The Putin I knew

In my last post I drew attention to a strange schizophrenia in the way many commentators view Russia. On one hand, there’s what I will call model one, in which they blame the country’s problems and its supposed aggression on the authoritarian nature of Russia’s political system. On the other hand, there’s model two, in which they consider these problems to be the product of some supposedly innate characteristic of the Russian people – the ‘Russian soul’, as it were. Model one often takes the form of extreme Putinophobia – that is to say a tendency to blame everything one doesn’t like about Russia on the malign character of the country’s president. Model two manifests itself in sweeping statements about Russians, which if made about another people might be considered racist. The two models tend to go hand in hand, but they’re not easily compatible – after all, if it’s all Putin’s fault, then the nature of the Russian character is irrelevant.

This schizophrenia is on full display in a controversial article published yesterday in The New York Times. Entitled ‘The Putin I knew: the Putin I know’, it’s written by Franz Sedelmayer, a businessman who worked in the 1990s in St Petersburg, where he became well acquainted with the then deputy mayor, Vladimir Putin. In his article Sedelmayer recounts how Putin helped him set up his business. In 1996, though, Sedelmayer was a victim of ‘reiderstvo’ – raiding, or asset grabbing – when the Russian state illegally seized control of his company. Reiderstvo was pretty common back in the Yeltsin years, and it still happens, though one gets the impression that there’s not quite as much of it as in the 1990s and that Western businesses are safer than they used to be. Anyway, Putin apparently told Sedelmayer that there was nothing he could do to help him, and from that moment on their friendship was over. Putin changed, Sedelmayer writes. Previously, Putin ‘acted rationally and appeared to be sincere in his interest in St. Petersburg. He didn’t take bribes’. Now, though, he:

is in many ways similar to President Trump. Like him, Volodya makes decisions based on snap judgments, rather than long deliberation. He’s vindictive and petty. He holds grudges and deeply hates being made fun of. He is said to dislike long, complicated briefings and to find reading policy papers onerous.

Like Mr. Trump, the Mr. Putin I know reacts to events instead of proactively developing a long-term strategy. But in sophistication, he is very different. A former K.G.B. officer, he understands how to use disinformation (deza), lies (vranyo), and compromise (kompromat) to create chaos in the West and at home …. More than anything, he wants to be taken as an equal or a superior, trying to destroy anything with which he cannot compete.

There are quite a few unsubstantiated assertions here. And it’s all very personal. As so often, Russia is reduced to Putin – when things happen that we don’t like, it’s Putin’s fault. Thus Sedelmayer writes,

President Vladimir Putin of Russia celebrated the New Year by having an American tourist, Paul Whelan, arrested as a spy. Mr. Whelan was in Moscow to attend a wedding. But Mr. Putin needed a hostage as a potential trade for a Russian woman with Kremlin connections — Maria Butina, who had pleaded guilty of conspiring with a Russian official “to establish unofficial lines of communication with Americans having power and influence over U.S. politics.” So Mr. Putin grabbed Mr. Whelan, who has not been released.

Perhaps this is accurate, but then again perhaps not. How does Sedelmayer know that Putin personally ordered Whelan’s arrest – ‘Putin grabbed Mr Whelan’ (Really? He did it himself?) – and that he did so as a hostage to exchange for Maria Butina? Butina isn’t even charged with espionage, and given how long she’s already been in prison prior to trial, she’ll likely be out fairly soon anyway. There’s no obvious reason to want to exchange her.

All this falls firmly within model one. But like so many others, Sedelmayer can’t resist explaining matters also by model two. As he writes:

A couple of months ago Volodya tried — luckily, he failed — to insert a crony as head of Interpol, the international police organization, presumably so he could turn it into his personal posse. Of course he did. Corruption is in Russia’s DNA.

Putin’s friends are rumoured to be holding billions of dollars on his behalf. But when he retires, will his friends give him his money, Sedelmayer asks. Probably not, he replies:

Somehow, I don’t think so. I’ve lived in Russia. Sharing’s not the Russian way.

‘Oh, those Russians!’ as Boney M said.

I have some sympathy with Sedelmayer. Like a lot of people in Russia in the 1990s, he got robbed. He has reason to feel bitter. But it wasn’t because ‘corruption is in Russia’s DNA’. And it wasn’t Putin that robbed him – it was Boris Yeltsin’s state. Sedelmayer would do better to analyze the causes of the anarchic lawlessness of the Yeltsin era and and to study the specific route that Russia took in the 1990s. That would require an approach closer to that adopted by Tony Wood in his book ‘Russia without Putin’. It would be more complex, but it would also be more helpful.

Instead we get a combination of model one and model two, both of which oversimplify. Mixing them together – by personalizing Russia’s problems while simultaneously blaming them on innate national characteristics – serves only to confuse and to reinforce simplistic prejudices which suggest that whatever differences we may have with the Russians are entirely their fault. But maybe that’s the point.

34 thoughts on “The Putin I knew”

  1. “I have some sympathy with Sedelmayer. Like a lot of people in Russia in the 1990s, he got robbed. He has reason to feel bitter. ”

    How do you know he was robbed? It seems (at least) just as likely that he was robbing people, and then someone put an end to it. Or that the whole robbery theme is a pure fantasy.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. His company was nationalized in 1994. He won his case in 1998 at the Arbitration Institute of the Stockholm Chamber of Commerce – so it was a court of arbitration, not a law court. After the Russian state refused to pay what the arbitrators had demanded, he pursued them in law courts around Europe in an effort to seize Russian state property. This resulted in a Cologne court ordering that an apartment complex owned by the Russian state be sold and the proceeds given to him. Or so says Wikipedia:

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I don’t think nationalization falls under the category of “raiderstvo”.

        The Russian version of wikipedia provides what appears to be a more nuanced account. He wanted a refund for repairs made to the building, but didn’t provide any documentation. And I’m guessing, the Russian government didn’t present their case at that Swedish arbitration entity.

        In any case, the guy appears extremely fanatical, spending years and dozens of legal claims to recover 2 million euro. What’s the deal with that?

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I sincerly doubt that Putin, in 1996 and without any “Hausmacht” (power base? I dont quite know how to translate this german political term) was in a position to interfere in large scale raiderstvo, particularly if elements associated with Yelzin (Krysha against the Yelzin clan was pretty much non existent, with perhaps the exception of the army) were actually responsible. How the hell is Putin in 1996 supposed to organize violence on, in this case a foreigners, behalf against people with probably better top level connections then he had? Perhaps if he calls in all of his outstanding favors, and then what? I also doubt that the “friend” thing was mutual.

    Raiderstvo also isnt a takeover by the “state”, at least is frequently it is a violent takeover by your concurrents, who later purchase a state legitimization for the raid. If they care about state legitimization at all.

    I also wouldnt be surprised if the business of this person grew to a size where serious Krysha was required (how much protection you need depends on how much you have, and also on how hungry predators are. Deteriorating conditions in the mid 90s resulted in hungrier predators), and this person simply didnt have much of an idea where to get Krysha, or erraneously thought that Putin could offer Krysha (90% certain that no he could not. I dont think he offered it either, although I wont discount that this person may have thought he had Krysha from Putin).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Indeed, reiderstvo is generally associated with private seizures of companies by rivals, but I don’t see why the term can’t equally apply to seizures by parts of the state apparatus. Sedelmayer’s particular gripe is with the Presidential Property Administration. Putin moved there in 1996, about the time Sedelmayer’s company was seized, but I don’t know the details.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. What, the presidential property administration?

        Well, that basically Yelzin-clan him-it-self. It would have required a pretty intense lack of self preservation instinct to try and do something about it.

        Seriously, 100% Putin could have done nothing about it.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Indeed, Mr. Schmeizer – a deputy mayor against the Presidential Property Administration? Not a fair match.


