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Susan Glasser: Hi, it’s Susan Glasser, and welcome back to The Global POLITICO. I’m delighted to be here this week with Anne Applebaum, columnist and author of a new book just out this very week in the United States, Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine. Anne, thank you so much for being with us.
Anne Applebaum: Thank you. Delighted to do it.
Glasser: Well, I have to say, when you and I were first talking many years ago about Vladimir Putin, I’m not sure either one of us would have predicted that he would become the longest-serving Russian leader since Josef Stalin, which makes you really an appropriate person both to talk about the history of Russia, but also to talk about what’s going on in Russia today.
Are you surprised? Will Vladimir Putin make it all the way to Stalin’s record?
Applebaum: Well, I didn’t like doing predictions. It’s certainly true that right now—and this could change tomorrow—but, right now there is no clear way for him to lose power. There seems little chance that a street revolution could unseat him; that’s just not how things are going to work in Russia. And it seems as if the very tiny number of people who control the economy and who control politics in Russia are loyal to him.
I can imagine a palace coup; I can imagine there are some people who don’t like—in fact, I know for a fact there are people who don’t like many things about how he’s running Russia now—but right now, I don’t see that happening. He has made life difficult for a lot of Russia’s richest men; they don’t like the sanctions; they don’t like the war with the West. Many of them have houses and families and businesses in the West, and so I can see them being unhappy. But at the moment, the political system is so constructed that it would be very difficult for them to leave. That’s not saying it couldn’t change.
Glasser: So, next year he faces reelection—I’m putting air quotes around that to a certain extent—but this is when his term is up, and he will have to run for another six-year term. He has not formally announced that he will be running, but the news did just come this week that there will be sort of the officially-managed faux opposition candidate, Kseniya Sobchak, whom I knew when we were based in Russia as sort of a Russian socialite and TV reality star, but she also, more relevantly, happens to be the daughter of the former St. Petersburg mayor, who was the one who really brought Vladimir Putin into politics.
Applebaum: You’re right to describe Russian politics as “managed democracy”—and that’s sometimes hard for outsiders to understand, because a lot of the forms of democracy exist in Russia, so there are elections; there is a press; there is a campaign, and so on. But the outcome of the campaign is never in doubt. So the campaign is manipulated. There is a real opposition in Russia. There are one or two real opposition figures who do want to change the political system, but they will probably not be allowed to run, and one way or another they will be prevented from being on the ballot.
There will instead be a number of fake opposition figures, one of whom is now probably going to be Kseniya Sobchak, which is an absurd idea. I assume she’s been chosen because just even the idea of her standing for liberals so makes fun of the idea of liberals and of liberal democracy—
Glasser: Right. It’s actually insulting to them.
Applebaum: Exactly. So, this kind of silly, silly socialite—oh, she’s speaking for the opposition—I mean, that makes the opposition look foolish, and I assume that’s the purpose for her being there. But, if Putin decides to run, which we are assuming that he will, there really isn’t anything that can stop him. He can manipulate the system so that he has not real opponents; he can manipulate the media so that nobody else gets any coverage. And then, if worse comes to worse, he can—as he has done in the past—just change the electoral results. So, it’s not like it’s going to be a very exciting election.
Glasser: So, tell me about Ukraine. Obviously, your new book is about probably the most defining chapter—aside from World War II itself—the most defining chapter in some ways of the Ukraine in the last hundred years, this terrible and bloody famine created by the Soviet regime, created by Stalin.
How much does that history still echo today, and what’s going on with the Russian incursion into eastern Ukraine in terms of the politics of this country that’s really struggled in its post-Soviet identity?
Applebaum: One of the things I’ve found when I was writing about the history of the famine, I kept finding over and over again weird echoes into the present. Stalin had a kind of obsession with Ukraine. He would write angry letters about Ukraine to his subordinates and he was very focused on Ukraine. And this was because in 1917, at the time of the Russian Revolution, whose centenary we are now approaching, Ukraine refused initially to go along with Bolshevism. First there was a Ukrainian national resistance—so a Ukrainian government of Ukrainian intellectuals who wanted to create an independent state. They were deposed by the Red Army.
