They Made Putinism: Gleb Pavlovsky (1951-2023), the Sorcerer’s Apprentice in the Green Jacket

After her portrait of Vladislav Sourkov, the Kremlin’s éminence grise, historian Cécile Vaissié offers Desk Russia the second part of her series “They made Putinism”. Indeed, other people than Vladimir Putin have, with him, designed and built Putinism, and made it work. One of the main “builders” of Putinism, and of Putin’s own public image, is Gleb Pavlovsky, whose itinerary is dissected in this essay. Here is the first part.

“When the third deceit comes — it is darker than night
It is darker than night, more than war is affright.”

Boulat Okoudjava

In a book of interviews with Gleb Pavlovsky, Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev reports that Pavlovsky was, in 2012, “one of the most hated people in Russia,” “considered a traitor by the power and the opposition”1. The Meduza website, having highlighted the abrupt turns that punctuated Pavlovsky’s path, considers that his life “is a manual of contemporary Russian political history and a guide to its innumerable paradoxes.” As a matter of fact, this “political-technologist” was “one of the architects of Vladimir Putin’s regime”, but is still considered by some people as a dissident. A “dissident” on whom, notes journalist Valery Panyushkin, “the authentic heroes of the anti-Soviet resistance” cast glances that range “from contempt to disdain”2. But, as late as 2022, a few months before his death, Pavlovsky regularly appeared as an expert on Russian TV channels associated with the opposition. It is therefore important, before discussing his years of commitment to Vladimir Putin, to return to his past, often forgotten in Russia: the past of a man who contributed to get this unknown Chekist elected as president.

Odessa and the Igrunov case

Gleb Pavlovsky was born on March 5, 1951, exactly two years before Stalin’s death, in Odessa where, he said, people lived “more happily than in the rest of the USSR.” His father was an engineer, his mother a meteorologist, and neither was a member of the CPSU. After high school, the teenager began studying history in his hometown. He would later say that he was then a Marxist, and was fascinated by Che Guevara, whose photo Sourkov would display in his office. The future “polit-technologist” participated in a commune of four people: they talked about philosophy, and their favorite topic, as it seems, was the end of history. Pavlovsky admitted that he had understood since childhood that he was living “between two apocalypses”: the one of 1917 and another one to come, not yet clearly identified.

The “lord of samizdat in Odessa” was Vyacheslav Igrunov, who, born in 1948, would much later become one of the founders of the Yabloko party and a deputy in the Duma. He managed the largest clandestine library in this western-southern part of the USSR, a library that contained a wide variety of books, from Solzhenitsyn’s to Nabokov’s, via Jung’s and Orwell’s. Pavlovsky borrowed samizdat texts from him, which drew the attention of the KGB, but he assured that he only realized that he was being watched when he was not allowed to defend his degree. So he taught history for a year in a Transnistria village, so that he could afterwards get his degree.

In early August 1974, Vadim Alexeyev-Popov, a lecturer at the University of Odessa, was stopped in the street by KGB agents: they asked him to hand over the photocopied copy of The Gulag Archipelago that they knew he had in his possession3. The teacher complied and declared that he had received this text from Gleb Pavlovsky. Questioned for several days in a row, Pavlovsky revealed that he had borrowed this samizdat copy from Vyacheslav Igrunov4. Years later, he explained that only Alexeyev-Popov and Igrunov knew where this particular copy was, and he did not fully trust Igrunov:

“Igrunov was ‘an anti-Soviet’ person, and I had this equation in mind: an anti-Soviet person is often a provocateur. So I betrayed him. I said I had received Solzhenitsyn’s and many other books from him. I signed everything they needed.”5

The “lord of samizdat” was taken to the KGB for interrogation on August 9; others were interrogated after Pavlovsky’s confession. Shortly afterwards, Pavlovsky spoke with Igrunov and agreed — that was their deal — not to testify and to refute, at the trial, what he had already admitted to the KGB. Igrunov was arrested on March 1, 1975, and accused of preparing and distributing “defamatory and anti-Soviet” works. During the summer, he underwent a psychiatric expertise, while about thirty people were summoned as witnesses. Only two — including Pavlovsky — testified against Igrunov. He was transferred to the terrible Serbsky Institute in Moscow, which declared him schizophrenic and considered that he needed to be treated by force in a “hospital of special type”, i.e. a psychiatric hospital controlled by the KGB.

