Letters to a Young Dictator
Or, Letters from a Senior Autocrat to a Misguided Democrat
1st September 2022
As discovered by Ben Jesty
Cieo is thrilled to publish secret correspondence between Presidents Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelenskyy, as discovered by Ben Jesty.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022 was preceded by a flurry of well-publicised diplomatic activity as a ‘parade of Western officials sought to stop Putin from attacking Ukraine’. In addition to the overt diplomacy, much went unseen. We are delighted to publish recently discovered letters between Presidents Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Their correspondence began soon after the latter’s election to the Ukrainian presidency and shaped the soon to become public crisis. Putin, seeing himself as in every way the superior offered to mentor his ‘junior partner’.
The exchange offers a fascinating insight into the psychology of Putin and the arguments he used to justify his autocratic actions. In their debate we see wide-ranging arguments for and against dictatorship presented from each President. We also gain a privileged insight into their characters and the factors that shaped their world views. Some readers may see an ironic resemblance between these letters and those of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, or Christopher Hitchens’ Letters to a Young Contrarian. Those who take a stronger position on Vladimir Putin may see in him parallels with the senior devil in CS Lewis’ Screwtape Letters. It is striking that in this digital age, letters are the medium selected for this exchange. Putin’s aversion to the internet and email, believing them to be tools of the CIA, is well documented and explains his decision to write letters, with all the risks that entails.
Like C.S. Lewis, we cannot disclose how we came by these letters, except to say that they were smuggled out of Kyiv early in the war. To say more would jeopardise the safety of those who helped get them to us. It will surprise nobody that they were released with Zelenskyy’s blessing. Putin’s, belated realisation of this potential embarrassment may explain the assassination squads sent into Kiev early in the war to target Zelenskyy. This is itself a clue to their authenticity. Nonetheless, the editors have had to take due precautions to confirm their legitimacy. They will form an important part of the historical record which we believe should be brought to the world’s attention as early as possible. It would be disingenuous to pretend that we did not also have an eye on protecting our own professional reputations (the shadow of the Hitler Diaries haunts us still). These assurance processes have resulted in a delay to publication, but we trust our readers will forgive this as a necessary evil. They are assured that every word has been comprehensively vetted by a panel of leading orthographical, forensic, linguistic and cryptographical experts. We have tried, throughout this translation, to remain faithful to the original Russian styling but without compromising clarity. Readers will find some illumination of the origins of the conflict and can reach their own conclusions on the arguments presented.
22nd April 2019
Dear Volodymyr Oleksandrovych!
Regarding the Ukrainian Presidential Election
I write to offer my heartfelt congratulations on your election as President of Ukraine. You will have received telephone messages and faxes from many new friends around the world. Those in the West will no doubt be promising you friendship and prosperity. Beware their lies and temptations. No foreign power can replace the bond between Russia and Ukraine’s people. It is as the head of Ukraine’s oldest friend and partner that I write, in expectation of a close and productive relationship between us.
I observed your rise from entertainer to politician with great interest; you have already grasped the most important point that government is a performance. I have seen some episodes of your TV show Master of the People [Eds – Servant of the People. It is difficult to know if this mistake was a deliberate slight or just carelessness] and I applaud the way you have made fiction reality. The blurring of the distinction shows some genius and tells me that we can achieve much together if you approach our relationship with pragmatism. Now you are commencing the serious business of government. You will acknowledge, I know, that I have considerable experience in this area and that ‘the milk on your lips is still wet’ [Eds – Russian idiom synonymous with ‘wet behind the ears’]. I therefore wish to offer my support and advice, as a mentor if you will, to help you to secure your position and consolidate your power.
