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European Affairs | 16Jun2015 | Jerrold Schecter

The Bolshevik Code: kto-kogo? (who-whom?)

Who is Vladimir Putin,  and why does he behave the way he does?  Much has been written,  but little has been revealed. It has been said that Putin represents a return to Bolshevik rule.  But what does this mean?  Part of the answer may be found in “The Bolshevik Code,” the operational value system of the Soviet leadership before the fall of communism in 1991.    Putin is a 21st Century incarnation  of The Bolshevik Code,  and his conduct is better understood with reference to this Code.

Putin’s  character and  his  core beliefs, ingrained in his world view and  behavior, stem from  a conflicted  m�lange of  Tsarist authoritarianism and   Marxism-Leninism.    In  his  struggle for legitimacy  and   power Putin reflects the same preoccupations that shaped the  psychology  and history of old Russia.

Putin’s behavior fits a psychological pattern that was defined in the  landmark work of sociologist  Nathan Constantine Leites, a Russian �migr� at the Rand Corporation in Santa Monica, California, who  applied the principles of psychoanalysis to Soviet  behavior.   Leites’ two major works, The Operational Code of the Politburo, published in 1951, and A Study of Bolshevism, in 1953, analyzed Russian classical literature along with the   speeches and tracts of Lenin  and Stalin to describe and  define the rules of Soviet  political  conduct,  the  value system of the Bolshevik Code.

Pondering  Putin’s  erratic  behavior, his actions become less mysterious  when matched with and tested against the  rules laid down  in the Code.  According to Leites, the Bolshevik Code denies the rule of law  and replaces it with  the rule of the  Communist Party  and the supreme leader, the Vozhd.   A key adjunct to the Code is the doctrine of “the means justify the ends,” a precept clearly adopted by Putin.   

Leites argued that  the Bolshevik self image formed  before the October 1917  Revolution  did not change even after  the Bolsheviks took power. Soviet leaders “have continued to see themselves in the same position as they were in  relation to the tsarist government , i.e.,  out of power and in a dangerous position.” Their self image was that they had no legitimacy.

To buy  his own legitimacy  Putin  spent  a record  $51  billion dollars on remont, ( refurbishing,) and new building  of sites in  Sochi  for the 2014  Olympics  to  demonstrate  Russian prowess.

Let us examine  how Leites defined the  key elements of the Bolshevik Code and how Putin’s behavior and actions fit the Code:

Thus,  Lenin’s formula  of who-whom (kto-kogo)---the destruction of the enemy ---is necessary not only for victory but also for the survival of the Communist Party. The interest of the Party and the enemy are so incompatible  that their coexistence is unstable. In  1919, Lenin wrote, ”if the Party does not use violence against it enemies it lays itself open to violence from them; the question is only who will destroy whom.”

The doctrine of  who-whom was  exemplified in  Stalin’s  mass terrorism and purges, and Brezhnev and Andropov’s  selective repression of “enemies of the people” by placing them in psychiatric institutions. Who will destroy whom continues through Putin’s brand of selective repression.

Perseverance, guile and opportunism are keys to conduct in the Bolshevik Code. “The Party leadership,” according to Leites, “need  not be concerned with consistency in its public statements. Again, only effectiveness is important.”

Under  Putin, just as under the Soviet system, when the communist leadership  declared a new reality  all the forces of the government, police , military and  propaganda coordinated their efforts to create a new political  line.  Putin’s justification for the invasion of Crimea and eastern Ukraine fits this pattern as do the words and actions of  his Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov.

In fact, the falsification of reality has an  honored  tradition in  Soviet rule and even before the Soviets.  It is doubtful that Putin,   in his studies at the KGB’s  Higher School Number 1 in Leningrad in the 1970s, ever read Sociologist Margaret Mead’s 1951 study of Soviet character,  but it is worth noting. Mead wrote:  

“In Tsarist Russia there were attempts to give an appearance of reality and solidity to matters of dubious truth, as in the insistence on  written confessions as early as the seventeenth century or in the Potemkin villages…In Bolshevik doctrine, what the  leadership decides shall be done  is what history has already ordained  is going to happen (although it is also what needs the utmost effort to make it happen)…Nevertheless a great variety of falsifications and theatrical enactments of the ardently desired or the deeply feared do occur.”

As a good student of Lenin, Putin  follows Lenin’s  definition of compromise as  an act which can be exploited as part of a tactical moment and deception  to  weaken the opposition and create a new favorable reality. Any agreement can be canceled if the balance of forces changes  to allow Russian advantage. There are no rules for agreed procedures,  only pressure to gain immediate  goals.  Putin’s   scenario for  the  Russian invasion and seizure of  Crimea  follow  the Bolshevik Code.  The invasion of  Russian forces (“ little green men in unmarked uniforms and masks”) was denied  despite concrete evidence to the contrary. The cease fire of February 15, 2015 is continually  being violated.

