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Vladimir Putin

Brian Lamb: Correct me if I’m wrong, but did you say [Putin] was a ‘Cheka’?

Anne Applebaum: Putin was a member of the secret police, which was later called the KGB. And the old name — the Leninist era name — for the KGB is the Cheka. And Putin has described himself as a ‘Chekist,’ which is an old fashioned word for secret policeman.

Brian Lamb: What does that mean to you?

Anne Applebaum: The first time I heard him say it, it filled me with horror. It’s like somebody saying, “I was a Brownshirt.” It has very, very unpleasant connotations.

Brian Lamb: Why do you think he says it?

Anne Applebaum: He says it because it gives him an aura of invincibility. ‘We were the people behind the scenes who were running the old Soviet Union.’ The term still commands a certain amount of respect in Russia. A poll was done recently which showed that some 60 or 70 percent of Russians still think Lenin was a great man who contributed to their country. So he’s echoing a respect for the Russian Revolution.

Brian Lamb: I read a story in The New York Times about Saddam Hussein which read just like [accounts of the Soviet Gulag] —  the enemies lists that they had, the kind of people they put away, the torturing that went on. How much of this is still going on around the world?

Anne Applebaum: I would say a great deal. The Stalinist regime — and later the Krushchevite and Brezhnevite regimes in the Soviet Union — actually spread their techniques, and they taught people around the world how to run police states. I have no doubt that, through the East Germans, Saddam Hussein’s police state was probably set up with Russian or Soviet advice.

It is not an accident that so many of these systems share so much in common; there was a set of techniques, they were deliberately spread. The Soviet camp was exported to China; the Chinese exported it to North Korea. The North Korean Gulag that exists today sounds, from what little we know about it, very much like Stalin’s Gulag.


From Anne Applebaum’s 2003 interview with C-SPAN’s Brian Lamb, discussing her Pulitzer Prize-winning book Gulag: A History.

I sometimes think it all boils down to names. We had Roosevelt (Dutch for “rose garden”) then Truman (Old English: “honest man”); Chamberlain (“servant of a bed chamber”) then Churchill (“church’s hill”) and Attlee (“from the meadow”).

They had Stalin (“man of steel”) and his henchmen: Kamenev (“man of stone”), Molotov (“hammer”), Lenin (“from the River Lena”) — and Trotsky (The name on one of young Lev Bronstein’s fake passports, which wound up catching on).

Putin, though he mysteriously lacks a single antecedent family member who shares his surname, lays claim to a strangely appropriate etymology: “on his way”, “on his path”.

In the next few weeks, I’ll post more on this topic as well as excerpts from Applebaum’s book, which as far as I can tell is now considered the preeminent history of the Soviet prison and slave labor system (a Google search for “gulag book” displays it first, above Solzhenitsyn’s Archipelago). Gulag concludes with a clear-eyed rumination on the post-Soviet psyche, especially as it is expressed by today’s Russians and enacted in the 20th century atavisms of their largely popular Chekist-in-Chief. Writing in her epilogue a decade ago, Applebaum observed,

[T]en years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia, the country that has inherited the Soviet Union’s diplomatic and foreign policies, its embassies, its debts, and its seat at the United Nations, continues to act as if it has not inherited the Soviet Union’s history. Russia does not have a national museum dedicated to the history of repression. Nor does Russia have a national place of mourning, a monument which officially recognizes the suffering of victims and their families…

Many Russians experienced the collapse of the Soviet Union as a profound blow to their personal pride. Perhaps the old system was bad, they now feel—but at least we were powerful. And now that we are not powerful, we do not want to hear that it was bad. It is too painful, like speaking ill of the dead.

Unlike most attempts at mass psychoanalysis, these considerations are hardly trivial, especially as we attempt to internalize what is happening in Ukraine and perhaps anticipate the Chekist’s next move.

On a brighter note: I recommend not only Applebaum’s substantial book, but also her columns, which are printed in The Washington Post. Along with Danielle Crittenden (wife of conservative political commentator David Frum), she has also published a cook book on Polish comfort food — and though I can’t speak to its merits, I can say that when juxtaposed with her work on the famines of Stalinism makes her probably the most versatile author I’ve cited on this blog. (Below: Applebaum and Crittenden; below that, Applebaum with her sons and husband, Radosław Sikorski, Poland’s Minister of Foreign Affairs.)

Anne Applebaum and Danielle Crittenden Anne Applebaum and Family