Then, after that, there was a Ukrainian peasant rebellion against that Red Army and against the Bolsheviks, and there was massive chaos in Ukraine. It was very bloody and chaotic—1917, ’18, ’19—and at one point during the chaos the White Armies came back through Ukraine and nearly conquered Moscow again.
Stalin was obsessed with that memory of that period because that was the closest the Bolsheviks ever came to losing power, and he had this idea that chaos in Ukraine could unseat him in Moscow. So, Ukraine was never a foreign problem or a distant problem, it was kind of a domestic problem for Stalin.
Glasser: God, that’s uncanny to hear you describe that—
Applebaum: It is uncanny.
Glasser: That’s how Putin has been through the Color Revolutions, the Orange Revolution.
Applebaum: Of course, of course. And so, the way—as you and I both know—the way that Putin sees Ukraine now, when he saw all those young people waving the EU flag, standing on the Maidan Square, calling for democracy, rule of law, and anti-corruption, he thought this could be me. If you could have that kind of revolution in Ukraine, then, of course, you could have it in Russia. And this is exactly his nightmare, exactly that kind of revolution, exactly those kind of people, the EU flag and the whole thing.
And so he saw the Ukrainian revolution as a challenge to him personally, and I think that’s why he, in fact, over-reacted. I think his occupation of Crimea and then annexation for him was actually a mistake from Russia’s point of view. And then his invasion of Eastern Ukraine was also a mistake. He imagined that he would invade Eastern Ukraine and then eventually split the country in half, and he discovered that in fact, Russian-speaking Ukrainians are not Russians, and they didn’t support him.
Glasser: Well, that’s right. So, what do you think when you look at what is happening today? There’s this sort of standoff in Eastern Ukraine; they unleashed a war there, but it hasn’t led to a full Russian takeover. Then, at the same time, he took over Crimea, but now he has to pay the bills for it, and it’s almost sort of very up in the air, right?
Applebaum: As I said, I think he imagined it would be different. So, like many Russian leaders before him, he imagined that Ukraine was basically Russia, but they speak with a funny accent. Actually, it’s not Russia; it has a different identity. It has a very different language. Russians don’t automatically understand Ukrainian. And, in particular, the way Ukraine has developed over the last two decades is different from the way Russia has developed.
And he discovered that when he invaded Ukraine, he expected the Ukrainians to rise up and join him and say, “Yes, we want to be part of Russia,” and that didn’t happen. And they’ve been paying, actually, I think quite a high price for it, both in the ongoing war in Ukraine—which is I think increasingly unpopular in Russia—and also in the Western sanctions, and in general, the separation from the West that was caused by that. I don’t think it’s been—it was a, if you will, like so many of Putin’s actions, it was a tactical success because it surprised everybody when he did it, and shocked people. But it was a strategic error. Obviously, it was not good for Russia, but I suspect it wasn’t even good for him.
Glasser: You know, the other day, Putin had his annual speech to a group of outsiders, foreigners, including some Americans—the Valdai Club—and he gave a very, very strong and anti-American speech. It seems to be that to the extent he has a platform that he’s running on for 2018, it will really emphasize his countering of the United States on multiple fronts around the world.
He still refused to be personally critical of Donald Trump; he seemed to be almost sorry for Trump, as if Trump was being constrained here in the United States from acting on his desire for a Russian reset. But, beyond that, he was extremely—not only critical of the U.S., but suggested a worldview in which the United States will be the other and will be the thing that he runs on, refusing to talk about Russia.