  3. I read this also, and was equally unimpressed by the author’s thought processes. Such unsupported generalizations and condemnation of an entire people would be considered shocking if applied today to almost anywhere but Russia.

    It may seem foolish to ask why the NYTs would publish such a poorly reasoned piece (as in: since when has their evidentiary standard been particularly high when it comes to condemning states that ‘defy’ US ‘leadership’, and Russia in particular?).

    But then it occurred to me that this piece has something in common with
    Masha Gessen’s recent essay that recently came out in The New Yorker. Note, to begin with, that Sedelmeyer doesn’t say we must forever loathe Russia because it conspired with Trump to steal the election and harm our Democracy — we just need — it is implied — to be enemies with Russians because they are who they are — just really bad people who always do bad things because corruption is in their DNA and they never share (in stark contrast with Americans, who never do bad things, or at least take care to make them legal first, or, even when they don’t first make them legal, at least make certain formal statements and gestures about liking legality and so forth).

    Gessen, for her part, explicitly dismisses the whole Russia gate narrative as something the smart set should no longer take seriously. Note however, that what Gessen giveth, Gessen can also taketh away. Russia did not collude with Trump, fine. Facts are facts. But, Gessen hastens to add, Russia is still a Mafia State.

    I think what we are seeing, in both these pieces, is a rhetorical pivot. It looks like the Mueller report in the end is going to come up very short. What was promised as a certainty for over two years will turn out to be almost nothing, a pile of Facebook ads and New Knowledge BS, not collusion. This absence must not be allowed to turn into an opening for a dialogue between two imperfect nations. God forbid. Therefore our periodicals of record must change tactics. Russia is to be loathed and feared because it is Russia, full stop. You don’t, after all, engage in renegotiating arms control treaties with a Mafia State. No, you press on, with Morality on Our Side.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve now read the Gessen article. I find it very unconvincing, as the notion of a ‘mafia state’ is another oversimplification to my mind. I also wonder how Gessen reconcile the idea of a mafia state with her claim that the Putin regime has seen a return to ‘totalitarianism’. The two don’t seem to me to be readily compatible.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. And what did Sedelmeyer do *after* the ’90s? How did his access to Putin change? Because in isolation, the quotes here read as if he’s yet another political has-been claiming “insider access” in a bid to stay relevant. (For one thing, there are simply too many buzzwords.)
    It’s of course possible for a leadership style to change over time (bearing the aging of the leader himself in mind), but Putin has always struck me as methodical and controlled, first-second-third term, consistent across speeches, video footage, and the (sparse) writing we have directly from him.
    But I’m no insider myself.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree, JT. My own study of Putin’s speeches (which is due to be published at some point by Europe-Asia Studies) indicates an extremely consistent line from 2000 to the present day. The tone has changed a bit – more irritation with the Americans, for instance – but the basic positions have altered very little.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. Paul: It is not meant to be thoughtful, I suspect, but rather to constrain thought. I am referring to both Gessen’s and the other piece. Before we go all on about how Trump and Putin have created Machiavellian horrors in their respective spaces, we might want to re-read, say, John Milbank’s (or Pierre Manent’s) writings on the essential and in fact defining influence of Machiavelli on the entire modern concept of the state. I quite agree that this concept needs rethinking, but to do a re-think, one first has to allow thought as such, which all these propaganda pieces are not interested in encouraging. One might also want to re-read sociologist Charles Tilly’s “War Making and State Making as Organized Crime.”

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Could you please leave the personal attacks aside and focus on any actual critique you might have on the article. The author is a very respected Russia scholar. What are your credentials?


  6. Interesting thing – author uses ‘Volodya’ which implies a close personal relationship and deep familiarity with Putin. Using such adress in a printed piece is simly offensive.

