Once upon a time, all too briefly, Anatoly Sobchak was a Russian
pro-capitalist politician. But recently he dropped dead of a heart
attack in Svetlogorsk, in the Kaliningrad district, and was laid to rest
on Feb. 24 at St. Petersburg’s Nikolsky cemetery. As it happens,
Sobchak was a key figure in the life of Vladimir Putin, Russia’s prime
minister and acting president. And that is why Sobchak was a very
It is not always safe to be a special person in Russia. In 1953
Stalin was a special person. And Stalin had a heart condition, just
like Sobchak. Officially speaking, Stalin died from a stroke on March
6, 1953. This was fortunate for Stalin’s associates. Some biographers
allege that Stalin was planning an extensive purge. Others speculate
that he was planning to start World War Three — to end his life with a
bang. Whatever Stalin’s plans had been, something interrupted them.
And such interruptions are contagious in Russia. As a matter of fact,
Maj. Gen. Kosynkin, who was in charge of Stalin’s personal security,
dropped dead of a heart attack two weeks before Stalin’s fatal stroke.
Special people are always dying of heart attacks and strokes. As
everyone knows, such illnesses are the No. 1 cause of death among type A
personalities. One of the most intensive type A personalities in
Russian history was Feliks Edmundovich Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the
Soviet secret police. Before his 50th birthday he collapsed and died
during a Central Committee debate in 1926. At one point Stalin’s
spin-doctors said Dzerzhinsky had suffered a stroke. Later it was
alleged that Stalin had shot Dzerzhinsky in the back of the head with a
revolver. That too is a stroke — of sorts.
Not coincidentally, Lenin died after a series of strokes. At one
point Stalin asked the Soviet leadership to provide Lenin with poison.
Sinister as this may sound, Stalin was responsible for Lenin’s medical
supervision. In recommending poison he wanted to ease his dear friend’s
distress. Of course, he had another reason as well. Four days into
this care-taking assignment Stalin lost his temper with Lenin’s wife,
Krupskaya, and called her a “syphilitic whore.” Fortunately for Stalin,
Lenin suffered a severe stroke that very day.
Imagine if Lenin had been able to get up from his sickbed.
As might be expected, Krupskaya did oppose Stalin for a short while
— something that Stalin never forgave. In keeping with his vengeful
nature, Stalin allegedly gave Krupskaya a poison birthday cake on the
occasion of her 70th birthday in 1939. After eating it, she was
hospitalized and operated on by Kremlin doctors who assured her death.
(This story was published in the West under the title, “Stalin’s Doctor,
Stalin’s Nurse.” It recounts a whole serious of poisonings, shootings
and phony accidents, including the murder of Stalin’s own wife.)
It has to be understood at the outset: when Russian officials
pronounce on the cause of someone’s death, they do so in politically
convenient terms which cannot be contradicted. In fact, historians are
so predisposed to accept the official Russian version of things, that
they would have also described Leon Trotsky’s death as a stroke — had
not Trotsky died in Mexico, where the local authorities noticed he’d
been killed with an ice pick. (Trotsky was Stalin’s chief rival after
the death of Lenin.)
Think how a Kremlin doctor might conduct an autopsy. First, the
doctor considers his own health. Will I be shot or arrested for writing
the truth? If the answer is yes, the doctor knows how to proceed.
Instead of writing “ice pick” or “poison cake” in the autopsy report, he
will write “stroke” or “heart attack.” In all probability, such a
doctor has a secret urge to write “embarrassing idiot” in the margins of
his report. After all, the doctor is clever enough to avoid a serious
health problem. Why was the victim not so clever?
And what of the diagnosis in the case of Anatoly Sobchak, the former
mayor of St. Petersburg?
When a clueless liberal politician, bumped and jostled by hidden
communist structures, obtains intimate knowledge of a secret police
officer and future Kremlin ruler, the clueless liberal might find
himself on the verge of death for months or years. Russian cardiologist
Nikita Sinegolovsky says that Sobchak was, without question, near death
for quite some time. After all, Sobchak had a heart condition as well
as a political condition. He had suffered more than one heart attack.
In October 1997, after being taken to the St. Petersburg prosecutor’s
office, Sobchak had a serious heart
attack under interrogation. The law professor clutched his chest and
collapsed. The state, at that juncture, apparently rested its case.
This only goes to show that in Russia a heart condition often mirrors
a political condition.
Even in a totalitarian state, stories cannot be entirely suppressed.
The KGB cannot prevent gossip from bubbling to the surface. In this
context, a Russian news program recently carried an interview with two
of Sobchak’s associates. Both gentlemen affirmed that Sobchak had been
perfectly healthy prior to his death. Both expressed doubts about the
Typical Russian paranoia, you say?