Gleb Pavlovsky. Early 1970s // Vyacheslav Igrunov Archive

Igrunov was judged in March 1976, in his absence. Witnesses were interrogated, including Gleb Pavlovsky who refused to answer and said, as if he knew nothing about the history of his own country: “I am a Communist by conviction and consider that such a trial is impossible in a socialist society.” He also disavowed the testimony he had previously given, and assured that his relations with Igrunov was of no concern to the KGB. It turned out, however, that the future “polit-technologist” had, during the investigation, provided detailed information on Igrunov, but this information could no longer be used by the court, since it was refuted by its author. Igrunov was sentenced to be forcibly treated, but in a regular psychiatric hospital, and he was released from it on January 22, 1977.

Even in 2018, he defended Pavlovsky, explaining that “not everyone is morally ready for a confrontation” and that he himself had, in 1968, “betrayed a comrade in front of the Chekists” because he had considered him as a provocateur: “I understood [in 1974] that I was going to be imprisoned, and I was ready for it. Pavlovsky behaved quite firmly at the trial. But many consider that he betrayed a comrade. And I say that this is an unfair reproach.”6. For Krastev, however, Pavlovsky did not “live up to his ideals” in his first encounter with the KGB, and it caused him a trauma that influenced the rest of his life. Pavlovsky confirmed in 2018 that he was not then “ready”: “In a staggering way for myself, I shamefully failed the exam.” It was still difficult for him to talk about it: “My failure in front of the KGB was a strong blow to my ‘ego’.”

Not to mention that, after the trial, Pavlovsky was no longer allowed to teach and his marriage broke up. The young man then left for Moscow. He had previously trained as a carpenter: he would have liked to no longer depend on the State.

Moscow and the Poiski case

In Moscow, Pavlovsky met the historian Mikhail Gefter, a specialist in the revolutionary movement of the 19th century, who became his mentor, but often compared Pavlovsky to Stavrogin, the depraved hero from Dostoyevsky’s Demons. The ex-student worked on building sites, frequented circles close to dissidents and was one of the few young people to proclaim himself a Communist. One of his texts circulating in samizdat, “The Third Force”, was a hermeneutic of the 1977 Constitution and a reflection on power. Because it was of interest to many readers, it was included in the first issue of a new samizdat review, Poiski, in the spring of 1978, along with a text by Gefter and excerpts from Bernard-Henri Lévy’s Barbarism with a Human Face. Moreover, Pavlovsky was invited to join the editorial board of this review. Under the pseudonym of P. Pryjov, he collaborated there with Raisa Lert, a convinced Communist born in 1901, Valery Abramkin (1946-2013), an enthusiast of the poet Kharms, and Piotr Abovin-Egides. They were later joined by Vladimir Gershuni, Yuri Grimm and Victor Sokirko.

This is the version that Pavlovsky gave. But Igrunov has another one. When he was released from the psychiatric hospital, he wanted to create a samizdat review that would look for possible points of agreement with the authorities and for an alternative path of development for the country. He told Pavlovsky about it and introduced him to potential authors. Three months later, the texts commissioned by Igrunov were published in Poiski‘s No. 1, without the “lord of samizdat” having been informed. Pavlovsky seemed to be very surprised by the reproaches that were addressed to him.

The KGB soon became interested in Poiski and, from January 1979 onwards, increased the number of searches and interrogations of people close to this review, including Pavlovsky: the repressive machine was launched. On November 16, 1979, police officers and/or Chekists told the young Odessite that his activity in Poiski was “against the law” and asked him if he did not want to leave the USSR. Pavlovsky answered that he had no intention of doing so and, on December 3, during a new interrogation, refused to say whether he would stop his activity in Poiski or not. The next day, he and six other people connected to the review were searched, and Abramkin was arrested.

Gleb Pavlovsky and Vyacheslav Igrounov in 2018 // YouTube channel of the Gefter review, screenshot

In January 1980, the day when Sakharov was illegally sent to relegation, Pavlovsky was searched and interrogated at the Lubyanka, where Mr. Putin’s colleagues showed him the order of arrest concerning him and advised him to leave the country. The future “political-technologist” committed himself in writing to emigrate within thirty days, but he changed his mind once he was released. He was summoned again by the KGB and ended up signing a three-page note in which he renounced any political activity, official or unofficial. However, he continued to play an active role in Poiski.