    Liked by 3 people

  7. “This schizophrenia is on full display in a controversial article published yesterday in The New York Times. Entitled ‘The Putin I knew: the Putin I know’, it’s written by Franz Sedelmayer, a businessman who worked in the 1990s in St Petersburg, where he became well acquainted with the then deputy mayor, Vladimir Putin”

    And now, Herren und Damen – an act of logic defying prestidigitation in two acts.

    Quote #1:

    “My trust in those early days was based on the fact that he acted rationally and appeared to be sincere in his interest in St. Petersburg. He didn’t take bribes

    Quote #2:

    “Corruption is in Russia’s DNA, as it is in Mr. Putin’s.”

    Also, as a bonus:

    “And at his request, I built, trained and equipped St. Petersburg’s first Western-style K.G.B. SWAT team, in preparation for the 1994 Goodwill Games there”

    Presto! Roll the curtains BSoD.

    P.S. This is the only picture from the illustrated book for the kids by Elvira Bauer, 18 y.o., “Trau keinem Fuchs auf grüner Heid und keinem Jud auf seinem Eid” (Nuremberg: Stürmer Verlag, 1936) that I can safely link here. One can recognize on it “a valiant man” (c), the gauleiter of Nuremberg Julius Streicher, big, enormous friend of the children and the only force in the dangerous world of 1930s, which can possibly protect them from the Infernal Juden Bolsheviks ™ and their harmful ways. The rest of the book (illustrated, btw, rather sub par) devotes itself to the enumeration of the things “of the common knowledge” ™, that “everybody already knows” ™, and the mere doubt of which is, really, unhealthy in 1936 AD.

    In the ideal world, the fact that Streicher’s life ended at the end of the rope would have serve as a cautionary tale for the modern Western propagandists and their owners.


    1. Also:

      See, citizens? It was bloods KGB that invented “vranyo”! If you ever said “the dog ate my homework” as a kid you were acting on behalf of CentCom of the KPSS, KGB and SportLoto.

      Also-2: people who translate “kompromat” as “to compromise” ought to be hugged, pitied and then sent to the schools for those with the special needs.

      Liked by 3 people

    1. Eliot Borenstein:

      “The Russian media have been using allegations of Western “Russophobia” as a weapon against any legitimate criticism of Russian foreign or domestic policy; they don’t need our media to do their work for them.”

      Also Eliot Borenstein:

      “I argue that Russophobia for Russia is like political correctness for Republicans: a straw man whose utility lies in rallying the base against an imagined enemy. This does not mean that there aren’t specific incidents that fit the model of “political correctness” gone wild (we know there are, because the same ones keep getting trotted out again and again), or that there aren’t people or institutions in the West that have a reflexive hostility to Russia. But in today’s Russia, Russophobia is used as a discursive club against both internal and external critics. Any allegation that the Russian government might be doing something objectionable is immediately dismissed as Russophobia.

      …But the hysterical tone about Putin and Russia right now plays into Putin’s hands. We are performing Russophobia for a Russian audience that just can’t get enough of it.”

      Also him:

      “If the Russian media are to be believed, virtually the entire Western world suffers from inexcusable bigotry. No, not racism (racism? what racism?), not anti-Semitism (don’t get me started), and not homophobia (thanks to the “gay propaganda” law, they’ve got that one covered). The real cancer in the Western body politic is Russophobia.


      Russophobia need not be explained or proven to be invoked and possibly believed. It turns a basic, paranoid subject position (the world is against us) into both an affirmation of the paranoid stance and the motivation for the enemy’s attack. As a concept, Russophobia does not require a full-fledged conspiracy theory to justify its invocation, but what it does provide is, if not an ideology, than an ideological placeholder that covers all “anti-Russian” sentiment or activity.

