The Two Worlds of Vladimir Putin

The Wilson Quarterly, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

The Two Worlds of Vladimir Putin

I. The KGB

Amy Knight

I was introduced to Vladimir Putin's KGB in the summer of 1981. I was in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), the city where he was born and spent much of his career before his improbable rise to Russia's presidency. That summer I was visiting as a tourist more interested in the city's splendid architecture and museums than in bucking the system as I had as a student traveler in 1967. Fourteen years had not changed the rule: Forging acquaintances with local Russians was strictly out of bounds. Foreigners, especially Russian speakers like me, were still cordoned off from contacts with ordinary Russians by the efficient operations of Intourist and the infamous dezhurnye, the elderly ladies who were positioned on every hotel floor to monitor the comings and goings of guests. So it was very odd when an unusually friendly Russian man approached me as I sat in the lobby of my hotel, right under the watchful eyes of Intourist, and began earnestly telling me about the woes of Soviet life and expressing sympathy for Americ an ideals. It took a while before I realized what was going on. I was the target of an entrapment effort. Shaken, I quickly broke off the conversation and hurried away.

My new "acquaintance" was doubtless an employee of the local branch of the KGB. Part of his job was to hang around hotels spying on visiting foreigners and trying to single out a few--as in my case, apparently--who could be more directly exploited. This was the kind of elevated activity Vladimir Putin did during the nine years he worked for the Leningrad KGB, from l975 to 1984. (For all I know, the man in the Hotel Moskva's lobby may have been Putin, who has been aptly described as "professionally nondescript.") It is hard to imagine what people like Putin felt when they went through daily routines such as this, but I will never forget my own reaction. I felt like going up to my room and taking a long shower. I had come face to face with an organization I knew chiefly in the abstract from reading the samizdat writings of Soviet dissidents whose lives had been destroyed by just such mundane KGB functionaries. What came to mind was Hannah Arendt's phrase about the Nazi regime -- the banality of evil.

Now, with the political ascendancy of Vladimir Putin, that banal evil has reached the summit of power in the Kremlin--a situation that should cause more concern to U.S. policymakers than it apparently does. At home, journalists and political pundits scour the past of American presidential contenders to see if they have smoked marijuana, dodged the draft, or committed adultery, but the background of the new Russian leader is, policymakers tell us, irrelevant. The important thing is that Putin is "someone we can do business with." It is not hard to understand the rationale behind this approach. But if you judge Putin by his past, it does not bode well for the future of Russian democracy or for Russia's relations with the West.

Contrary to the myth generated by the Kremlin and perpetuated by the Western news media, many authoritative sources agree that Putin was never a spy of the sort so romantically depicted by John le Carre--a sophisticated, suave cynic who hobnobs in Western diplomatic circles abroad, sipping cognac in elegant, book-lined rooms. If such a person existed, he might conceivably have realized that the Soviet system was a sham and warmed to the democratic ways of the West. (The Kremlin exploited a similar myth when former KGB head Yuri Andropov came to power in 1982, suggesting that he was a jazz-loving Western-style sophisticate.) But the spymaster group was an old-boy elite to which Putin, the son of a factory worker, had no entree. When Putin was hired by the KGB after finishing law school in Leningrad in l975--a training ground for police and administrators, not foreign intelligence officers--he was sent to its Leningrad branch rather than a more desirable foreign post.

According to former KGB spy Oleg Kalugin, who was banished to Leningrad in 1980 by disapproving superiors, the local office was a backwater. …

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