Since Vladimir Putin began his fourth term as Russia’s President, there have been no substantial appointments or resignations in his Administration or cabinet. All the key officials from Putin’s previous term retained their positions, and even Vladislav Surkov, despite rumors and leaks, has preserved his job as Russia’s special envoy for the Ukraine crisis.
This past week, however, a rare piece of significant personnel news arrived from the Kremlin. In fitting Orwellian fashion, it both is a new appointment and is not.
An executive order to appoint Valentin Yumashev, Boris Yeltsin’s son-in-law and an informal Putin adviser, appeared on the Kremlin’s website last week. The news made headlines, mostly because it soon turned out that Yumashev, once the head of the Yeltsin Administration, has been occupying this position in an unofficial, voluntary basis for the last 18 years. Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov explained that Putin’s orders on appointing Yumashev “had been signed before,” but were never made public. Peskov didn’t answer why.
More questions linger: why has Yumashev’s position only been publicly revealed now? Who did so? And what message does it carry?
First, it helps to understand who Valentin Yumashev is, and why his position is important in the first place. Yumashev is the core of the so-called Family—one of the most influential and powerful clans in Russia, which led Vladimir Putin to the President’s chair, in exchange for guarantees of personal safety and prosperity. The Family consists of Tatiana Yeltsin, Boris Yeltsin’s daughter; her husband Valentin Yumashev; his daughter Polina Yumasheva; her now-estranged husband, the recently sanctioned oligarch and aluminum king Oleg Deripaska; Aleksandr Voloshin, the former Putin Administration head known as the “grey cardinal” of the Kremlin; the billionaire and Chelsea soccer club owner Roman Abramovich, who recently relocated to Israel; Abramovich’s money handler, the Russian senator Suleiman Kerimov, who was until recently awaiting trial in France for alleged money laundering; Alfa Group’s Mikhail Fridman and Petr Aven, who visited Washington, DC in May to discuss sanctions in a private dinner at the Atlantic Council; and the billionaire Aleksandr Mamut, who infamously destroyed the independent media outlet lenta.ru in 2014 after the annexation of Crimea.
Others affiliated with the Family include the billionaires Alisher Usmanov, Viktor Vekselberg (recently sanctioned by Washington along with Deripaska), and the U.S. citizen Leonard Blavatnik. Ksenia Sobchak, the daughter of Putin’s former boss and former St. Petersburg mayor Anatoly Sobchak, is a kind of associate member, and received support from the Family for her fake opposition run for President in 2018. And the Family has cultivated other political creatures as well: most notably Vyacheslav Volodin, now the Duma Speaker, and Sergey Kirienko, the current head of the Presidential Administration.
Members of the Family have not merely been untouchable during Putin’s rule. They have prospered and have been repeatedly bailed out by his government when needed, from the early 2000s through the 2008 financial crisis and right up until the present. Today we know officially that Valentin Yumashev still has Putin’s ear, and has even had his own office on Staraya Ploshad all these years.
Citing a source in the Kremlin, BBC Russia reported that the publication of the order was a technical mistake. Mistakes happen, of course, and there is always a slight chance that this is true. But the explanation does not look credible. The source’s leak is more likely part of a bigger game.
The chief editor of Echo of Moscow Radio, Alexey Venediktov, told me that the Yumashev appointment came as no surprise: Yumashev has been advising Putin on a voluntary basis since 2000. But after 2003, when Voloshin left the Administration, Yumashev lost his influence within the Kremlin. Yumashev has kept up personal relations with President Putin, and they occasionally meet to discuss various topics. According to Gleb Pavlovsky, an ex-Putin adviser who has become a vocal critic, Yumashev functions as a middleman, a representative for particular business interests who appeals to Putin on an ad hoc basis when a situation needs to be resolved. But this has happened more rarely in recent years, according to Venediktov.