Yuri Grimm and Victor Sokirko were arrested on January 23; Vladimir Gershuni was committed to a psychiatric hospital on July 15, 1980. On September 3, Victor Sokirko admitted having carried out an “activity discrediting the Soviet social and State system”, and said he was ready to redeem his fault. He was released the next day until his trial. The deal was clear: the Soviet State wanted above all to obtain recognition of the defamatory nature of certain samizdats. The dissidents refused to give in on this point, and it was a matter of principle for them, because it would have meant admitting limits to the freedom of expression they were trying to reclaim. Valery Abramkin, Yuri Grimm and Victor Sokirko were accused of having prepared and distributed Poiski.

All three were tried successively in the fall of 1980. Referring to his statement of September 3, Sokirko declared that he was “aware of [his] great guilt before the State” and promised not to engage in samizdat activities anymore. He was therefore sentenced to three years’ detention, but with a suspended sentence. On the other hand, Valery Abramkin, who did not recognize his guilt, was sentenced to three years’ unsuspended imprisonment, and Grimm, who had already been sentenced in 1964 for a caricature of Khrushchev, was sentenced to three years’ harsh imprisonment. The issue at stake was therefore whether or not to acknowledge guilt in connection with samizdat activities.

During Abramkin’s trial, a stone was thrown against a court window and broke the glass. This stone was thrown by Pavlovsky, who was standing on the roof of a nearby house. He fell from this roof and was taken to the hospital under a false name, and according to a journalist who interviewed him at length in 2018, he was, “in his hospital bed, permanently disillusioned with a struggle against power.” He considered that the lifestyle of the dissidents was “vulgar”: “Animal feeling of deadlock: a block in my personal biography. I decided to run away from my biography.”7 He would then defend the idea, as he explained, that the dissidence should find a agreement with the power. Actually, the dissidence movement had tried to do so at its beginning, if the notion of “agreement” implies a dialogue — whereas Pavlovsky thought rather of concessions — but the dissidents had quicky given up, since the authorities responded only with increased repression. The majority of dissidents therefore disagreed with Pavlovsky’s position, but a few supported it, including, it seems, Igrunov.

A sentence of relegation, surprisingly softened

Vladimir Putin’s future “political-technologist” was arrested and imprisoned on April 6, 1981. He spent almost a year in the Butyrka prison in Moscow, and, unlike Abramkin, agreed to testify, justifying his behavior by his new conviction: it is necessary to look for a way to get along with the power. He made a sort of deal with the investigators: he would plead guilty and condemn both the concept of Poiski and its co-founder, Piotr Abovin-Egides, who then lived in France.

Pavlovsky was judged on August 18, 1982, under article 190-1 (Preparation and diffusion of “notoriously false allegations, denigrating the Soviet political and social system”). He admitted being guilty, thus gave full satisfaction to the authorities, and was sentenced to five years of relegation (no camp…), which was less than the sentence provided for by the law. He had three years left to serve, but, having just admitted publicly that samizdat activity could be defamatory and anti-Soviet, he had, in the eyes of the dissidents, “sold out” or gone mad. Even if, this time, he had not “given anyone away”, as he emphasized. Pavlovsky, having realized that he could not live up to the ideals of his youth, then “conceptualized his betrayal as a freedom of action”, as Krastev believes: the disgust that the future “political-technologist” felt for himself and that others felt for him explains his actions in the 1990s. Perhaps. This and/or, more pragmatically, connections with the KGB.

Pavlovsky’s place of relegation was the Komi republic, where he worked as a painter and driver. According to Peter Pomerantsev, a dissident’s son, the future “political-technologist” continued to write letters to the KGB, as he had done when he was imprisoned, stating that the KGB should collaborate with dissidents for the good of the Soviet Union. Pavlovsky, for his part, recalled the private letters he sent to his friends and relatives, in which he tried to “demonstrate that [his] compromise with the State [was] political and not moral”: “These letters are appalling, it’s really strange, why did I have to write all this to my friends? They had forgiven me without this.”8

He admitted to having also written “some memoranda for the authorities”:

“In the first one, in 1983, I wrote that the USSR was not fighting Reagan properly: the anti-American propaganda [was] crude, it had to be made more skillful, not like that! Today, one of the analysts attached to Putin can write something like that. My last note, in 1985, and it was even funnier, was about the optimization of energy complexes, communications and housing in the Komi republic.”9

According to him, these texts were read by the head of the local KGB and then sent to Moscow. He admitted to meeting with the Moscow chiefs of this local official in 1984 during a vacation in the capital, and he assured: “Yes, one could grant a vacation to a relegated person if this person ‘behaved well’.” In fact, such relations with the KGB — and such vacations! — were quite exceptional and, in the eyes of the dissidents, were a sign of surrender.

His relegation ended on December 25, 1985 and Pavlovsky returned to Moscow, while genuine dissidents who had served their sentences were not allowed to live in the capital. Perestroika would soon begin. A time when all the rules seemed to change.

The Club of Social Initiatives (KSI) and a the Peace movement review

According to Gleb Pavlovsky, he and Gefter did not accept the “anti-Stalinism” of perestroika. They had therefore something in common with those in the CPSU and the KGB, who understood the need for economic reforms, but did not criticize the repressive methods used, even in the worst times of the USSR. Could this country be reformed without Stalinism and its violence being denounced? No.

As early as September 1986, Pavlovsky, together with a few other people, created the Club of Social Initiatives (KSI), the “first legal independent political club in Moscow” , and he tried to gather other clubs around it to create an “Soviet informal movement” 10. He himself admitted it: when the KSI was set up, Sakharov was still relegated to Gorky and Anatoly Marchenko had just begun a hunger strike, from which he would die in prison. But Pavlovsky and his comrades were already inviting for debates the academician Tatyana Zaslavskaya, who was advising Gorbachev. Times were changing, but some people were entitled to incomparably more indulgence than others. This, in the USSR even more than elsewhere, imposed a question: with what support? Pavlovsky was even officially allowed to live in Moscow, and he gave at least two different versions of how he had obtained this right.

The first national meeting of “informal” clubs took place in August 1987 in the former Palace of Culture of the Comintern. It was opened by Gleb Pavlovsky, who called for “fair play with the State” and for stopping being an opposition. The researcher Carole Sigman noted that perestroika was “an opportunity to test the idea of a dialogue with the authorities, an idea defended in the 1970s by minority dissidents (G. Pavlovsky and V. Igrunov, among others) against the dominant current of human rights defenders.”11 A dialogue, may be, but on what basis, in what alliances and with what room for manoeuvre? Especially since, as Sigman continued, these clubs had for main supporters two departments of the Central Committee of the CPSU: the Department of Propaganda and Culture, headed by Alexander Yakovlev, and the Department of Science. Igrunov confirmed that Pavlovsky and others from the KSI had, as early as this period, “contacts at quite high levels.”12 Some dissidents, including Sergei Grigoriants, accused therefore the “informals” (neformaly, members of informal political debate “clubs”) of collaborating with the regime, that is, with the CPSU, but also with the KGB.

Some testimonies are, indeed, striking: thus, one of the members of the organizing committee of the August 1987 conference participated to “the first press conference of the informals at the [official] Novosti News Agency” , and he said that an “important KGBist” had “given them instructions on what to say or not to say”13. In short, Pavlovsky could not have been among the leaders of the KSI and of this meeting if the KGB had not, at the very least, given its approval, or even selected him for these purposes, given their previous contacts.

The role Pavlovsky had in the magazine Vek XX i mir (The Twentieth Century and Peace) seems to confirm this.

As Pavlovsky himself explained, this review was created “as an organ of the reptilian Soviet Committee for the Defense of Peace.” Reptilian? The Peace movement, like all Soviet structures with foreign links, was infiltrated by the KGB at all levels. Notably in its press organs. Moreover, as Pavlovsky specified, this small bulletin did not go through the Glavlit, the organ officially in charge of censorship, but depended directly on the Party, like the Pravda. Pavlovsky was introduced to this magazine at the end of 1986 by his comrade Andrei Fadin, whose father was an executive in the Central Committee apparatus, and his recruitment was validated by the Central Committee of the CPSU. A few weeks later, he replaced the editor-in-chief. From then on, as Carole Sigman points out, the “informals” made the magazine theirs, “first transforming its content, then taking it over legally” . Certainly, perestroika shifted some lines, but everything seems to confirm Pavlovsky’s “good relations” with the KGB.

