As the West focuses on oligarchs, a far smaller group has its grip on true power in Moscow. Who are the “siloviki” - and what motivates them?
In describing Vladimir Putin and his inner circle, I have often thought of a remark by John Maynard Keynes about Georges Clemenceau, French prime minister during the first world war: that he was an utterly disillusioned individual who “had one illusion — France”.
Something similar could be said of Russia’s governing elite, and helps to explain the appallingly risky collective gamble they have taken by invading Ukraine. Ruthless, greedy and cynical they may be — but they are not cynical about the idea of Russian greatness.
The western media employ the term “oligarch” to describe super-wealthy Russians in general, including those now wholly or largely resident in the west. The term gained traction in the 1990s, and has long been seriously misused. In the time of President Boris Yeltsin, a small group of wealthy businessmen did indeed dominate the state, which they plundered in collaboration with senior officials. This group was, however, broken by Putin during his first years in power.
Three of the top seven “oligarchs” tried to defy Putin politically. Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky were driven abroad, and Mikhail Khodorkovsky was jailed and then exiled. The others, and their numerous lesser equivalents, were allowed to keep their businesses within Russia in return for unconditional public subservience to Putin. When Putin met (by video link) leading Russian businessmen after launching the invasion of Ukraine, there was no question of who was giving the orders.
The force that broke the oligarchs was the former KGB, reorganised in its various successor services. Putin himself, of course, came from the KGB, and a large majority of the top elite under Putin are from the KGB or associated state backgrounds (though not the armed forces).
This group have remained remarkably stable and homogenous under Putin, and are (or used to be) close to him personally. Under his leadership, they have plundered their country (though unlike the previous oligarchs, they have kept most of their wealth within Russia) and have participated or acquiesced in his crimes, including the greatest of them all, the invasion of Ukraine. They have echoed both Putin’s vicious propaganda against Ukraine and his denunciations of western decadence.
As Russia plunges deeper into a military quagmire and economic crisis, a central question is whether — if the war is not ended quickly by a peace settlement — Putin can be removed (or persuaded to step down) by the Russian elites themselves, in order to try to extricate Russia and themselves from the pit he has dug for them. To assess the chances of this requires an understanding of the nature of the contemporary Russian elites, and above all of Putin’s inner core.
By way of illustrating the depth of the Russian catastrophe of the 1990s and identifying with all those who suffered from it, Putin has said that at one stage he was reduced — while still a serving lieutenant colonel of the KGB — to moonlighting as a freelance taxi driver in order to supplement his income. This is plausible enough. In 1994, while I was working as a journalist for The Times in Russia and the former USSR, my driver in the North Caucasus was an ex-major in the KGB. “We thought we were the backbone of the Soviet Union,” he said to me bitterly. “Now look at us. Real Chekists!”
Despite amassing immense wealth and power, Putin and his inner circle remain intensely resentful of the way the USSR collapsed “Real Chekist” (nastoyashchy chekist) was a Soviet propaganda phrase referring to the qualities of ruthless discipline, courage, ideological commitment and honesty supposedly characteristic of the Cheka, the first Soviet secret police formed by Lenin and his associates. It became the subject of many Soviet jokes, but there is little doubt that Putin and his top elite continue to see themselves in this light, as the backbone of Russia — though Putin, who is anything but a revolutionary, appears to identify much more strongly with the security elites of imperial Russia.
Although they have amassed immense power and wealth, Putin and his immediate circle remain intensely resentful of the way in which the Soviet Union, Russia and their own service collapsed in the 1990s — and great power mixed with great resentment is one of the most dangerous mixtures in both domestic and international politics.
As Putin’s autocratic tendencies have grown, real power (as opposed to wealth) within the system has come to depend more and more on continual personal access to the president; and the number of those with such access has narrowed — especially since the Covid pandemic led to Putin’s drastic physical isolation — to a handful of close associates.
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Image: Patrushev speaking at a meeting of the Security Council three days before February’s invasion of Ukraine © EPA
1. Five of Putin’s inner circle are Sergei Lavrov, 71, foreign minister Sergei Naryshkin, 67, foreign intelligence chief Nikolai Patrushev, 70, secretary of Russia’s security council Igor Sechin, 61, chief executive of Rosneft Sergei Shoigu, 66, defence minister
2. Putin does have a private life. For more details click here: