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Pausing to admire the genius of "The Agony And The Ex-Stasi".

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Aug 3, 2023·edited Aug 3, 2023

Love these. The Dictator Book Club is one of my favorite things on the blog.

>Wait, hadn’t Putin already resigned from the KGB? [...] resigning from the KGB is futile; once you’re a part of the network, they will always feel free to call on you when needed.

There's a Hollywood producer called Scott Rudin who's notorious for firing people. He fires so many people that sometimes he forgets who he's fired. Often this means the "firing" isn't serious—you can chill at a Starbucks for a few hours, come back to work, and he'll have forgotten he was mad at you.

One guy got "fired" four times in a row. Sadly, the last one stuck.

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Isn't it "Chechen" rather than "Chechnyan"?

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>since then (like everyone else) they have declared themselves nonbinary with they/them pronouns.

This seems like an un-Scott-like aside, but an apropos one given the paragraph that it's in.

>Could it happen here?

I think this is also a question of the FBI currently finds to be justifiable. They definitely find it justifiable to infiltrate and provoke domestic terrorist groups on a small scale - e.g. the Whitmer plot - so there's hardly a norm against it. Whether that translates into something that can be leveraged by any particular executive, I don't know.

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Two questions:

First, and this seems the obvious one, is Putin actually running the show or is he more of a front-man for the established FSB-KGB network? Because this review makes him sound like a non-entity and most of the actual power lies in the KGB-FSB network. Perhaps to clarify, if Putin just dropped dead from a natural heart attack tomorrow, would another Russian leader just easily take his place?

Second, was there any discussion of economic performance? I'm no Russian expert but a brief glance at their GDP numbers indicate that the first 10 years of his reign were...really good, economically speaking. (https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.MKTP.KD?locations=RU)

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Former US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul tweeted: “Strong leaders defeat their opponents in free and fair elections. Weak leaders arrest their opponents.”

Hard to tell if he’s referring to Putin or Biden.

https://twitter.com/mcfaul/status/1686249958671069184?s=46&t=0c1FiWOiWcyAWfYmoA0XEg

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Hillary Clinton once related an interesting story from Putin (I can't remember where but it's on video somewhere). They were sitting next to each other at some international event and she brought up the topic of the siege of Leningrad. According to her, his eyes lit up and he told her about how they had to pile up the bodies (not enough manpower/time to bury everyone I guess?).

One day his grandfather was walking home past one of the piles of bodies and he recognised a leg sticking out of the pile as belonging to his wife. Frantically he began trying to pull her out. A guard tried to stop him (because they didn't want disease to spread), but he persisted. And he got her out - and she was still alive. And he took her back home and nursed her back to health from the brink of death.

Clinton in her telling went on to relate this story to Putin's supposed self image. She thinks he sees himself as filling a role akin to that of his grandfather - pulling the near-dead Russia from the brink of death and returning it to strength. I don't know to what extent her analysis is true, but it was interesting to get that sort of view from one major world figure of another.

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I'll note that the Russian Orthodox Church had a long history of being a subordinate branch of the Russian state (going back to Peter the Great's "reforms"), and the level of KGB infiltration of the church from its Soviet rehabilitation to the fall of the USSR that it's not particularly certain that one can draw a solid line between the post-Soviet church hierarchy and the network of ex-KGB agents.

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Re: 3., only an extremely ham-fisted ruler would give direct orders to have his or her enemies physically assaulted. The standard way to get that done is to let your displeasure be known, and some enterprising member of the rank-and-file will do what you want.

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"But also, the man who came closest to overthrowing Putin, Yevgeny Prigozhin, was Putin’s former cook! Again, this is pretty weird, but I don’t know what the alternative is. Some kind of conspiracy of Russian cooks?"

What, haven't you seen The Hunt for Red October?

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> Masha Gessen, a rare surviving Russian investigative journalist

Masha is an American who was born in Russia and emigrated here in her teens. Her experiences in Russia are mostly as a small child or as an American working in Russia. This explains a good deal of her survival.

> Vladimir Putin appeared on Earth fully-formed at the age of nine.

Putin's childhood is not that mysterious if you assume Putin is mostly reliable about it. Admittedly, not a great assumption. But also no one's caught him in obvious lies as far as I know. Very little about his narrative of his own childhood is heroic. The closest thing he tells of great tales of derring do is that his father apparently saved his mother. She was so malnourished a corpse collector had thrown her on the cart. His father tried to take her back and, when the corpse collector tried to stop him, his father pulled a gun. He brought her back to an apartment where when he was not fighting, he would bring her food and medicine and fuel to nurse her back to health. This story is unverified but the relevant people were definitely in the right place and the right place was under siege by the Nazis.

Likewise, he agrees that he was quarrelsome as a child (backed up by school discipline records) though he claims he rarely started fights. Instead he portrays himself as bullied for being physically small. And that he tended to ambush or rapidly attack bigger boys to overwhelm them and win. You can see a political message there but it's also not on its face unbelievable as Putin was, and is, not that physically imposing.

> Life as a KGB officer was disappointing. Gessen describes it as sitting in a Leningrad office, cutting articles out of newspapers, and sending them to superiors who would ignore them.

While they too have their reliability issues, most people report that Putin in the KGB was regarded as competent but not extroardinarily so. Being assigned to Leningrad then East Germany is not a stellar career path. A better agent would have been assigned to West Germany or Berlin.

> Also, it seems unclear whether you can disband the KGB. Around this point in the story, the Soviet generals launched their coup, Yeltsin defeated them, and the KGB was replaced by various other security agencies more congenial to a newly democratic state.

The Soviet Union post-Brezhnev was made up of a series of power blocks in negotiation with each other. Brenzhev was about as democratic as a Soviet leader could have realistically been (which is not very). The Soviet Union had always had a conflict between the security services and the military going all the way back to Stalin's time. Generally in direct confrontation the military won as with Khruschev or in 1991. But the security services could gain dominance when the political elite sided with them.

The security services, being Communist security services, had very little obligation to maintain more than the appearance of law and order. Their primary goal was protecting the party and waging the spy war abroad. As you can imagine, this involved all kinds of shady dealings and ties and international connections. When the Soviet state collapsed they attempted to preserve it (1991 again). When they failed they... just kind of kept all those contacts with criminals, foreign entities, and untraceable bank accounts for bribes or whatever. They never really accepted the fall of the Soviet Union and resented they had lost the confrontation in the early 1990s. But there was also money to be made in the new Russia and they set about making it through crime and through oligarchs.

Putin was in many senses a post-Soviet reaction by this KGB-oligarch-criminal nexus. He had no interest in literally returning to communism. But once these surviving KGB networks (criminal, intelligence, business) saw he had a chance of getting the presidency they all backed him to the hilt. And it worked. Putin got into power, the security services returned to prominence. Putin didn't do anything different than what tens of thousands of similar minded thinkers would have done. And they aren't loyal to Putin more than the changes Putin represents. But Putin, uniquely, attempted to chart a somewhat different course because he wasn't that successful post-Soviet. He joined politics partly as a way to get out of being a cab driver and then, through hook and crook and more than a little luck, was in a position where he could be boosted into a useful position.