My first act as mentor is to encourage you to reflect on the limitations of democracy and how to counter its destabilising influence. Your securing of popular support for your campaign against corruption will be a very useful weapon when it comes to dealing with troublesome opponents. Some will say this is not democratic, but ‘democracy means a dictatorship of the law’ (if I may quote myself) and we make the law. We have seen enough examples of the diktats of so-called liberal democracies over recent decades to ask what exactly is liberal about them (except for their interpretation of the rules of the international order)?. In Kosovo, Iraq, and Libya they have overturned the rules because it did not suit them. They were strong enough to get away with it – there is a lesson there for us. I have been very vocal on this point for many years; you should watch my 2015 address to the UN General Assembly. Your pledge to end the conflict in the Donbas is an easy sop to the public, showing your appreciation of the soporific effect of peace promises. However, I can help you to achieve this and have some ideas that I will discuss with you anon.
For the time being let me reiterate my congratulations and offer the hand of friendship from one heir of Kyivan Rus to another. I am confident we will be able to resolve our small territorial disagreements and establish a mutually beneficial unity.
1st July 2019
Dear Vladimir Vladimirovich!
Regarding the mentoring of the President of the Russian Federation
Thank you for your kind letter of 29th May. You were right that I received many congratulatory phone calls, and indeed some faxes. I was surprised to learn that people still send them. As you know I am more familiar with the digital media of this century. I understand you are sceptical of these innovations; my parents are also unfamiliar with sending emails. I am therefore honoured to receive your letters and to reply in kind. In accepting your friendship I hope we can also be frank with each other. Your generous suggestion of mentorship is also gratefully received but I could not in all good conscience ask you to waste your precious time on me. I find I have no shortage of ‘friends’ willing to offer me advice. As Nelson Mandela observed; ‘I like friends who have independent minds because they tend to make you see problems from all angles.’ This is one of the advantages of democracy, although it perhaps does not always feel like it – I certainly understand your frustrations. Nonetheless I remain a democrat – I must remind you that in free elections I was elected with over seventy per cent of the vote. My conscience will not allow me to abandon the path my countrymen have chosen when I have been so critical of others who have failed us. We have lived too long under the dictatorships of others, even if they were our fellow Slavs, to consider a home-grown dictatorship. Democracy and independence may be messy, but they are dear to the hearts of Ukrainians as we showed in 1991, 2004 and 2014. We may be a young country but, like a child grown to adulthood, we are free to follow our own path, to succeed or fail on our own terms, free from the control of Mother Russia.
I must also dissent with your view that we have ‘small territorial disagreements’. I reiterate the illegality of Russia’s occupation of the Crimea and your encouragement of separatists in the Donbas. While we are being frank with one another, we know that Russia is attempting to destabilise the region and I respectfully request that you desist. It can do nobody any good and risks escalation. This issue is of the utmost importance and we must talk about it at the first opportunity. My staff tell me we have a telephone call scheduled for 11th July and I hope you will approach it in the spirit of peace.
On just such a friendly note I must also thank you for the kind gift of your 2019 calendar. I was delighted to see as I turned to July that you have taken inspiration from the hero of Servant of the People and are seen riding a bicycle to work. I take this imitation as the sincerest form of flattery and as a good omen for our future cooperation on many important issues.
16th February 2020
Dear Volodymyr Oleksandrovych!
Regarding the importance of strength and stability
It was good to meet you in Paris at the end of last year at the Normandy contact group meeting. I regret the failure of our peace initiatives and hope that 2020 will bring us both what we so dearly wish for. It is unfortunate we were unable to spend more time together discussing effective government. I propose that we leave the discussion of peace initiatives to our staff and concentrate on bigger issues.
This issue of security and strength is one of the most pressing issues that we face as leaders. I have known this since I was a child; did you know I had two older brothers who died before I was born? Poverty, disease, and war did for them both. Ever since I first learned this, I have known that strength is the only way to protect our people. And if I had ever been in danger of forgetting then Russia’s experience of economic collapse, weakness and humiliation after 1991 kept the lesson fresh. Countries like ours; vast and populous with histories of Western interference and war, need strong leaders. Do you remember the quote from Charles de Gaulle: ‘how do you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese?’ Well, how does one govern a country that covers ten percent of the world’s surface from the Pacific to the Baltic? A country weakened by isolation and mismanagement, by our ideological vacillation from communism to rampant free-marketism. It takes a strong hand and even then it took time to fix such a mess. And it was not by taking chances with things such as free elections. I could not jeopardise the nation’s security by allowing external agents to undermine us. We must be strong to be respected, even feared, but most importantly to have the freedom and time to act as we see fit.
