A sweeping history of Russian power in the world, and of Stalin’s power in Russia (recast as the Soviet Union), full of surprises, with uncanny echoes of today’s realities.

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Stephen Kotkin

is the John P. Birkelund Professor in History and International Affairs at Princeton University, where he has taught since 1989. He is also a Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

Operation Successor: the Cunning of History



On March 3 in Moscow, the wake and burial took place of Boris Nemtsov, the slain former first deputy prime minister of Russia.  The viewing occurred at the Andrei Sakharov Center, itself a poignant statement.  The media group RBK assembled an astonishing photo album of the solemn tribute (text and captions in Russian).  For me, as I suspect for many Russia watchers, clicking through felt like time transporting.

No one from Putin’s presidential administration was visible.  The regime was represented by the diminutive Arkady Dvorkovich, a first deputy prime minister and alumnus of Moscow’s New Economic School, whose rector has been chased abroad to escape possible arrest.  In fact, on vivid display was another Russia, that of a would-be Western style market economy and open society: Anatoly Chubais, former architect of Russia’s early privatization, now head of the company Russian Nanotechnology; Sergei Kiriyenko, former prime minister, now head of the conglomerate Russian Atom; German Gref, former economics minister, now head of Sberbank, the country’s largest financial institution; Mikhail Kasyanov, former prime minister, now an opposition figure; uber-oligarch Mikhail Fridman of the Alfa Group, still the largest private enterprise in Russia; Grigory Yavlinsky, co-founder of the erstwhile liberal political party Yabloko; Aleksei Kudrin, former finance minister and now an establishmentarian cum loyal-oppositionist.  It was Kudrin who midwifed Putin’s leap from St. Petersburg to Yeltsin’s presidential administration in Moscow in 1997, when Putin was an unemployed former deputy mayor.  To paraphrase Hegel, such is the indirect and sly cunning of history.

With few exceptions, these are figures of the Yeltsin years or the first Putin term.  They represent the dashed hopes of “transition,” “reform,” “democracy,” “liberalization.”  For one day, they were brought together again, by the death of Nemtsov, briefly an improbable potential successor to Yeltsin, and now the most potent symbol of promise unfulfilled.  One photo in the album shows Nemtsov’s mother and other family members, including a bushy-haired lookalike son, staring into the open casket.  Perhaps none of the images is more agonizing than the one depicting Yeltsin’s widow, Naina, for in the shot are also Tatyana Dyachenko, their daughter, and Valentin Yumashev, their son-in-law, a journalist who wrote Yeltsin’s two books of memoirs.  (Yevgeny Yasin, the intellectual godfather of the Higher School of Economics, is in this photo, too, farthest to the right.)  No one did more to select Putin as Yeltsin’s successor than Yumashev and Dyachenko.  They aimed to protect “the family” – Yeltsin (in retirement), themselves, and the narrow circle that reaped the richest rewards of his rule.  The consequences of their decision were embodied in the coffin.