> This was Anatoly Sobchak, a two-faced politician who had climbed to the top by convincing both the pro-democracy protesters and the communists he was on their side.

The degree of Putin and Sobchak's corruption in St. Petersburg is disputed. By some accounts he was not unusually corrupt (which still means he was corrupt) and it was instead exogenous economic shocks that caused the lost election. Notably, insofar as he was corrupt he was "machine politician" corrupt where gigantic festivals or public works served as a way to transfer kickbacks and buy votes. He only lost the vote narrowly. Sobchak appears to have enticed Putin because he offered a way out of the humiliation of being financially precarious through political loyalty. Which Putin was willing to give, somewhat uniquely for an ex-KGB agent, at least for a time. If you look at footage from that time period he actually looks quite modest and somewhat anxious over the possibility of losing that position.

> Their job was to pick new officials when Yeltsin would fire the previous ones in a drunken rage. When an opening in Security opened up, Berezovsky remembered Putin, who he had met a few times doing business in St. Petersburg. Putin had refused a bribe - something so shocking it had seared him in the oligarch’s memory.

This story of the transition is not what is most commonly said. Instead there were other successors but, in the aftermath of the 1998 Russian financial crisis, the economic pain plus corruption made most candidates untenable. Most people think the actual intended successor was Nemtsov but he was too high up and tainted by the affair. Why Yeltsin specifically chose Putin is up to speculation but the quid pro quo was obvious. Putin immediately pardoned Yeltsin and immunized him from prosecution, allowing him and his cronies to retire with any ill gotten gains.

> Is it true that Putin only leaned into traditional values after 2012?

Putin was always a conservative and Russian nationalist. However, while he never really approved of gays or liberals or intellectuals, he was also mostly content to leave them alone early in his rule. It was only in the late 2000s and early 2010s that he began to crack down on them, partly because he was riding a wave of popular conservative sentiment and partly because as he increasingly became confrontational with the west (Georgia etc) he felt needed to shore up the home front by removing dissident elements. After all, before then protests would be over much more esoteric constitutional issues. It was also useful for Putin to adopt the growing right populist movement as a kind of internationalist movement that Russian intelligence could move through, a replacement for Communism as a tool of Russian state interests.

> V. Could It Happen Here?

It can't but not for the reasons you say. Schumer actually did say on the news that he expected the security services to sabotage Trump with a kind of "ha ha" tone. The reason American security services can't do this kind of thing isn't the virtue of left wing leaders or norms. It's that they cannot expect the kind of deference the KGB required. When Democrats have tried to weaponize such institutions they have faced backlash. (And Republicans have generally not been able to for the reasons you say.) The reason the security services can't suppress the Republicans is that the Republicans have real power and will strike back. And the same for the Democrats.

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“But also, the man who came closest to overthrowing Putin, Yevgeny Prigozhin, was Putin’s former cook! Again, this is pretty weird, but I don’t know what the alternative is. Some kind of conspiracy of Russian cooks?”

Prigozhin’s catering service was more a front for organized crime rather than an actual chef related thing. It is possible that a similar thing was true under the czars but I doubt it.

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Aug 3, 2023·edited Aug 3, 2023

> Also, it seems unclear whether you can disband the KGB.

Not quite the right framing of things. The KGB is *itself* very much continuous with the much earlier 'Cheka' set up by Lenin pretty much the afternoon after he seized power, to the extent that 'Chekist' is a widely-used informal term for the Russian secret police in the Soviet era and through the modern day.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chronology_of_Soviet_secret_police_agencies

Attempts to break, mitigate or modulate the power of the Russian intelligence agencies, or factions therein, by reorganizing them have a *very* long tradition in Russian politics.

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Typos: Gusinsky (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vladimir_Gusinsky), not Gulinsky; Chechen, not Chechnyan.

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Decentralization is America’s strength. A mayor of an American small town has more actual power than the governor of a Russian province. How a would a Democrat controlled FBI be able to bring Florida under control? How could a Republican Christian fundamentalist authoritarian take over Massachusetts? Russia started on the glide path to irrevocable decline when Putin neutered regional governors. Centralization has made Putin personally more secure but it has made the Russian state exceptionally brittle. One of the PRC’s strengths vis-a-vis Russia post Mao is that the Communist Party actually allowed significant power to stay in local hands. Unfortunately Xi has been busy centralizing which probably portends rougher times ahead for China.

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Aug 3, 2023·edited Aug 3, 2023

I'm reluctant to play the person instead the ball, but Masha Gessen isn't a brilliant choice for a biographer of Putin. The Gessen siblings come from a particular milieu of Russian expatriates in New York, strategically fostered by the nickel magnate Mikhail Prokhorov. He was a major beneficiary of the state asset fire sale during the Yeltsin 1990s, the end of which (and partial repatriation) is perhaps Putin's one genuinely positive achievement.

This isn't to imply that Gessen is a mindless mouthpiece of the oligarch, or that the book is useless. But the trajectory of making Putin appear as an inhuman cipher is rather locked in, and it takes away from the purpose of the Book Club, which I take to be an understanding of the autocrat in terms of external force vectors and available levers.

Perhaps Philip Short's or Steven Lee Myers's books might have been the better choice, a little more detached from Russian inside baseball. (Or perhaps inside basketball; there's a Nets joke in there somewhere)

Also:

"The standard position in the West is now that Putin orchestrated the apartment bombings himself - killing 300 Russians - as a justification for escalating the war on Chechnya and to make himself look good after he framed some perpetrators.

The plan worked. Putin won re-election handily. By the time people started questioning the official story, his power was already secure."

It's probably true that this mother of 'October events' was orchestrated. And it helped Putin's image as the securocrat candidate who was going to bring the terrorists to justice. It's not clear that it was necessary, however. The main factor was Putin's control of the media (Berezovsky's NTV in particular), as well as probably a bit of straight-up ballot fraud. It was not all that different from Yeltsin's victory over Zyuganov in 1996, except in intensity.

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Aug 3, 2023·edited Aug 3, 2023

Re: Putin being a terrible communicator, this whole Ukraine war strikes me as maybe now because of bad communication on Russia's part.

Russia amassed troops on the border and denied they were planning an invasion. The US says their intelligence says Russia is planning an invasion. The international community is...., skeptical!

If Russia really didn't want this war, it did a terribly bad job of getting that across. It should have said "Yes! Those are our troops! Yes! We will invade if you can't guarantee Ukraine will stay unaligned! Yes! We're serious!"

Unless of course it wanted to invade the whole time. That's what I used to think, but maybe Putin really is that bad at getting his message across?

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Can we get Huey Long for Dictator Book Club? ;)

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You said: "As for the Democrats, I think it’s against their ideological DNA to do Mafia-style killings. I’m not being some misty-eyed optimist here".

What?

Last century, there were tons of terrorist attacks and bombings from the revolutionary left, over 1,900 domestic bombings in 1972 alone, and the whole time the perpetrators were funded by the National Lawyer's Guild, getting funding and authority from the New York City government, and were entirely ignored, or even supported, by the mainstream media. Many of the worst perpetrators are still free and supported by the left: For example, Obama commuted the sentence of of Oscar Lopez Rivera, the leader of the FALN Puerto Rican terrorist group.