Sobchak himself gave an interview to Kommersant Daily shortly before
his death. In that interview he talked of attempts on his life —
attempts to kill him. “But thank God I am healthy,” he told the
When you think someone is plotting to murder you, there is protection
in such statements. You tell everyone that your health is good. You
express happy and optimistic sentiments, so that no one will say you
were depressed or suicidal. That way, when you collapse and die people
will be suspicious.
Sobchak wanted people to be suspicious.
The Russian press is full of rumors. New revelations may be at
hand. Or is the situation under control? Prime Minister Vladimir
Putin, the acting president of the Russian Federation, who recently
characterized his own career in the KGB as “a success,” was the deputy
mayor of St. Petersburg when Sobchak was mayor. It is an odd thing,
because Sobchak supposedly hated the secret police.
So why did Sobchak take Putin on as deputy mayor?
The West tries to contemplate Russia’s great sphinx, Vladimir Putin,
but they do not have the proper mental equipment. One cannot examine
such a life in a haphazard way. One must look at everything that is
known. KGB Lt. Col. Vladimir Putin, as a creature of the shadows, spent
the 1980s in East Germany. There he worked with a special KGB team
plotting a new spy network in advance of the demolition of the Berlin
Wall. According to former East German secret police officials,
interviewed by the British press in January, the KGB planned to betray
the East Germans as far back as 1984. In other words, the fall of
communism in Eastern Europe was a KGB operation and Putin was involved.
In 1984, the same year that Putin went to East Germany, KGB defector
Anatoliy Golitsyn asked, “How will the West German social democrats
respond when the communist regimes begin their ‘liberalization’ by …
removing the Berlin Wall? One can expect that Soviet agents of
influence … will become active.”
Once the new agent networks were set up in Germany and the Berlin
Wall was removed, Putin retired to Leningrad. There he teamed up with
Anatoly Sobchak — enemy of the police state. The naive may think this
an ironic twist, but there is nothing ironic in phony friendship or
phony liberalization — in poison birthday cakes or poison German
pawns. Sobchak might have been genuine, at first, insofar as any
politician is genuine; but the man standing behind him was pure KGB.
A genuine Russian liberal is always a good front man. The KGB gets
behind him as a farmer gets behind a plow. Sobchak prepares the ground,
the KGB plants the seeds.
Sobchak had been a university professor, a teacher of law in a state
founded on lawless order. Russian university professors, by most
accounts, were closely watched and policed during the Soviet period. It
is hard to believe that Sobchak became a Communist Party member only in
1987 and not at the beginning of his career in 1962. But maybe Sobchak
was a naive person, easily manipulated and easily exploited. Perhaps he
believed in Russia’s democratic future because he did not understand the
totalitarian past. In another time and place he would have been shot.
But in 1991 they made him mayor of St. Petersburg and they showcased
And now that his usefulness has ended, the Russian autopsy might say
“embarrassing idiot” on it, but instead it says “heart attack.”
After his near-death-experience at the prosecutor’s office in 1997,
Sobchak must have caught a glimpse of his true role. KGB defector
Golitsyn had glimpsed many such roles when he wrote in 1984 that “During
this period there might be an extensive display of the fictional
struggle for power in the Soviet leadership. One cannot exclude that at
the next Party Congress or earlier, Andropov will be replaced by a
younger leader with a more liberal image. …” Sobchak had fallen for
such a younger leader when he became a supporter of Gorbachev. But in
1997 Sobchak had reason to realize his mistake. The police state had
never ended. The Soviet Union was still in place, maintained in secret
by hidden structures and agent networks.
In 1997 Sobchak went to France for surgery and political
recuperation. After reflecting on his situation, he sought to make
amends. He returned from the West, declaring that Russia needed another
Stalin. The once proud liberal became a champion of Putin’s iron fist.
But Sobchak’s conversion came too late. Under Gorbachev he had lifted
his finger to the wind, he had carefully consulted the direction, but he
did not understand that there are other forces besides wind — forces
that do not forgive a betrayal.
When he was elected mayor of Leningrad, he changed the city’s name to
St. Petersburg. He had exchanged a Bolshevik name for a tsarist name.
And later, just before his death, he would have opted yet another
reversion — to save his skin.
In Russian politics one has to read the signs before one turns down a
dead end. Sometimes a politician is stupid and does not know that things
are run from behind the scenes, that they are run by a system of
Aesopian hints and physical nudges. But if one does not grasp the hints
or comply with the nudges, one simply collapses and dies.
Anatoly Sobchak did wake up from his liberal slumbers. In
summarizing the situation in Russia, he admitted, “We have not achieved
a democratic, but rather a police state over the past 10 years.”
Such a belated admission is not altogether expedient for the Kremlin,
even when mixed with neo-Stalinist admonitions. The ease with which
Russian politicians denounced communism and embraced capitalism was
never really questioned in the West. The equal ease in which they
return to communism, however, is bound to raise questions. Therefore,
considering the Kremlin’s way of evaluating these things, it was the
right time for Anatoly Sobchak to drop dead.
May he rest in peace.