Thursday, August 29, 2019

‘Putinburg’ of 1990s Prototype for Russia’s Gangster State, Zapolsky Says in New Book

Paul Goble

            Staunton, August 28 – In the 1990s, gangster-style criminal groups emerged across Russia, Dmitry Zapolsky, a Russian journalist now living in Finland, says in a new book Putinburg (London, PVL, 450 pp.); but only in St. Petersburg “were they created by the special services and established precisely as a counterweight to the classical criminal order.”

            What makes that situation significant, he argues, is that Vladimir Putin and his associates were involved in this effort and, having found it effective in the northern capital, extended it to the entire country when Putin became president( and

                Zapolsky, who lived in St. Petersburg at that time and met with Putin numerous times, provides numerous details about how this process occurred and why it was so easy for the security services to extend this gangster system for the enrichment of those in charge to the Russian Federation. 

            “Petersburg from the end of the 1980s through the end of the 1990s was a kind of offshore zone, a ‘gray’ zone through which passed practically all resources which could be freely sold in the West,” the journalist says. Those who controlled them didn’t pay taxes and worked hard to ensure that the money realized went into no one’s pockets but their own.

            “Putin was an operator of this system,” a cog rather than a top man. He had the chance to learn the ropes, and because of his professional background and personality, Zapolsky says, he very quickly figured out the system and how to make it work for him not only to amass wealth but to amass power.

            He served as an increasingly important “watcher” who ensured that all involved played by the rules and when he moved to Moscow and then into the presidency, he simply expanded that “watching” function, viewing financial flows to the state not as legitimate taxes but rather as “a share” of the wealth that he and those cooperating with him could appropriate.

            “Today,” the journalist says in an interview with Radio Liberty, “the system of Russia, economically and politically is a new horde, a horde of the 21st century.”  It has social lifts but they have to be purchased from those with power much as yarlyks had to be acquired from the great khan.

            “In his book,” writes in reporting on Zapolsky’s interview, the journalist compares Vladimir Putin with Gogol’s Akaky Akakiiyevich,” using this analogy to suggest that in St. Petersburg, Putin worked as a small and gray cog in a much bigger chekist-criminal enterprise. 

            Putin’s task then and now was “not to generate ideas” or control the battles for control but rather to ensure that the rules were followed and that he would be the arbiter of disputes.  This is normal work for the head of a security service,” Zapolsky says; but it is “hardly that of a public figure.”

            Putin wanted and wants everything to proceed according to his rules and with no change. As such, he really appealed to Russians who suffered mightily from the convulsions of the 1990s; but as the beneficiary of the system as it now exists, he has no interest in being involved in changing it – even when almost everyone else sees a need for change. 

            The Kremlin leader wants to be like the pilot of a plane who tells the passengers that “’we are flying at 11,200 meters. The temperature outside is minus 49. I wish you a happy flight!’ Exactly that is what Putin is doing,” Zapolsky says.   

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