A summary of this is here: https://status451.com/2017/01/20/days-of-rage/

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This account misses something fundamental in my view. I myself was born in Russia and lived most of my life there, participating in some of the events described in the post, such as the 2011-2014 protests. What is really crucial for understanding how Putin came to power is *how bad the 90s were*. The GDP per capita fell by half (by way of comparison, the GDP per capita fell only about 25% during the Great Depression in the US).

It was not just economical too, a lot of people who used to have a stable or even respectable occupation (manufacturing workers, doctors, teachers, scientists) lost their jobs or saw their income evaporate. The amount of misery was simply enormous, and it explains the real support for someone who promised and seemed to deliver a measure of stability and even growth. This level of support is of course less that the percentage Putin gets in elections but it's real nonetheless. When I was an observer at the elections in Moscow, seeing the whole process at one polling station, Putin got almost exactly 50% and the next candidate got thirty-something.

The experience of the 90s also had another, more subtle effect. The people who were against Putin from the beginning and understood what he was up to were mostly associated with the "liberals" who were held responsible for the disastrous reforms in the 90s. Since they were almost universally hated, their calls were for the most part ignored. Now you might say that this is irrational - Putin was an active participant in the 90s looting, probably more so than many "liberals," but that's how it was felt.

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Still waiting for "Dictator book club: Caesar"

(only half joking)

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An investigative journalist named Much Guessing, eh?

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Typos: "There is no record of Spiridon passing any advantage on to his son Vladimir Sr, or of the Spiridon connection further Vladimir Jr’s career. It seems like a total coincidence. But surely the chance that the grandson of the chef of one Russian dictator becoems the next Russian dictator is millions-to-one."

"becomes" is misspelled. And "further" should possibly be "furthering"

Managed is spelled maanged.

I'll edit if I find more. Good article, as usual. This is a great series.

Edit:

"apeearances". Two of these have been within quotation. If they appear in the original, you may want to fix them or add a [sic].

"universtiy"

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Having worked in Russia several times between 1992 and 2018 I had to smile at Scott's "I don’t know exactly how he got the prosecutors and courts to do his bidding ... " Big part of the job of Soviet judges was to do the bidding of the prosecutors who did the bidding of the state! Of course, they would do the bidding of a president who actually paid them wages again (+let them keep bribes). True, some outright criminals* were given the position of prosecutors et al. under Putin, but the "judiciary " in Russia was never a "branch of power" to begin with. *See pic on Kamil Galeev's tweet https://twitter.com/kamilkazani/status/1498711038568640512

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Aug 3, 2023·edited Aug 3, 2023

Just a quick comment on one of the most striking coincidences in the post: most probably there's nothing strange or sinister about the Duma speaker's early announcement of the Volgodonsk explosion. There was a *different* explosion in Volgodonsk, much less serious (three injured, none dead), on September 12, 1999; it made the news but was never linked to Chechnya, it was a local crime thing and was quickly forgotten. Gennady Seleznev (the speaker) mentioned a Volgodonsk explosion on September 13, and most probably he meant that one.

Source (Russian only): https://ru.wikipedia.org/wiki/%D0%A2%D0%B5%D1%80%D1%80%D0%BE%D1%80%D0%B8%D1%81%D1%82%D0%B8%D1%87%D0%B5%D1%81%D0%BA%D0%B8%D0%B9_%D0%B0%D0%BA%D1%82_%D0%B2_%D0%92%D0%BE%D0%BB%D0%B3%D0%BE%D0%B4%D0%BE%D0%BD%D1%81%D0%BA%D0%B5

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Aug 3, 2023·edited Aug 3, 2023

On Putin and Russian Orthodox Church.

You already know about Putin's ties to KGB. What is missing is the links the ROC has to the KGB, and there are many.

Current Patriarch Kirill "used to be" a KGB agent, and there many other officials in higher hierarchy of ROC with that sort of background. And the previous patriarch Alexei was covering up for KGB aswell.

Corruption runs deep.

So it's only natural for Putin to ally with ROC.

Edit: fixed typos.

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> So could it happen here? Probably not. The closest US equivalents are the FBI and CIA.

> I absolutely believe the FBI is spreading fear of terrorism for their own gain, often crosses the line between monitoring extremists and entrapping/provoking them, and is part of the general censorship apparatus. But even their enemies don’t accuse them of the tiniest fraction of what Putin and his security services were doing.

This is a weird juxtaposition. The CIA does get accused of similar things.

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There's a graph from Scott's old Against Hijacking Utopia post showing the Russian GDP over time: https://slatestarcodex.com/blog_images/soviet_gdp.png . It seems like GDP fell by 50% under Yeltsin and then doubled back to the original again under Putin by 2007. Even if these statistics are partly fake, it seems like despite him handing half the jobs to his mates, Putin somehow got the Russian economy going again. If so, that may be another point why he was able to consolidate power.

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> I do think it’s a valid question whether, even if the allegations against Trump are fair, we ought not to make them, as part of a norm of making it hard to investigate enemies of the regime.

The counterpoint to this is that if the norm is "never pursue allegations against politicians of the opposite side, no matter how serious", that also weakens democracy, because it means politicians can essentially do whatever while in charge and have no retribution to fear even after they leave power. This is particularly critical here since Trump's alleged crimes are specifically about violating important parts of the democratic process (or, well, trying to), and doing other things which went against his duties and responsibilities as part of his job (such as being very cavalier with secret information).

The balance is hard because of course "whenever some guy leaves power, the next guy tries to find whatever dirt he can on him and puts him under trial" is not a healthy dynamic, but neither is Nixon's "if the President does it, it means it's not illegal" approach. There really is no other way than keeping powers separate, having checks and balances, and trying to stick to the actual rule of law as well as reasonably possible.

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Not sure if this is within your content policies, but it seems to me that if you want to cover someone like Putin, presumably reading more than one book is a good idea. Especially if that one book is written by a they/them Jewish journalist? Presumably, there is some christian gentile somewhere who wrote a biography from another perspective. Putin apparently wrote a book about himself in 2000 (https://www.amazon.com/First-Person-Astonishingly-Self-Portrait-President/dp/1586480189). Of course, I imagine it's full of lies and omissions, but maybe still worth reading.

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As usual for these sorts of posts, the Gell-Mann amnesia hits hard. Primakov wasn't a "communist opposition leader", he was another KGB goon leading a rival blob of unprincipled crooks and thieves. Russia wasn't "invading" Chechnya, it was quelling a rebellion in a province that had been a part of the country for more than a century. Members of the lower house of the Parliament are still (nominally) elected by the public. And these are falsehoods easily spotted off-hand by anyone who has more than passing knowledge of Russia, doubtlessly a thorough fact-check would reveal many more. But then again, the purpose of such books isn't rigorous analysis, it's vibes-based propaganda. The 'Russia bad' bottom line is taken for granted in the West anyway, and there's much more public demand for dramatic fiction than for getting details accurately.

