Putin and His Judo Cronies
Why the Russian president is turning to his fellow martial artists to staff an efficient and loyal security force.
Vladimir Putin, perhaps the world’s most famous judo black belt, is passionate about his sport — and not just in the dojo, but in the Kremlin. Welcome to the age of the "judocracy" in Russia, where the thinking seems to be: Those who spar together, stay together.
The most recent example of this played out on May 12, when Putin appointed Col. Gen. Viktor Zolotov to be the first deputy interior minister and commander of the Internal Troops. A close associate of the president’s, Zolotov was the head of his personal security detail for 13 years — and, of course, he was one of Putin’s sparring partners. (So too was Igor Sidorkevich, once president of the St. Petersburg Judo Federation and now head of the military police.) With Zolotov’s promotion, Putin brings in the security forces even closer to him, and he is making sure that they are led by a man with the focus and determination he believes judo inspires.
To a judoka, as Putin said in 2012, "success depends on mastering what is within." And that could almost be the motto of Putin’s Internal Troops. It is a distinctively Russian force, a parallel army trained and equipped specifically for security operations at home. Its 180,000 troops range from ill-disciplined local reserves that secure nuclear power stations and police soccer matches, to the Independent Special Designation Brigades that bore much of the brunt of the fighting in Chechnya. The Internal Troops’s First Independent Special Designation Division is based in Moscow as an elite force for the security of the Kremlin.
While Putin’s approval ratings have hit 80 percent, he appears to understand that this support is potentially brittle. And while he has moved to transform himself into an avatar of aggressive and imperialist Russian nationalism, he also wants to make sure that the internal security apparatus will be both efficient and loyal if push comes to shove. And what better way than by tapping the judo fraternity?
As the Internal Troops would be the front line against any serious public unrest, it is no wonder why Putin wants a loyal and tough man in charge, and Zolotov seems the perfect praetorian-in-chief. The 60-year-old is a career "Chekist" — member of the security forces — who joined the KGB after his military service, then transferred to its post-Soviet successors. In the early 1990s, Zolotov was assigned as the bodyguard for the then-unknown deputy mayor of St. Petersburg, one Vladimir Putin. This relationship proved a lasting one.
Although Zolotov later spent a short time in private security, he packed his bags for Moscow in 1999 to work for Putin again. In 2000, he became head of the Presidential Security Service (SBP), and he held that position until last year, when he was transferred to the Interior Ministry, leaving one of his protégés, Oleg Klimentev, in charge of the service.
Zolotov not only exudes self-confidence, but also "resoluteness, purposefulness, patience, respect for elders, for comrades in the team." Those are the traits that one learns through judo — at least that’s what Putin said in the DVD, Let’s Learn Judo with Vladimir Putin. Not bad characteristics for a sparring partner — and certainly not bad ones for political or business comrades.
Billionaires Arkady and Boris Rotenberg learned judo alongside Putin as a teenager, and much of their business empire has been built on lucrative government contracts. Gennadi Timchenko, sanctioned billionaire former head of commodity trading firm Gunvor — and, it is widely rumored, the "banker" of the Russian deep state — was another old sparring partner and is still honorary chair of St. Petersburg’s Yavara-Neva judo club. Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Trutnev co-founded the Russian Union of Martial Arts with Russian Atomic Agency head Sergei Kirienko, a fellow aficionado.
The rise of the martial artists speaks volumes about the way power in modern Russia is essentially determined by the favor of the autocrat. Factions in Tsar Vladimir’s court crystallize around institutional interests, charismatic individuals, common ideas, or shared self-interest — and even around sports.
Many of these factions overlap, but what is interesting is that the martial artists tend to stand apart from such existing groups as the "Ozero Dacha Collective," a clique of shareholders in an exclusive lakeside residential complex (including Putin), and the "Orthodox Chekists," who combine experience within the security agencies with a strong commitment to the Russian Orthodox faith. The martial artists rose not because of their wealth or their mutual assistance, but because Putin reached down and raised them up, seeing in them something valuable, something special.
After all, Putin, taciturn on so many issues, waxes lyrical on the virtues of judo. In his words, it teaches "self-control, the ability to feel the moment, to see the opponent’s strengths and weaknesses." No wonder these are his go-to guys in increasingly tense and challenging times. At a time when Putin appears concerned about the true loyalties of his elite, especially as targeted economic sanctions begin to force them to choose between the country and their global business interests, politics is, if anything, becoming even more intensely personal. In his writings on the martial art, Putin repeatedly returns to the theme that it not only "puts near total emphasis on the development of character" but that sparring gives him the opportunity to understand people’s inner qualities and learn on whom he can rely.
The president is narrowing his circle of confidants and allies, and making sure people he trusts are in charge of the key institutions of security and power. And there seems no better way to becoming one of those trusted praetorians than by letting Putin practice his trademark harai goshi sweeping hip throw on you.
Mark Galeotti is a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London and an honorary professor at UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies. His recent books include We Need To Talk About Putin and the forthcoming A Short History of Russia. Twitter: @MarkGaleotti