Attempts to understand Vladimir Putin and the Russian revanchism that now threatens to dismantle the basic security architecture of post–Cold War Europe ought to begin not with reference to Lenin and Stalin, or by digging into one’s dog-eared copies of books by Hans Morgenthau, Samuel Huntington, or George Kennan. To be sure, there is a Leninist component in Putin’s methods, but save that for a moment. At the outset, consider the possibility that the best literary guide to Putin, Putinism, and early-21st-century Russia is Mario Puzo.
Russia is, in many respects, dying. Alcoholism is rampant. Life expectancy is sinking: Today, a 15-year-old Haitian boy has a longer life expectancy than his 15-year-old Russian counterpart. The economy is stagnant, and the ruble is cratering. Russia imports potatoes from Romania. Churches are largely empty. Yet atop this rotting body politic is an oligarchic elite that functions very much like the Mafia families depicted in Puzo’s novel The Godfather and the films spun off from it.
These “families” are different, however, in that they were bred, not in Sicily or in Italian-immigrant neighborhoods in New York, but in the Soviet KGB — which, going back to its origins as Feliks Dzerzhinsky’s Cheka, considered itself an elite body, a cut or two above the usual political riffraff. Which, in the sodden political atmosphere of Leonid Brezhnev’s USSR, it was — and as such, the KGB was smart enough to figure out, rather before the rest of the Communist apparatus, that the jig was going to be up sooner rather than later.
So, in the waning days of the Cold War, KGB officers, far too clever to believe in Mikhail Gorbachev’s “reform Communism,” began siphoning Communist-party and Russian-state funds into KGB accounts, safely hidden offshore in banks run by the kind of men who ask no questions. Those funds, in turn, provided the financial leverage by which Vladimir Putin and some of his former-KGB comrades, taking advantage of the Wild West atmosphere in the post-Communist Russia of Boris Yeltsin, muscled their way into political power, allying themselves with other, previously non-KGB-related oligarchs and big-time Russian criminals — and then, when the time was right, liquidating those temporary allies, literally or through bogus criminal proceedings and long prison sentences. Thus Putin and his friends in the KGB, now-rechristened the Federal Security Service (FSB), drew all the strings of political power into their own hands while constantly enlarging their bank accounts.
No one knows for sure, but Vladimir Putin may well be the wealthiest man in the world today — a super-don, far beyond the ambitions of Vito Corleone, who has created something quite new on the global political landscape. Once upon a time, countries had intelligence services. Today, Russia looks a lot like an intelligence service that has gotten itself a country. And having done so, the FSB-dominated Russian oligarchy is buying up as much of what’s available — in London, on the Riviera, wherever — as it can.
Why has this vast theft of a nation’s wealth gone unchallenged? In part, because of Russians’ traditional deference to political power: The tsar — be he tsar, commissar, or president-for-life — is, well, the tsar. Putin has also been exceptionally clever in associating his regime with elements of traditional Russian civic piety, aided by the thoroughly corrupt leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church, which has been shameless in advancing Kremlin propaganda and lies and in lining its own pockets in the process.
Then there are the Russian mass media, which are completely under the thumb of the regime, which function as an extension of the state, and which have created an alternative reality so comprehensive that it’s not altogether clear what the Russian people do and don’t know — although if the available polling data are to be believed, the overwhelming majority of Russians have swallowed, without much pushback, the regime’s fictitious “narrative” of the immediate Russian past, the beleaguered Russian present, and the potentially glorious Russian future. That media barrage, combined with Putin’s appeal to classic Russian belief in the Fatherland and the fevered theories (propounded by some in the extended Putin circle) of a Muscovite “Third Rome” that will save Christian civilization, has done grave damage to Russian civil society. And because of that damage, Russian civil society has, thus far, proven incapable of producing dissident antibodies in sufficient numbers, and of sufficient strength to provide anything remotely resembling a check on Putin’s power, much less a challenge to it.
Overlaying all of this, however, is the Leninist add-on to Putin’s Mafia-like operation. Communism as an economic theory and a worldview died in Russia a long time ago. But Leninism is still very much alive there. And its most sophisticated and ruthless practitioner is Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.