Applebaum: Well, this is very good for him. I mean, this is how Russian propaganda works. It’s designed to show Putin as an important leader on the world stage, as the equivalent of the American president, much as during the Cold War, and it’s been designed very much to bring back that sense that the world is divided in half and Russia’s on one side and the United States is on the other, and they’re more or less equivalent. Of course, as you know, the Russian economy is about the size of the Italian economy; it’s very small, and Russia’s military force is larger than it was, because he’s been investing in it, but it still doesn’t compare to that of the United States, and his reach and aim still don’t compare.
But, the purpose of the constant conversation about America, which is—I don’t think Americans realize the degree to which they are the main subject of Russian television news. Every night there’s news from the United States and scandals about the United States, and every night the United States is shown to be an enemy of Russia over and over and over again. And this is, of course, useful to the Russian president, because it’s, we have this big and important enemy—you need me here to fight back. And he’s very much reprising that Cold War language. So, it puts us in an odd position, where it’s almost as if the Cold War is back, except only one side is fighting it.
Glasser: That’s a great way of putting it, Anne, I have to say.
So, that kind of brings us full circle, really, to the other part of The Global POLITICO this week, where we’re going to have a conversation with Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who represents this sort of beleaguered Russian opposition. He’s now in exile from his country, but—because that’s the other side of the Vladimir Putin coin, right? He has created a system in which there really are not only not that many other public voices, but those who are, are pretty weak, right? You know, we talked about Kseniya Sobchak.
What’s your view of Khodorkovsky? Who is he, and how does he fit into this broader picture of why has Putin stayed in power so long?
Applebaum: Well, Khodorkovsky, as you know, was an oligarch; he was a billionaire.
Glasser: Russia’s richest man.
Applebaum: Russia’s richest man. And he lost everything when Putin arrested him and took his company away, and essentially took his company away, sold it, and gave it to other people, and enriched them. So, he’s a complicated figure as an opposition leader, and people admire him—he was in prison, and he was very brave, and he’s written some good things since then, and so on. But at the end of the day, people see him as being part of the corrupt system that has done so much to undermine the Russian system since the 1990s, and I don’t know that he can ever be a really popular leader.
And I don’t know that since leaving Russia, I don’t know that he’s—after 10 years in prison—I don’t know that he’s ever tapped into anything very powerful inside the country. He doesn’t have a big following inside Russia.
There are other leaders who do, and the most important one, obviously, is Alexei Navalny. And what’s interesting about Navalny is that he has run a—not so much a pro-democracy campaign in Russia, but an anti-corruption campaign. He seems to have access to quite a lot of information about very senior Russians, including Putin, and including—
Glasser: Right. He’s a blogger-turned-activist. He’s a journalist, essentially.
Applebaum: Yeah, he’s a blogger-turned-activist, but he finds stuff and he puts together these very, very clever, very high production value videos which underline the corruption at the top of the system, and there are millions of people who watch them. Some people think he must have some kind of protection inside the system because he hasn’t yet been completely put out of commission; he’s allowed to go on. He himself has said he wants to run for president.
Glasser: They have banned him.
Applebaum: He’s banned from the presidential election, and he’s been in and out of jail, but anyway, he’s still alive.
Glasser: I know, it’s interesting. People here in Washington certainly consider Navalny to have real potential; in fact, someone recently said to me that there were elements of Navalny that reminded them of Boris Yeltsin in the last 1980s, when he left the Communist Party and briefly went into this opposition role at a time when no one really had done that and survived in the Soviet Union publicly.
Applebaum: He’s very impressive and he has also found ways of using the internet and organizing campaigns about things that people care about. What’s not clear is whether in this kind of system he can have anything more than an outsider’s impact.
Glasser: Yes. And Khodorkovsky in many ways is that sort of ultimate outsider, having spent 10 years in Putin’s version of the gulag. I find him to be an interesting analyst of the country.
Glasser: And so, let’s listen in on what he has to say, and then we’ll come back and talk about it.
Glasser: I’m Susan Glasser, and welcome back to The Global POLITICO. I am really delighted to have as our guest for this week Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who I think it’s fair to say has become in recent years one of Russia’s leading dissidents. He at one time, of course, was Russia’s wealthiest man. He spent a full decade, more or less, in prison, under President Vladimir Putin. He lives now in London, and he’s joining us in Washington, where he has come to a city very much in the throes of a Russia obsession, I would say these days.
