On the last day of the 20th century, Boris Yeltsin stepped down as first president of post-Soviet Russia, and handed the reigns of the country to a former KGB officer named Vladimir Putin. Yelsin had been a reckless alcoholic who ran a chaotic administration that opened the doors for the most brutal members of his society to take over Russia’s industry and government. While Robert Mueller’s newly-released report (currently summarized in a report by the U.S. Attorney General) found no evidence of collusion by the Trump campaign to get him elected, it does confirm just how corrupt and expansive Putin’s kleptocracy has become.
The first time I visited Moscow was a couple months before Putin took office, and I was struck by what I saw: Western chain stores, clean roads, well-dressed people, and a semblance of peace and civility on the street. I grew up raised by my uncle Joe, who had spent five years in a Soviet prison camp in Siberia during and after World War II. He painted a picture of Russia as a grim country that fed him soup made from rotten cabbage, caused him to lose several toes from frostbite, and let his brother Rudy to die in his arms as he wasted away from tuberculosis. As a small child, I knew the few Russian words and phrases my uncle learned in prison, like golovorez, gavno, mudak, yob tvoyu mat. You can look them up, but trust me that Russians – who heard me as a pre-schooler utter these words – used to blanch. Needless to say, from an early age, I had developed an unflattering impression of Russia.
So in 1999, I was surprised by the country Russia had become in the years after the crumbling of the Soviet empire. At the time I was working on a 60 Minutes investigation about how the Russian mafia, colluding with authorities, had kidnapped a young Moscow businessman named Alexander Konanykhin, who was threatening the power grab of the new oligarchs. Konanykhin escaped and fled to the United States, and shortly after settling down in Washington, he began warning U.S. and Russian officials about the emerging “mafiocracy” in Russia. Then, a knock at the door – U.S. agents showed up at his Watergate apartment and took him into custody. It turned out the FBI had issued a memo to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (precursor to ICE), asking them to find an excuse to deport Konanykhin back to Russia. The FBI had just opened a bureau in Moscow, and Russian authorities presented them with a quid pro quo – get us Konanykhin back, or the bureau closes.
How far we have come from those early days when our own government felt comfortable colluding with Russia to repatriate – and presumably execute – a whistleblower of Russian corruption.
As soon as Putin took over, he ushered in a new era, and he has quietly pushed the envelope of what the world would accept from him and his country.
When Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine, U.S. and European leaders stood by impotently. Putin went from drawing a civil servant’s salary to amassing billions in wealth. If prominent Putin critic, Hermitage Capital Management CEO Bill Browder, was right in his testimony before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, Putin could be worth as much as $200 billion, which would make him the richest man on earth – and yet, Russia rarely makes the list of most corrupt countries in the world. And when – as U.S. intelligence agencies and the Mueller report make exceedingly clear – Russia manipulated the U.S. election to get Donald Trump elected, the most that came out of it was indictments of a couple dozen Russians who will never end up arrested or in prison.
While the 20th century was one dominated by the United States, the common wisdom is that this century is China’s. It is, after all, the most populous country in the world, an economic powerhouse that is exerting more political influence by the day. But Russia is a bad boy behind the curtains, powerless to make a real difference at centre stage, so it makes trouble from the sidelines. In addition to the now-well-established role Russia took in helping Trump get elected, it ran similar phishing campaigns against politicians in Germany and Norway. Russia funded far-right parties in the run-up to France’s last election, and it played a role in pushing England towards Brexit.
There is little doubt Putin has been behind these guerrilla political tactics, fostering chaos in many of the world’s most stable democracies. Like a punk kid making trouble in at the back of the classroom, he is quietly manipulating things and occasionally launching a spitball. Putin is the ultimate golovorez.