A lot of what is wrong in Russian public life today can be traced to a chapel on London’s Tottenham Court Road. There, in 1903, the Second Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Party, having scuttled out of an unwelcoming Brussels with the Belgian authorities on its heels, split into two factions, with the minority, led by Lenin, styling themselves the Bolshintsvo (majority) — a nice signal of prevarications to come. The split came over the program laid out in Lenin’s 1902 tract What Is to Be Done?, which prescribed a revolutionary Marxist party that would function as the “vanguard of the proletariat.” That much of the program is well enough known. What is perhaps less known is that Lenin’s political program, which finds its incarnation in Putin today, was characterized by three other distinctive elements.
The first element was violence, including murder, which was to be strategically deployed both against class enemies and against insufficiently revolutionary comrades. The second element was the strategy of the lie. Revolutionary morality and the imperatives of conspiracy superseded the bourgeois morality of truth-telling taught by both biblical religion and classical antiquity — the “truth” was whatever served the aims of the vanguard party, irrespective of whether that “truth” had any tether to objective reality. And the third element of the Leninist method was a strict hierarchy: a “power-vertical” on steroids, in which everything flowed down and virtually nothing flowed up.
Each of these three Leninist elements has been on vivid display in Putin’s Russia. Boris Nemtsov, the political intellectual and reformer gunned down within sight of the Kremlin walls on February 27, was the latest victim in a line that also includes investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya (shot in 2006); former FSB officer and Putin critic Aleksandr Litvinenko (poisoned by radioactive polonium-210 in London that same year); and investigative auditor Sergei Magnitsky (beaten to death while in custody in 2009). The same commitment to violence as a method of advancing political aims has been evident in both Russian-occupied Crimea and Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine; there, it led to the deaths of several hundred Malaysian Airlines passengers in 2014, as it has to the torture of Ukrainian prisoners and the kidnappings that have characterized the struggle for Ukraine these past 16 months.
As for the lies, Putin’s regime has now reached such a level of automatic and refined mendacity that the immediate response to the Nemtsov murder in the Russian mass media, and from Putin’s epigones in the Russian government, was to suggest that this was a “provocation” staged by NATO, or Ukraine, or NATO-and-Ukraine, in order to destabilize the Russian regime. That Russian agitprop merchants still feel compelled to try such a rhetorical stunt, at a moment when NATO is virtually supine in the face of Russian aggression, suggests just how deeply the culture and (if you will pardon the term) the ethic of mendacity has sunk in, in Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
And then there is the matter of hierarchy. Putin is a true autocrat. The Russian cabinet means nothing. The Russian parliament means nothing. Lenin laid out the theory; Stalin perfected the model; but Putin has given it a 21st-century makeover, jettisoning Marxist economics, appealing to “traditional values” against Western decadence, and posing as the man who has restored the nation’s pride after the disaster of 1991.
That all of this has worked, thus far, is due to several other additions Putin has made to the Lenin method.
While Putin and his former-KGB cronies were stealing Russia and constructing that historical novum, a Leninist kleptocracy, they were also buying as much of the West, and Western influence, as they could get their hands on. Perhaps the most egregious example of this influence-buying involves former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder, whose personal exchequer is now being enlarged by his work for Gazprom, the Putin-controlled Russian oil-and-gas conglomerate.
Then there is Great Britain. Russian oligarchs are now major players in British finance, while their real-estate expenditures drive London prices through the roof and their children help keep Britain’s expensive public (meaning private) schools afloat. The British empire might once have been governed by the lessons learned on the playing fields of Eton; in the 21st century, more than a few of the lads on those playing fields are the sons of men who owe their wealth to the Putin kleptocracy, men who could bring down the British stock market in a day, had they a mind and a reason to do so. David Cameron’s government knows this; that is one reason why the United Kingdom, once an automatic entry in the roster of great powers, has been conspicuously absent from the Ukrainian drama.
Good Chekist that he is, Putin values the veneer of legality. Thus, one of his more imaginative scams was when, in 2008, he nominally stepped down as president and installed in his place the putatively pro-Western, less autocratic Dmitry Medvedev, to soothe Western concerns, which were coming to a boil. Putin, of course, kept the power-vertical focused squarely on himself as Medvedev’s prime minister, while Medvedev created the presidential Potemkin village that inspired gullible Westerners (and those looking for any excuse to redress what they perceived as the unbecoming aggressiveness of the United States during the Cold War) to try to “reset” Western relations with Russia: people like, to take two prominent examples, President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Medvedev, of course, reverted to prime minister when Putin, having observed constitutional proprieties (another of his addenda to the Leninist playbook), was ready to once again be the boss in title as well as in political reality. Putin’s resets, it seems, are rather more effectively done than others’.