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Damn, what a unlikely series of events

I mean Russia wasn’t likely to end up with a good leader, but I feel like this is one of the worst timelines for them

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"I think the allegations against Trump are mostly fair and there aren’t a lot of other, unfair ones I know about...the investigations of Nixon and Clinton went further, on less serious charges"

This is one of those statements that's made every now and then on this blog that, for me, puts into question the entirety of what Scott has ever written. Just immediately, Nixon and Clinton were never charged with anything. Nobody besides Trump has ever been charged. Are we using "charged" as a synonym for "accused of things we don't like"?

Without getting too deep into this because I have something else I want to talk about, we can take an example. Trump's first indictment was about paying hush money to Stormy Daniels in the process of committing another crime. It is the fact that it was in the process of committing another crime that is supposed to make Trump's actions actionable. So what is that other crime? Alvin Bragg does not tell us, assuring us that he is not legally required to. The very idea that this is in fact "mostly fair" is unbelievably ludicrous.

Anyway. What I really want to talk about is FBI. It's not true that their enemies never accuse them of the "tiniest fraction" of what Putin and his security service were doing. Off the top of my head there was the Waco incident, which detractors such as myself would describe as the FBI and others, murdering a bunch of women and children by setting the building on fire and deliberately blocking off all the exits, doing this only after they systematically tortured the building's occupants. Then most of the media heralded this as a great victory, and nobody cared until long after it was relevant. Perhaps this is uncharitable, but it's hardly a non-existent accusation.

If you want bigger, consider something I don't subscribe to but which is rather common, the "Bush did 9/11" sentiment. Generally nobody thinks George W Bush personally flew two planes into some buildings. Rather they think him and his intelligence apparatus enacted it, or at the very least knew about it and allowed it to happen.

Or we could go back further. Isn't it pretty common among some to say that Reagan and the FBI deliberately created the crack epidemic in the 1980's to target black people? Or how about the assassination of MLK, or Malcolm X? There is a presidential candidate right now who publicly and loudly accuses the American security apparatus of having assassinated American President Robert F Kennedy. This particular theory has become so common even I can feel myself getting pressured into believing it through sheer commonality.

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Quote: "The standard position in the West is now that Putin orchestrated the apartment bombings himself - killing 300 Russians - as a justification for escalating the war on Chechnya and to make himself look good after he framed some perpetrators....The plan worked. Putin won re-election handily."

This sounds like a conspiracy theory on par with "9/11 was an inside job".

It is an unlikely theory because it presupposes a scenario somewhat like the following: Putin and some cronies sit around a table, brainstorming how to improve their popularity come the next election. Someone - let's call him Vlad - says: "How about killing hundreds of innocent countrymen by placing bombs in apartments and then blaming it on terrorists?" To which the others, assuming they are sane people who know a minimum of decision theory, are likely to say things like: "Great idea Vlad, you are always very creative at our meetings. But have you thought of the risks? For starters, dozens of people beside us in this room must be in on this in order for it to work, such as those who place the bombs, and we must be certain they will never talk, ever..." And: "Isn't it easier to simply rig the election?" And so on. (Matt Taibbi wrote a hilarious story along these lines related to the "9/11 was an inside job" conspiracy theory).

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Make of that what you wish, but while I believe that there was election fraud, it was never enough to tip the balance in favor of Putin's opponents. He IS really popular outside of big liberal cities, and even there he has enough supporters (you might think the war has changed that, but no - most of those who were against it fled the country to avoid being mobilized, and now I predict Putin's support is higher than ever). That, of course, should come as no surprise - even the harshest dictator usually have to rely on support with a part of population (as well as a big part of elites) to continue his rule, and Putin is quite a populist when he can afford that - he wouldn't go completely against will of people, unless there is no choice (e.g. pension reform that raised pension age: it was very unpopular, but it seems obvious enough that with aging population and stagnating productivity, it was inevitable).

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I think this is a decent review and gives a good account of the book. It is interesting to read how Putin rose without trace, as it were, and you do have to wonder why a kid is so determined to become a member of the KGB - maybe there were family stories about Grandpa and what he did/saw/experienced, so young Vlad learned that the best and safest way (and maybe the most patriotic, who knows?) is to become part of the national security apparatus that seems to have the most power and that every Russian ruler needs.

"Putin’s official mother, Maria Putina, was 42 and sickly when he was born. Officially, Vladimir Putin was born in 1952 to Vladimir Putin Sr. and Maria Putina, two middle class laborers who had lost their previous two children in the hellish Nazi siege of Leningrad a decade before."

I think if you've survived the Siege of Leningrad, you have plenty of reason to be sickly in later life. If they had other children previously who had died, then maybe they tried afterwards to have more kids, and it's not impossible for a woman in her early forties to get pregnant. It is strange that there is little about his early life, but whether he scrubbed it (for whatever reason) or whether his family just weren't that notable and nobody had a reason to keep track of one more worker's kid in the mass of workers' kids, who knows?

"The closest MWAF comes to an answer is describing the near-trauma reaction that Putin and his colleagues had when the Soviet Union abandoned them. It suggests that some relic of the KGB ethos or network survived the fall of the USSR, hated its democratic successor, and got reconsolidated by Putin in his FSB. Their loyalty was originally to some sort of spirit-of-the-KGB ethos and not to existing democratic Russia, and it was simple for Putin to transmute that to loyalty to him personally, who promised to restore Soviet-era norms."

I think that's probably it: everything Putin and those around him had known had suddenly collapsed under them, they were left dangling without the ostensible authorities to whom they reported caring a damn about them, so huddling together in a spirit of "we can't trust anyone but ourselves" and putting your group first above the interests of anyone else makes sense. Why the hell should you care about the new 'democratic' Russia, when you know it's sham democracy and you've had proof that if anything goes wrong this time round, nobody is going to look out for you? If, as it seems from what the book says about young Putin, he really had some belief in the KGB, it makes sense for him to try and protect and preserve that, and when he gets into power to make the KGB his in-group, foster personal loyalty to himself rather than the state, and use that.

"Putin had sunk far enough to earn the same dubious honor as Stalin: praise from the New York Times."

Oh, that stings! 😁

"The standard position in the West is now that Putin orchestrated the apartment bombings himself - killing 300 Russians - as a justification for escalating the war on Chechnya and to make himself look good after he framed some perpetrators."

Entirely possible, whether this was the plan all along, or whether it was just the use of agents provocateurs (which the secret police in Russia had a long tradition of doing, ever since the Csars) finding patsies to egg on into doing something for which a crackdown would then be justified.

