SOVIET HISTORY LESSONS
Françoise Thom: “Is there a great Russian voice today denouncing the
war in Ukraine? No, there is not."
Françoise Thom, one of the most renowned experts on post-soviet Russia, has been teaching contemporary history at the University of Paris-Sorbonne since the early Eighties.
Following the success of her first published work in 1983 — La langue de bois (The Wooden Language ) — on the Soviet partocratic style, which she researched under the supervision of the French historian Alain Besançon, she went on to publish a string of groundbreaking books. Establishing her reputation as one of the most original thinkers in contemporary Russian studies, she explored the progression of the country’s politics from Stalinism, to détente, to perestroika, and finally to Putinism and the war in Ukraine.
She was one of the first Western experts to expose the mafia-like nature of the modern Russian state and the moral decay destroying its society. These days her analysis helps new generations of scholars, policy-makers, and students understand the mentality behind the humanitarian devastation the Russian army is wreaking on Ukraine.
Earlier this year Thom became one of the contributors to Le Livre noir de Vladimir Poutine (The Black Book of Vladimir Putin ) edited by Galia Ackerman and Stéphane Courtois and published by Robert Laffont. In her three essays contributed to this project, she describes the economic power which Putin’s regime wielded over Europe since 2000, the modus operandi of its wars, and the evolution of the post-soviet mentality from the superficial repentance of Gorbachev’s times to the moral collapse of the present day.
Nicolas Miletitch in his conversation with Françoise Thom probes the most pressing issues facing Ukraine and Russia, and unpacks the ramifications of the ongoing war for the rest of the Western world.
Nicolas Miletitch: Where does your interest in the USSR and Russia come from?
Françoise Thom: My initial education was in the classics. My father — who, although a mathematician, was, in fact, very much literary inclined — influenced me by making me learn Latin and Greek, giving me a taste for classical culture.
René Thom was a mathematician, a recipient of the Fields Medal for his work in topology. He is best known, however, for the catastrophe theory — an attempt to model abrupt behavioral changes. For example, the transition from liquid to gas, or in human events from peace to war.
I studied Russian out of curiosity — I wanted to discover another language and to be able to read Russian classical literature in Russian. In fact, it was mainly a literary interest. Then I got a degree in Russian, applied for a scholarship, and found myself in Russia with that scholarship.
My interest in the USSR was originally more of a literary interest. I was not a communist — I never was, which I am proud to say — but at the time I was influenced by the type of instruction that we had in those years — very leftist, essentially Marxist. But I was neither a Marxist, nor a Communist. Thanks to my training in the classics I was able to resist that. I simply couldn't plod through that stuff.
N.M.: How can classical culture prevent one from falling into Marxism?
F.T.: When you've read Plato and Aristotle and absorbed them, you simply can't read Marx! What shocked me was the hatred and the culture of suspicion of the Marxist doctrine, even before learning about the results of its implementation, which I later saw in the Soviet Union. In the behavior of Marxists, I sensed cynicism and hatred that disgusted me. And that, I think, is precisely the result of having passed through Plato, through Euripides. Reading them had developed in me a kind of humanism that I simply could not reconcile with that ideology.
N.M.: When did you come to the Soviet Union?
F.T.: It was in 1972 or 1973. I was 22 or 23 years old, and I arrived in Brezhnev's USSR. I had come to study Russian and I was living at the Moscow State University. So I went to university, I tried to take classes, but it was so boring that I gave up. In the end, my education in the USSR became an education on the field and through friends. I was trained in the Soviet realities by my friends there.
I was lucky — I had good friends, many in the scientific community, thanks to my father's connections. And then I met other people, good people. I have been very lucky. I had a one-year scholarship to do my studies, but afterwards I worked for three years in a publishing house. So in total, I spent four years in the Soviet Union. That was enough to open the eyes even of the most stubborn!
