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Prime Minister

Yevgeny Primakov doesn't talk about who his parents were or the circumstances of his birth and childhood. He won't respond to claims that his real name is Finkelstein. And he maintains silence when others point to evidence that he worked for the KGB in Cairo in the 1960s. David McHugh looks into what we do know about Russia's enigmatic prime minister.

It was the fall of 1948, and the dreamy-eyed, mustachioed 18-year-old from Tbilisi didn't stand out among his Moscow classmates. He wore the same Stalin-style military jacket that many of the other young men wore, although less out of solidarity with the Leader of the Peoples than postwar poverty. Hardly a warlike figure, the diminutive young man had been discharged from a Baku naval academy for poor health. Among the millions of Soviet citizens building their peacetime careers, Yevgeny Primakov was as nondescript as the three-story brick building on Rostokinsky Proyezd where he attended the Institute of Oriental Studies.

There were two traits, however, that set the future prime minister apart from the other students: a flair for networking and a stalwart adherence to secrecy. "To be among people all the time, to converse with them, to enjoy talking to them and to never tire of it f there is some kind of mystery here," retired KGB General Vadim Kirpichenko wrote about his classmate Primakov in a just-published memoir. "Probably it is an inborn trait, intensified by Caucasian hospitality and the southern way of life." But the same gregarious student always turned away questions about his past. "Zhenya did not want to talk about it and had a fierce abhorrence toward those who attempted to question him about anything," another classmate was quoted as saying by Argumenty i Fakty in January 1996.

These contrasting characteristics have only fed curiousity: Who exactly is Primakov, now arguably Russia's paramount leader? Where did he come from and how did he survive the changing political winds? Two recent publications have dispelled some of the obscurity surrounding the enigmatic prime minister. School friend Kirpichenko devotes an entire chapter to Primakov in his book "Intelligence: People and Personalities." And an article last month in Ogonyok magazine titled "Tbilisi Secrets of Yevgeny Primakov" is filled with early photos of Primakov and glowing reminiscences of a handful of family acquaintances.

The mysteries of Primakov, 68, begin at his birth. Biographical sketches in reference books say he was born in Kiev on Oct. 29, 1929, but they do not name his parents, describing them only as sluzhashchiye f a catch-all social category which simply means that they were not workers or peasants.

Some observers have noted the similarity of Primakov's name to primak, the Ukrainian word for "adopted son," and speculate he was adopted f perhaps after his parents died or were executed during one of Stalin's waves of terror. Others claim that Primakov is of Jewish origin and changed his name to get around Soviet anti-Semitism. If so, he would not be the first to have done so. Even in today's somewhat more tolerant Russia, former Prime Minister Sergei Kiriyenko uses his mother's last name rather than his father's, Israitel. New York Times columnist William Safire last summer wrote that the prime minister's real name was rumored to be the very Jewish-sounding Finkelstein. Another name offered by Primakov's acquaintances and Russian journalists is Kirschenblatt. Armchair psychologists in the anti-Primakov camp see geopolitical significance in the Jewish theory, and characterize Primakov's pro-Arab, anti-Israel policies as the mark of someone trying to bury his Jewish past.

According to Ogonyok, Primakov does not remember his father. The magazine wrote that Primakov's mother, Anna Yakovlevna Primakova, raised him from his earliest childhood alone in Tbilisi. Anna Primakova was a gynecologist assigned to a silk-weaving factory. The job came with a 13-square-meter room in a communal apartment f a generous allotment at the time f in a building that was once a tsarist general's home, with high ceilings and a broad marble staircase. Anna Primakova also ran a practice out of her apartment and was a popular figure in the neighborhood. "Zhenya would open the door and tell his mother, 'Sofiko is here with the baby that came out bottom first,' or, 'Nana again does not have enough milk,'" according to Ogonyok.

The young Primakov got good grades but never seemed to study, according to a classmate. He picked up a passable knowledge of Georgian f which has since grown rusty, friends say f and a smattering of Armenian. As a teenager in Tbilisi, Primakov also met the great love of his life and his future wife, Laura. She was witty and energetic, with a dry sense of humor. The niece of a well-known Georgian singer, Nadezhda Kharadze, Laura was herself a talented pianist and singer.

Primakov's marriage, which sprang from an innocent love for the girl next door, also turned out to be the start of his collection of political connections. Laura's father, Mikhail Gvishiani, was a KGB official, and her brother was Dzherman Gvishiani, the son-in-law of Alexei Kosygin, a Communist Party chieftain who would go on to become prime minister. "I wouldn't say it was a relationship that was that close. But it helps," said Yevgeny Volk, a political analyst at the Moscow office of the Heritage Foundation. "It put him into a circle where people know each other and where no stranger is admitted."

