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'How Did He Turn Into What He Is Now?' Former Putin Speechwriter Reflects

Russian President Vladimir Putin (file photo)

Political consultant Abbas Gallyamov used to be one of Russian President Vladimir Putin's speechwriters. In an interview with RFE/RL's Georgian Service, he talks about the back-and-forth with the Russian leader over drafting a text -- and his perhaps surprising pick for Putin's successor.

RFE/RL: How was your time as a speechwriter for Vladimir Putin? What was it like working for him?

Abbas Gallyamov: First of all, you should understand that I was never communicating [with] him directly. I was not the top speechwriter. Only the top one, the chief one, has the right to speak to the president personally. So I was quite high-ranking but still not speaking to him like I'm talking to you now. Yes, I saw him many times. I was present during meetings, both public and nonpublic; sometimes there were [just] a few people present at [closed-door meetings].

The Tavberidze Interviews

Since the beginning of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Vazha Tavberidze of RFE/RL's Georgian Service has been interviewing diplomats, military experts, and academics who hold a wide spectrum of opinions about the war's course, causes, and effects. To read all of his interviews, click here.

In my opinion, my general impression [of Putin] was that he was a good manager. He was very rational, very logical; you really couldn't imagine him at that time [doing] what he is doing now. He knew how to ask questions, he was careful not to press people when listening to their answers, because when you're a big boss and if you express your own opinion, then all the other people would try to support your opinion [instead of] expressing their own. So he was careful to [avoid this].

When the war started, I was always thinking, how could it be that this kind of man whom I knew many years ago, how did he turn into what he is now?

I understood that what I saw [back then] was him working on things, things which were very important but still not of crucial importance. They were not something on which his political life depended. They were not existential threats. It was not something like relations with NATO or relations with the Russian opposition, which was trying to overthrow him.

So, at that time, he was not dealing with personal attacks against him…. But whenever it came to blaming [him] for doing something wrong, he would quickly turn into somebody absolutely irrational and absolutely emotional. He is very much preoccupied with displaying strength. It's his fetish, he cannot imagine himself looking weak.

RFE/RL: Can you give us any specifics about the actual work? Was he giving you any pointers, like, "Guys, I want a speech on this"? And then you would write it and he looks at it and does some final editing…

Gallyamov: There were [only] very rare cases when he was taking care of the text beforehand. Actually, just two, three, maybe four texts a year. The majority of the texts, he didn’t check them beforehand. We were just [writing] them with the administration in general, [with] ministers, deputy prime ministers who were responsible for those fields. So [we'd] prepare the speech, give it to him, and he would look at it maybe in the car when he's going to some event, maybe half an hour before.

He speaks very easily. So it wasn't a problem for him. He would start reading the text and then he would see that he wanted to add something to it, so he [would raise] his eyes and speak on his own and then go back to the text. He didn't need to take great care of these texts beforehand. So, again, for him to check the draft and then give it back to you, this was rare. Only the main speeches were like this.

RFE/RL: Can I ask you about some particular speeches? What were the speeches that you got to write? Who, for example, was writing the speeches on foreign policy?

Gallyamov: You cannot claim any speech, which is [given] by the president, to be yours. Since he gave it, it's his speech…. It's always collective work. It's never like, you're writing it and giving it straight to him. There would be several more people who would always be looking at it and adding some ideas. So it's always a collective work, never the personal work of one person.

RFE/RL: When you returned to Putin's team as a speechwriter [after his first stint as president ended and he became prime minister] back in 2008, what did you have in mind? I'm going to work for Putin and do what exactly?

Gallyamov: I'm not sure I get the question. You mean the underlying ideology? I knew that I would get a promotion, that I would work in a much higher position than during the previous time I was there. So I would be writing speeches for Putin. I knew that, in general, the [direction] of the country was changing, it was like some bright future was [ahead] of us. Nobody could predict at that moment that Russia would turn into some kind of fascist state, as it is now.

RFE/RL: You aren't writing speeches for Putin anymore, and for quite a long time now. So, when did your breaking point come? When did you say, “I don't want to do this anymore”?

Gallyamov: Well, the real breaking point was in 2014, when I left the civil service, and I thought to myself, never again. I decided that I would never come back to the civil service, that I would not be working for the state [again]. It was 2014, right after (Russia's illegal annexation of) Crimea, and then the second breaking point was in 2018, when I already decided that I had a conflict with the Kremlin.