I was lucky to fall into the dissident milieu in the USSR. My friends were not great figures of dissent, but they were dedicated people who typed samizdat texts. They could spend an entire night typing up a manuscript that was going to circulate from person to person afterwards… It was an environment that gravitated around Sakharov, a very particular environment.
At that time we would meet with friends over meals washed down with wine, exchange anti-Soviet jokes, discuss the new publications of samizdat, discuss topics as far as the eye could see…
Personally, I found that the dissidents did not take their political thinking far enough. That is to say that their condemnation of communism remained at an ethical level, but they did not see themselves coming to power. They were not thinking about what to do.
N.M.: Can we blame them, given the situation in the USSR at the time?
F.T.: I didn't blame them, but I thought it was regrettable, because I intuitively felt that it was necessary to prepare, to think about the type of constitution that should be adopted, about the respective advantages of one type of government or another... I thought of these things at that time. I could not imagine that the regime was going to fall, of course. No one could conceive it possible. That's why we didn't deal with this possibility. But I still thought that they should have been thinking more about politics. It's true that at the time dissidents thought above all about surviving, about helping such and such person...
N.M.: What books stood out for you at that time?
F.T.: There was Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago, which I started reading in Moscow in samizdat. The Gulag Archipelago was literally a shock… The text I read was typed. Archipelago was being read on foreign radio stations, and people took it down in shorthand, and then typed the text on typewriters.
The BBC, Deutsche Welle, and Radio Liberty in their Russian broadcasts read The Gulag Archipelago, chapter after chapter, following its publication in the Russian language in Paris in 1973.
Le Livre noir de Vladimir Poutine (The Black Book of Vladimir Putin). Robert Laffont, Paris, 2022. Pages: 464. ISBN: 978-2221265386.
La Langue de bois (The Wooden Language) by Françoise Thom. Julliard, Paris, 1986. Pages: 225. ISBN: 978-2260005254.
Written between 1958 and 1968, Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago was first published in 1973, and translated into English and French the following year.
Reading this book shook me. I was already becoming anti-Soviet even before reading it, at high speed, and it accelerated the process.
N.M.: Can we say that a good part of your understanding of the Soviet world comes from your stay in Moscow?
N.M.: Did any experts on the Russian and Soviet world have an influence on you?
F.T.: Not in the USSR, but when I returned to France, it was Alain Besançon.
Alain Besançon is an eminent French historian whose analysis of communism incorporates a metaphysical point of view that any totalitarian system is founded on belief and has pseudo-christian origins. In The Intellectual Origins of Leninism (1977) he comes up with the formula: “[Lenin] believes that he knows but he does not know that he believes.”
He and his seminars helped me. This is where I went from a visceral rejection of communism to a stage of structured reflection. It had started, of course, in the USSR, but I felt that I was not equipped conceptually. When I read Alain Besançon's book The Intellectual Origins of Leninism, it was a bit like reading The Gulag Archipelago. This was the second discovery that prompted me to abandon the classics and finally turn to history.
N.M.: Has working on the USSR, as you did, allowed you to better understand Putin's Russia?
F.T.: Certainly, yes! The ideology is no longer the same, but the methods of power are the same. When you look at what they are doing in Ukraine — the filtration camps, the displacement of people, the manipulation of the media — all these are Soviet methods. These methods have not disappeared , they remain — more than ever. The roots of Putinism stem from the USSR, from communism and gebism (a term which describes the situation in the Soviet Union where the secret police tightly controlled all aspects of society - Ed.), no doubt.
Putin’s regime was born from the osmosis of the organized forces that survived the collapse of the USSR: the secret services and the underworld. Its foreign policy is shaped by this dual influence. Classic diplomacy was dismissed. From the first year of his presidency, as a good KGB officer, Putin sought to put Russia in a position to recruit Western elites, blackmail foreign countries and, if possible, extort them. At the outset he placed all his hopes in the transformation of Russia into an energocracy.
From The Pillars of Putin's Foreign Policy: Recruitment, Racketeering and Blackmail, an essay by Françoise Thom published in November 2022 in The Black Book of Vladimir Putin edited by Galia Ackerman and Stéphane Courtois.
The Intellectual Origins of Leninism by Alain Besançon was initially published in French by Calmann-Lévy in 1977 and came out in the English translation in 1981 published by Continuum in New York. Pages: 272. ISBN: 9780826400147.
Schools for Barbarians, a critique of the French school system, by Isabelle Stal and Françoise Thom with a foreword by Alain Besançon. The Claridge Press, London and Lexington, 1988. Pages: 108. ISBN: 9781870626507.
N.M.: Is the war against Ukraine an old and long-prepared project of Putin?
F.T.: The war in Ukraine is one piece in a much larger checkerboard. I think Putin has been preparing for confrontation with the West since 2004. Things changed in 2004 with the Color Revolutions. Putin went on a paranoid trip in 2004. The project of confrontation with the West goes back a long way. Originally, Putin thought of grabbing Europe and kicking the United States out of Europe.
N.M.: Grabbing Europe by what means?
F.T.: By gas projects, essentially. In a gebist way, not in a military way. That is to say, buy the elites and make Europe dependent through gas and oil. That's why in the beginning relations with the United States were not so bad, because the Americans were busy with the war against terrorism. And so Putin thought he could get along with the United States. That was the original plan.
Putin first availed himself to the tools of the KGB: blackmail, which means that he gathered files on all Western leaders in such a way as to be able to blackmail them and make them dependent; and then the weapon of oil and gas, which is also an instrument of blackmail.
The second part is intimidation. We can clearly see that, especially from 2008, he began to massively modernize the Russian army with major projects: Poseidon underwater torpedoes, hypersonic missiles, those Putinian Wunderwaffen.
Wunderwaffe is a German word meaning “miracle weapon" which during WWII was used by the Nazi Germany’s propaganda ministry to mean innovative “superweapons,” most of which, however, remained prototypes and were never used in combat.
This way he acquired for himself the instruments of intimidation. In addition to seduction, blackmail, corruption, he used intimidation. We see that he was really preparing an operation against Europe and the United States.
A very important turning point took place in 2011, when part of the elite spoke in support of a second Medvedev term. For Putin, this was a terrible shock. And this is where he launched his project to nationalize the elites. So there is a domestic policy component to this foreign policy project. Which means that the will to confront the West is now also being fueled by the desire to cut off the Russian elites from their economic base in the West.
It started in 2012 with the theme of the nationalization of the elites. And the annexation of Crimea was also a means to achieve this end, by provoking sanctions against the oligarchs. Of course, he had other goals. Putin wanted to grab Ukraine. But Ukraine was to become a stepping stone toward the West. When he forced Yanukovych to choose the Eurasian Union, it was with a view to create a Eurasian Union from Vladivostok to Brest. (Viktor Yanukovych was the fourth president of Ukraine, serving from 2010 until he was removed from office by popular protest in 2014. - Ed.)
From 2014 — we can see it very well — he was preparing a big confrontation with the West. He began to build huge reserves of foreign currency, he chose to cut spending, he increased the retirement age. We can see that there was also a change in domestic policies: he began to press upon the Russian population this rearmament program, and to set aside reserves for the time of confrontation with the West. And then we have all this belligerent rhetoric, the mobilization of the economy… I show a chronology in my book of all these measures taken in preparation for the clash.
In the Ukrainian affair, the important point is, in my opinion, the ultimatum of December 2021, when he asked NATO to return to its 1997 positions. For NATO, it would have been an utter debacle to accept this ultimatum, meaning Russian hegemony on the European continent. And that's what Putin wanted. Because the Europeans would have felt abandoned by the Americans. We would have had Laschet (Armin Laschet, a German politician who served as Minister President of North Rhine-Westphalia from 27 June 2017 to 26 October 2021. - Ed.) in Germany, who was pro-Russian, and Fillon (François Fillon is a retired French politician who served as Prime Minister of France from 2007 to 2012 under President Nicolas Sarkozy. - Ed.), and people like that in France. Putin was not so far from succeeding.