The ex-relegate thus became a journalist for the Committee for the Defense of Peace, which, he admitted, “was at the time close to the status of a Pravda journalist.” What a spectacular leap for a so-called opponent! All the more so, since he was given “complete carte blanche” for this magazine, which was published in several languages and had a circulation of 100,000 copies between 1987 and 1991: it was given plenty of paper. And because, in Russia, “reputation does not exist as an institution” , the first authors of the magazine were key figures of perestroika: the historian Yuri Afanasyev, the writers Yuri Kariakin and Ales’ Adamovich, the politician Galina Starovoitova, the journalist Len Karpinski, the dissident Larissa Bogoraz, etc. The 20th Century and Peace was even the first magazine to publish Solzhenitsyn’s “Do not live in a lie”. And in 1990, Anatoly Chubais, the future organizer of Russian privatizations, defended there the Chilean model of transition.

In a few months, Pavlovsky thus became — was made — one of the leaders of the “non-conformists” , while he aspired, as Peter Pomerantsev remarks, to a strong and centralized State. A wish that he concretized thereafter by helping Putin to become and remain president.

Around May 1987, the former Odessite met and befriended another journalist: Valentin Yumashev, who would become head of the Presidential Administration and Yeltsin’s son-in-law. And who, after February 24, 2022, settled in Saint-Barth with his wife in their luxurious villa. Pavlovsky said having also met, thanks to his new functions, Mikhail Khodorkovsky who passed by the editorial office on his way to work, and Leonid Nevzline, Khodorkovsky’s collaborator, the future oligarch Piotr Aven and Egor Gaidar, Yeltsin’s future prime minister, the ideologist Alexander Dugin and Sergey Kurginyan who would organize the pro-Putin meetings in 2011-2012, as well as the journalist Igor Malashenko who would be one of the creators of the NTV television, and the philosopher Igor Chubais, elder brother of Anatoly. A milieu was appearing in the apparent enthusiasm and, if its members were already taking very different paths, they would remain connected with each other: they had gone through the same periods and had evolved together. For the better, and sometimes for the worse. Pavlovsky was already involved in other large projects that would lead him to collaborate with the Kremlin.

Fakt, Postfactum and Kommersant

As early as 1987, some KSI members decided to get closer to the emerging sector of cooperatives, a type of enterprise that had just been authorized by legislation, and they created two of their own: Perspektiva and, in 1988, Fakt, the latter specializing in providing information to cooperatives. In Fakt, Pavlovsky was already working with Vladimir Yakovlev, the future famous journalist, who was also the grandson of a prominent Chekist and whose father, Egor Yakovlev, editor-in-chief of Moscow News, was close to Alexander Yakovlev (no family relative) and Mikhail Gorbachev. On the basis of Fakt, Gleb Pavlovsky and Vladimir Yakovlev set up together — different dates circulate, but it seems that it was in 1989 — the first independent press agency, Postfactum. Pavlovsky was director of Postfactum that launched in December 1989, the newspaper Kommersant, of which Yakovlev became editor-in-chief. Postfactum and Kommersant were prepared by the same team, including the future gallery owner Marat Gelman, the historian Maxim Meyer, the political scientist Modest Kolerov, who would be charged by Putin to fight against color revolutions and be involved with Pavlovsky in the creation of a publishing house, and others.

On the other hand, Pavlovsky refused the proposal to run for the Congress of People’s Deputies in 1989. His motto, not always respected, was “to catalyze the process, while staying out of it” . But when the first democratic meeting took place in the Luzhniki Stadium on May 21, 1989, in front of tens of thousands of people, Putin’s future “political-technologist” sat on the podium alongside Sakharov and Yeltsin. In addition, he met George Soros in Moscow at the end of 1989, and became director of the “Civil Society” program and fund, which was supposed to help build a civil society. For two years, Gleb Pavlovsky offered, on Soros’ money, technical means — fax machines, photocopiers, computers, telephones — to various Soviet structures.