See the Dirty War in Northern Ireland, where British security forces infiltrated paramilitaries on both sides and were allegedly complicit in bombings and assassinations:

https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1057/9780230614727_5

https://www.historyireland.com/kitsons-irish-war-mastermind-of-the-dirty-war-in-ireland/

https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/the-udr-a-potent-weapon-in-britain-s-dirty-war-in-northern-ireland-1.4846097

"So could it happen here? Probably not. The closest US equivalents are the FBI and CIA. Right now they seem more aligned with the Democratic side of the aisle, so Trump or some future Trump would have a hard time winning their total loyalty. As for the Democrats, I think it’s against their ideological DNA to do Mafia-style killings. "

Bull Connors was a Democrat. Richard Daley was a Democrat. With the polarisation into Right and Left, on the left there are plenty of "Communism has never been tried!" ideologues who may (or may not) be in a marriage of convenience with the Democrats to get some issues, but really do hope to get power themselves and want the Revolution to come, and are happy to talk about "liberals get the bullet too". They do want a bloody purge of all the wrongthinkers.

I don't trust the Democrats to be any more pure than the Republicans, which means also that I don't think the Republicans are more likely to engage in "Mafia-style killings" regardless of the foofarah around Trump.

And yes, I too would love to know why Putin turned down that particular bribe. Had he been bribed earlier/better by a rival of Berezhovsky? Did he have some plan in mind that a first refusal might get him offered a second, bigger bribe? Was he trying to impress Berezhovsky, as you say?

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> a deliberately provocative punk band called Pussy Riot invaded a cathedral and sung a song whose chorus was “the Lord is shit”

This is incorrect. The chorus contains the words "Срань господня" which is originally a translation of English phrase "Holy shit" or "Holy crap". More direct translation back to English would be "the Lord's shit" (the 's indicates a possessive). The phrase is used to express displeasure at the situation in Russia.

The song is a "punk-prayer" and have religious undertones. It asks the Virgin Mary to relieve us of Putin in it's first line: "Virgin Mary, deliver us from Putin". You can probably see why the government wouldn't like this.

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Some comments:

1. The most likely reason why Putin was accepted to the university, in my opinion, is because he was quite decent in sports (his official biography says he twice won city competitions during his university studies), and Soviet / Russian universities sometimes admit and keep mediocre students who are good in sports to score some cookie points with the higher authorities (saw that during my studies myself). For what I know from my dad, who did his university studies in USSR in 70's as well, KGB used to approach students in their second or third year of studies, and they usually tried to enlist the most mediocre ones (which kinda fits Putin's description), so I think it's most likely he was enlisted to KGB while studying.

2. There was a high degree of continuity between KGB and FSB (with FCS in between): for example, two of the heads of FCS / FSB before Putin out of three also had a career in KGB, a better one than Putin had, though.

3. For explanation why Sobchak hired Putin: I heard a story that Sobchak was looking for a loyal subordinate and asked then-chancellor of the university if he had someone on his mind (it makes sense for Sobchak to ask that person, since he spent most of his career in the university), and the chancellor recommended Putin. It's worth noting that Putin was quite loyal to Sobchak and even helped him to flee Russia in 1997, when Sobchak was investigated for bribery. The death of Sobchak in early 2000 is, however, very mysterious and foul play was suspected.

4. For the search of Yeltsin's successor: the search was quite active from circa 1998 and many people were considered for the role (Nemtsov, Stepashin, the now-forgotten Aksenenko, to name a few). I think Putin got the job for two reasons: first, he was lucky to get not the financial crisis (which Nemtsov got), but the rebound from it, and second, he got the rally-around-the-flag effect from 2 Chechen War beginning.

5. The apartments bombing story is extremely murky, but I tend to see no conspiracy here, at least because by the time of the bombings Chechen rebels have already invaded Russia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/War_in_Dagestan_(1999)), which already makes an ample casus belli (and Chechnya was already bombed in retaliation). The strange story about the Volgodonsk bombing was due to another explosion in Volgodonsk on September 12 (which was due to the mafia wars).

6. I'd say that the key movement in solidifying Putin's power was not the electoral fraud in 2004 presidential election, but the parliament election in 2003 (where both fraud and spoiler parties helped to dilute opposition votes and gave the ruling party the supermajority later used to remove most of the election procedures and rig the election rules in favor of the ruling party).

7. For the culture wars: I think Putin uses it as a tool. Majority of Russians hardly believe in God, but find some kind of church desecration (and what Pussy Riot did would qualify in people's mind) to be disgusting. Thus, Pussy Riot action put the anti-Putin coalition in a kind of trap: on the one hand, their persecution was absolutely lawless (the corresponding penal code article is extremely broad in formulation, but is normally used to persecute people who aggresively brandish their weapons but don't attack anyone), but on the other hand, the majority of Russian citizens were not happy with the Pussy Riot actions. This allowed Putin to rebrand himself as a savior of the "traditional values" (whatever they are) and claim that the anti-Putin coalition wants to destroy them, getting over the general weariness of Russians with the ruling party (which could be noted from the 2011 parliamentary election: many of the regions where United Russia had bad performance do not have big cities in them).

Afterwards, this tool became too handy not to use.

8. Why this couldn't happen in US? The key reason, in my opinion, is not because CIA and FBI wield less power than FSB, but because the Russian Constitution of 1993 gives exceeding powers to the president even in its original form. By itself, it was a result of the constitutional crisis of 1993 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1993_Russian_constitutional_crisis), where Yeltsin first illegally dissolved the parliament, then ignored the decision of the constitutional court and his impeachment by the parliament to bomb the parliament into submission and later dissolution. I'd say that this coup was the key blow to the Russian democracy, all that happened afterwards inside Russia were just consequences (which obviously does not absolve the people who brought the consequences into life).

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Surely Spiridon Putin wasn't their only cook? Maybe it wasn't so impressive and one-in-a-million, maybe he was just one of the many staff?

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founding

> Why were the security services so pliant? The closest MWAF comes to an answer is describing the near-trauma reaction that Putin and his colleagues had when the Soviet Union abandoned them. It suggests that some relic of the KGB ethos or network survived the fall of the USSR, hated its democratic successor, and got reconsolidated by Putin in his FSB. Their loyalty was originally to some sort of spirit-of-the-KGB ethos and not to existing democratic Russia, and it was simple for Putin to transmute that to loyalty to him personally, who promised to restore Soviet-era norms.

I think this is too ideological and not personal enough; I think governments have historically looked like 'stationary bandits', or clubs of oppressors who extract rents from the oppressed. It doesn't have to be the case that they agreed on ideology or ideals in order to successfully work together to keep extracting rents.

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> The closest US equivalents are the FBI and CIA. Right now they seem more aligned with the Democratic side of the aisle

How did you come to believe this?

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FSB have a big inheritance from KGB, and in some way it related to current Ukrainian disaster.

Story is, that in USSR times GRU (main intelligence bureau) was super strictly forbidden from working inside country. So, when Union dissolved, they had zero assets and competency inside now-independent states - but KGB had, and by some institutional logic this foreign affairs were kept in FSB kingdom.

Skipping thirty years, it turned out that secret police and foreign intelligence require different skills, and based on completely wrong assumptions war have started. (My opinion - part of wrongness of this assumptions and many general mistakes of russian politic on post-soviet space - is that FSB wanted to keep appearance of new republics as "our backyard" to not lost this part of job and resources)

Also yes, Gessen is definitely a simpatisant of one of sides of Russian politics ("liberals", who, for american reader, is much more lib-rights than lib-lefts), and push theirs narratives - some critic of "FSB explodes homes" here in comments, also I don't think that 2004 election was rigged so heavy - Putin was popular, really popular. State Duma and local elections were much dirtier.