I think Putin believed that his ultimatum could work. I studied the Russian media which reflect the Kremlin's point of view. Putin thought Westerners were going to allow themselves to be intimidated. After the Americans had bolted from Afghanistan, the Russians thought, "If they bolted like this, for nothing at all, before the Taliban, then if we confront them with our Kalibr missiles and our Poseidon, which can devastate the American coasts…”
They asked for everything and thought they would get it. They really thought that after the debacle in Afghanistan the pear was ripe — you just had to kick the tree a little and everything would fall into your hands. I am certain of it.
N.M.: So there was a serious misapprehension of the situation?
F.T.: Even worse than that! They were seriously mistaken. Intelligence works, but Putin is only given what he wants to hear. And all the Russian press was in agreement. I was going through the Russian press at the time of this ultimatum, and it was very clear. I could see what Putin could have been looking at on his desk: “The Westerners are completely flabby, they are going to capitulate…"
So for the Kremlin it was a cold shower. The first warning shot sounded in November 2021, when the Europeans, France and Germany refused to pressure Ukraine to capitulate with the Minsk agreements. In December, there was the ultimatum, which was already an escalation. And then, when the ultimatum fell flat, the Westerners and the Americans sent the Kremlin to hell, quite sharply, so Putin reasoned the way he reasons — in Judo terms.
He said to himself, “Ukraine is the instrument that the West is using against Russia; I will seize this instrument and turn it against them.”
Judo is a modern Japanese martial art which Vladimir Putin used to practice in his youth. One of the key principles of Judo is the use of the momentum of the opponent’s movement for one’s own advantage.
N.M.: And his revenge was to attack Ukraine.
F.T.: But in my opinion, this is directly related to the rejection of the ultimatum because he said to himself, “I will punish the Westerners. A victory in Ukraine will once again make it possible to intimidate Europe, the Europeans will once again completely deflate, they will fall under my thumb, and the Americans will be discredited.”
Putin thought that the Ukrainian government was going to flee from Kyiv, like the Afghans hanging on to American planes at the Kabul airport.
There is also something else that explains his particular ferocity against Ukraine. I make a parallel with Litvinenko. That is to say, Putin, like a good gebist, punishes “traitors." He considers the Ukrainians to be part of his gang who defected to join a "capo" across the Atlantic. His determination to punish Ukraine is the equivalent of poisoning Litvinenko. It was also, of course, meant to scare others.
But here, too, it turns rather against him. You just have to see how Kazakhstan evolves, even the Kyrgyz.
Putin thought he would scare everyone by punishing the “defector,” while, in fact, the reverse is happening.
I think that his genocidal relentlessness against Ukraine can be explained by this feeling of betrayal.
The atrocities committed by the Russian forces are not "blunders", but — on the contrary — the implementation of a deliberate policy of re-education of the Ukrainian people through terror and destitution. Here we find Bolshevik practices in their pure state: savagely conducted war, mass terror, kidnapping and systematic elimination of local political elites, mass deportations to Russia (women and children included), organization of famines to "train" the populations as the Bolsheviks had done.
From The Murder of the Peoples, an essay by Françoise Thom published in November 2022 in The Black Book of Vladimir Putin edited by Galia Ackerman and Stéphane Courtois.
N.M.: Are comparisons to the invasion of Afghanistan by the USSR — and its consequences for the USSR — relevant, in your opinion?
F.T.: I’m not very convinced by the comparison, because the scale is quite different. But I think it can lead, as a lot of experts say, to a crisis in an event of a really resounding defeat of Russia. It can lead to a regime change. A "Time of Troubles" and a change of regime.
