact with people, the ability to select the people you need, the ability to raise questions that are of interest to our country and our leaders, the ability to be a psychologist, if you will.” In one of the conversations, Putin calls himself “a specialist in human relations.” And as Lyudmila Putin confirms, despite his “plain and dull” appearance, Putin has an “inner strength--a quality that draws everybody to him now.”


The question “who is Vladimir Putin?” is thus answered. According to “First Person,” he is Russia’s perfect president, a man for whom Timur and Pavlik were once role models but who has now stepped from the pages of heroic children’s stories to be a real man ruling in the real Kremlin. What we are yet to learn is whether this version of Putin is an invented character for the book of power he is writing, nothing more than a patriotic propaganda symbol, or if he is a true worshiper of the KGB, making him a modernized, contemporary hero of neo-Soviet totalitarianism, the creator of his own Putinism.