So, I’m looking forward to talking about all of these subjects today with Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Thank you so much.
So, of course, I’ve known Khodorkovsky, I think, since very soon after I arrived in Moscow. At the time, you were still running Yukos. I never imagined that you would become a dissident, certainly. What does it mean to be a dissident in a Russian context today? Are you able—are others able, like you, to oppose President Putin inside Russia? Or like you, do you have to do this work outside of Russia only?
Khodorkovsky: Can you do this kind of work inside Russia today? Yes, you can. There are quite a few courageous people who are doing this inside Russia. For reasons that I don’t quite fully understand yet, Putin regards me as the most dangerous person, and when they were releasing me from jail, the only condition was that I leave the country. And when they did push me out of the country, to make sure that I wouldn’t come back, they opened up a criminal case against me—a new one.
Glasser: So, tell me about Putin in 2018. He’s just now become the longest-serving leader of Russia since Joseph Stalin. He faces re-election next year. Most people believe that even though he hasn’t declared, he will not only run again, but win another six-year term. How long would Putin be in power, and what changes do you foresee as he seeks to go about this re-election next year?
Khodorkovsky: Putin doesn’t conduct elections in the Western sense of elections. This is more accurately probably described as a plebiscite, where people are supposed to express their support for him. The Russian system is not unique in this respect, but it is rather interesting. Here, in the West, the impression that people have is that Putin runs the whole country. This is not so, at all. To a certain extent, you could say that he runs the Kremlin, and this means that it’s, in some situations, hard to tell whether it’s him running the Kremlin, or the people around him running him.
But one thing is for sure, though, that he certainly does not run Russia outside the inner beltway of Moscow. The pact that he has with those people who actually do run the various regions of the country is a rather simple one: you bring out the level of vote that I need for my purposes, and I let you do what you want to do in your region.
That’s how it works, and that’s how it’s going to work in these upcoming elections. But of course, people expect some kinds of decisions from Putin that will help them see their own future. A significant part of the people that he relies on are quite content with him telling them that nothing is going to change. But that part of the elite that does want to see some changes and improvements are going to expect him to, in his next term, bring Russia back into the club of the great powers.
Is he going to be able to do this without making any serious changes inside the country? I have very strong doubts about that. Is he prepared for major changes in the country? I have serious doubts about that.
Glasser: So, why do you think we here in the West, and in Washington in particular, get Putin so wrong? We’ve built him up into this huge figure, both in Russia, and now in our own politics.
Khodorkovsky: Part of the people here are interested in the same thing that Putin is interested in: Putin wants to have America as an enemy. Part of Americans want to have Russia as an enemy. It’s advantageous. The other part of the people are just ordinary people. And these people project onto big objects the kind of relations that they have with small objects in their everyday lives.
I am working in my office. I’ve got a boss who tells me what to do. He’s got a boss who tells him what to do. And above him is another boss who probably is telling my boss in the same way—or my boss’ boss in the same way what to do. In actuality, this is not the way things work. Management science says that that kind of a chain doesn’t work more than three levels up. But who knows that?
And that’s why people so easily accept this myth about this great and horrible Putin.
Glasser: So, what are the consequences of that, and what do you think of our new nachalnik, Donald Trump?
Khodorkovsky: The consequences, unfortunately, are quite sad. People take the lazy way out, and do not regard Putin and the Kremlin as the real enemy. They create a long but erroneous chain in their heads. Putin is the leader of Russia. Putin does X, therefore Russia is doing X, and Russia is our enemy. And so, we introduce sanctions, for example, against Russia.