"The Time of Troubles" was a time of lawlessness and anarchy in Russian history following the death of tsar Fyodor I in 1598. Russia experienced famine which killed almost a third of the population, became occupied by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and the crown changed hands six times in 15 years.
I don't think they can manage a controlled transition in Moscow in the middle of the war. I think that within the FSB there are people who are fed up with Putin. These kind of people are everywhere among the siloviki. (Siloviki is a term for the higher ranks of the army, law enforcement and secret police in Russia. - Ed.)
N.M.: Does the sometimes mentioned possibility of a putsch against Putin, originating in the military, the FSB, or the oligarchs, seem fanciful to you?
F.T.: Not at all. A palace revolution seems quite possible to me, especially if things go wrong. That is why it is very important that Ukraine be fully supported, because if ever Putin wins, the regime will become a new North Korea.
N.M.: Will the Westerners, the USA, and the EU support Ukraine all the way? Is there a strong enough perception of danger among the Westerners?
F.T.: Yes, I think so. Even if the Republicans in the United States get the majority, even then, they are not going to let go of Ukraine. I don't think the Trump wing is capable of challenging that.
N.M.: Regarding the Europeans, don’t you have doubts?
F.T.: The Europeans follow the Americans. They still need the U.S. guarantee. Germany and France are the weak links. But the Germans have nevertheless truly and deeply evolved. The French, let's not talk about it... France helps, it could be worse, but there is a strong Russophile current in France, which does not wish to lay down its arms.
And our government is not well-known for its consistency. I think what our government and our president lack is a backbone. Permanent superficiality, that is the problem, much more than submission to a pro-Putin lobby. And it's not good, because I think the country is ready, people understand the issues.
What is happening in Ukraine has opened many people’s eyes in France. I think something irreversible has indeed happened.
N.M.: Is the risk of a direct war between the West and Russia real?
F.T.: It cannot be ruled out, but I think Putin sees everything through the prism of his own security. He fears for his skin. If the Americans could make it clear to him that their missiles can reach his bunker, he would be more careful. That's our only argument, in my opinion. That’s the only deterrent we have left. Because he doesn't care about the Russians or any others, but he fears for his own safety. So, if we make him understand that he can “access paradise” in an accelerated way, he will think twice. That's all there is. If he knows that his own life is in danger, he will prefer to resort to more subtle tricks...
N.M.: Does Putin's propaganda sound like Soviet-era propaganda?
F.T.: We sometimes find the same themes. For example, the campaign against the Marshall Plan was in the name of the sovereignty of the European countries. The Marshall Plan was depicted as stemming from the U.S. desire to enslave Europe and to do away with the sovereignty of the European countries. These are the exact arguments that are being used today by Moscow in Europe: "Countries are not sovereign, they always look to the United States..."
Sovereignty, from the Russian point of view, from Putin's point of view, consists of two things. First, the ability to conquer other countries: a country is sovereign when it can agglutinate other countries, as with Russia and Ukraine, for example. The second point of the notion of sovereignty, in Putin's conception, is impunity. It is not a legal notion, but it is a guarantee of impunity, because he thinks of sovereignty the way a gangster does.
The United States is seen as a sheriff, the one who maintains law and order and that — for people like Putin, who made their fortune in the chaos of the Yeltsin years — is the opposite of what they need. They want to transform the international order to make it similar to the jungle of the early Nineties in Russia. That is their ideal: a world where the strong make decisions, make the laws, crush the weak. This is what they did inside Russia, and it worked for them. And they want to apply the same principles to relations in the international community.
And the United States is in the crosshairs because they represent the sheriff. It is the Russian anomic character that is at the origin of this anti-Americanism, which is the rejection of the law. There is no state in Russia, because there is no law.
N.M.: Is the role of pro-Putin influencers in the West important?
F.T.: The invasion of Ukraine changed things a bit. These people, in their publications, now say that we have to negotiate, that they do not completely agree with Putin… I think that the position of agents of influence is becoming more and more difficult.