Yevgeny and Laura moved to Moscow, where she studied at a chemistry institute and he enrolled at the Institute of Oriental Studies. It is unlikely a good student like Primakov needed political help getting accepted there: In the late 1940s, with Stalin in power and postwar xenophobia rampant, interest in things foreign was not prestigious.

Primakov's specialty was Arabic, but he quickly grew tired of the tedious grammar. "To memorize, sitting in one place, and then, after taking a break, to once again engage in merciless cramming ? this was not for Primakov," Kirpichenko wrote. Instead, Primakov worked on his English and read extensively on politics and the social sciences. And he sang a mellow bass in a musical trio with two other classmates. Last summer Primakov's singing talent delighted officials and diplomats when he teamed up with U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright for a spoof West Side Story duet at a reception held by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

The seemingly carefree Primakov was also building up his network of friends, colleagues and advisers. At the institute he befriended Kirpichenko, who from 1974 to 1991 served as deputy director of the KGB's First Chief Directorate f the arm that spied on the West. Other classmates included future ambassadors in the Arab world, to Japan and to Indonesia, as well as the writer Yulian Semyonov, who created the Shtirlitz spy character f Soviet cinema's answer to James Bond.

Primakov eventually mastered Arabic and graduated in 1953. He spent the next three years as a graduate student at the economics department of Moscow State University, then went to work as a journalist for the Soviet foreign broadcasting service. He held a series of increasingly responsible positions, joined the Communist Party in 1959, and by 1962 was working for the Soviet Union's leading newspaper, Pravda.

Then in 1966 came a big break: a posting as Pravda's special correspondent in Cairo. It was not as prestigious as Washington, but it was a plum job for someone whose primary interests lay in the East and not the West. The Cairo bureau oversaw the entire region, with subordinate bureaus in Beirut and Damascus.

When Primakov arrived in Egypt, Soviet prestige and influence were at their peak under President Gamal Abdel Nasser. As the Pravda correspondent, Primakov could see anyone in Cairo he needed to, up to and including the president. Outgoing and fluent in Arabic, Primakov moved throughout the region, gathering influential contacts with the same charm and intensity he had used to win friends in school: Hosni Mubarak, who would go on to become a president of Egypt, Yasser Arafat, head of the Palestine Liberation Organization, George Habash, head of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Mustafa Barzani, a powerful Kurdish political figure, Jordan's King Hussein. And, in 1969, Saddam Hussein, then an official of the ruling Baath Party in Iraq.

It was in Cold War Cairo that Primakov refined his political creed: The Western powers, including and especially the United States f which he learned to view through the prism of Arab resentment and anti-imperialism f are Moscow's competitors. "The roots of [his] main foreign policy ideas can be found in his biography," the Heritage Foundation's Volk said. "Being for a long time an expert on the Middle East, he has his personal sympathies and his personal friends there, and many international events are viewed by him through this prism of his Middle East background."

If Primakov views the world through a Soviet-Arab prism, the world perceives him through that paradigm as well. The label "a personal friend of Saddam Hussein" is tacked after Primakov's name like an academic title, and there's no question the two are well acquainted. "The friendly slap on the shoulder with which Saddam greeted Primakov caused shock among Russian democrats and observers in the West," Izvestia correspondent Konstantin Eggert wrote about a 1991 meeting between the two on the eve of the Gulf War.

But Primakov's relationship with Saddam may very well be calculated. "Primakov's a very sharp character, and he knows what Saddam is," said Harvey Morris, author of a book on the Gulf War and a former foreign editor of The Independent newspaper in London. "Primakov would use the personal links to serve Russian purposes. I don't think Primakov would say 'Oh, I've always admired that guy Saddam Hussein, we really must back him.' I don't think it works that way."

Exactly how it does work is unclear f largely because Primakov's work in the Middle East is still something of a mystery. It is almost regarded as conventional wisdom these days that Primakov worked for the KGB during his time with Pravda. The KGB had a practice of using journalistic cover for agents abroad, and Primakov later became head of the SVR or the Foreign Intelligence Service f a job unlikely to go to someone without a longtime relationship with the spy world as Russia has little tradition of civilian leadership in intelligence. Primakov's KGB connection "is not debatable any longer, and he doesn't deny it," says Ariel Cohen, senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation in Washington D.C.

Some observers believe Primakov went as far as carrying out crucial undercover operations. J. Michael Waller, a Russia expert and the vice president of the conservative American Foreign Policy Council, alleges that Primakov was a conduit for money to groups using terrorism to advance the cause of a Palestinian state, including the PLO. "Russian, American and Israeli sources have told me the same thing, that he was operationally providing KGB money to Yasser Arafat and George Habash of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine at the time that they were blowing up school buses and doing their worst nonmilitary action, pure terrorist actions," Waller said. "It was Primakov who was the bagman, funding these guys."