This then is my second piece of advice to you; do not leave anything to chance, you must make plans to achieve security before you can do anything else. For both our countries, NATO and the EU represent a threat. They are just the latest manifestation of what Ivan Ilyin and Alexandr Dugin identified as the perennial competition between the West and Russia. For Ukraine, it is more insidious; they dangle membership of their clubs in front of you to distract you from Ukraine’s true economic and military partnership with Russia. Do not fall for it, nor their claims that democracy is the only legitimate form of government. If you have aspirations to meaningful, productive power you will ensure that you are not vulnerable to the vagaries of the ballot box.
I will leave you to reflect on my advice and if we are unable to meet again in person soon I will write to you about the importance of a national narrative to focus people’s patriotic feeling where you want it to be.
7th October 2020
Dear Vladimir Vladimirovich!
Regarding the importance of truth in government
Happy Birthday and thank you for your recent, astonishingly frank and personal letter on the importance of security [Eds – This could be a teasing reference to the subtitle of Putin’s hagiographic biography]. The Covid epidemic has prevented me from replying to you sooner. Your urging to look to both my security of position and the security of my country are intriguing. I will address the latter first. Once again, I must oppose your interpretation of the geopolitical situation; it is clear that the greatest threat to Ukraine’s security comes not from the West but from the Russian troops occupying the Donbas and Crimea. There are no ‘bigger issues’ for Ukrainian security. For the time being I will leave this matter to the negotiators working on our behalf.
In respect to the security of my position, there is certainly some merit to what you say. It seems to me an obvious weakness in the democratic process in, for example, the United States, that a President, three years into a four-year term, must look to re-election rather than governing. I agree that this is problematic. Nonetheless I feel a country is stronger for having healthy debate; I see dissent not as disloyalty, but when handled well as a healthy dialogue. In the United Kingdom they refer to the Loyal Opposition – entirely logical to them, but perhaps a paradox in our countries. Yet it is their model that I wish to see for Ukraine, not the Russian one. While I know you reject the social engineering of communism, your arguments in your previous letters for clamping down on opposition and restricting free elections is reminiscent of the communist era. That era produced many patriotic writers, such as Solzhenitsyn, Havel and Milosz, who opposed the regime that oppressed their people. Havel’s idea of ‘living in truth’ inspires me and I find myself a dissident against not just your idea of how to rule but also against those who have ruled Ukraine for themselves over the past three decades. I feel a personal sense of responsibility, as a Ukrainian first and President second, to lead this country, to do my work well and to be an enemy of those who would drag us backwards. My goals are the same as yours – to achieve prosperity and security for my people but I must disagree with you on the means to achieve the end.
You write of the importance of your childhood in inclining you towards authoritarianism; you were shaped by the Soviet Union. I was thirteen when Ukraine achieved independence. I remember the realisation that so much of what we had been taught for so long about the world was lies and the dawning sense of freedom and hope that there was a better future for the country. Hope for a better future is the epitome of political engagement and if I deny my people the opportunity to be political I deny them hope. I cannot go back to those dark times and am too conscious that history will be my judge and yours.
25th January 2021
Dear Volodymyr Oleksandrovych!
Regarding the importance of national narrative
Ah the idealism of youth (although you are one year older today I note)! I remember when I too believed that democracy could be the route to strength for Russia. Alas, I find that once one has power it is difficult to see anyone else who could wield it as well. Yet, I cannot go on forever and must in time, hand over the reins to someone else. I have a place on the Black Sea where I had hoped to retire with my extended family and to entertain old friends and foes confident that Russia’s future was secure and in good hands. This was the story I had hoped for myself, which brings me to my third lesson – the importance of creating and controlling the narrative.