This is a very bad oversimplification, because in the modern world, you can’t punish a big country. Even when you’re just saying that you’re punishing a big country. This leads to results that are the opposite of what you’re hoping to achieve, because people perceiving you as the aggressor start rallying around this person who’s the last person that they would ordinarily be gathering around. And a people who think that their problems exist because they’re under attack are able to, and prepared to, tolerate these problems way more than they would if they were aware that their problems are the fault of their own leadership.
Glasser: Well, it’s interesting. You made this point—I’ve heard you make this point that, in fact, Vladimir Putin is very familiar with this psychology, and that he basically creates problems in order to then solve them—creates conflicts in order to have this happen.
Khodorkovsky: Yes, Putin does do this, but we’re talking about something different here. What I was just saying is that by equating Putin and Russia, you are creating a situation that’s the opposite of what you would like to have happen.
Glasser: So, no sanctions if he invades Crimea? That was a mistake?
Khodorkovsky: No, that’s not so. There are people who are at fault for one or another problem. These people are very avaricious and self-serving. They’re not doing it just to do it; they’re doing it for the money. That money, they keep here. When you say, “We’re going to find these people, these guilty people, the ones who are not only breaking laws but are also hurting their own fellow country people,” and you say, “We’re going to punish them, specifically, that’s a step in the right direction.”
That decision that Congress took was a step in the right direction.
Glasser: You mean the Magnitsky Act?
Khodorkovsky: It’s the Magnitsky Act, and it’s also this recent decision to identify these people by name, and to take measures—individual measures against them. But a second very important element is half-baked in all this. And that is explaining to Russian society that your actions, in this case, are among other things, for the benefit of Russian society, because Russian society really doesn’t like it when it gets its money stolen.
Russian people really don’t like it when somebody does all these horrible things in Russia, and then can calmly go travel to another country and spend time there. And this is what needs to be done: the Russian people need to be told this, because in today’s world, just doing something is not enough. You’ve got to tell about it, too. If you’ve done something and haven’t told about it, it’s as good as if you hadn’t done it at all.
Glasser: Do you foresee President Putin going into any other foreign adventures, shall we say? Will there be more Ukraines and more Crimeas, more Syrias in the future?
Khodorkovsky: That’s impossible to predict. Putin has an obvious problem. His country’s economy is in stagnation. He needs to constantly be pointing a figure at who is at fault. America is at fault. He needs to show those fronts—those directions in which he is defeating America. In Syria, for example, in Syria, he is defeating America; not ISIS, he’s defeating America.
In Ukraine, he’s not defeating Ukrainians; he’s defeating Americans in Ukraine. Will he need some other place where he needs to show that he’s defeating America? I don’t know. Maybe.
Glasser: So, what about defeating Putin? What is the state, in your view, of the opposition inside Russia today?
Khodorkovsky: It’s not easy for the opposition. The authorities are doing quite a good job at controlling Russian society. Given that Russian society is not all that young, people prepared to put up a resistance aren’t great in number. But that apathy that we saw two years ago after the Crimean adventure, it’s passing. And so, now things that are important are, for example, the upcoming elections. It’s important that society demonstrate that it is not pretending that these elections are elections.
There are going to be municipal elections at the same time. Well, the same year, in 2018. And here, just the opposite; the people need to show that they are prepared to run their own lives, and are ready to vote that way, and this is possible because Putin cannot control every municipal election that takes place in the country.
Glasser: What is your assessment of Alexei Navalny? Does he have the possibility to become someone who unites the opposition inside the country?
Khodorkovsky: It’s a very erroneous strategy to try to push the Russian opposition to unite at this stage of the game. First of all, the opposition is addressing different parts of Russian society that have differing points of view. And besides, a united opposition is a nice big target that the authorities have a much easier time fighting. And besides, resisting an authoritarian regime with an authoritarian opposition merely means that, in the event of victory, you’re just doing yet another round of the same old, same old.
So, Navalny is doing a very important thing in his segment of society. Gudkov is a doing a very important thing in his segment of society. Yabloko, or more accurately, some of the leaders of the Yabloko party, are doing a very important job in their segment of the population, people such as Schlosberg. And our organization Open Russia is also doing important work with its segment of society, because those people who are focused on us, our segment, they’re not part of those other segments.