At the Sorbonne, colleagues used to laugh at me when I told them that Putin means war, that he wants war. I've been telling them this for years! They did not believe me, but they remembered it, and some (after the start of the war in Ukraine) wrote to me to tell me how much they regretted not having believed me.
N.M.: Is Putin more dangerous than the Soviet leaders during the Cuban Missile Crisis?
F.T.: Yes! Firstly, because the regime today is much more autocratic than it was during the Soviet era. Even under Stalin there was the Politburo. Now there is nothing, there is only Putin.
Khrushchev had to justify himself to the Politburo during the Cuban crisis. He was being attacked for his foreign policy, for having come so close to war. He was being blamed for it. Today, Putin is doing much more than Khrushchev ever did. So it's much more dangerous.
The second point is that the Soviet leaders were still rational. While steeped in ideology, they were fundamentally rational, whereas Putin is not. He is being carried away by his resentment. He is a man of resentment, of revenge. He is settling accounts with the entire planet.
N.M.: How would one define Putin's ideology?
F.T.: It is an ideology that I would define as nihilistic. That is to say, there is no positive affirmation, there is no positive project. It's only negative. It's the idea that all points of view are equally legitimate. As Pomerantsev said, "There is no truth,” we are in total relativism.
Peter Pomerantsev is a Soviet-born British journalist, author of books on disinformation and Kremlin propaganda: Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible (2014) and This Is Not Propaganda (2019).
The Russian propaganda in the West, what is it? It is not any longer trying to convince us that Russia is better than the rest. Now the message is this: “Yes, we are corrupt, but look how many thieves and corrupt officials there are in the French government!” And everything is like that. I call it a propaedeutics of misanthropy: “We are all bastards, including you, so why pick on me, since the other people you are dealing with are bastards just as much?”
The logical conclusion is: “Don't meddle in politics, don't worry about it.”
It completely demobilizes people and it allows the tyrant to reign over an atomized mass. It's very, very toxic. I will not call it an ideology, but rather a propaedeutics of misanthropy.
Ideas are used in a purely instrumental way, to destroy the other, but they do not represent a conviction. It is a barrage of ideas directed against the enemies, and these ideas are chosen according to the harm they can cause.
There is no constructive project, but there is an appeal to nationalist passions. Putin would never be able to define what “the Russian world" is.
Comprende le Poutinisme (Understanding Putinism) by Françoise Thom. Desclée De Brouwer, Paris, 2018. Pages: 240. ISBN: 978-2220094267.
Le moment Gorbatchev (The Gorbachev Moment) by Françoise Thom. Hachette, Pluriel Intervention, 1991. Pages: 333. ISBN: 201018369X.
The Gorbachev Phenomenon: A History of Perestroika by Françoise Thom. Pinter Publishers, London and New York, 1989. Pages: 136, ISBN: 0-86187-
Les fins du communisme (The End of Communism) by Françoise Thom. Criterion, 1994. Pages: 226. ISBN: 978-2741300489.
Poutine ou l'obsession de la puissance (Putin, or the obsession with power) by Françoise Thom. Litos, Paris, 2022. Pages: 248. ISBN: 978-2268108032.
Beria, My Father: Inside Stalin's Kremlin. By Sergo Beria in collaboration with Françoise Thom. Bristol Classical Press, London, 2003. Pages: 320. ISBN: 978-0715632055.
La Marche à rebours: Regards sur l'histoire soviétique et russe (Marching Backwards: Insights into the Soviet and Russian History) by Françoise Thom, Sorbonne pups, Paris, 2021. Pages: 700. ISBN: 979-1023106862.
Beria - Le Janus du Kremlin (Beria - The Janus of the Kremlin) by Françoise Thom. Les Éditions du Cerf, 2013. Pages: 924. ISBN: 978-2204101585.
Géopolitique de la Russie (The Russian Geopolitics) by Jean-Sylvestre Mongrenier and Françoise Thom. Que Sais-Je?, 2018. Pages: 128. ISBN: 978-2130801580.