Hitherto hostile to Yeltsin, whom he accused of wanting the USSR collapse, Pavlovsky turned his coat during the August 1991 putsch: “For three days, I, the fiery counter-revolutionary, worked for Yeltsin’s revolution!” But, as he added in 2018, “in the crowd, in front of the White House where Yeltsin was, I quickly realized that these people were not mine”.14 According to him, when the USSR ceased to exist as a State, “the Fatherland was destroyed,” and he was not interested in the independence taken by Ukraine, or even in Russia as a State. On that day (which he placed at the end of August 1991), he noted: “We no longer have a State. There is a territory, populated by people who need the products of a foreign civilization: goods, rules, security. What is a Soviet cosmopolitan to do in Yeltsin’s racially pure State?” Pavlovsky was a supporter of the USSR, even of the empire. At least that’s what he said.

Gleb Pavlovsky between Boris Yeltsin and Andrei Sakharov at a rally in Moscow on May 21, 1989 // Vyacheslav Igrounov archive

That year, he claimed, he heard Putin’s name for the first time, without paying much attention to it: Igrunov, returning from a Baltic congress of “informals” , told him that he had met some interesting people there, including a certain Putin, “Sobchak’s representative” , who was sitting “sadly in a corner”. Igrunov, after talking with him, had thought: “This is who could become president instead of Gorbachev!”. This story may well be a total invention.

In the early 1990s, Pavlovsky, still director of the Postfactum agency, discovered “polit-technologies”: what we would call methods of political communication. Indeed, the Russian leaders were anxious to “sell” to the population the necessity of reforms. Besides, more and more media were owned by different individuals or groups, financial stakes were growing, money was circulating, and new knowledge had appeared — marketing, sociology, polling, etc. Interesting people evolved around Postfactum, including Anton Nosik, who would play a key role in the development of the Internet in Russia, and Constantin Ernst, the future CEO of the main official TV channel. As a journalist, Pavlovsky, like many others, went regularly to the Kremlin and the Supreme Soviet, and he also saw a lot of Grigori Yavlinsky. But in the fall of 1993, during the confrontation between Yeltsin and the Supreme Soviet, he left Postfactum, presenting his departure as a political gesture. Some noted however that, at the time, the agency was operating at a loss.

A scandal broke in March 1994: an article in the newspaper Obshchaya Gazeta suggested that a putsch was being prepared in Yeltsin’s entourage. The FSB and the Prosecutor’s Office got involved, and Yeltsin demanded arrests. Pavlovsky declared that he was responsible for this article, but left for a vacation in Greece. The scandal became nominative: “Pavlovsky against Yeltsin”. For the first time in ten years, the former relegate’s home was searched. However, times had changed and the case fizzled out, but on April 1, 1994, the dissident Alexander Podrabinek published an article in Express-Khronika — his newspaper with a very modest circulation — entitled “The great force of disinformation” . In it, he noted that many media had referred to Pavlovsky as a “former dissident” and even explained the polemical nature of the Obshchaya Gazeta text by Pavlovsky’s so-called “dissidence” . Furious, Podrabinek, returning to the past, recalled that in Odessa Pavlovsky had given names to the KGB and testified against Igrunov: “But there too Pavlovsky deceived the Chekists” , since at the trial he refuted his confessions. Podrabinek reminded of the Poiski case and how Pavlovsky also indirectly “testified against Alexei Smirnov”, for which Smirnov was sent to a camp for six years and then relegated for four more years. Podrabinek added:

“It will probably not be easy to establish how many times Gleb Pavlovsky duped the Chekists and how many times he duped his comrades? And should we try? If lying and betrayal become a way of life, does it really matter whom he fooled and how many times? The filth that accompanied Pavlovsky’s stories in the dissent days has not gone away today.”15

The words were said. They were reinforced by an article published in the same issue of Express-Khronika by Vladimir Gershuni (1930-1994), a former political prisoner who had been close to Poiski. He recalled the deals Pavlovsky had made with the KGB in order to obtain personal privileges: to be sentenced only to relegation and to be granted leave, “an extremely rare case for political prisoners.” Pavlovsky and others who present themselves as “democrats” and victims of the KGB, in fact, “take a stand against the Russian democracy that has just been born” and “rush to defend killers who are preparing massive repressions and a new super-Gulag for us” , in the hope of being rewarded for their good services, once these “killers” will detain power.