You wrote of the importance of ‘living in truth’ – a curious concept, for what is truth, except the generally accepted version of events? Objective truth is hard to find, just ask any policeman who has tried to establish ‘the facts’ from eye witnesses – everyone sees things differently. We can combat this diversity of viewpoint by providing a unifying national narrative. In Russia we have our history as the Third Rome since at least the sixteenth century when corrupted Western churches left the Russian Orthodox Church as the only beacon of true Christianity. The increasingly morally decadent West has tried to weaken us ever since and came closest to destroying us thirty years ago. I unite Russians behind the need to reclaim our Great Power status through economic and military strength. Those who dissent from this narrative, like Politkovskaya and Navalny must be muzzled. Yes, it entails hardships for some, but Russians are accustomed to this and willing to endure, to paraphrase Milosz, a little totalitarianism for a hypothetical future.
I demonstrate our economic and military progress every May Day Parade and when I address the Federal Assembly. People are reassured: that modernisation is coming; Russia’s economy is growing; our Army is strong; our young people have bright futures. If they do not see it with their own eyes we just tell them it will come. Just be patient! Sometimes people need to be reminded of the threats we face and a terrorist incident or accusations of subversive foreign influence help rally people behind the overarching narrative. By highlighting the bad things about the past we show what progress we have made. Embracing anti-totalitarian heroes of the past, like Solzhenitsyn, proves that you cannot be totalitarian. People will willingly swallow the pill of Murti Bing and accept this illusion and live under a form of dictatorship while convinced that they aren’t. You understand this – you persuaded people to elect a television character to the Presidency. The more you can base your narrative in generally accepted ‘truth’ then the stronger it will be, but ultimately, you must not let the truth get in the way of a good story.
Now, I come to a radical idea that has been developing over the last year or so. I concede I may have been too effective in eliminating domestic rivals and I see no Russian of the next generation who can follow in my footsteps. As you have pointed out you have got to where you are today through popularity, which coupled with my methods of stage management could achieve great things. I would like you to consider becoming my heir. We will need to iron out some small bureaucratic technicalities but as we both know Ukraine is at heart Russian and a close union of our two states [Eds – The original Russian phrase – тесный союз – can also mean marriage] is a story waiting to be told.
15th March 2021
Dear Vladimir Vladimirovich!
Regarding your proposal of marriage
Get thee behind me Satan! You tempt me with the ‘marriage’ of Russia and Ukraine? You cannot be serious, but you are not known for your sense of humour. I assure you, any wedding must be a ‘shotgun-wedding’. If Russia is the Third Rome, are you the emperor? Would you adopt me as your son and heir – am I to be Octavian to your Caesar? I cannot be the first to have seen this side of you and so I say to you – beware the Ides of March! Let us put this suggestion behind us.
You have made a strong case for the necessity of dictatorship but once again I must oppose your argument and your narrative. Being Jewish, I inevitably dissent from your Orthodox Christian narrative. More importantly I must dissent from the orthodox narrative of the necessity of your rule which you have imposed on the Russian people. I believe you have succumbed to the allure of dictatorship, because you fear the alternative. As Aung San Suu Kyi observed ‘it is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it …’ You hinted at this in your last letter. In dictatorship you have become one with the Presidency, which means you cannot live without it and are trapped. You see your interests and Russia’s as united and support for democracy must become opposition to you personally. Nelson Mandela said that ‘courage is the triumph over fear’. One attraction of democracy lies in the constant refreshing of ideas and energy. I cannot imagine myself doing this job for more than one term and the idea of ruling for life seems like a prison sentence. Do you have the courage to step aside at the next election and let whoever may be chosen by the people become your successor?
My final word must be on security again. We must come to an accommodation that allows us both to hold our heads high. I urge you to not pursue this irredentist course to which you are wedded of trying to rebuild a lost empire. It can only lead to misery. If we cannot achieve this then I cannot see but to look elsewhere for our security. I know this will disappoint you but you have created this situation that has now been ongoing since 2014 and you are the one who can end it.
8th October 2021
Dear Volodymyr Oleksandrovych!
