Does a KGB Resume Make Putin a Stalin?
- By Yevgenia Albats
- Jan. 13 2000 00:00
The question on everyone's mind is who, in fact, is Vladimir Putin? Is he a democrat and a guarantor of civil liberties? Or is he a Chekist who, in the tradition of the KGB under the Soviet Union, doesn't give so much as lip service to personal freedoms? Will he sacrifice a ripening democracy to the notion of Russia's "greatness?"
The answer is: We don't know yet.
Yes, the savage war in Chechnya does nothing for Putin's image as a democrat. He should be criticized for it just like Boris Yeltsin was during the previous Chechen war. However, just because Putin was a KGB man in the past does not mean he will be the next Stalin.
I have investigated and written extensively about the Soviet KGB and I know that only those with a deliberate ignorance of its bloody past could have made a career in the political police, including the intelligence branch where Putin served.
I was a proponent of a bill in the early 90s that would have prevented career KGB officers and KGB snitches from taking high-ranking government positions or from holding elected office - the kind of laws passed in the Czech Republic and Germany. It was never passed in Russia.
The years of Soviet rule saw from 10 percent to 30 percent of Soviet citizens collaborating to some degree with the KGB and comprising its enormous shadow staff. In the late '80s and early '90s, some of Russia's self-proclaimed democrats were part of that staff.
That said, I cannot help noticing that much of the judgment heaped on Putin for his KGB past resembles much of the judgment that was heaped by the KGB itself on many Soviet citizens - myself included - back in the bad old days. People with "suspect" backgrounds - social or religious - or with no Communist Party card in their pocket were doomed to be branded as disloyal, bad citizens simply because they were different from the majority.
By virtue of Putin's role within the Soviet Union's most criminal institution (I say it once and I'll say it again), and because he has never been a member of any democratic party - unlike many of his colleagues - he is denounced again and again as Russia's next evil. Is this reallyfair? Don't we know, for instance, that some of those with a dissident past turned out to be provocateurs? Shouldn't we try to make a better argument this time?
Those who know Putin well almost universally describe him as an exceptionally honest man, modest in his private life and deeply religious. Not too much so for a man about to become president, and certainly not too little in a country where politics and the elite are so corrupt.
People do change. People learn. People read books, travel, engage in new activities, think about their past and present. And they undertake change. Putin has had 10 long years to judge his past for himself. Everyone is entitled to presumption of innocence. Everyone has the right to be assessed not just by their affiliation, but by their deeds - past and present.
Let's give Vladimir Putin a chance. Let's not relegate him to a corner where he'll have no reason to prove he can do better than many expect him to. Let's leave Russia some hope.
Yevgenia Albats is an independent journalist and political analyst based in Moscow.