People really feel that if he doesn't change something, if he doesn't stop what he's doing now, it will ultimately lead to a revolution. And the whole system would collapse.

[By that time] I was already working as an independent political consultant, but still I had a relatively normal relationship with the presidential administration. But then, in 2018, the situation started changing from bad to worse for them -- their ratings went down, and the protest sentiment started growing in the country.

They started tightening the screws with regard to those who were publicly criticizing them previously. They were treating you with more respect [before], but now they started demanding more loyalty from you. They were saying, “You will get no contracts [unless] you speak like this.”

I had one quarrel with them, then a second quarrel with them, a third one,… [then] they sent another person to deal with me. And again, new quarrels, and little by little, they said, “You'll just starve, you'll have no money to feed your family.” They didn't threaten me with prison at the time. That's true; I wouldn't lie about this. They were threatening that I would lose all the contracts and I would be unable to work as a political consultant in Russia. So, at that time, I made up my mind and moved my family to Israel…. And the last breaking point was the beginning of this war. As soon as the war started, and I started criticizing it, all my [Russian] contracts [ended] immediately.

RFE/RL: You already mentioned how Putin changed from what he was like back then to what he looks like now. And I think the logical continuation to that question would be to ask: What do you make of his current speeches that he delivers? Let's take his state-of-the-nation address in February.

Gallyamov: The state-of-the-nation address was definitely a big disappointment. Because [there was] no substance at all. You know, the chief problem is now that he is still delivering nice speeches, but he has…changed the mode of writing politics.

Now words mean nothing. They mean very little. Now you should act -- it's war, you should win it. You cannot win it with words. Previously, during peacetime, you [could say] words, and they were working, and there was no other means of [doing] politics. Now it's totally different; you can't win a war by [just] speaking. So he's speaking, and every time he's speaking, people want to hear something, which would show that he is going to change something in his behavior and actions.

[But] every time he's [just] confirming that he's planning to do the same that he was doing before. And everyone knows that this leads to no victory; this leads to no result. And everyone is waiting; people understand that he is moving towards an abyss, into an impasse. And he's got to change direction. And every time he's coming out to speak, everyone is sitting and waiting.

Well, maybe now he will change [to a] new plan…[but] then he speaks about Plan A again -- complaining about the United States, about NATO, about Ukrainian fascists -- and people get disappointed. So this is the chief problem with his speeches now. The last one was exactly like this, too. He was trying to normalize the war. He was trying to show that the situation is normal, is under control. So it was just psychotherapy.

RFE/RL: And did it work? Did it work on his audience?

Gallyamov: No, no, no, of course not. People really understand that something [has to be] changed in his behavior and not in his words. And they again saw that he was inadequate, that he's ignoring reality, that reality is not allowing him to fulfill the aims that he set.... And he's still doing the same old thing. So the only thing which was interesting in this speech was probably the fact that he mentioned the future [2024 presidential] election, because everyone was expecting that he will probably have to impose martial law onto the country and the election will be canceled. And he said, no, there will be an election. And it was interesting because, for some reason, he decided to say this now, [when] we still have one year before the election.

And I understood that no speechwriter would write this by himself. It's Putin himself, because this is a question which deals with him directly. It's his own business. It's not something abstract. So, speechwriters are not writing such things. He, personally, for some reason, decided to say this. What does he mean? This was probably the only interesting moment.

RFE/RL: When you say that the public expects change, what is this public demand for change motivated by? Do they want something changed in order to win this war, or do they want to see the war end? What exactly does the Russian public want?

Gallyamov: If he manages to win the war, great. The public wants to [return] to the prewar state when everything was relatively peaceful. The rules of the game were relatively clear: no sanctions; [and] you could earn money here, and if you are sharing this money with Putin's elites, you’ll have no problem.

Abbas Gallyamov (file photo)
Abbas Gallyamov (file photo)

You are earning this money, you transfer it to the Western world, somewhere to France, to England, to America…. And then when you [take your] pension, you will spend the rest of your life somewhere in Florida or in some other nice places in the West. So this strategy was really clear. Now it came to an end. People don't understand why, because nobody believes in all this stuff about NATO, or Ukrainian fascists. Everybody understands that this was something which could easily have been avoided.

RFE/RL: So it's not morality that is at play here?

Gallyamov: No, no, no, no.