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Based on this review, I don't think that book gives justice to how Putin took over Russia. Moreover, imho that story is well known.

First, I'd argue that Yeltsin was also kind of a dictator, just incompetent one compared to Putin. For example, he sent an army against the parliament once during a constitutional dispute. Yea, it was a parliament controlled by pro-Soviet communists, but still.

In the 90s, living standards in Russia plunged compared to even the late Soviet Union times, plus, there was a huge crime wave and horrible war with Chechnya (which Russia lost). For first years of Putin's rule, there was a growth, improvements in security situation, and also something like reconquest of Chechnya - admittedly accomplished by putting friendly native warlord in charge of the rebellious province.

Growth was at least partially fueled by a global increase in oil and other commodity prices, but it should be noted that Putin's Russia weathered global financial crisis relatively well, and it got back to growth, until another fall of oil prices in 2014, which was by this time combined with first (post-Soviet) Russian invasion of Ukraine. Since then, living standards in Russia stagnated, but on a level which is highest in Russian history.

Putin could've decided to use political capital he acquired due to improvement in the quality of life of average Russians to move the country toward liberal democracy (which it wasn't under Yeltsin); instead he decided to make himself a dictator for life. But I don't think it is any great mystery to why; when given an option to be lifelong dictators, great many people would gladly exercise it.

Of course, there is a separate question on why was Putin specifically and not someone else chosen as Yeltsin's successor, but that is the realm of kremlinology, which is not a science with a good reputation, and I doubt that Gessen's explanation is especially insightful; it is also imho kind of beside point of this series.

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We do have a bipartisan norm of not going after office holders. Disproportionately this protects Republican officials because they do more illegal stuff. EG, Ford pardons Nixon; Bush (41) pardons Iran-Contra crimes; the Bush (43) torture program not investigated; approximately any national security whistle-blower / document leak case: whistle-blower is intensely persecuted, no action regarding the actual content and decision-makers behind it. Also, SCotUS ruling in McDonnell (VA - Gov) case makes it immensely challenging to prosecute corruption, and this could be fixed by amending the statute (ruling was statutory not constitutional), but no serious movement toward this.

It is pretty reasonable to say that a literal coup attempt exceeds the parameters of this norm.

Very surprised to hear that FBI and CIA broadly side with Democrats. I think they mostly work towards being independent (which seems to work pretty well see whistle-blowers above), but if there's a bias it's the other way. Unless maybe specifically in context of "Democrats vs Trump"? (Which is principally a matter of subordination to elected branches vs independence?) FBI Directors have ~always been registered Republicans and if they had political operative history it was in GOP-aligned orgs. CIA has a long history of interfering against left-ist regimes elsewhere, primarily under GOP administrations.

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Aug 3, 2023·edited Aug 3, 2023

The short discussion at the end of the FBI seems way over-indexed on an image of the bureau gleaned from the last 5 years of NYT headlines. I'd argue that COINTELPRO (most obviously the Hampton assassination), the Green Scare, Waco, and more recently the assassination of Michael Reinoehl (albeit by U.S. Marshals, not FBI) amount to much more than the "tiniest fraction" of the FSB's butchery.

I agree it's laughable that the Democratic Party, which can't bring itself to abolish the filibuster to confirm a few judges even after its opponents freely made up and broke norms to nab Garland's seat, is going to do DEI fascism. But there's absolutely a path from the American state's consensus around fanatical, violent anti-communism/anti-antifascism to Trump's proposal to steal an election and "use the Insurrection Act" to put down the resulting "riots", and this path could have been much clearer if Trump hadn't made the unforced error of setting himself against the FBI's self-important self-image out of pique.

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Good review. Was mostly tracking this post, up until the last 4 words of the last footnote.

> But I’m not sure there has ever been such a norm [against investigating the enemies of the regime] - the investigations of Nixon and Clinton went further, *on less serious charges*.

The charges against Clinton were less serious, certainly, bordering on "unserious". But the charges against Nixon were both shocking and important. That's not to contest the point that we ought to investigate fair and important charges against public officials or recently-ex public officials, regardless of whether it's unseemly and we'd prefer to not. But we can't make light of what Nixon did (e.g. turning the IRS into a political weapon), because it presaged what Trump tried to do and is still trying to do (and his allies still accusing Biden of trying to do it, without evidence, as a form of projection).

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<< Pussy Riot invaded a cathedral and sung a song whose chorus was “the Lord is shit”

No, no, no, it wasn't like that! The chorus was "срань Господня", it's more like, "the shit of Lord" or the "God's shit".

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"The more I think about this fact, the more confused I am. There is no record of Spiridon passing any advantage on to his son Vladimir Sr, or of the Spiridon connection further Vladimir Jr’s career. It seems like a total coincidence. But surely the chance that the grandson of the chef of one Russian dictator becoems the next Russian dictator is millions-to-one. I can only appeal to Pyramid-and-Garden style reasoning about how in a big world, we should expect many such coincidences."

One of the benefits of having a famous/bigshot ancestor, even if he doesn't contribute directly to your upbringing or pass on other direct benefits, is simply that it gives you the knowledge and affirmation that you, too, can one day be important in your own way, that "important" people are in the end just regular people. I mean, that's one of the big initial hurdles of becoming something; simply realizing that you *can* become something, that you're not just destined to being in the same rough social role as your lineage of peasant ancestors; I suspect this alone explains more than a bit of why wealth, fame and power tend to be in the same families.

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> So could it happen here? Probably not. The closest US equivalents are the FBI and CIA.

????

Its public knowledge that the cia sells drugs, and when a intelligence agency sells drugs it gets a "black budget", where part of its operations is separate from any sort of oversight, with people trained to kill, some hazing and you get yourself a deep state in the original pure sense. No different from the kgb surviving the end of communism.

The biggest difference here is that maybe the cia facing an americain public that's well armed, can't set up an extortion racket outside the courts, to then conquer the courts and all of society.

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The problem with calling Masha Gessen, "a journalist" is that she has zero pretense of objectivity.

She hates Putin and Russia as it exists today very openly.

So the question anyone reading her work should be constantly asking is: is any given thing she says real, or is it a Chalabi situation?

For those not familiar: it is 100% clear that the machinations of one Ahmed Chalabi feeding "Iraq intelligence" into the US government served as probably the single strongest plank for the US invasion of Iraq under the (now openly acknowledged) false pretext of WMDs. And it worked out very well for Mr. Chalabi - he wound up in a term as Prime Minister of Iraq as well as various other ministerial positions.

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> I absolutely believe there are factions among the Democrats who would love to restrict free speech, pack the Supreme Court, divert Congressional powers to the executive branch, and lots of other creepy authoritarian things. But I just can’t take seriously the idea of Joe Biden / Kamala Harris / Chuck Schumer ordering goons to rough someone up.

Conspicuously missing from this list: anyone named Clinton.