Gershuni was very lucid. Podrabinek too, who on June 17, 1994, published on the front page of his newspaper an article headlined “The rebirth of the KGB” . He noted that the political police was “regaining strength”: “It is indestructible, it rises again even after heavy blows, it is eternal. Like the mafia. Perhaps it is the mafia?”16

Gleb Pavlovsky identified a very different danger, as he said in 2018: the Moscow intelligentsia that “attacked Yeltsin, as it had attacked Gorbachev.”17 According to him, the “liberals” — that is, the supporters of rights and freedoms, opponents of an authoritarian State — had brought down the USSR and were therefore “the agents of the catastrophe”18. Putin and his supporters will agree. Pavlovsky added that he had begun to dream of another State that would “combine Soviet and Russian” in a kind of synthesis19. This is what Putin will do. Moreover, the former Odessite became more and more interested in the Kremlin, where Yumashev, whom he had known since 1987, played an active role. And Pavlovsky took a new turn, that proved to be determining for the next fifteen years.

The Fund of Effective Politics (FEP) and Yeltsin’s re-election

Upset by Gefter’s death in February 1995, Gleb Pavlovsky accepted the proposal of Andrei Vinogradov, ex-president of the very official press agency RIA Novosti: “to create a company for the elections with Mikhail Lesin” who was deputy director general of TV Novosti, a structure attached to RIA Novosti, and who would become the all-powerful Minister of Media in 1999. The Fund for Effective Politics (FEP) was born as a result of this proposal: this political communication agency was set up by Pavlovsky, Lesin and former Postfactum employees, including Maxime Meyer and Marat Gelman. A week later, the first client appeared: General Alexander Lebed (1950-2002), who had fought in Transnistria and had recently become close to the Congress of Russian Communities (KRO), led by Yuri Skokov and Dmitri Rogozin (the latter would manage RosKosmos, among other things, and be injured in Donetsk in December 2022). The FEP helped the KRO leaders in their campaign for the parliamentary elections, but the result was less than the 5% mark. A few more months and even the French press noted that Lebed had been “put into orbit” and financed by Yeltsin’s close associates, including Anatoly Chubais, to ensure Yeltsin’s re-election. The great maneuvers had begun, and the FEP was part of the new means put in place.

In fact, Yeltsin’s entourage was worrying about the 1996 presidential elections: everything indicated that Yeltsin would be defeated by the Communist candidate, Gennady Zyuganov, and that the Communists would reverse the reforms already carried out, including privatization. A double operation, based on a pact between the Kremlin and the country’s main oligarchs, was thus set in motion, the consequences of which are still being felt today. The oligarchs possessed fortunes, but also media: they would “lend” money to Yeltsin to finance his campaign, and put their media and their strike force at his service; in exchange, they would be in position to acquire the country’s main resources in 1997. We will come back, in our serial, on this operation. As for Pavlovsky, he played a role in this presidential campaign that became a decisive springboard for him.

The Kremlin, wrote Krastev, “was looking for ways to deprive the people of their vote, without depriving them of the right to vote” . Valentin Yumashev, who was already working closely with the Presidential Administration, contacted Pavlovsky even before the December 1995 parliamentary elections: he wanted the FEP to conduct polls on possible candidates. In addition, towards the end of January 1996, Pavlovsky proposed to Yumashev a campaign project for Yeltsin — whom until recently he could not stand, he said. Mikhail Lesin, then co-director of the FEP, was put in charge of the advertising campaign promoting Yeltsin. Igor Malashenko, general director of NTV, had to mobilize jointly the television channels of the two oligarchs Berezovsky and Gusinsky, while, from March 1996, the FEP took care of the other media — including the regional press and the Internet. It was then that the FEP invented a whole series of tools, effective, but not very glorious.

For example, the FEP published fake Communist programs in the press and sticked fake CP stickers all over Moscow. “I always had them in my pocket, and wherever I went, in every elevator, I put a red sticker, supposedly in the name of the Communist Party, “Your building must be nationalized”.” These stickers were sturdy and hard to tear off. The idea was to scare people with the possible consequences of a Communist vote. The FEP, Pavlovsky confided, also shot clips in which actors played mad Communists burning anti-Communist leaflets. It spread rumors about so-called “Communist prostitutes” and used astrologers and their horoscopes: they spoke of a coming war between Russia and Ukraine, of a “satanic ship that had brought Lenin’s body” , and claimed that in the Mausoleum laid not Lenin, but his double, “swimming in the blood of Russian children”20.

