How Evil is Putin? (3/3)

Putin’s Corruption: Myth or Reality?

One of the main themes used to demonize Putin in the West are the incessant insinuations that he is corrupt and that his corruption enabled him to build up massive personal wealth. But while these allegations are invariably presented with zero evidence, we do have some evidence that Putin in fact might not be corrupt after all.

I found the testimony from Sharon Tennison very interesting in this regard as well. Tennison was the founder and president of Center for Citizen Initiatives (CCI) and had worked in Russia (and the USSR) for 30 years. In the course of her activities, she has had at least one personal encounter with Putin and had over the years came to know many other American officials and businessmen who had worked with him. According to Tennison, none of those officials “would describe [Putin] as ‘brutal,’ or ‘thuggish,’ or other slanderous adjectives and nouns that are repeatedly used in western media.

Tennison first met Vladimir Putin in 1992 and described the experience in one of her blog articles:

“I met Putin years before he ever dreamed of being president of Russia, as did many of us working in St. Petersburg during the 1990s. … For years I had been creating programs to open up relations between the two countries … A new program possibility emerged in my head. Since I expected it might require a signature from the Marienskii City Hall, an appointment was made. My friend Volodya Shestakov and I showed up at a side door entrance to the Marienskii building. We found ourselves in a small, dull brown office, facing a rather trim nondescript man in a brown suit. He inquired about my reason for coming in. After scanning the proposal I provided he began asking intelligent questions. After each of my answers, he asked the next relevant question. I became aware that this interviewer was different from other Soviet bureaucrats who always seemed to fall into chummy conversations with foreigners with hopes of obtaining bribes in exchange for the Americans’ requests… This bureaucrat was open, inquiring, and impersonal in demeanor. After more than an hour of careful questions and answers, he quietly explained that he had tried hard to determine if the proposal was legal, then said that unfortunately at the time it was not. A few good words about the proposal were uttered. That was all. He simply and kindly showed us to the door. Out on the sidewalk, I said to my colleague, ‘Volodya, this is the first time we have ever dealt with a Soviet bureaucrat who didn’t ask us for a trip to the US or something valuable!’ I remember looking at his business card in the sunlight — it read Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.”

(Tennison, Putin, by Sharon Tennison 2014)

At least in this 1992 encounter with Tennison Vladimir Putin seemed to fulfill his duties in a professional manner without seeking kickbacks or favors from Tennison who was obviously well accustomed to that exact behavior from other government bureaucrats.

In the course of her work in Russia through 2000s, Tennison had interviewed many of her organization’s alumni about their work experiences. In those interviews, her last question was always about Vladimir Putin: “So what do you think of your new president?” She reported that, “None responded negatively, even though at that time entrepreneurs hated Russia’s bureaucrats. Most answered similarly, ‘Putin registered my business a few years ago’. Next question, ‘So, how much did it cost you?’ To a person they replied, ‘Putin didn’t charge anything’. One said, ‘we went to Putin’s desk because the others providing registrations at the Marienskii were getting rich on their seats.’ 

Next, Tennison tells the story involving Vladimir Putin and the former U.S. Consul General, Jack Gosnell. Gosnell had worked closely with Putin on various projects. In 2001, Putin’s wife, Ludmila had a severe auto accident and Gosnell took the initiative, without telling Putin, to arrange an airlift and hospitalization for her in Finland because medical care in Russia at the time was quite dismal. When he informed Putin about these arrangements, Putin was overcome with his thoughtful offer but insisted that he could not accept and that like other Russians, his wife would have to be treated in a Russian hospital.

Tennison then goes on to share another handful of testimonies from various American officials who knew Putin. One of them, a senior officer of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) had worked closely with Putin and told Tennison that none of his dealings with Putin were questionable and that the reputation he was getting from the U.S. media was unfair and undeserved. Another official who also worked closely with Putin equally reported that, “… there was never any hint of bribery, pressuring, nothing but respectable behavior and helpfulness.” Then there was an official from the U.S. State Department whom she had met as they were both invited to a radio interview about Russia. As they were chatting together after the interview, Tennison remarked, “You might be interested to know that I’ve collected experiences of Putin from numerous people, some over a period of years, and they all say they had no negative experiences with Putin and there was no evidence of taking bribes.” The State Department man unhesitatingly replied that, “No one has ever been able to come up with a bribery charge against Putin.”

Tennison also shares an interesting detail about Putin which she learned from one of her Russian friends, a certain psychologist named Lena, who went to school with him. Lena described Putin as a quiet youngster who was, “poor, fond of martial arts, who stood up for kids being bullied on the playgrounds.”Lena also explained to Tennison why Putin went to serve in the KGB: “She remembered him as a patriotic youth who applied for the KGB prematurely after graduating secondary school (they sent him away and told him to get an education). He went to law school, later reapplied and was accepted. At that time,” explained Lena, “… we all admired the KGB and believed that those who worked there were patriots and were keeping the country safe. We thought it was natural … to choose this career.” Thus, Vladimir Putin might have joined the KGB with the same essential motivation that induced many young Americans to join the American military after the September 11, 2001 terror attacks: a sense of patriotism and the desire to serve his country.