This creates the opportunity, subsequently, if and when a real opportunity to take power exists, or maybe at a local level some place, for us to unite and work on resolving problems together. But certainly, the thing not to do is to offer Russian society, as an alternative to an authoritarian Putin, somebody equally authoritarian. We’ve already had that experience in Russia with Boris Yeltsin.
Glasser: Are you saying that you think Navalny has some authoritarian tendencies?
Khodorkovsky: Every politician deep inside is authoritarian. If the person doesn’t have ambition, that’s not a politician. Society needs to put every ambitious, every effective politician into such a position that it helps—that this person helps improve society. That’s why I’m always talking about need to change the system rather than should we go with Navalny or Gudkov or Yavlinsky or Khodorkovsky. We all have our ambitions. We’re all ambitious people.
Glasser: So, it’s 100 years anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution. There’s a conventional wisdom that change in Russia only happens quickly and bloodily. Do you see the transition from Putin, whenever that occurs, as also following that pattern?
Khodorkovsky: Actually, I’m hoping that it won’t happen that way. If we talk about changes of power in Russia, that has occurred several times in the past century. After Stalin came Khrushchev, who implemented his legacy quite radically, one could say. But there was no blood, nonetheless. After Brezhnev came Gorbachev. I’m not talking about the ones who were in power for only a short period of time. Gorbachev, too, left a very radical legacy.
And then Yeltsin came. The blood that was spilled in that transition was exactly two people. So, we do, in fact, have a tradition of big changes without lots of blood. I’m hoping that we will continue this tradition.
Glasser: But not necessarily next year?
Khodorkovsky: Unfortunately, definitely not next year.
Glasser: Tell me, are you—how concerned are you for the safety of yourself and others who are doing this opposition work right now. You’ve been in prison, Boris Nemtsov was killed, Vladimir Kara-Murza who works with you and Open Russia has been poisoned not once but twice. How dangerous is it to oppose Vladimir Putin?
Khodorkovsky: It’s a profession that’s not without its dangers. But if you’ve chosen a job like that for yourself, you then subsequently shouldn’t spend your time every second thinking, oh my God, what might happen to me? Oh my God, what might happen to me? Your colleagues include quite a large number of war correspondents. Their job is not the least dangerous in the world, either.
And they do it. And as far as I know, they don’t get paid all that much, either.
Glasser: It’s a very specific form of work, that’s right. Being a dissident in Russia, or a war correspondent.
Khodorkovsky: Exactly. In terms of danger, I think these two jobs are very comparable.
Glasser: Mikhail Khodorkovsky, thank you so much for joining us. You’re in town in Washington from London today, headed off to the state department. What are you planning to tell them at the State Department? Will you let us know when you find out?
Khodorkovsky: Actually, what I’m hoping to do is to find out from those people who have now finally been approved and appointed, what their plans for Russia are.
Glasser: Will you let us know when you find out? We’re still waiting.
Khodorkovsky: I’m afraid that’s not going to happen this year.
Glasser: Well, on that note, thank you again, Mikhail Khodorkovsky for joining us, and thank you to all of our listeners at The Global POLITICO.
Glasser: All right, well, I’m back with Anne Applebaum. So, we just heard from Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and he has a lot of interesting things to say. I think the one that I keep coming back to, Anne, is something that resonates, having been here in Washington since the 2016 election, and watching the daily drumbeat of what on the surface are Russia, Russia, Russia headlines, but in some ways are really more about the United States and about our own concerns about what happened in the 2016 election than they are really about Russia. And Khodorkovsky talks about this myth about the great and horrible Putin that you Americans have now gotten yourselves into.
This idea that Putin is ten feet tall. There are a lot of Russians, not just Khodorkovsky, who think that. What’s your view?
Applebaum: I think he’s right in one sense. I mean, I think he misunderstands one thing. You know, for Americans, 2016 was the first time they’d discovered Putin, and so it’s a big deal here because most people—and of course, Susan, you are an exception—but, most people in Washington didn’t think very much about Russia before 2016, and the discovery, for example, that Putin—that the Russians run these disinformation operations inside Western democracies was brand new. Actually, it’s been going on for a long time. I watched him do it in other countries.
One of the reasons why I found 2016 so disturbing, and I wrote about it as much as I did, was because I saw very early that what he was doing was exactly what he’d done in Ukraine and what he’d done in Poland and what he’d done in many other places. So, some of the discussion of Putin is just us learning about something that other people already knew about.
I mean, I think it’s also true that explaining what happened in 2016 is only to do with Russia missing some of the—also misunderstands what it is that Russia does. And so, what Russia does is, Russia does not invent extremist politics. What it does is it identifies people who are doing extremist politics and then it funds them, or it creates systems of bots who retweet them. Or it finds ways of amplifying the extremists.
They support the far right; they support the far left; they’ll support separatists campaigns in Catalonia. I mean, the idea is—
Glasser: Yes, as we see with these Facebook ads.
Applebaum: Exactly. And then, here in this country is, they’ll support a Black Lives Matter group—a fake one—or they’ll create at the same time an anti-immigrant group. And the idea simply to identify whatever the existing fault lines, and then push them really hard. And, but of course, what that shows us is that the fault lines already exist, and that there are people willing to be taken in by these kinds of groups and organizations.
So, he isn’t inventing the problems that we have; he simply saw them. He—it’s not even he, it’s many people inside Russia. They are seeing them; they’re pressing them; and so, therefore to talk about this as if it was somehow Putin’s fault does slightly misanalyze the problem.
Glasser: Well, it’s interesting. Now, he also means it in the sense of how the system works inside Russia, you know, and Khodorkovsky makes the point—right?—in that conversation that here in the West the impression that people have is that Putin personally runs the whole country. It’s not so. To a certain extent you could say he runs the Kremlin. This means in some situations it’s hard to tell whether it’s him running the Kremlin or people around running him.
But one thing is for sure. He doesn’t run Russia outside the Garden Ring. The pact he has with those people who actually run the regions is a simple one; you bring out the vote; I let you do what you want in your region. Do you think it’s that decentralized?
Applebaum: So, this is exactly how the Soviet Union ran. I don’t think today’s Russia is exactly like the Soviet Union; but, the system has always been constructed so that local and regional leaders can also take advantage of their power, as long as they say the appropriate things and they do the appropriate fealty to Moscow. It was always the case that sort of regional barons had a lot of control.
I think it’s true—and again, I found this when writing my book about Ukraine, as well, and the Ukrainian famine. And whenever you write about Soviet terror, you realize very quickly that there are a lot of people involved, and the system does reward people who cooperate with it and collaborate with it, even those who do terrible things. But nevertheless, the willingness to cooperate and collaborate is also part of why it works.
And so I think, absolutely, Khodorkovsky is right to say it’s not just Putin; there’s a whole structure out there. A lot of the Russian economy is built around people who are one way or another milking the state and taking money from the state and recycling it into their private bank accounts. And there are a lot of people who are taking advantage of that, so it’s not just one person. It’s a kind of web of people doing that, and that’s how the system stays in power and how people stay in
Glasser: Well, we talked about, of course, your new book, Red Famine. I think there’s another book of yours that’s extremely relevant, especially to the conversation that we’ve been having about the intervention in the 2016 election, and these efforts outside of Russia. And that is your book on the Iron Curtain and the development, basically, of the Soviet post-World War II takeover in the countries of Eastern Europe.
Applebaum: Well, that was a book about how you undermine other countries. And in that case, in 1945, it was done with the backing of the Red Army and the NKVD and so on. But at that time, the Soviet Union had a very clear idea of what are the institutions in society that you need to undermine in order to take over a state, and they are the media—in that era it was the radio—well, you need a secret police force if you want to operate it, so special services. But also, young people, education.
They looked for what they believed to be the levers of control, the levers of political influence and ideological influence. And they still think that way. Of course, we’re now talking about the 21st century, in which they don’t have the Red Army occupying—they don’t even occupy Poland, let alone Germany or the United States, but they still often think along those lines. How do we undermine the institutions? How do we create the kind of lack of trust in the mainstream institutions? How do we undermine the idea and ideals of democracy? And they think very much along the same lines that they did in that sense, in 1945.
Glasser: Well, and then, this brings us back to my final takeaway from the conversation with Khodorkovsky, which is, they are also smart about what it takes to maintain power. And one of the things about the opposition in Russia, even in the early days of Vladimir Putin, before there was so much consolidation of authority around this new Putin regime. So there was, on paper at least, much more opposition. But they were always, as you know, very divided among themselves. They were either available for purchase; they were corrupted; or they were more interested in feuding with their rivals for power, and I really was struck by the fact that that continues to be the case today.
I asked Khodorkovsky about Navalny, who we were talking about, and his answer was so revealing. “Oh, we don’t need to be united in opposition today,” is what he said, right? And, guess what? You’re not going to take out somebody as powerful as Vladimir Putin if you’re not united with each other—people with whom you presumably mostly agree.
Applebaum: Look, this is a tactic of many dictators over many decades, if not centuries. I mean, this is what is wrong in Venezuela. This is what’s wrong in Poland—it’s not a dictatorship, but one of the difficulties that people have in resisting the illiberal government there is also the divided opposition. I mean, this is how Hitler won in Germany in 1933. So, dividing the liberals, or dividing the liberal democrats, or the anti-authoritarian opposition is one of the oldest tricks in the book, and Putin absolutely—he didn’t invent this at all, but he does it very well.
Glasser: Yes, it works. It works, absolutely. Okay. So, we have to wrap up, but I want to bring it full circle back to—you’re in effect, now, a historian of Stalinism and of Stalin. You’ve written your amazing book on the Gulag; you’ve written the Red Famine book. You’ve examined it. Are there legitimate analogies between Vladimir Putin’s rule over Russia today and what occurred during Stalin’s time? Or do you absolutely reject any of those comparisons? How should we think about him?
Applebaum: Putin is not a mass murderer, and you have to begin with that. But, having said that, he is a product of the KGB, and the KGB was, of course, the secret police force of the Soviet Union.
Glasser: The signal institution in many ways of the Soviet Union.
Applebaum: Yes, the political police, really, not the secret police, because they weren’t secret. And the mentality of the KGB and the way it thought and looked at the world, I hear coming out of his mouth the whole time. Even, for example, when he talks about Ukraine. And he talks about Ukraine as a destabilizing force—I mean, that’s how the KGB talked about Ukraine.
When he speaks about the political opposition, you know—in the KGB’s mind there is no such thing as legitimate opposition. There is only foreign espionage. So, he sees the whole—any opposition to him is some kind of foreign plot, and an American plot. That is KGB thinking. Very often he uses language the way the KGB would do, so he still sees the world in this kind of paranoid, Bolshevik, us against them, the only legitimate state is the one-party state kind of way. And I think that’s not trivial. I mean, that’s a very important part of who he is, and he is that mentality—which is of course, not just his, but many of the people around him and many of the people who run Russia still dictates the way the authorities see the outside world, and they see one another, and they see their own subjects.
So, I think there are a lot of interesting analogies, and it’s very important to understand the history of the Soviet Union in order to understand what Russia does today.
Glasser: Well, so you should go, and you should buy Anne’s book. I’m allowed to say that. She is being very modest and not flacking for it, but no, seriously, it is an incredible treat to be with you in person, visiting us from London, Anne Applebaum and Mikhail Khodorkovsky, our guests this week on The Global POLITICO. Her new book is Red Famine, and it’s out this week. Thank you so much.
Applebaum: Thank you.