From KGB to dictatorship the story of Vladimir Putin

From KGB to dictatorship: the story of Vladimir Putin

The Russian President of Riga, Vladimir Putin, we have heard repeatedly, linked his own political and personal fate directly to the war against Ukraine. But who is really the ruler of the Kremlin, who has headed the Russian state on a pro forma hiatus since 2000?

Galia Ackerman and Stéphane Courtois try to answer this question with the “Putin Black Book” they published. Together with well-known authors such as Karl Schlögel and Claus Leggewie, they paint a multifaceted portrait of the Kremlin boss in 24 chapters, in which the development of Putin and the development of the Russia that interacts with him are examined from a wide variety of perspectives.

In this context, of course, Putin’s secret service background and socialization, already discussed many times, his relationship with Ukraine and his fear of upheavals in neighboring countries and so-called color revolutions are not overlooked.

But then the picture becomes more complex. For example, Cécile Vaissié focuses on Putin’s role in Russia’s circle of oligarchs. Antoine Arjakowski examines the role of the Orthodox Church and religion as a “political weapon”. Journalist and publicist Katja Gloger examines Russian policy from Germany, separate chapters also discuss Putin’s decisions for the wars in Chechnya and Georgia.

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Complete with articles on Putin’s crackdown on the media and NGOs, his networks in the West and his approach to hybrid warfare, the result is a comprehensive portrait – and a compelling picture of his rule under “dictatorship foretold”.

Fear as the most important export

The conclusions the editors draw from the big picture of the individual authors’ contributions and in which they address the wound of Western Russian politics are particularly worth reading.

Why, for example, “Vladimir Putin held a prominent international position for a good ten years?”, they ask. And they immediately provide the answer: “Certainly because his regime uses outrageous tactics that democracies are sometimes powerless to counter.” In just 22 years, “so-called post-communist Russia” under Putin has turned into a “destructive power”, its most important export, fear is

The more academic classifications also make the book different from some of the new publications that have been filling bookstores since the start of the attack on Ukraine on February 24, 2022. At the same time, there are some redundancies and long passages.

By the way, the title of the book is no coincidence. Editor Stéphane Courtois deliberately uses it to refer to his “Black Book of Communism” published in 1997. Courtois is a French historian who used to be a Maoist. In 1997, he became world famous for publishing the “Black Book of Communism”.

The book, also a collection of essays, describes “Crime, Terror, Repression” – the subtitle – of communist states, governments and organisations. The work attracted a lot of attention at the time, but it also generated violent backlash.

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Stéphane Courtois, Galia Ackerman: Putin’s Black Book
Piper Publisher
Munich 2023
512 pages
26.00 euros

On the one hand for the thesis that communism and terror have the same origin, on the other hand for the assertion that the communists killed more people than the national socialists. In the book itself, however, the authors consistently insisted on the uniqueness of the Holocaust and always emphasized the difference between National Socialism and Communism.

Galia Ackerman is a Franco-Russian historian, journalist and translator specializing in Ukraine and other states of the former Soviet Union. Among other things, she worked as a translator for Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was murdered in 2006.

International perspectives shed new light on issues that were already widely discussed in the German public sphere and also place new questions and perspectives at the center of the analysis. Of course, many of the authors come from France, but the perspectives of other countries and actors, such as Great Britain or Georgia, are not neglected either.

Above all, it managed to show the uniqueness of Putin’s system. Many of the authors deliberately distance themselves from conventional attributions such as “fascism” or “autocracy” and dedicate time and space to dissect the peculiarities that make up the Russian state and Russia today – from the influence of the Soviet past to social, political and geographical features.

Russia’s historical development, especially since the end of World War II, is ever-present, whether it concerns the church, the media scene or the party system.

Will the regime survive without Putin?

Anyone who has read a lot about Russia and expects completely new insights from “Putin’s Black Book” might be disappointed. The book also falls short of the publishers’ own claim of “a unique approach to the thesis [Putins] Methods and tactics are shaped by KGB values.

Because this thesis is neither new nor unique. Consequently, it can also be assumed that the power of the work will not reach that of the “Black Book of Communism”.

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However, the book’s 500-page structure into chapters, which represent each chapter, makes it easy to take the individual parts and aspects to heart again and again. In this way, the book can also serve as a reference work, as cross references to other authors, documents or publications invite further reading of the book.

Editors end up leaving arguably the most exciting question for last, one that certainly deserves more space and perspective: Would Putin’s regime survive if he were ever to lose office? The answers are definitely worth reading – but they’re certainly not definitive.

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