      I spend a ridiculous amount of time and energy arguing against the validity of the “Russophobia” hypothesis”

      Translation – reb Elias first claimed that Russophobia does not exist – that it’s just a figment of the bloody Regime’s imagination, Then evidence(s) began to pile. It felt uncofortable, for this could possible harm his propaganda work. Thankfully, there is a win-win situation here – reb Elias and maybe a very limited number of the other “insiders” gonna huff and puff about this latest (but not the last) instance of anti-Russian Xenophobia (Russophobia for short). There won’t be any fucking consequences for the NYT, because it is fucking NYT. Reb Elias and maybe a very limited number of the other “insiders” who “took a stand” will add a feather to their cap and argue in future from the position of “defenders of Russians”.

      All of these is bullshit. Untill and unless the laws, either written or unwritten, that govern the US of A application of the so-called “political correctness” won’t be applied to literally each and everyone such tokenistic “brave stands” would be meaningless. Come tomorrow, come today and reb Eliot Borenstein will still be a pompus self-important delusional ass and biases.


      1. Agh, c;mon, Lyt! He’s just trying to promote his book! /sarc
        You know who else likes to argue from the position of “defender of Russians [we like]”? Galeotti.
        I sometimes get the sense the two of them are converging. Hold their writing side by side and you’ll see quite a few similarities.


      2. They both know each other via NYU. Boris Jordan is the person of White Russian background, who has financially baked the one-sided spin there.

        Once again noting that a spam check is required for the purpose of ensuring that pertinent comments get thru.


      3. “You know who else likes to argue from the position of “defender of Russians [we like]”? Galeotti.”

        [Lytt decides to check Galeotti’s latest scribblings]


        “One of my regrets of 2017 was, for reasons beyond my control, not getting to speak at the Yeltsin Centre in Ekaterinburg. I confess I am not the greatest fan of Yeltsin-the-Man – for all his successes bringing down the USSR and crushing some of its more unpleasant remnants

        “…he was a destroyer rather than a creator, and as Tony Wood trenchantly demonstrates in his Russia Without Putin, in many ways Putin is an heir not just to the failures of the 1990s but also the policies. Nonetheless, the Yeltsin Centre appears committed to the best ideals of Yeltsin-the-Symbol in hosting a series of very interesting lectures, especially on the social and political processes shaping Russia and the world.”


  8. An RF entity (“the Procurement Department”) did oppose him at the Swedish arbitration court. I read the transcript, and found it very interesting.


    Click to access ita0757.pdf

    A collection of Sedelmayer’s claims (complete or not, I don’t know) related to this ‘expropriation’ here:

    26 claims. Either the guy is insane, or there has to be some story behind the story; a good reason why he would pursue this to such an extend.

    This case reminded me of the MAI (, the first serious attempt at creating the legal basis for globalization, back in the 90s. The idea being, simply, to place ‘international investors’ and their profits above national governments. And this is exactly what happened there. Sedelmayer violated, multiple times, national and local laws in Russia, lost in local courts. The Swedish court acknowledges it, and yet interprets most of the disputes in his favor. If you’re a foreign investor, then violating local laws here and there is not a big deal; it doesn’t negate your right operate and receive profit.

    One detail I noticed: he was trying to claim two Ford Crown Victoria vehicles (these were police cars in the US at the time), claiming the value of $119,843.38 for two of them. This is ridiculous. Couldn’t be more than $50K.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have liberated one comment of yours from the spam filter. No doubt it was the link to which put it there. Perhaps WordPress has determined that it is a source of Kremlin disinformation and as such to be censored …


      1. Such is the real disinformation out there, which doesn’t get as much if any talk in Western mass media.

        Reminded of my success in getting the Brit based News Now to carry Eurasia Review unlike the Strategic Culture Foundation – noting that News Now carries such one-sided and not always so accurate sources as Paul Goble’s blog.

        On another matter you raise, there’s not much to like about Borenstein’s earlier discussed article. It plays on inaccurate stereotypes, while not fully addressing the real faults of what Thomas Weber write in The WaPo.


  9. The background problem to all this discussion is how to explain the seemingly endless display of “irrussianality” in the West. My feeling is that Dmitri Babich made a serious contribution to this explanation by identifying “ultraliberalism” as the underlying, binding philosophy of the West.


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