When it comes to negotiating style the Russians, according to Leites, “strive to push to the limits of their strength, using verbal assaults as one of their means and trying hard and long for all their objectives, whether big or small. They fiercely resist anything  which seems to be a concession  unless a condition of duress requires them to retreat—then, perhaps, quite substantially.”
The readiness to falsify reality is the  keystone of the Bolshevik Code. In 1968, under Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet press portrayed the  Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia as  an attempt to  suppress “counterrevolution” and “German revanchism,”  code phrases for the revival of German influence. In actuality the liberal government of  Czech President Alexander Dubcek  was advocating “ socialism with a human face,” an attempt to  reconcile communism with modernization. 

The readiness  to falsify  reality to justify repressive actions is  an essential element of  Russian behavior in extreme situations. Witness  Boris Yeltsin’s public insistence in December 1994 that the bombing of  the Chechen capital  of Grozny had stopped even though the rest of the world was watching television footage of  Soviet aircraft  firing rockets at civilian targets  in Grozny.

In  September 1999 a series of bombings of apartment houses in Moscow,  and other cities   killed 300 people and wounded  hundreds of others spreading a wave of fear across Russia. A similar explosive device  was found and  defused in the city of Ryazan on September 22. The next day Putin, then Prime Minister of Russia, praised the vigilance of the inhabitants of Ryazan and ordered the bombing of Grozny  which marked the beginning of the Second Chechen War and  Putin’s rise to the presidency, succeeding Boris Yeltsin.  

In Ryazan,  the three Federal Security Service (FSB)  agents who had planted the explosive device were arrested  by the local police. The incident was publicly characterized as a training exercise.  However,  suspicions were raised that  the  bombings were a “false flag” attack  perpetrated by the FSB in order to legitimize the resumption of military activities in Chechnya and bring Putin to power. There has never been a  satisfactory public examination of  who was responsible  for planning and executing the bombings. Putin denied  he had any part in the bombings which aroused  strong  public anger and support for retaliation against Chechnya. The  Russian people’s reaction to the  bombings have been compared to the  terrorist attack on the New York City World Trade Center in 2001.

In March 2014  Putin  ordered the annexation of Crimea,  Ukraine’s  internationally recognized  territory,  with  Russian troops and heavy weapons.

For a year Putin and his Foreign Minister continued to vigorously  deny the  presence of Russian troops and heavy weapons in Crimea  despite photographic and  intercepted signals evidence to the contrary. Only In March 2015, a year later, in a Russian TV documentary titled, Crimea: The Road Back Home,  did Putin admit  what had been obvious for months.  Threatening more force,  Putin even said he was willing to arm nuclear  weapons if necessary.   Read the Bolshevik Code: More force is better than less force.

In the view of  human rights activist Vladimir Bukovsky, ”Compromise is a bad word in the Soviet Union. In this, ideology reinforced  cultural traditions. The traditional view of how a person should be is principled,  strong, honest. Ideology  reinforces this with the notion of  no compromise  with the class enemy. To the Soviet to call something a principled, uncompromising  position is a compliment. In the West,  it would be  called rigid. There is a belief in Russia that there is one Truth, and that you are supposed to try and achieve it, not compromise it.   This is  reinforced  by Marxism/ Leninism.”

The coup to oust Gorbachev in 1991 that led to the fall of the Soviet Union  and Putin’s revival of the Bolshevik Code  have brought forth new contradictions of income inequality in Russia  between the broad masses and Putin’s allies who have amassed  huge fortunes. Russians  still claim moral superiority for their system over the evils of capitalism, but  the  return of the Bolshevik Code under Putin has forced living standards for  the average Russian to deteriorate. Putin’s  best defense  has been to blame it all on the United States.  In his March TV documentary Putin openly  described the  Ukrainian revolution to oust Viktor Yanukovich in February 2014  as an armed coup “masterminded  by our American friends.” Putin has retreated to  the cover of  attacking the United States while defending  Mother Russia and its historical destiny to defend and recover Crimea and the former Soviet naval base at Sevastopol.

Putin’s new Russian authoritarianism has revived  the Hegelian dialectic that posits all events in an ever changing cycle of thesis, antithesis and synthesis. What was agreed upon by diplomatic consensus  can be changed by the new objective reality of invasion by force to defeat an enemy who cannot be permitted to strike first--- kto-kogo- who-whom. Kill or be killed----  expanding   the rule  of the  Bolshevik Code.

Jerrold  L. Schecter  is an independent Cold War  historian and  the author and co-author of nine books including Russian Negotiating Behavior, Continuity and Transition, United States Institute of Peace, Washington, DC, 1998

[W.Z. For a further exposition on the Kto? Kogo? thesis, see:

The Silence of the Lambs  Krytyka, 12Oct2014; Volodymyr Yermolenko
- Because KGB-styled Russia believes that either you devour, or you are devoured (Кто? Ково?), Volodymyr Yermolenko explains that, for Vladimir Putin, the West's tolerance is weakness and dialogue is failure to impose force.]