Others, especially Primakov's associates, reject these charges. They say Primakov simply followed the norm for Soviet journalists f comparing notes and exchanging information with intelligence officers. Kirpichenko argues that because of regulations banning the KGB from recruiting agents from the Communist Party's Central Committee, employees of the party newspaper Pravda would have been off limits to the espionage service.

Yury Glukhov, who replaced Primakov as Pravda's Cairo correspondent, in an interview dismissed as "nonsense" all talk of Primakov being a KGB agent. Instead, Glukhov sees greater significance in Primakov's personal life during his time in the Middle East. They were, he suspects, the happiest years of Primakov's life. His family was with him f he and Laura had by then had two children, daughter Nana and son Alexander. His job was prestigious and interesting. And there was Cairo itself f hot and raucous, with its crowded streets and souk, nightclubs and decent whiskey (of which Primakov is said to be fond), and even belly dancing.

Moscow must have looked grim to Primakov when he returned in 1970. He and his family found themselves squeezed into a tiny apartment on the city outskirts, and Primakov complained to Pravda editor Mikhail Zimyanin. Zimyanin agreed to arrange better housing, but then changed his mind. The dispute dramatically altered Primakov's career, with far-reaching consequences for Russia. Primakov quit Pravda over the matter, according to Yegor Yakovlev, editor of Obshchaya Gazeta, who recounted the story in a recent column. Primakov accepted an assistant director's post with the Institute of International and Economic Relations, or IMEMO. "If [Pravda editor Zimyanin] had fulfilled his promise and given him the apartment," Yakovlev wrote, "where would Primakov be working now?"

Whether by luck or intuition, Primakov's career move turned out to be a winner. Until the mid-1970s, IMEMO had had a reputation as an academic backwater. But as U.S.-Soviet relations thawed, the Soviet leadership suddenly needed expert advice on foreign relations and arms control, and IMEMO leapt in to fill the academic gap. What's more, Primakov got a better apartment f on Leninsky Prospect, not far from the Academy of Sciences. Not surprisingly, he also used his academic post as an opportunity for more networking: He is reported to have supervised the dissertations of Saddam Hussein's cousin, Azerbaijan President Heidar Aliyev's daughter and Vladislav Ardzinba, the future leader of the breakaway Georgian province of Abkhazia.

Students at IMEMO found Primakov demanding, but also friendly, fair and willing to listen to opposing views. Duma Deputy Alexei Arbatov, a former IMEMO student, was among many who used the word demokratichny to describe Primakov, which is less a salute to his democratic convictions than to his knack for making underlings feel like something akin to equals.

But though he was advising the Central Committee and the Foreign Ministry, Primakov was not yet wielding real power.

Primakov's critics in the West make much of the fact that he authored the Soviet leadership's ideological justification for the disastrous 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, for example. But not everyone believes he really supported the invasion. "I think he understood pretty well that bringing military forces into Afghanistan was really a deadlock, a stalemate," Volk said. "But his opportunities to resist it were limited once the decision had been made." Later, as an adviser to President Mikhail Gorbachev in the late 1980s, Primakov advocated getting out of Afghanistan.

By 1985, Primakov was IMEMO's director. His son Alexander was also crafting a promising academic career f one focused on the West. Alexander had enrolled at the USA/Canada Institute as a specialist in U.S. affairs. He was "an organized, serious boy," according to Viktor Kremenyuk, a scholar at the institute, "not the spoiled son of an academic."

But the family success met sudden tragedy: Alexander died while still in his mid-20s. He was stricken by a heart attack while working as a volunteer to control crowds at the 1981 May Day festivities on Red Square. "Fellow volunteers carried Sasha in their arms to the Alexandrovsky Garden and laid him on a bench, but a long-awaited ambulance could not reach him through the crowds," according to Ogonyok. "Amid the ceremonial cheers and songs coming from the loudspeakers, Sasha died."

Alexander may have been the victim of a heart condition inherited from his mother. In 1987 Laura died just as suddenly from heart failure. Primakov's many friends rushed to comfort him. But, as Arbatov says, "In the end, a man faces such things alone."

The amazing thing was that after all this Primakov did not wilt, was not broken," wrote Kirpichenko of these tragic days. "On the contrary, it was as if he fought his misfortunes with a passionate desire to work, work, work." Primakov has since remarried. His second wife is Irina, a doctor, and he has two grandchildren.

Primakov's post as institute director in the 1980s put him in one of the most liberal spheres of Soviet insiderdom. It was here f and not in the party, the military or the Soviet Foreign Ministry f that economists, social scientists and foreign policy experts were brewing the ideas that later burst into the open as perestroika under Gorbachev.