Cómo Entender la Rusia de Putin (Spanish edition of Understanding Putinism) by Françoise Thom. Ediciones Pialp, 2019. Pages: 192. ISBN: 978-8432151613.
The re-election of Boris Yeltsin as President of the Russian Federation in 1996, thanks to massive propaganda financed by the oligarchs, persuaded them that the masses can be totally manipulable, provided they are depoliticized. How to achieve this? By cultivating misanthropy. It was enough to broadcast day and night and to prove by examples that the entire human race was corrupt, lying, selfish, hypocritical and spontaneously delinquent. This devious indoctrination nipped the idea of representation in the bud: what good is a parliament, if all of its members are crooks and liars? What is the point of supporting a party, if all are the same and only think of filling their pockets? Conversely, this brainwashing justified dictatorship: because man was a wolf to man, only a strong leader could prevent the war of all against all.
From The Creation of Homo Post-Sovieticus: The Engineering of Souls Under Putin, an essay by Françoise Thom published in November 2022 in The Black Book of Vladimir Putin edited by Galia Ackerman and Stéphane Courtois.
N.M.: How can one explain Patriarch Kirill's total support for the war and for Putin?
F.T.: I think that the Orthodox Church today fulfills the function of the Propaganda Department, of Agitprop of the Soviet times. This is again a mode of power inherited from the Soviet Union. They are also in the process of destroying the Church in Russia. When you think of the prestige that the Orthodox Church used to have… Patriarch Kirill sawed off the branch on which he was sitting. Kirill is the head of the Agitptop, he is the equivalent of Zhdanov. (Andrei Zhdanov was a Soviet politician and cultural ideologist who has been described as the "propagandist-in-chief" of the Soviet Union from 1945 to 1948. - Ed.)
His predecessor, Patriarch Alexy, was smarter, I don't think he would have acted this way. (Patriarch Alexy II was the 15th Patriarch of Moscow and all Rus’, the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church from 1990 to his death in 2008. - Ed.)
N.M.: Let’s go back to the Soviet times: what influence did the dissidents have in the USSR?
F.T.: I think they had a role. We see this very well in Primakov's memoirs, when he speaks of "dissidents within the system.”
Yevgeny Primakov, senior KGB official during the Soviet era, was the director of the SVR (external intelligence) and later Minister of Foreign Affairs under Boris Yeltsin.
In my opinion, he greatly abuses the term “dissident,” because those people were running no risks, but he presents himself as a “dissident” within the system. We see that there was a kind of interface in the late Brezhnev period, and we see that also from Chernyaev's notebooks.
Limba de lemn (Romanian edition of The Wooden Language) by Françoise Thom. Societatea civila publishing house, Bucharest, 1993. Pages: 245. ISBN: 973-28-0247-9.
Anatoly Chernyaev worked in the International Department of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party in the 1960s and 1970s and served as a foreign policy advisor to Mikhail Gorbachev.
Jak chápat putinismus (Czech edition of Understanding Putinism) by Françoise Thom. Pulchra publishing house, Prague, 2021. ISBN: 978-80-7564-063-5.
We see that these circles were permeable to the ideas formulated by the dissidents. I think the ideas of the dissidents spread to this "systemic opposition.”
It's very amusing when you read the memoirs of all these apparatchiks and see that they all considered themselves “dissidents,” saying that if there had been someone else in their place, things would have been much worse… I think that the ideas of the dissidents — of course, not all — entered these circles this way and, indirectly, fed Gorbachev’s circle.
I regretted for a long time — and I still regret — that the dissidents did not think in more political terms. Because that might have had an effect. And perhaps this Russian autocratic matrix would not have been put back in place. The dissidents did not understand that what was needed was to prevent the return of the autocratic matrix.
Most of these reforming democrats believed that the best way to achieve reform was through authoritarian rule. And many Westerners also believed that. And that was fatal to them.
