From KGB to Dictatorship: The Story of Vladimir Putin

Riga Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, we hear again and again, has tied his own political and personal fate directly to the war against Ukraine. But who is the ruler in the Kremlin, who has headed the Russian state with a pro forma hiatus since 2000, really?

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 draw a multifaceted portrait of the Kremlin chief in 24 chapters, in which Putin’s development and the development of Russia that interacts with it are examined from a wide variety of perspectives.

In this context, of course, Putin’s secret service past and socialization, which has already been analyzed many times, his relationship with Ukraine and his fear of upheavals in neighboring countries and of the so-called color revolutions are not neglected.

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

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Completed with articles about 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 over an “announced dictatorship”.

Fear as the most important export article

The conclusions that the editors draw from the overall picture of the contributions of the individual authors and in which they touch the wound of Western Russia policy are particularly worth reading.

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

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

Incidentally, 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 organizations. The work attracted a great deal of attention at the time, but also led to violent counter-reactions.

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

On the one hand because of the thesis that communism and terror have the same origin, on the other hand because of the statement that 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 former Soviet Union states. Among other things, she worked as a translator for the Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was murdered in 2006.

The international perspectives shed a fresh light on questions that have already been widely discussed in the German public sphere and also put 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 succeeded in showing the uniqueness of Putin’s system. Many of the authors deliberately distance themselves from conventional attributions such as “fascism” or “autocracy” and take the 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 geographic features.

The historical development of Russia, especially since the end of the Second World War, is always present, be it with regard to the church, the media landscape or the party system.

Will the regime survive without Putin?

Anyone who is well-read about Russia and expects completely new insights from the “Putin Black Book” could be disappointed. The book also falls somewhat short of the publishers’ own claim of “a unique approach with the thesis [Putins] Methods and tactics are shaped by the values ​​of the KGB.

Because this thesis is neither new nor unique. Accordingly, 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 structure of the 500-page book in chapters, which all stand for themselves, makes it easy to take individual parts and aspects to heart again and again. In this way, the book could also serve as a reference work, because the cross-references to other authors, documents or publications invite you to read further away from the book.

The editors ultimately save what is probably the most exciting question, which certainly deserves more space and perspective, for the end: Would Putin’s regime survive if he were to lose his post one day? The answers are definitely worth reading – but certainly not final.

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