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Aug 3, 2023·edited Aug 5, 2023

I wonder if somewhere along the line, an established power broker (Yeltsin maybe?) favoured Putin mainly because he seemed like a non-entity who would be easy to control.

I can think of two or three examples in history where the same was assumed of a parvenu, but turned out to be a spectacularly bad misjudgement!

One such would be Cicero and co scoffing between themselves at the idea that young Octavian, "that boy" as Cicero called him, would ever be anything but a pliant leader. (Cicero wasn't just a long winded orator - He had been consul at some point, and was thus a senior senator.) But Octavian soon morphed into Caesar Augustus!

Another example of course was Hindenburg and his generation promoting and enabling Adoph Hitler, not because they liked him, quite the opposite, but because they were confident they could control him.

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> But also, the man who came closest to overthrowing Putin, Yevgeny Prigozhin, was Putin’s former cook! Again, this is pretty weird, but I don’t know what the alternative is. Some kind of conspiracy of Russian cooks?

Not surprising that cooks would be in a position to gain power. You need to trust your cook a lot if you don’t want to get poisoned, and if you trust them to feed you, you probably trust them to command political or military power.

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Masha Gessen is not by any means a good biographer of the guy, she is too emotionally opposed to him, maybe understandably so.

Try this Short’s Putin biography for a less partisan (although much longer and detailed) coverage of the man.

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I think it would be worthwhile to read a book about somebody in this club by an author that isn't completely opposed to the person they're writing about. Otherwise you'll only ever get one perspective, and it's a bit of an echo chamber.

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Boris Yeltsin gets short shrift in many of the comments. Please remember that without his decisions and courage in the fateful days 19-22 August 1991, the coup against Gorbachev would likely have succeeded, and we would highly likely live in a world where "actual existing communism" would still be the order of the day for people both in Russia, the Baltic states and elsewhere.

I remember an interview with him a few years after he became President of Russia. The journalist, hostile and obviously trying to set a trap, asked: "but President Yeltsin, what is your vision on behalf of Russian youth? Yeltsin, momentarily taken aback, became thoughtful. Then he said (quoting from memory): "A main problem of Russian history has been that rulers have had visions on behalf of our youth. My vision is to create a Russia where youth are free to pursue their own visions".

It is also hard to forget his reply when another journalist asked him about his opinion of Communism: "Communism was a very important experiment. It was a necessary experiment. The only tragedy is that this important experiment had to take place in such a big country."

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> But I just can’t take seriously the idea of Joe Biden / Kamala Harris / Chuck Schumer ordering goons to rough someone up.

I believe the accepted phrase is "Will no-one rid me of this turbulent priest?"

(There is a very convenient synergy between people too delicate to order violence directly and helpful folks willing to interpret indirect orders into existence.)

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>Over the next few years, Putin centralized authority further. He got Parliament to agree to constitutional changes where governors served at his whim, and members of Parliament were elected by governors. “The only official in the Russian Federation directly elected by the people was the President.” Then he made it clear that governors who kept his favor would keep their jobs, and vice versa

With all due respect this is absurdly out of context. How did Putin get this rammed through? Dictator magic?

Russia before Putin took power was in an extremely violent anarchy. Putin brought peace and relative prosperity. That’s why he has the support of the Russian people. Understanding how bad things got under yeltsin is critical to understanding modern Russia.

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I wonder how meaningful it really is to describe the people of Russia (even those who hate Putin) "liv[ing] in fear". We are talking about a culture with literally no experience of democracy or freedom (from the state) in its entire history. The closest they've ever come to anything resembling those things are, as I understand it: the absurdly corrupt, crime-ruled 1990s, the upheaval, confusion and series of coups and uprisings of most of 1917, and the independence-asserting boyars of the 1500s-1600s, pursuing their violent and corrupt self-serving feuds. The idea that the average Russian spends his or her life thinking "isn't it terrible to live under an aggressively strong government I must obey" is as plausible as suggesting that we in the west spend our lives dwelling on the stressfulness of finding jobs and trying to get rich, the loneliness of waiting often decades to get married, and the depressing emptiness of having to search for our own spritual meaning, with no guidance from society, that we may never find at all.

All of those stresses are obviously present for some people, to some extent. But the arch-traditionalist who claims that we're all constantly thinking something like "if only I lived in the 'natural' society of the past, where I do the job my father did, marry the girl my parents choose for me when I'm 15, and believe, like everyone else, the state religion of my society" is missing, first, the fact that we are used to our society and probably can't imagine living any other way, and second, the fact that we are constantly exposed to endless stories, from Shakespeare's romances to the Spanish Inquisition, reminding us of all the negative aspects of the alternative order of things.

I see no reason Russians wouldn't think in a similar way about a strong government.

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I think you're not good at understanding the perspectives of people in different societies. Liberals in general are also often guilty of this - they (at least implicitly) believe that everyone around the world is actually a democracy loving progressive, but some in many non-western societies they are forced to endure an authoritarian, conservative government and they hate this. No, this isn't how things are. Progressive democracy is the weird ideology, not the lack of it. People in Russia aren't democrats waiting to be freed from the oppression of Putin et al. They grew up in a different society with a different history and culture (and different alleles, but even putting that aside....), and they feel differently about things on average than people in America do.

Conservatives are less guilty of this. Not because they're so cosmopolitan and culturally sensitive - they just recognize that different cultures are different and that's just the way things are, even if they don't have detailed knowledge around any given culture.

Also, the alleged benefits of "progressive" "democratic" society may itself be a kind of cargo cult, wherein the type of PEOPLE who result in "democratic" countries being created/maintained are the type of people who build good countries, and these countries would still be much nicer places to live even if they abolished elections.

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As with all Russia explainers, I'm left with more questions than answers. But that's good in its own way - a subject I'll never get bored of or feel remotely competent to opine on...some giant regions of the world remain huge ???s on my map, no matter how many times I try to fill them in with Minimally Viable Model. (Also, it's hard not to reverse "man without a face" into "Faceless Man".)

Weirdly high number of typos in this post, definitely bugged me. Including in the block quotes, which is weird? I still enjoy Scott book reviews as a general rule, but polish makes good work great. Wish Substack had that functionality of being able to highlight text and enter a key combination to send off an Official Typo Report, it always feels weird to do so in the comments...

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“At each step in his career, he was promoted for no particular reason, or because he seemed so devoid of personality that nobody could imagine him causing trouble.”

I’m reminded of the Nabokov story, ‘Death To Tyrants,’ where the narrator reminisces about his pre-revolutionary schooldays with the current dictator (a thinly disguised Lenin?), with an emphasis on the curious, even pitiful, anti-charisma of the tyrant-to-be.

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There is a number of factual inaccuracies here which make me distrust the book overall.

1) "and members of Parliament were elected by governors" This is false. The upper chamber of Russian parliament is no longer elected directly, but the lower one is.

Context for non-Russians: I remember those reforms and Russians were overwhelmingly fine with them. Politicians were presumed to be useless and corrupt, so much so that it was not uncommon for the "against all" option to win in regional elections. A strong central hand was even somewhat welcome. "At least fascists made trains run on time" sort of thing.