Regarding your recklessness
I find the tone of your most recent letter insubordinate, presumptuous and disrespectful! Who do you think you are to tell me what I think, feel and fear? Your stubborn refusal to face the reality of the geopolitical situation is foolish and misguided. You must see that resistance to the force of my arguments is quite useless. Ukraine belongs with Russia and cannot pursue a course separate to our interests. I would have thought the correction of the Crimea aberration would have shown you the inevitability of our reclamation of Russian land and people. Your refusal to recognise this reality in the Donbas perpetuates that conflict. Your use of the Army to oppose the legitimate desires of the Russian people there will create trouble for you in the future.
We have discussed the importance of a national story and clearly Ukraine does not have one – yours is an accidental country, invented by the Soviet Union and made a reality by the geopolitical tragedy of its collapse. How can a country with no national identity resist the resurgence of Russia, the country with which she has so much shared history? You are familiar I’m sure with the work of Carl von Clausewitz who wrote that ‘War is only a continuation of State policy by other means’. You will recognise no doubt the danger that your policy of resistance to closer union with Russia entails. I trust you will reflect on this and the impossibility that a war could lead to anything less than Ukraine’s destruction. We want only peace but will show no weakness – those who do get beaten.
1st February 2022
Dear Vladimir Vladimirovich!
Regarding the threat of war
I received with disappointment your letter of October last. I note with interest your insistence that you want peace while you have been amassing troops on our borders and threaten war. You appear to think that refusal to bow to your demands is justification for war and that we have no legitimacy. I see you have begun to persuade yourself of the truth of the lies you tell your own people. You have attempted to lecture me on the advantages of becoming an autocrat to further the interests of the majority – very noble! You remind me of another dictator whose irredentism and lies led to another war.
If you are determined on this course let me offer you some advice: you quote to me the most famous words of Clausewitz, I wonder if you know any more? He encourages us to fight to the last: ‘However small and weak a State may be in comparison to its enemy, if it foregoes a last supreme effort, we must say there is no longer any soul left in it.’ Ukraine has a soul, legitimacy, and an identity – we will defend our land, our independence and our ideals against a dictator who is intent on conquest by any means necessary. And we will have the advantage that our narrative is truth: ‘the purity of this struggle is the best guarantee of optimum results’.
The war rages on. Once Zelenskyy had resisted and rejected Putin’s proposals for autocracy and Ukrainian subjugation, this now appears sadly inevitable. The arguments contained in the letters reveal a degree of thoughtfulness and willingness to engage with ideas that some may find surprising.
It is tempting to portray Vladimir Putin as an irrational madman risking World War Three for the pursuit of a personal obsession. These letters portray a more human side. We see the personal experiences and professional traumas that shaped his obsession with Russian strength and security. We see the ghost of the democrat who aspired to modernise Russia when he first came to power in 2000 but became cynical and disillusioned and turned to authoritarianism as the only way to achieve his vision for the country. His belief that only he could steer Russia through the challenges set by the West and ensure her global influence. We even see hints of regret that he is trapped in a web of his own making and sees no way out. In reading these letters we understand the anger and desperation behind the wild throw of the dice that was the invasion of Ukraine.
In Zelenskyy we see a man who was not overawed by Putin but nonetheless reveals some of his own doubts about democracy and the best future for Ukraine. The temptations of the trappings of power hover in the background of his letters. He is dealing with serious matters but frequently his sense of humour and mischief comes to the fore. In so doing he appears to maintain an awareness of the inherent absurdity of a dictatorship which gives him the strength to push back against Putin’s increasingly threatening tone.
Both Presidents refer to the work of Carl von Clausewitz and it is to him that we will leave the last word. The fortunes of war are capricious and victory in battle does not guarantee success in war. The fundamental disagreements about the political and territorial future of Russia and Ukraine which is at the heart of these letters appear irresolvable. Whoever emerges victorious in the short term is unlikely to have reached the end of the story because ‘in war the result is never absolute’.
Ben Jesty has been studying for a Master’s in International Relations at King’s College London. This is his first published piece, written as part of a module on dissidence and resistance. It is dedicated to his son Alexander.
Picture: Kremlin.ru, CC BY 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons