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PUTIN: MAFIA OR SOVIET THROWBACK?

 

 

By Colin Graham

LONDON, 11 OCTOBER 2011 — Watching the clip on YouTube late last year of Vladimir Putin entertaining a gathering of Hollywood stars with a rendition of Fats Dominos’ Blueberry Hill during a charity event, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IV4IjHz2yIo you would be unlikely to conclude that the current Russian prime minister was about to re-form the Soviet Union. Imagining the likes of Brezhnev or even Gorbachev doing such a thing is tantamount to madness, though of course there was much amused astonishment when Putin himself took to the stage.

But with that performance and other appearances, such as the one at the biker gathering earlier this year, he did much to shake off his previous image as a dour former KGB man. No decrepit apparatchik, he, barely able to raise a wave to the military parades in Red Square, à la Brezhnev.

Yet with his remarks reported this week, that he wanted to encourage the formation of a Eurasian Union to strengthen economic ties among the countries of the former Soviet Union, birthday boy Putin — born 7 October 1952 — was accused by many of wanting to go back to the Communist past.

This was rejected quite persuasively by the observer quoted in The Guardian’s report on the matter, with Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, saying "The logic behind it is primarily economic, and in this sense it is different from previous attempts, which were political or just decorative, to show Russian leadership."

Putin himself pre-empted the suspicion that he plans to resurrect the Soviet Union once again and denied it forcefully, and he was correct to do so.

Ever since he came to power there has been a lazy notion among largely Western commentators that he wants the Communist period back in place. But while he is clearly an unpalatable leader in perhaps most ways, not least because he sees the presidency as his birth-right, rather than being a Soviet throwback he resembles more a pre-Communist despot, all sleek, superficial charm, where his ‘personality’ seduces the public into quiescence. That and the police and security services, in time-honoured fashion, not unlike the head of a ‘banana republic’ in South America somewhere.

The Guardian’s former Moscow correspondent, Luke Harding, has a book out now called The Mafia State in which he catalogues the psychological torment he received at the hands of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB). Just watching him reading an extract from his book makes for harrowing listening and whilst Harding tries to draw parallels between his experience and that as might have occurred during the Soviet Union, what is interesting is the title he has chosen for the book, with its reference to ‘the mafia’. Mafias and real totalitarian regimes, as existed during much of the Communist period, are incompatible. Stalin and Al Capone, brutal both, are still very different species. One is the state, the other resists it. Also, one kills millions the other perhaps hundreds, at most, not through any sense of morality, of course, but because of their scale of command.

And where did the U.S. gangster gangs used to get their succour during their rise to power, as depicted in The Godfather, for instance. In ‘banana republic’ countries such as Cuba, ruled then by Batista, and backed fully by the U.S.A.

But here is the rub. Putin, in his first years in power, apparently set out to crush the mafia that had been rampant during the Yeltsin period. And that time, while weak in political leadership, was when the Russian gangsters could do anything they wanted. Having introduced ‘shock therapy’ and swiftly dismantling Russia’s existing economy, Yeltsin brought financial ruin to millions. When I was living in St Petersburg in the dying days of his rule a not uncommon sight on the news was workers taking home boxes of gerkhins instead of pay and body outlines drawn after the latest gun-down by bandits. I also remember reading in the St Petersburg Times of an incident where one gang had been taken out by another by a drive-by bazooka hit.

While not on the scale of Luke Harding’s experiences, we westerners were then subjected to petty harassments, which became ever more irritating, such as being stopped on the street by uniformed policemen and having our money stolen. Myself and a friend were once even thrown into a police van and taken away for no reason. Yet this was during supposedly ‘democratic’ times in Russia.

Thing is, shortly before I arrived in St Petersburg, a certain man had been assistant to ultra-liberal mayor Anatoly Sobchak. That was Vladimir Putin.

A British  journalist based in Warsaw, Colin Graham writes on culture in Central and Eastern Europe. He has written on the Polish satirical cartoonist Marek Raczkowski, the Stanislaw Wieglus scandal, Real Estate Investments on the Montenegro Coastline, as well as  Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan for Culturekiosque.com.

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