Searching the Internet for clues to the character of Vladimir Putin, I was mildly shocked by the possibility that we may have an acquaintance in common.
Of course an outsider’s attempt to probe the inner workings of the Russian leader’s mind is doomed to failure or to clues that would lead to false conclusions.
One perspective was clear; interpreting everything Putin says and does from a purely American or Western point of view will not yield any deeper understanding of Russian hopes — and fears.
Russia is a bear of history and, like the real thing, we don’t foolishly tempt hostile contact with her. We regard attempts to protect ourselves from roaming, hungry bears as reasonable.
No one in his right mind with a sixth grade student’s understanding of history would regard our actions as hostile. We don’t start wars. Our boys take up arms to stop wars, and restore peace. Why don’t they understand that!?
Viewed from the Kremlin, Putin regards NATO gobbling up prizes of the former Soviet Union — the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland — as anything but friendly.
He sees a picket fence of American missiles marking the borders of former Soviet vassals, and now he must think, “They’re trying to take away our good neighbor, Ukraine; when will this encirclement end? How do we stop it, short of war?”
“Short of war.” Putin is not crazy; he doesn’t want war. Nothing in his career — including mastery of the fierce sport of judo with its elaborate rituals — suggests anything but a very bright and determined student. It was his time in East Germany training spies to smoothly infiltrate the U.S. and Europe that raises the possibility Putin might have known the widow of British master spy Kim Philby.
Ruffina was Philby’s last wife, a sultry young woman, who succumbed to his famous charm and rescued him from his prodigious capacity for alcohol when he exceeded his epic limits.
At one time he had been the point man between the CIA and MI6 for counterintelligence while spying for the Soviet Union — an occupation that requires brilliance and an icy temperament.
After defecting to Russia, the Soviets gave him a large (by their standards) apartment but didn’t trust him and had nothing for him to do. From a high-wire act of spying on the spies of two nations to zero activity sent him into a deep drunken depression.
At one point Philby was so drunk, so much in love and so afraid Ruffina would leave him that he hid her shoes to prevent her leaving the apartment. In time she helped him become dry enough to take on a government job — training Soviet spies to infiltrate the U.S. and Europe.
In their old apartment, she told my wife, a dear departed Russian literary translator and me that some of his old students would come to visit the “beloved professor” in their apartment and share “war” stories.
Reading a New Yorker review of another book about Philby, it occurred to me with a minor jolt that, surely in the small fraternity of spymasters, Putin could have been one of the old student visitors or a colleague sharing ideas.
Philby is interesting not only because he fooled so many for so long but because he was so human, from the beginning, He was like so many upper class young men in the 1930s who rejected the narrow, stuffy snobbery of their class (right school and proper rain-in-Spain accent) and were beguiled by the false promise of communism — innocents rebelling against their own caste.
A close friend, Elliott, was a portrait of that class as quoted in the New Yorker piece:
“Like Philby, Elliott went to Trinity College, Cambridge” after which a knighted family friend “ ‘simply told the Foreign Office that I was all right because he knew me and had been at Eton with my father.’ ”
Among the useless advice the family friend offered was, “In the diplomatic service it is considered a sackable offense to sleep with the wife of a colleague,” and “I suggest you do as I do and not light your cigar until you have started your third glass of port.”
Philby never returned to that class, and as far as I know, never regretted it. As for Ruffina, she loved visits to friends in the U.S. but I don’t know how she feels about King Putin, who is reviled by her American friends.
At any rate, should I run into him, I will drop her name.
H. Brandt Ayers is the publisher of The Star and chairman of Consolidated Publishing Co.