Former Yukos Vice President Leonid Nevzlin, who knew Yumashev and many of the clan members personally back in his days in Russia, doesn’t believe for a second that the order was published by mistake. Nevzlin says that Yumashev himself has been letting the world know about his close relationship with Putin, even saying that they address each other on a first-name basis and with the informal “you,” while everyone else addresses Putin as Vladimir Vladimirovich. That is why, according to Nevzlin, Yumashev himself has made his position public. Yumashev needs to reaffirm that he can provide a krysha for the clan’s businessmen and to show his rivals that he still has friends in high places. The message is intended for people like Igor Sechin, the powerful Rosenft CEO whose position against the Family Nevzlin describes as an “armed neutrality.” “Yumashev is sending a message: I’m still there, I’m a friend of the President, too, don’t even dare to go after us,” Nevzlin explains. In his telling, it is not so much a fight for power as a fight for the appearance of power.
The Bell reports that for almost ten years after Boris Yeltstin’s resignation, Tatiana and Valentin Yumashev did not appear on the news nor give any interviews. The silence was interrupted only in 2008 when Dmitry Medvedev was chosen by Putin as his successor. That is when the Family had a real chance to come back to big politics. Mikhail Zygar’s book All the Kremlin’s Men tells how Medvedev planned to create a new rightwing party and how Yumashev was part of those failed efforts.
Unfortunately for the Family, Medvedev’s succession didn’t last long. In 2012 Putin retook the office, and Medvedev’s position has only been weakened since then. Although Medvedev is still Prime Minister, he holds no real decision-making authority and enjoys the dubious honor of being blamed for Putin’s unpopular decisions. More significantly, financial groups around Medvedev have recently been under attack. The latest example is the shocking imprisonment of the Magomedov brothers, who are charged with leading a criminal gang under the guise of their investment group Summa. The loss of Arkady Dvorkovich, Ziyavutdin Magomedov’s man in the government, as Vice Prime Minister also hurt Medvedev’s standing.
All this has probably made Valentin Yumashev go public. It turns out that the Family members’ position with respect to Putin is more important for their survival than their reputation in the West. True, anyone in the business world who doesn’t want to be next on the U.S. Treasury sanctions list has rushed to distance themselves from Putin. Oligarchs have tried to escape meetings with Putin or at least avoid being photographed with him. Mikhail Fridman and Petr Aven portrayed themselves as international businessmen not connected to the Kremlin, and even criticized Vladimir Putin’s leadership skills at that Atlantic Council dinner.
But sanctions are not easy to escape, even harder to lift, and Igor Sechin, who is credited with sentencing acting federal minister Alexey Ulyukaev for eight years and the prosecution of the Magomedovs, each day becomes more powerful and more ruthless toward his rivals. Survival is at stake, and it’s time to choose sides.
Yumashev’s new-old position within the Kremlin is not the only effort of the Family to reposition itself. Petr Aven recently wrote a book about Boris Berezovsky and the 1990s that was widely criticized for inaccuracy and bias. Alexey Venediktov is the most vocal critic of the book, which he calls “not even fiction, but a fantasy.” According to Venediktov, the book’s only purpose was to portray Berezovsky, who committed suicide in 2013 in London, as a “petty devil” who didn’t play any substantial role in leading Vladimir Putin to power. Venediktov says the book was written at Aleksandr Voloshin and Valentin Yumashev’s dictation.
As a matter of fact, Berezovsky was the mastermind of the operation to make Putin Yeltsin’s successor in 1999. He was part of the Family then, but very soon he regretted his choice as Putin failed to be his puppet and reinstated his own force as President. Berezovsky departed both from the Family and Russia, infamously sued Roman Abramovich in London and lost, went bankrupt, and killed himself.
Another work of fiction came from Ksenia Sobchak, who has just released a documentary film about her father—Sobchak’s Case. One of those interviewed is Vladimir Putin himself. The film presents Saint Petersburg of the 1990s in the most romantic of lights, portraying her father, Mayor Anatoly Sobchak, and his deputy Vladimir Putin as idealistic democrats. There is not a single mention of Putin’s connections to the mafia, of drug trafficking through the city’s port and the related murders, and of Putin’s embezzlement of the hungry city’s public resources worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
In short, Yeltsin-era clans, and even Russia’s nominal opposition figures, are making their loyalties to Putin clearer than ever. Under these circumstances, it is hard to conceive of a major political change happening in Russia before 2024. Whatever that change will be we don’t know—but in the meantime, let no one be mistaken about the “liberals” from the 1990s, who have laid the groundwork for today’s authoritarian Russia and still pledge their fealty to its perpetual leader, Vladimir Putin.