A last, and singularly sinister, element in Putin’s refinement of Leninist political methodology has involved his efforts to buy, through various fronts, as much as he can of the Western pro-life and pro-family movements. This is another genuine novum. Stupid businessmen and financiers are as old as Lenin’s famous observation, almost a century ago, that the capitalists would sell him the rope with which he would hang them. Historically ill-informed and ideologically blinded politicians are a lot older than that. But the idea that Western social activists committed to the defense of the traditional family, and to the right to life from conception until natural death, should claim to find an ally in a blood-soaked Chekist like Vladimir Putin — well, that is something different, and something ominous. That it has to do with Putin’s cronies’ spreading Russian gold among cash-strapped Western non-governmental organizations is not to be doubted. Those who fall into this trap were once known as “useful idiots.” Their utility may be marginal, in the larger scheme of things; the idiocy ought not to be in question.
Vladimir Putin is thus best understood as a Russian-based global Mafia don who has refined the Vito Corleone model with a Leninist political methodology, enhanced by the new propaganda methods of social media and by classic appeals to a stern form of Russian nationalism (which some might call paranoia). Reading Putin through that lens helps bring into focus why Ukraine has become such an obsession with Putin.
Putin is like a shark: He has to keep moving in order to stay alive, meaning to legitimate his rule. The Maidan Revolution of Dignity in Ukraine threatened to halt Putin’s forward progress by posing an alternative, and potentially attractive, model of 21st-century social and political life among the eastern Slavs: not simply, or even primarily, because it promised access to the cornucopia of Western consumer goods, but because it promised a public life cleansed of corruption, violence, lies, and authoritarianism. Thus, from Putin’s point of view, Ukraine would have to be destabilized, perhaps even rendered a “failed state,” by a combination of annexation (Crimea) and invasion (the Donbass), amplified by a barrage of disinformation and lies, all wrapped in the mantle of a mythic, spiritually defined “Russian world” for which Moscow had a special, historic responsibility.
And that is why Putin must be stopped in Ukraine. First, because he has violated every norm of international law by using armed force to change an international border — and by doing so has put the already ramshackle structure of world order in grave jeopardy. Second, because Ukraine does offer a post-Communist model in Eastern Europe that deserves the support of the West, for which Ukraine has begged — too often in vain. And third, because Putin, having successfully destabilized Ukraine and having successfully prevented the political, social, and cultural consolidation of the Maidan Revolution of Dignity, will next turn his attention to the Baltic states, thus putting NATO in grave jeopardy. In the Baltic republics, Putin’s minions are already at work sowing ethnic discord and forming bogus front organizations that will soon be clamoring for fraternal assistance from Moscow, even as his air force conducts provocative overflights in the airspace of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania and his regime brings economic pressure to bear by conducting a virtual blockade of the Lithuanian seaport of Klaipeda. Should Putin take a bite out of one or more of the Baltic states, the invaded state would rightly appeal to NATO solidarity under Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which stipulates that an attack on one member is an attack on all, requiring a joint response in defense of the attacked party. Then if NATO blinked, NATO would be finished — self-dismantled, in a denouement already being preemptively imagined by those European politicians now going wobbly, in public, over just how far eastward “Europe” and the “North Atlantic community” extend, treaty obligations notwithstanding.
Winston Churchill famously remarked that, when the German High Command put Lenin in a sealed train in Switzerland in 1917 and transported him back to Russia, it was akin to putting a “plague bacillus” into the “water supply of a great city.” Corrupt and kleptocratic regimes are nothing new on the world stage, and, while they are very bad for their own suffering people, they are not necessarily lethal threats to world order. Putin’s Leninist kleptocracy is such a lethal threat. Because he must keep going, he must be stopped: not only for the sake of Ukraine, the Baltic states, and the dying Russian nation, but for the sake of the minimum of world order required to keep the post–Cold War peace.
The idea of a new European war seemed inconceivable as recently as two years ago. It is no longer inconceivable; it would be an unmitigated disaster; and that is why Putin must be stopped now, by sequestering his regime as the first, necessary step toward regime change in Russia. One would like to think that there was some other way out. But there does not seem to be, for the new “plague bacillus” has spread and dramatic measures are required to stop its further progress, reverse course, and vindicate the victory of freedom in the Cold War.
— George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.