Vladimir Putin once said that he knew where Australia was but never thought about it. Australian leaders too have seldom had reason to think about post-Soviet Russia—until recently. But as Russia has become more ‘assertive’ (the fashionable euphemism for ‘aggressive’), Australian politicians have been forced to. And as almost all executive power in Russia is in the hands of Putin, they tend to focus on him.
It behoves us to try to understand Putin. His fondness for deception, casuistry and occasional lies notwithstanding (for instance, that no Russian soldiers were involved in the seizing of Crimea, and that none are fighting in Ukraine), his 15 years in power have given us a fairly clear idea of his psyche.
If Putin were to agree to describe himself in one word, his likely choice would be ‘Chekist’. This word has no English equivalent. Unpacking its meaning won’t tell us all we need to know about Russia’s president, but without that we can’t begin to decipher him.
From under the rubble of the dislocation, hardship, humiliation for some and liberation for others, of the collapse of the Soviet Union, there rose to power a group of intelligence officers, mainly from two of Russia’s various agencies: the KGB and the GRU, or military intelligence.
In this fateful shift chance was crucial: the family of the ailing Yeltsin chose Putin as his successor because they trusted him to protect Yeltsin and them. As a result, for the first time in its history, Russia came to be ruled by a secret policeman supported by a coterie of secret policemen. The group is opaque: secrecy is its stock in trade—and it’s good at its trade.
Putin and this ‘komanda’ (team), in power since late in 1999, may well remain in power for another decade at least. In Russia they are often called ‘siloviki’, from the word for ‘force’ (a category that is broader than ‘Chekist’). Those tough and competent men are Putin’s enforcers. Like Putin, most are from St Petersburg. Naturally enough, they share his Hobbesian world view (powerfully depicted in Andrei Zviagintsev’s 2014 film ‘Leviathan’).
As Soviet intelligence services were militarised—with ranks, uniforms and a martial ethos—they all have a military background and are trained in the use of weapons. Some have used them: Sechin, head of the Kremlin-owned energy mega-firm Rosneft and among those closest to Putin, fought in the Angolan civil war. When, years before he moved from St. Petersburg to Moscow, Putin was asked by an Australian foreign minister what his profession was he replied ‘I’m a military man’. He may never have fired a shot in anger but likes to be depicted in military fatigues and with guns, and revels in military pomp.
Working from the Kremlin, a mediaeval fortress, Putin and this group have built a system that’s an amalgam of the tsarist and Soviet institutions that made Russia a great empire. Its key features include: rule by a single individual; informal hierarchies of power but with no institutional division of powers; a powerful secret police accountable only to the ruler; and the concept that the people exists to serve to state, rather than the other way round.
So Russia has reverted to its ‘default’ condition: neo-feudal authoritarianism, with a centralised, personalised structure of power. All decisions that matter are taken by Putin, so Russian politics is largely a competition for his favour. And as one man cannot take all decisions, many are deferred and some just aren’t taken. Clearly, Putin believes this is the best way to run Russia.
The word ‘Chekist’ derives from the name given by Lenin to the force he set up to secure and protect Bolshevik power, seized in the coup d’etat of October 1917. The word’s resonance in Russian is dramatic: for some it encapsulates the glamour of espionage, the feats of Sorge and Abel; for others it has a baleful ring, recalling the reign of terror unleashed by Lenin and other bloodlettings, especially Stalin’s Great Terror of 1937-38.
Chekists see themselves as a warrior elite called upon to protect the Fatherland from its many foes, foreign and domestic. Today, foremost among those is the US, as it was in 1975, when a 23-year old Putin joined the KGB. Theirs isn’t a career but a vocation: they are the repository of the finest traditions of the Fatherland, above all its patriotic martial tradition.
Indeed, the Chekist concept of Russia has a mystical hue. With its glorious history, Russia is the highest of all values. True, even Chekists can err, so the innocent have sometimes suffered unjustly; but this should be weighed against the great cause of protecting Russia. As Putin told an audience of history teachers last year, ‘had the leaders (i.e. Stalin) not been so ruthless (i.e. in ‘repressing’ millions in the late 1930s), it is hard to say whether we would have won the war.’
So, in Putin’s Russia no calling is nobler than that of Chekist. The media, the arts and the Ministry of Education are encouraged to inculcate reverence for the security organs, retrospectively and in the present. Bookshops carry sumptuous editions that celebrate Chekist ‘victories’, whether in neutralising fifth columnists or outwitting the foreign foes that make Russia a besieged fortress. There’s even an annual holiday, ‘Chekists’ Day’, celebrated every 20 December, when Putin gives a solemn address to the Chekists in their redoubt, the Lubyanka.
When the visiting Australian foreign minister asked Putin what branch of the forces he served in, Putin replied evasively ‘I cannot say.’ But to a Russian minister he may well have said ‘I am a Chekist’. And a Russian minister would have taken note.
These days quite a few ministers are themselves Chekists: the sociologist Kryshtanovskaya, a consultant to the Kremlin, has estimated that one in four of Russia’s most senior state officials are either Chekists or siloviki. This is a prominence they have never previously achieved.