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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

POWER PLAY: State Trumps Individual in Putin's World




In the First Person: Conversations With Vladimir Putin," a book released this week as part of Putin's PR campaign, initially aimed to assuage the public's fears about the unknown face of the next likely president. In fact, it did quite the opposite. It disclosed to us the kind of Putin who leaves little illusions to those few in Russia who still believe in liberal democracy.


"You must hit first, and hit so hard that your opponent will not rise to his feet."Putin's praise of the power of violent force over the power of argument is the main theme of the book.


"In the First Person" reveals to us an ordinary man, born to a poor working family in a most nonelite kommunalka and whose dream since his school days was to join the KGB ranks so as to become part of the most powerful component of the Soviet ruling elite: the Chekists. As one KGB captain explained to me years ago, " I was the man. I could get my foot in any minister's door. Everyone was afraid."


Like most people with no access to books like Solzhenitsyn's "The Gulag Archipelago," Putin knew little then about the KGB's bloody past. His parents did not talk to him about their survival during the Stalinist years, and he was not eager to ask questions nor look for such books. In fact, books were not and are not part of Putin's life; he does not mention a single one throughout his lengthy interviews. But he does note that he learned his lessons from real life instead. Real life in a poor neighborhood led him to take up judo, a sport he values above all others: "A sport is only a sport when it has to do with sweat, with blood, with hard work."


During the years of perestroika, when newspaper pages were full of stories about the monstrous history of the Soviet Union, Putin served in East Germany, where he learned another kind of real-life lesson. There he first saw the fruits - as it seemed to him - of democracy: He watched a crowd storming the Stazi buildings. Those memories had a great impact. It became clear to him that the state he had served for 16 years had become so sick that it did nothing to help its servants overseas.


For the ordinary man who always felt he was not an individual but a particle of the state, it was a pain he has never forgotten. Putin's years in the democratic government in St. Petersburg did not cure him of that pain. On the contrary, it seems the real-life lessons taught him that individuals with democratic aspirations are weak and incapable, and no good can be achieved without the strong hand of the state. One must admit that these are the kinds of lessons many ordinary Russians also gleaned from years of reforms.


The book shows that Putin's best memories still belong to his KGB past. Putin appears to be the first top-ranking Russian politician who has acted as a vocal apologist for the KGB, and who feels no guilt for the deeds of his former colleagues.


Overall, "In the First Person" presents us a man of the Soviet ideological type, only stripped of communist camouflage. The ideology is one of an extreme statism pragmatically married to a market economy. The state comes first; individual freedoms and rights are of secondary value - inasmuch as they serve and contribute to the power of the state.


Oh, well.


Yevgenia Albats is an independent journalist based in Moscow.