The Grim Reaper and the Whipping Boy: Why the Patrushevs Won’t Run the Kremlin

The Grim Reaper and the Whipping Boy: Why the Patrushevs Won’t Run the Kremlin

Despite his fearsome reputation as Putin’s top enforcer, Nikolai Patrushev’s and his son’s personal power base is too shallow to survive the potential death of the president. 

 

Editor’s Note: This article is the second installment in a series on the succession of Russian president Vladimir Putin. Read the first here.

Russia’s controlled presidential electoral campaign started in December 2023. Besides Vladimir Putin, the “election” features a gallery of buffoonish has-beens, Leonid Slutsky (Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, LDPR) and Nikolai Kharitonov (Communist Party). Vladimir Putin is assured reelection by a wide margin in March. However, we contend that a subterranean competition in Putin’s succession game is already underway. 

 

As we argued in our December 28 article in The National Interest, it is in the Kremlin’s interests to create the impression of an orderly transition, if needed, and long-term political stability and continuity. That article focused on Putin’s first cousin once removed, Anna Putina Tsivilyova, whose meteoric emergence in the Russian public sphere was remarkable. This article considers her potential rival, Russia’s Agricultural Minister Dmitry Patrushev, frequently depicted as an anointed successor, and his father, Nikolai, a KGB officer who serves as Putin’s chief enforcer. We will conclude that neither is a likely candidate. Still, examining their careers gives us a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the Kremlin’s stage-managed politics.

Some claim that only a masculine he-man-type can be king of Russia’s patriarchal jungle. But being a male has downsides, especially for the princeling Dmitry Patrushev, who has never served a day in the military. In a humiliating dressing-down, President Putin, during his press conference on December 14, 2023, made an off-color reference to Dmitry’s genitalia while criticizing his mishandling of egg production (in Russian, “eggs” can have the crude meaning of “balls”). Putin said: “I asked the Agricultural Minister, ‘How are your balls [eggs] hanging?’ He said they’re OK. Then I told him directly, ‘Well, for our citizens they’re not OK! Chicken egg prices have gone up 40 percent and even more in some places!’”

Due to his lack of popular appeal, as well as the intelligence services’ continuous clan rivalries, Dmitry Patrushev faces serious and perhaps insurmountable impediments. 

Before examining Patrushev Sr.’s chances, two revealing public incidents bear mentioning up front. In late October, bizarre rumors circulated on social media about Putin’s supposed death in his Lake Valdai palace. Supposedly, his flesh was being kept “fresh” in a freezer in the basement. At the same time, the Russian internet was buzzing with stories about Putin’s doppelgangers, or body doubles. A video of Nikolai Patrushev delivering Putin’s eulogy also made the rounds. The rumors are nonsense, yet many, in their eagerness for Putin’s death, took them with more than a grain of salt. 

What all these videos have in common, in our view, is they are AI-generated. Like the Beatles’ song “Now and Then,” the living Beatles, Paul and Ringo, used AI to enhance the recording. If one listens carefully, John’s voice is more Johnesque than the actual John Lennon. The doppelgangers featured in conspiratorial videos look and sound like Putin, but their mannerisms are exaggerated to a comical degree. And while Patrushev’s supposed eulogy sounds pretty much like his wooden self, the audio and the video are not quite synched if you watch his lips closely. These videos are likely produced in Ukraine or perhaps by Russian dissidents. However, the misdirection of foes is a hallowed Russian tradition going back to the frigid forests of Muscovy in the fourteenth century. As strange as it may sound, we cannot dismiss that the Kremlin was behind the production and dissemination of these videos.

On December 22, the Wall Street Journal published an excellent article pegging Patrushev Sr. as the mastermind behind Prigozhin’s execution in the form of an airplane “accident” on August 23, 2023. This article is a must-read. But there remain questions of sourcing, in which the Journal refers to “Western intelligence reports and a former Russian intelligence officer.” First, along with Putin, we did not realize the category of “former Russian intelligence officer” exists! Indeed, the only kind of “former Russian intelligence officer” that would leak this without Kremlin approval would be one with a death wish. The incentive for the Kremlin to “leak” this is obviously to try to reinforce the view inside and outside of Russia that the regime is stable. Putin’s Kremlin is all about projecting an image of continuity of power and policy, even after Prigozhin’s bizarre mutiny attempt last June.