RFE/RL: So it's not "We don't want war because it's wrong." It's the material aspect of it: “We don’t want war because it's bad for business, bad for our standard of living.” Is that what drives the public?

Gallyamov: The main thing is [it's] not just bad for business, [but] because it threatens the regime with collapse. People really feel that if he doesn't change something, if he doesn't stop what he's doing now, it will ultimately lead to a revolution. And the whole system would collapse. And all of the elites, of course, they don't want this. They want stability.

And so, of course, it's not about morals and ethics. Russian elites are absolutely immoral; they're very practically minded. So if you could win the war and tighten the screws and make everything like it was before, great, but you can't win the war. And if you insist, [then] you will lead us to revolution. No, look, stop: You can't win the war. Let us do something else. Let us negotiate. Let's stop the war. Let’s end sanctions, let’s normalize the situation in the country. We don't want this [Kremlin-connected businessmen] Yevgeny Prigozhin with his hammer running around and threatening us. So this is the general feeling -- the situation has become absolutely abnormal. It's heading towards some kind of collapse. Nobody understands [what] this collapse would look [like]. But everybody feels that it's coming.

RFE/RL: You say that Russia is inevitably headed towards change. Is that a foregone conclusion or dependent on victory in Ukraine?

Gallyamov: Of course, a lot depends on victory [in Ukraine]. If Putin manages to snatch victory out of the jaws of defeat, then…this revolution is no longer on the agenda for some time. Definitely, it will come back because the conflict between society and the government is still there. [People are] already educated enough, smart enough, developed enough, modern enough to demand a say in the political process. They want to take part in the decision-making process, and the government is refusing them.

So, there is a clash, likely an existential one, so sooner or later it will come back to this again; but for some time, this victory will legitimize Putin, of course.
But it will not be so long as it was in [the] case [of] Crimea. That one lasted for at least four years; to a certain extent it still continues, it's still there a little bit, some remnants, but for at least four years it worked well. So now it will not work for so long, but [it will work] for some time, maybe half a year, maybe one year. The emotions of victory will heal the public wounds. There will be no euphoria, but [people] will be happy. Once there was euphoria, after Crimea, [but] they already know that it led to nothing good, life became even worse after that…. [People] suspect that maybe the future is not as bright as the official propaganda is telling us, but still, they will be celebrating the victory.

RFE/RL: Suppose that victory does not come and the war continues. Is there any chance Putin would be able to rally Russians around the cause of the war? And for how long?

Gallyamov: No, if he doesn't win the war, it will be really hard for him. His whole legitimacy is based only on the premise that he's strong, and he's always winning. And his failure to win the war which he started would show that he's no longer as strong as we thought he was. The magic would disappear,... people would no longer be enchanted with him. So the erosion of his legitimacy would -- the process is already under way -- speed up quickly. And within a year or two, he would really turn into a hated person, into an old dictator, an old tyrant. And when he is absolutely illegitimate, when he doesn't have his base of support, where he is now enjoying at least 30 percent, he might face the problem of an elite coup, or a military coup.

RFE/RL: I also wanted to ask you about Putin's potential successor. Do you think he has designated somebody as his chosen successor, somebody he can rely on?

Gallyamov: Judging by what's going on in Russian politics in the last couple of months, it will be [former President Dmitry] Medvedev again. Just at the end of December [2022], Putin appointed him as first deputy of the military-industrial commission, which gives big powers to Medvedev, and he can actively intervene [in the affairs of the] current government. And he is very active there. So, if there is logic in this thing, Putin's been rather erratic [during] the last year. Sometimes he's doing things which are absolutely illogical or contradict the things which [he was] doing before. But if there is any logic to this, then probably it's a decision to promote Medvedev.

RFE/RL: And why would he want to promote Medvedev?

Gallyamov: I think he will appoint him as prime minister in the coming couple of months when he understands that his new offensive failed. If he manages to win it, he would not change anything; he would be responsible for the victory by himself. But when he feels that he is failing, I think he will change the government, appoint Medvedev again, [and] make him a political prime minister, not just a technical one like before. That is, [Putin will] give him powers to control law enforcement and the military, and tell him: "Hey, go ahead, win the war. Now you're responsible for this.”

Then-Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev (left) with Vladimir Putin in 2013.
Then-Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev (left) with Vladimir Putin in 2013.