When I came across Tennison’s article I was still inclined to believe that Putin was corrupt in some way so her testimony came as a surprise to me. Tennison’s article painted a portrait of a man who is quite the opposite of a thug: Putin stood up to schoolyard bullies; Putin went to the KGB for similar reasons why many young Americans joined the US Army after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001; Putin took no bribes; Putin was courteous and helpful as a public official; Putin turned down privileged treatment for his wife after her car accident… The way Tennison portrayed Vladimir Putin was at odds with my stereotype of a typical politician. Still, her account seemed credible; perhaps Vladimir Putin really is a very highly unusual politician. Author Catherine Brown wrote of him as follows: “nothing which is known about Putin’s history and proud, workaholic character suggests someone to whom the things that money can buy have a strong appeal; a sybaritic Goering he is not.” (Brown, Deconstructing Russophobia 2016) I had my remaining skepticism largely dispelled when I came across another, nearly forgotten detail from Putin’s public service.

Kursk submarine tragedy

On the 12th August 2000, in the course of the first major exercise of Russian naval forces in more than ten years, Russian submarine “Kursk” sank, taking its crew of 118 sailors to the bottom of the Barents Sea. After the navy’s confused and ineffective rescue efforts and a series of misleading communications, on 22nd August Putin went personally to Vidayevo village in the Murmansk oblast to face the families of Kursk sailors. The meeting was organized in a large auditorium where the President faced a packed crowd of hundreds of desperate and angry people from the podium. Some of the journalists there were surprised that Putin dared to come face to face with these people, most of whom were still hoping against hope to hear good news that the sailors could be rescued. Putin however, knew otherwise: the sailors were doomed and there was no theoretical chance of their lives being saved.

Rather than deceiving the gathering with false hope, Vladimir Putin chose to tell them the truth:

“… None of our or foreign specialists can reach the 8th compartment in order to … lift it up. I am taking responsibility for my words, I could tell you a lot of things and run away. I am telling you things the way they are. This is the bitter truth, but it is the truth.”

This episode revealed an important measure of the man’s integrity and courage. As president of the Russian Federation, he could have done what a typical politician would: avoid the unpleasant gathering with some excuse, send a deputy along with president’s message of his profound concern, prayers for the brave heroes, and so on, and hide until the rage blows over. Instead, Putin chose to come face to face with the families of the sailors while their emotions were still red hot, in order to personally report to them the dismal truth.

The image of Putin, the man that emerges from these episodes is that of a principled and decent man. The character he conveys in public very significantly contrasts with the image of a typical politician. Putin in fact seems to hold a certain disdain for politics and has preferred to describe himself as a bureaucrat. In one interview, he expressed his distaste for political campaigning as a way to attain power: “One has to be insincere and promise something which you cannot fulfill… So you either have to be a fool who does not understand what you are promising, or deliberately be lying.” (Atkisson 2016)

This struck me as an earnest statement that happens to agree with my own view of politics and most politicians. In a broader sense, Putin’s political philosophy espouses a very circumspect view of state power. In a speech to the Federal Assembly in 2005, Putin drew on the philosophy of Ivan Ilyin to outline the limitations of state power:

“State power cannot oversee and dictate the creative states of the soul and mind, the inner states of love, freedom and goodwill. The state cannot demand from its citizens faith, prayer, love, goodness and conviction. It cannot regulate scientific, religious and artistic creation… It should not intervene in moral, family and daily private life, and only when extremely necessary should it impinge on people’s economic initiative and creativity.”

(Grenier 2015)

It is unusual for a politician to speak of such things as states of the soul and mind or the “inner states of love” to a gathering of other politicians but these ideas do appear to run as a theme in Putin’s conception of political leadership. At the 15th Congress of the Russian Geographical Society, he ventured the following statement:

“In general, love is the whole meaning of life, of being. Love of family, of children, and of the motherland. It is such a multifaceted phenomenon that is the basis of all our actions.”

(Holodny 2014)

To a Westerner, exposed to a relentless defamation of Vladimir Putin, this may be difficult to believe. After all, we know that he was a KGB agent, that he routinely ordered assassinations of his critics and political opponents, that he has made himself the wealthiest man in the world, and many other similarly negative “facts” about him. Most Westerners, particularly the intellectuals among them, have trouble conceiving of the possibility that their media reporting on Russia is distorted and that their views are mistaken and wrong. The notion that majority of Westerners could have a mistaken view about a country and its President who are subject to news coverage and commentary on a daily basis, indicates that this coverage is presented with a strong and persisting bias. If this is the case, and on balance of evidence it does appear so, we ought to examine the sources and the causes of this bias. But before we delve into this fascinating subject, we should return to Mr. Browder who has made it his life’s work to perpetuate and enhance this bias.

Editor’s NoteHow Evil is Putin (Part 3 out of 3) article is an extract from the Alex Krainer’s banned book Grand Deception: The Browder Hoax(The book is available through the Berlin based independent publisher the Third Alliance)