Nikolai Patrushev: The Kremlin’s Grim Reaper

Born in Leningrad, Dmitry’s father, Nikolai (Kolya) Patrushev, graduated from the Leningrad Shipbuilding Institute in 1974. Consisting of one dilapidated building shaped like a ship, this humble college, located on the city outskirts, caters to the working class—a world away from Putin’s elite Leningrad State University. One of the authors personally strolled through this hoodlum-filled Shipbuilding Institute many times. It is hardly a Russian Ivy. After graduating in the top ten percent of his class, the diligent Kolya was recruited by the KGB and sent to a regional school in Minsk for operational training. 

By the 1970s, the KGB realized it could only manage, not halt, social decay in the USSR. It learned to embed operatives throughout society as if governing an overseas colony. According to General Alexander Mikhailov, “The KGB [during the Brezhnev period] was extremely professional in selecting its cadres. The KGB didn’t just stick with elites from its Higher School but instead found people who were suited for specific tasks: if they needed a physicist, they hired a physicist. If they needed a chemist, they hired a chemist. If they needed a pianist, they hired a pianist.” Mikhailov confirms, for example, that social infiltration included the KGB establishment of the Soviet Union’s first rock club.

But what to do about corruption within its own ranks? Working-class kids like Patrushev were essential cogs in infiltrating the infiltrators. Patrushev was assigned to the delicate task of conducting a “fight against corruption and contraband” among the rough-and-tumble lumberjacks of Karelia. This type of illicit trade was only possible with support from above, yet it required constant monitoring.

While Brezhnev (and his family) not only acquiesced to this corruption as necessary to maintain his rule, they actively benefited from it. Andropov, a true believer and the godfather of the modern Russian intelligence services, regarded the KGB as a means to regain control of the commanding heights of the Soviet economy by implanting its operatives within the corrupt clans. The secret services did not have the power to recreate the Stalinist police state, but rather—by masking its lack of numbers and exploiting “the psychological fact that the unknown is fearsome, mighty, threatening,” the KGB could exert significant social control. This late Soviet system functioned because clan rivalry between the KGB, the police, the Party, and the military created an informal system of checks and balances. Patrushev was one of the checks. 

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Yeltsin years, Putin fostered a return to this late Soviet form of rule. Gradually, the business empires of the oligarchs, whom naïve American advisers in the 1990s assumed would “stand up to the state,” were seized by Putin’snew nobility” of latter-day securocrats. A GRU officer, Igor Sechin, who took over Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s empire, was long considered Putin’s second in command. Likewise, KGB men Gennadi Timchenko and Sergey Chemezov, as dominant oligarchs, are also considered political heavyweights. In 2007, then-Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov and former KGB agent appeared to many as Putin’s most capable and likely successor. By contrast, Patrushev preferred to amass bureaucratic power by maintaining a low public profile as head of the amorphous Security Council. None of these figures inherited Putin’s throne. Instead, the nod went to Dmitry Medvedev, who, besides being the only candidate shorter than Putin, was the only one who had not begun his career in the former Soviet intelligence services.

Patrushev serves a specific purpose in policing the unruly former KGB, SVR, and GRU clans of intelligence officers. He appears to be the Grim Reaper of “wet work,” a trade euphemism for assassination. Rumors swirl that Patrushev was behind some of the most notorious capers: the poisonings of Alexander Litvinenko and Sergei Skripal, as well as the assassination of Prigozhin. Indeed, Patrushev follows in a long line of fearsome enforcers whose power derived exclusively from the ruler: Johann von Biron, Alexei Arakcheyev, Alexander Benckendorff, Lavrentiy Beria, Alexander Korzhakov, and others.

Patrushev’s systemic role and limited power came to light during the “Three Whales” scandal in 2003. Nominally concerning banal accounting fraud at a furniture store, this still unresolved case ensnared key members of the power elite, sparking a clan war that became a major early challenge for Putin. Putin handed Patrushev the unenviable task of tamping down the turf war. In 2003, a lead investigator, Yuri Shchekochikhin, died from a not-so-mysterious poisoning, a method that would become a trademark of Patrushev’s work. Viktor Cherkesov, an old-school KGB man, thundered about the need for intelligence officers to form a caste of saintly “warriors” that would hold in check the corrupt patronage networks of the “traders.” Patrushev, with a wink from Putin, had Cherkesov sidelined. As under Andropov, the corrupt parallel economy needs to be managed, not destroyed. Patrushev tapped down the “Three Whales” clan warfare but never extinguished it. According to Maria Maksakova, an opera singer, her husband, Denis Voronenkov, was charged to continue investigations into corruption at Patrushev’s FSB. Voronenkov was gunned down in 2017 in Kyiv. Patrushev must know that he has stepped on too many toes and that without Putin, he would suffer a fate similar to that of Lavrentiy Beria, Stalin’s notorious NKVD chief, who was tried and executed following the dictator’s death in 1953.