[Putin] would achieve two things. First, he would shift the responsibility onto this person, onto his future successor. He doesn't want to bear the responsibility for a defeat. He is the strongman and, for him, being responsible for defeats is the worst thing imaginable. He wants to make [sure he is] not to blame for this, at least in [his own] eyes, his friends, his entourage, history.

So, from this point of view, it's better to be responsible for an unsuccessful choice, for a mistake in choosing his candidate for successor, right? "Yes, I chose the wrong successor, but I'm not responsible for the defeat in the war."…. And if Medvedev loses and is defeated, it's [just] Medvedev's defeat, and in that case, [Putin] might try to come back and [say], “I'm sorry, he let me down, now I'll have to start all over again.”

RFE/RL: I understand the logic. What I don't understand is the name itself: Medvedev. Because I don't want to sound too skeptical, but when I asked you that question, “Who would you see as Putin's successor?” Medvedev would be probably at the bottom of the list. Because it's not 2008, when the entire world saw him as more liberal, more modern-minded. Now the entire world sees him as a clown. So what kind of prime minister might he make?

Gallyamov: Half a year ago, I completed a report on [Putin's] successor. It was in September. Then Medvedev was also not at the top of the list. There were other people. So I agree with your skepticism. I expressed it myself…. I was trying to see not what I think or somebody else thinks, but what Putin thinks. And I see that recently he started strengthening Medvedev. That's why I'm thinking that it [will be] Medvedev. If the past is a teacher, then, in the past two months, for some reason he's promoting Medvedev. And I think that Putin just trusts Medvedev more than others.

RFE/RL: Loyalty over competence?

Gallyamov: There are a lot of loyal people around Putin, but he didn't test this loyalty. With Medvedev, he tested it. Medvedev was the only one who was above Putin…. For four years (from 2008 to 2012), he was Putin's boss, and he still worked according to the agreement, and then he gave the throne back to him. Probably this was the most important thing, from Putin's point of view.

RFE/RL: Where does the Russian opposition figure in all of this?

Gallyamov: Well, the Russian opposition is either in prison or abroad, so the only thing they can do -- the best thing they can do -- is get united ultimately and declare that they are united and probably they can already start working on a candidate for the presidential election and start campaigning for them.

I am totally sure that all this Russian imperialism, all this Russian strategy based on conflicts with the Western world has exhausted itself now.

[To] show that they are still alive, they should start working to encourage their supporters [with a] program of future reforms, just to show people that there is somebody who is thinking about the future, because now everybody is so preoccupied with tactics.

With the current situation, there is a total lack of vision [regarding] the future of the country, and you cannot make a revolution unless you draw a bright future [for] the people.

RFE/RL: You mentioned revolution again. Would any such scenario involve jailed dissident Aleksei Navalny? If the revolution scenario materializes, can you envisage Navalny's Russia becoming a reality?

Gallyamov: Yes, he has a big chance. It's like with a battery: he's getting charged. He's in prison. He's not responsible for the current collapse. And people still remember him as Putin's chief enemy. So, when the regime collapses, it would be the natural reaction of people to turn [toward] Navalny and look at him and ask him what he thinks, what he's going to say.

RFE/RL: A Russian Nelson Mandela?

Gallyamov: Exactly. That's what I was going to say -- a Russian Mandela.

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RFE/RL: And suppose that Navalny's Russia does materialize. What would its foreign policy look like?

Gallyamov: Well, definitely it would be a normal, peaceful country, just like it was in the 1990s.

RFE/RL: You think that's what Russia was like in the 1990s?

Gallyamov: I am totally sure that all this Russian imperialism, all this Russian strategy based on conflicts with the Western world has exhausted itself now. It's like everyone feels that this has led us into serious trouble. It's like postwar Germany; this feeling is growing. And by the end, the regime collapses; this feeling will be overwhelming. The regime will not collapse before this feeling becomes overwhelming; it will collapse as a result of this feeling becoming overwhelming. So nobody would want to repeat this. And, again, the strongest idea in Russia will be like, "never again," like in post-Franco Spain, [where] everyone already understood that this course exhausted itself and that it should be changed.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
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    Vazha Tavberidze

    Vazha Tavberidze is a staff writer with RFE/RL's Georgian Service. As a journalist and political analyst, he has covered issues of international security, post-Soviet conflicts, and Georgia's Euro-Atlantic aspirations. His writing has been published in various Georgian and international media outlets, including The Times, The Spectator, The Daily Beast, and IWPR.