Politics became discredited, the very idea of a party became dirty. And the dissidents had not understood that the domain of politics and the domain of prudence is a domain where one can indeed seek the good, but not on the same terms as in personal ethics. They believed that once they had adopted the forms of democracy, everything was OK. There were elections, there were several parties, so everything was fine. And a lot of westerners have swallowed that too.
I did not believe that, because I saw the ideological underground, the gebists who were on the lookout, and who seized control of the political parties precisely by controlling their leaders.
N.M.: So the dissidents' fight was in vain?
F.T.: Not at all! But I don't think it was persistent enough. They thought they had won the game at the time when the game was only beginning. And at that point they really gave up. But in the West, they played a very strong revealing role, especially in France.
N.M.: The memory of those dissidents has practically disappeared in Russia…
F.T.: This is where we see the moral catastrophe in which Russia finds itself. Is there a great Russian voice today denouncing the war in Ukraine? No, there is not. There is no one with the stature of someone like Sakharov. There are, of course, people who are opposed to the war, but there is no personality of this kind. And there is no environment that would nurture them because obviously people are so dumb… I sometimes look at the opinion polls of Radio Svoboda on the streets of Moscow. The way they are sovietized brings tears to one’s eyes.
One would have thought that with the disappearance of the USSR and the ideology of Marxism-Leninism, the project of creating a new type of human in Russia would be abandoned. In reality, only the utopian part was thrown away. And the project of creating a totally manipulable homo post-sovieticus began taking shape within the KGB in the Yeltsin years. The Chekists were no doubt amazed at the success of their first attempts, which fueled their ambitions and encouraged them to believe that a much larger plan was realizable: to create a people in their image, totally cynical, devoid of morality, fascinated by violence and delinquency, galvanized by the instinct of the pack, teleguided at will thanks to daily injections of hatred and paranoia, trained to follow its leaders blindly to a precipice, like rats bewitched by The Pied Piper of Hamelin.
From The Creation of Homo Post-Sovieticus: The Engineering of Souls Under Putin, an essay by Françoise Thom published in November 2022 in The Black Book of Vladimir Putin edited by Galia Ackerman and Stéphane Courtois.
Beria: Oprawca bez skazy (Polish edition of Beria: The Janus of the Kremlin) by Françoise Thom. Proszynski i S-Ka publishing house, Warsaw, 2016. Pages: 992. ISBN: 978-8380970267.
Putin și putinismul (Romanian edition of Understanding Putinism) by Françoise Thom. Humanitas publishing house, Bucharest, 2020. Pages: 172. ISBN: 978-973-50-6989-6.
N.M.: Did you meet Vladimir Bukovsky back then?
Yes, I met Bukovsky in Paris. I sympathized deeply with what he wrote in his books and with his way of seeing the Yeltsin era — a vision I fully share. He really felt that we had missed the boat by abandoning the idea of a proper trial of the Communist Party.
I think he was a tormented person, a very intelligent, restless and passionate person. One of the most insightful. He saw the Soviet sides of Western life, and here too I completely agreed with him.
Translated from the French by Alissa Ordabai.
Le moment Gorbatchev (The Gorbachev Moment) by Françoise Thom. Hachette, Pluriel Inedit, 1989. Pages: 282. ISBN: 978-2010154034.
Nicolas Miletitch served as the Agence France-Presse (AFP) correspondent in Moscow from 1978 to 1981 before having been expelled by the Soviet authorities, and led AFP as its Editor-in-Chief from 2006 to 2009. He personally carried many key dissident texts and documents to the West and is the author of two highly acclaimed documentaries on human rights in Russia: L'Histoire Secrète de l'Archipel du Goulag (The Secret History of the Gulag Archipelago) and "За успех нашего безнадежного дела" (To the Success of Our Hopeless Battle). His book Trafics et crimes dans les Balkans about the organized crime in the Balkans has been published by Presses Universitaires de France in 1998.