Don’t such means destroy democracy at least as surely as they destroy the Communists’ chances of victory?

A text written by Pavlovsky was published on June 8 in the Nezavisimaya Gazeta, which belonged to the oligarch Boris Berezovsky: it asserted that the Communists would not accept their defeat, were already preparing for a civil war and collecting arms, and were in contact with Chechen separatists. Then the magazine Ogonëk, directed by Valentin Yumashev, claimed that the Communists were preparing to take power by force. Almost everything seemed to be allowed, if to show that Yeltsin was the only possible choice and that the victory of the Communists would mean Russia’s collapse, which Pavlovsky really believed. So there was no debate of ideas, just manipulated fears. Some of these methods — the use of actors, false rumors, images of dead children — would be reused by Putin’s propaganda, especially after 2013, and Pavlovsky admitted it.

Yeltsin won the presidential elections in the second round on July 3, 1996. Twenty-five years later, Mikhail Zygar, one of Russia’s best-known journalists, published a book: You are all free. How the elections ended in Russia in 199621. The Russian title (literally: “Everyone is free” ) means both that they are free and that they can disperse: there will be nothing more to see. After this victory, Anatoly Chubais was appointed head of the Presidential Administration, which, Zygar confirmed, would become “a new center of power” and even “gradually the key force in the State, much more important than the government or the Duma”. Gleb Pavlovsky would collaborate with this Presidential Administration till 2011.

More in the next issue…

Political scientist, historian, Slavic studies specialist, professor at the University of Rennes II, director of the Russian department at Rennes II, and researcher at CERCLE (Nancy II). She primarily focuses on power-society-culture relations in 20th and 21st-century Russia and issues of influence from 1920 to the present. Her recent works include Le Clan Mikhalkov. Culture et pouvoirs en Russie (1917-2017) published by Presses universitaires de Rennes in 2019, Les Réseaux du Kremlin en France published by Les Petits Matins in 2016, and La Fabrique de l’homme nouveau après Staline. Les arts et la culture dans le projet soviétique published by Presses Universitaires de Rennes in 2016.

Footnotes

  1. KRASTEV Ivan, Eksperimental’naïa rodina. Razgovor s Glebom Pavlovskym, Moskva, Izdatel’stvo Evropa, 2018, p.2/222.
  2. PANIUSHKIN, Valery, 12 ne soglasnykh, Moskva, Zakharov, 2009, p.39.
  3. According to a later version, the dacha of Alexeyev-Popov was searched after a denunciation. BEKBOULATOVA Taisya, op. cit.
  4. The information on this case comes, for the most part, from the samizdat magazine Khronika tekouchtchikh sobytiï, #34, 35, 37, 38 and 40. See also: BEKBOULATOVA Taisiya, “Dissident, kotoryi stal ideologom Putina,” Meduza, July 9, 2018.
  5. KRASTEV Ivan, op. cit., p.99 / 222.
  6. BEKBOULATOVA Taisiya, op. cit.
  7. BEKBOULATOVA Taisya, op. cit.
  8. Ibid, p.130 / 222.
  9. Ibid, p.130 / 222.
  10. Ibid, p.138 / 222.
  11. SIGMAN Carole, Political clubs and perestroika in Russia. Subversion without dissent, Paris, Éditions Karthala, 2009, p.146.
  12. Ibid, p.155.
  13. Ibid, p.174.
  14. KRASTEV Ivan, op. cit. p.148 / 222.
  15. PODRABINEK Alexander, “Velikaïa sila dezinformatsiï” , Ekspress-Khronika, April 1, 1994, #13 (347), p.4.
  16. PODRABINEK Alexander, “Vozrojdenie KGB” , Ekspress-Xronika, 17 June 1994, #24 (358), p.1.
  17. KRASTEV Ivan, op. cit. p.166 / 222.
  18. Ibid, p.45/222.
  19. Ibid, p.167 / 222.
  20. Ibid, p.176-177 / 222.
  21. ZYGAR’ Mixail, Vse svobodny. Istoriïa o tom, kak v 1996 godou v Rossii zakontchilis vybory, Moskva, Alpina, 2021.

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