In late December, an unsigned piece posted on a popular Russian-language blog, headlined “Companions in the Fight,” caused a stir on the Russian Internet by shedding light on a largely unexamined facet of the Russian President Vladimir Putin’s background.
While many analysts who try to understand and explain Putin’s worldview tend to focus on his KGB past, the “Companions” article suggests that Putin’s early exposure to the criminal underworld exerted considerable influence in shaping his way of thinking.
Putin himself has mentioned how street gangs of his native city of Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, made a mark on his memory. And in his official biography, “First Person,” he fondly recalls his interactions with a certain Leonid Ionovich, who served as his judo coach. The unsigned article goes on to elaborate on Leonid Ionovich’s character: his full name was Leonid Ionovich Usvyatsov, and he allegedly had connections to organized crime. He twice served 10-year prison terms – one on a rape conviction, the other for illegal currency dealings.
According to the blog item, during the time between serving his two jail terms – 1968-1982 – Usvyatsov came into contact with Putin. In addition, it asserts that other young men coached by Usvyatsov later became members of Putin’s inner circle, including two powerful entrepreneurs – Arkady Rotenberg and his brother, Boris – as well as Vasily Shestakov, a State Duma legislator. The article also claims that Usvyatsov in 1970 arranged for Putin’s admission to the prestigious Law School at Leningrad State University. Putin reportedly gained a spot under an athletic quota.
In 1992, when Usvyatsov was released after serving his second jail term, Putin had already retired from the KGB, and was serving as a top official in St. Petersburg’s city government. At this point, the article states that Usvyatsov was a prominent member of the so-called Tambov Gang, a group that had become notorious in St. Petersburg for engaging in a wide variety of criminal activity. Two years later, Usvyatsov was killed in an apparently organized crime-related dispute.
The article goes on to illustrate some tangential connections tying Putin associates to the Tambov Gang. The article also suggests the Tambov Gang’s links to people in power may have been a factor in the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB officer who was poisoned with a radioactive element in London in 2006. Before his poisoning, Litvinenko tried to uncover possible links between Putin and the Tambov Gang, and had contacted a gang member who had moved to Spain.
An almost 500-page criminal complaint filed in a Spanish court last May alleged that some Putin political allies assisted members of the Tambov Gang, operating in Spain, in laundering money, according to Western news reports. Among the individuals identified in the Spanish court documents is Vladislav Reznik, who is a deputy chair of the Duma’s Finance Committee and serves as a top official in Putin’s ruling United Russia party. The Spanish criminal complaint was reportedly based on a decade-long investigation that included thousands of wiretaps and detailed examinations of property records and wire transactions.
Putin, via his spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, dismissed the allegations contained in the Spanish complaint as “total nonsense,” Bloomberg News reported.
In 2007, Vladimir Kumarin, who at the time was reputedly the head of the Tambov Gang, was suddenly arrested and sentenced to 25 years in prison. Spanish authorities monitored Tambov Gang members’ phone conversations in Spain. And, according to the Spanish court documents, several reputed gang members indicated that Kumarin was jailed on the order of an unnamed individual who was referred to only as “the Tsar.”
Three days after the “Companions in the Fight” article appeared, a popular journalist Viktor Shenderovich retold the story during a talk-show broadcast by the radio station Ekho Moskvy, which is the only major opposition media outlet still available in Russia. Almost immediately after it appeared, the show was taken down from the radio’s website and its listing was removed from the schedule of past programs. The program’s sudden disappearance merely heightened interest in the show and the original blog item.
Meanwhile, on December 29, a Russian film director, Valery Balayan, presented in Kyiv his documentary “Xуизмистерпутин,” a play on words that transliterated from the Cyrillic means, “Who is Mr. Putin.”
The documentary focuses on Putin’s time in St. Petersburg’s city government, working under then-mayor, Anatoly Sobchak. It covers an episode in which Putin, acting in his capacity as chair of the city’s Foreign Relations Committee, allegedly engineered a deal in 1991 to swap raw materials, including timber, oil and rare earth elements, for food. At the time of the deal, the Soviet Union had just imploded, and the city faced food shortages due to the collapsing economy and dysfunctional distribution system.
Citing Marina Salie, a former chairwoman of the St. Petersburg food committee (1990-1993), the documentary alleges the St. Petersburg government entered into contracts with dubious companies and fly-by-night firms. According to Salie, Putin signed export licenses, despite lacking the proper authority to do so. Various businesses received a total of $122 million for their exports, but the city never received any foreign food imports, Salie asserted in the documentary.
In his biography, Putin denied the existence of these licenses. Salie in the film exhibits copies of what she asserts are the licenses signed by Putin.
Much of the information contained in the “Companions” piece is impossible to independently verify. But the article creates an intriguing framework in which to evaluate Putin’s governing style.
Alexei Sobchenko is an independent analyst and translator based in Washington, DC. He has worked at the US Department of State and for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Born in Russia, he holds an MA in Modern History from Moscow State University.