2) "1990s St. Petersburg, one of the most corrupt cities in one of the most corrupt eras in one of the most corrupt nations in history" I take it Masha Gessen never lived in the developing world. As much as I disdain Russian politicians, corruption is the accepted part of power in most (all?) of the world.

One of the things that stunned me about living in <unspecified South American country> was how open elected leaders are about their corruption. At least in Russia, they bothered to deny it.

3) This makes Pussy Riot sound pretty innocent. My memory is, it’s not disruption of church service or blasphemous words that triggered most people. Russians are not _that_ religious. It was the nudity.

Imagine a pride parade, leather on, giblets galore, on the main street in a rural Kentucky town. Russia is more socially conservative than Kentucky. (And so is most of the world)

---------------

These and a few other examples of "artistic licence" make the book look like a wish-fulfilment fantasy of a disappointed Russian liberal. I fully expect Putin to be thuggish and corrupt and murderous, but that doesn’t mean he is literally the worst person in the universe. In fact, that makes him pretty unremarkable.

If you want to really know why Russians allowed him to keep power, see my "trains" comment above. 1990s was the time when many people had nothing to eat. Quite literally. You could have a job essential to the economy and not be paid for months at a time. That’s why for many people it was “80s = good, 90s = bad, 2000s = good”. Food, fuel, heating.

What brought food back? Not an expert, but three things off the top of my head:

- Putin was willing to strong arm local elected officials and oligarchs who made electorate unhappy. As opposed to the “chaos capitalism" of the 90s.

- More control of the media meant less news about starving coal-miners blocking rail lines in Magadan.

- Major surge in oil prices during 2000s helped.

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Aug 4, 2023·edited Aug 4, 2023

Scott is, perhaps too subtly, satirising a book length hit piece here, surely ?

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> Putin was a mediocre student; schoolmates who remember him at all recall that he was easily-offended, often got in physical fights, and always won.

I think that this sentence is missing something important. Are those former schoolmates on the record, or anonymous?

Imagine that they are on the record. How likely would they be to report that Putin had lost one or more fights? A supporter of Putin probably wouldn't want to embarrass him. Anyone - supporter, opponent, indifferent - would probably want to avoid being a target of retaliation.

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Did he really murder hundreds of Journalists?

Since 1991 38 journalists have been murdered in Russia, not all I guess by Putin.

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Oklahoma City, Ruby Ridge, and Waco have something to say about naive regard to the capability and intent of US security services, with or without a wink from Congessional fossils.

Analysis of Putin in a vacuum can be misleading. Keep in mind the opposing forces are communist military hardliners and western robber barrons. There isn't some alternate universe where Russia thrives in a Putin-free utopia, just other bad options.

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> he briefly got a position at the university as “assistant chancellor for foreign relations” on the grounds that he was one of the only people in the city who had ever been to a foreign country

Given that Leningrad (aka St. Petersburg) is the second largest Russian city - and former capital - this is exaggerating it quite a bit.

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>The standard position in the West is now that Putin orchestrated the apartment bombings himself - killing 300 Russians - as a justification for escalating the war on Chechnya and to make himself look good after he framed some perpetrators.

Ok so this is definitely not the "standard" position in the West, though it is a position with quite some supporters.

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> So could it happen here? Probably not. The closest US equivalents are the FBI and CIA. Right now they seem more aligned with the Democratic side of the aisle, so Trump or some future Trump would have a hard time winning their total loyalty. As for the Democrats, I think it’s against their ideological DNA to do Mafia-style killings. I’m not being some misty-eyed optimist here. I absolutely believe there are factions among the Democrats who would love to restrict free speech, pack the Supreme Court, divert Congressional powers to the executive branch, and lots of other creepy authoritarian things. But I just can’t take seriously the idea of Joe Biden / Kamala Harris / Chuck Schumer ordering goons to rough someone up

This line of thinking seems to miss the part where Putin wasn't a leader of an existing major party. As the book review just described, he came through the security services and took over from a combination of those connections and happenstance. The rough hypothesis to think about in comparison would be direct takeover by one of these agencies (yes, Putin left and did other things--but it seems like his connections did most of the heavy lifting) or one of their former leaders getting into politics. Which doesn't feel particularly likely, at least not so brazenly, but given recent history it doesn't seem completely out of the realm of plausibility for the FBI to interfere with elections in a way that would help their favored candidate get elected. False flags, trumped-up charges, etc.

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The extraordinary lengths to which some posters will go to map Biden over Putin are truly fascinating.

I wonder if it's just US chauvinism (everything is related to the USA), or something else about politics.

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Aug 17, 2023·edited Aug 17, 2023

I'm surprised you didn't mention the fate of people investigating the Apartment Bombings. From Wikipedia:

> Attempts at an independent investigation have faced obstruction. State Duma deputy Yuri Shchekochikhin filed two motions for a parliamentary investigation of the events, but the motions were rejected by the State Duma in March 2000. An independent public commission to investigate the bombings was chaired by Duma deputy Sergei Kovalev. The commission was rendered ineffective because of government refusal to respond to its inquiries.

> Two key members of the Kovalev Commission, Sergei Yushenkov and Yuri Shchekochikhin, have since died in apparent assassinations. The Commission's lawyer and investigator Mikhail Trepashkin was arrested and served four years in prison for revealing state secrets. Former FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko, who defected and blamed the FSB for the bombings, was poisoned and killed in London in 2006. A British inquiry later determined that Litvinenko's murder was "probably" carried out with the approval of Putin and Patrushev.

> Journalist Anna Politkovskaya and former security service member Alexander Litvinenko, who investigated the bombings, were killed in 2006.

A fellow named David Satter claimed to have been, by 2007, "the only person publicly accusing the regime of responsibility who had not been killed" (say, have any of you heard from David Satter lately?): https://www.nationalreview.com/2016/08/vladimir-putin-1999-russian-apartment-house-bombings-was-putin-responsible/

I understand that Putin's United Russia party thrice voted unanimously not to investigate the bombings - one of several tidbits I learned from this Frontline documentary on Putin: https://twitter.com/DPiepgrass/status/1507210690427174916

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Kind of related - does substack have tags yet? How soon are they likely to come? I'd love a "dictator book club" tag so I can just share that series of posts with select friends

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“But I just can’t take seriously the idea of Joe Biden / Kamala Harris / Chuck Schumer ordering goons to rough someone up.”

Oh, my sweet summer child! This was before your time, but I’m old enough to remember pre-senility Biden. He was an amoral narcissistic prick. I can totally see him giving such an order.

Here’s the thing: the democrats don’t bother “roughing someone up” they whack them with hellfire missiles and kill everyone in the area. Name Anwar Al-Alwaki ring a bell?

But there’s a key difference between Russia and the US. When Putin assassinates his own people he lies about it because he’s afraid of the reaction of the Russian people to such crimes. When Obama murders his own people, he brags about it, because he knows that Americans are bloodthirsty and power worshiping and won’t cause any trouble.

I hope that someday we can have the moral backbone of the Russians but it seems like that’s still a long way off.

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