As with Gorbachev, Primakov's patron at the top was Yury Andropov, the former KGB chairman who took over the Soviet leadership in 1982. Andropov brought a new current to Soviet political life, and his free-thinking advisers included future Politburo member Alexander Yakovlev, economists Leonid Abalkin and Nikolai Petrakov f and Yevgeny Primakov. When Andropov died, Gorbachev took over in 1985 and inherited his advisers. Primakov soon became Gorbachev's chief foreign policy adviser. As the Soviet leadership was driven into two camps f reformists led by Gorbachev and conservatives led by Politburo member Yegor Likhachyov f Primakov sided with the liberals.

But Primakov's liberalism remained firmly within Soviet and socialist bounds: reform, yes; destruction of the party and the Soviet Union, no. Primakov cast a futile vote against striking Article 6 from the Soviet Constitution, which ended the party's leading role in society by allowing multiparty politics. When the pro-Western, pro-democracy Interregional Group of Deputies held its landmark founding meeting in July 1989 at the Moscow Cinema Center, Primakov stopped in and made an off-the-cuff speech f keeping his options open. But he never went back.

Once again, Primakov's political nose served him well in the turbulent year that followed. He was smart enough to oppose the August 1991 coup and throw his lot in with President Boris Yeltsin. Immediately after the coup, Gorbachev replaced intelligence officials discredited by it and installed Primakov as head of the KGB's First Chief Directorate in September. When the directorate was split off as a separate agency in November f to become the Foreign Intelligence Service, or SVR f and Yeltsin confirmed Primakov's appointment in December, Primakov made a smooth transition from Soviet power to Russian power.

But whatever his political views, and despite his top security post, Primakov has shown no more real enthusiasm for cleaning up corruption than any other Russian political player. That same year as SVR chief, Primakov helped derail a parliamentary commission led by Lev Ponomaryov, a well-known journalist, that was looking for stolen Soviet bank accounts and other assets. The Ponomaryov Commission alleged that the Politburo had hidden as much as $50 billion abroad, and that the trail led to the Finance Ministry and then to the SVR.

The commission asked for Primakov's help in tracking down the funds. He not only refused, but also helped persuade Supreme Soviet chairman Ruslan Khasbulatov to shut the commission down, according to a 1992 report in Komsomolskaya Pravda. That doesn't mean Primakov stole the money himself, notes Waller of the American Foreign Policy Council, "but as intelligence chief he had all those things at his fingertips, and it was instructive that he wasn't interested in tracking down this money."

Primakov did clean up the SVR in other ways. He sharply cut back staff to reflect lost budget support and closed many overseas bureaus. But he also liberally handed out general's stars to those who remained, according to Argumenty i Fakty. And once again, he emerged a winner f this time from a high-profile failure, the discovery of Aldrich Ames as a KGB mole. Ames, the CIA's top Soviet counterintelligence official, had been recruited before Primakov became head of the SVR, and his 1994 arrest by the FBI represented a defeat for Russian intelligence. But psychologically, the news that Russia's intelligence community had so deeply penetrated America's was wildly popular among the Russian military and security elite f and Primakov's star shone by association.

By now, Primakov was wielding national political power. He launched a campaign against Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev, whose pro-Western policies had diminished the influence of Primakov and his network of contacts f journalists, academics and intelligence officers f who had staked their careers on ties with former Soviet client states. They knew much more about Iraq and Syria than they did about Denmark or Britain.

Primakov argued that Kozyrev's acceptance of NATO expansion threatened Russia's national interests. Once again, he caught the political wave. In January 1996, Yeltsin dumped Kozyrev for Primakov as foreign minister f a decision that stole the nationalist opposition's thunder in advance of that year's presidential elections. But if such calls for more assertive foreign policy played well at home, they raised hackles abroad. Diplomatic support for Serbia over its suppression of separatists in the ethnic Albanian province of Kosovo, and for Iraq in its attempt to lift UN economic sanctions imposed after the Gulf War, have been irritants in U.S. -Russian relations.

Primakov's long and steady climb to the top of Russia's political ladder has just one rung left. If Yeltsin dies or resigns before the end of this term, under the Constitution, Primakov would become acting president for three months until new elections. Many observers think Primakov has no interest in becoming president and would serve only as the honest broker supervising new elections f or whatever other political settlement would follow Yeltsin's departure.

But there are other scenarios, too, in which Primakov would join the short list of contenders. Once in the Kremlin, Primakov would be in the strategic position of being in charge of the presidential administration, the news media and financial resources that Yeltsin used to win the 1996 election. And what better time to tap his web of connections and rely on his knack for choosing the winning side.

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