Vladimir Yakunin, one of the most prominent establishment figures in Putin’s Russia, has written a thought-provoking memoir, The Treacherous Path: An Insider’s Account of Modern Russia (2018; London: Bitebook Publishing).
For 10 years, from 2005 through 2015, Yakunin was at the helm of Russian Railways, a huge company which employs over one million people. Prior to that, he was the deputy minister for transport and industry in St. Petersburg. He was close to Putin and also served as a KGB officer, a diplomat and an intelligence officer at the USSR’s permanent mission to the UN in New York. Yakunin gives very little away about his work for the KGB, choosing not to going beyond generalities.
During my time as Swedish ambassador in Moscow, and subsequently as the director of a Swedish timber company which worked closely with Russia, I met Vladimir Yakunin on several occasions. He struck me as a strong, determined individual, who knew how to get things done.
Yakunin finished his book in December 2017. To my knowledge, this is the first book written by a true insider within Putin’s power structure. The book has been highly praised by Western European political figures including Dominique de Villepin and Malcolm Rifkind as well as several Russian experts.
Yakunin views Putin in a favourable light, however, he is critical of its economic policy. He believes that Russia must invest in building long-term infrastructure and not quick-fix social initiatives, in order to, as he puts it, maintain stable domestic policies.
One of the book’s most compelling chapters is dedicated Yakunin’s return from New York to St. Petersburg in 1991 and how he witnessed the most severe crisis of the 1990s unfold. His observations coincide with my own. In other chapters, Yakunin describes how he went about implementing large-scale infrastructure projects, for example, building the Ust-Luga port in the Gulf of Finland, and organising new transport infrastructure for the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014.
Yakunin’s account looks at decision-making within the Kremlin and on the flourishing of both bureaucracy and intrigue, which also reinforces and matches up with what I myself saw in Moscow during my time as an ambassador between 1994 and 2004, and also afterwards.
He is an extract of what Yakunin says about the current foreign affairs situation:
“This attitude [Western sanctions] only serves to make regular Russians believe that the West represents an enemy and that as a result, it is time to draw back from the world, consolidate and fight back. This leaves no opportunity for conducting any kind of meaningful dialogue. The same is true of the constant personal attacks made on Vladimir Putin. It is no secret that Russians can shoulder a great many burdens, and bear suffering like no other nation on earth, but they will not tolerate being insulted. They experience an insult to their leader as if it is an insult to them and their country too. […] That is the greatest mistake committed by the leaders in the West. They just do not understand. The more the Russian people feel as if they are being attacked, the fiercer their reaction will be. That is dangerous.”
After he left his post as head of Russian Railways, Yakunin did a stint as the regional representative for Kaliningrad in the Federal Assembly.* Today he works primarily in diplomacy, promoting the idea of mutual dialogue within foreign policy. He has opened the Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute in Berlin and forged close ties with the Russian Orthodox Church. Anyone interested in understanding how power works in Russia, what drives Russian politicians, and what Russian society looks like today should definitely read this book.
Notes: The author of this article was a former Swedish ambassador, serving in Moscow and elsewhere, as well as acting as the state secretary of the Ministry of Defence and as a military equipment inspector. He is a member of the Royal Academy of Military Sciences.