A Pedigree of Repression: Putin’s New Chief-of-Staff

Karl Vaino speaking at celebrations marking the 40th anniversary of the "liberation" of Estonia by the Soviet Union. Photo: Estonian National Archives

Vladimir Putin has tapped deep into a line of dependable Soviet era nomenklatura, reaching back to the time of Stalin, to appoint his latest chief of staff, Anton Vaino.

Vaino’s grandfather, Karl Vaino, was a second generation member of the Communist Party, who in 1978, was asked by Leonid Brezhnev to take over as the Party boss in Soviet occupied Estonia. The appointment brings up concerns about Vaino’s existing connections to former members of the nomenklatura in Estonia.

Karl Vaino’s Estonian parents moved to Russia after the Bolshevik revolution and settled in Siberia, where Karl graduated as an engineer from the Tomsk Military Railway Institute.

Recognized as a reliable Communist Party member and leveraging his Estonian roots, Soviet authorities sent Vaino to Estonia in 1947 and by 1949, he took a position working for the repressive nucleus of the Central Committee of the Estonian Communist Party. During this period, Estonians were regularly terrorized by Stalinist repression and tens of thousands of Estonians were deported to Sibera. As a member of the Estonian Central Committee, Karl Vaino would have known about and likely participated in the planning of Stalin’s mass repressions.

Estonian Communist Party First Secretary, Karl Vaino (left) hands a Communist Party anniversary flag to members of the Tallinn Communist Party in 1982.
Estonian Communist Party First Secretary, Karl Vaino (left) hands a Communist Party anniversary flag to members of the Tallinn Communist Party in 1982. Photo: Estonian National Archives

Much to the disapproval of the Soviet authorities, national awareness among Estonians slowly swelled in the 1970’s and in efforts to quell it, Moscow turned to Karl Vaino to carry out a program of sweeping cultural repression and Russification. With his broken and heavily accented Estonia, unable to communicate with Estonians in their native language, Vaino was loathed as Brezhnev’s Estonian repressor-in-chief.

Vaino’s efforts to suppress Estonian culture in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s were broadly rejected by Estonians – even resulting in a violent clash between Estonian youth and authorities during a rock concert in May 1980.  By the mid-80’s Vaino’s miserable reputation among Estonians was recognized by the Gorbachev regime and he was replaced by a pro-Estonian diplomat, Vaino Väljas, who was recalled from a posting in Latin America in hopes of calming tensions in Estonia. Vaino’s Stalinist era methods threatened to further fuel Estonian desires to reclaim national sovereignty.

After his dismissal, Vaino retreated to Moscow with his family and never again returned to Estonia.

Karl Vaino speaking in Tallinn in 1980 at the height of the Soviet russification campaign in Estonia Photo: Estonian National Archives/Kuznetsov
Karl Vaino speaking in Tallinn in 1980 at the height of the Soviet russification campaign in Estonia Photo: Estonian National Archives/Kuznetsov

This week, the Kremlin announced that Karl Vaino’s grandson, Anton Vaino, who was born in Tallinn in February 1972, is the new  Russian presidential administration’s chief-of-staff, replacing Putin’s friend and former KGB colleague, Sergei Ivanov.

Speculation about why one of Putin’s closest allies was removed from the top post is rampant but there can be little doubt that Vaino’s pedigree, rooted deeply in Stalinist era nomenklatura, was a factor in Putin selecting him to replace Ivanov in the top echelons of Russia’s power vertical.

In a recent New Yorker article, Masha Gessen lists possible reasons for the shake-up and reemergence of the Vaino clan in Moscow. Putin, she writes, “might be tired of the old guard. Putin might want to replace his old friends with men who owe their entire careers to him (a fine distinction). Putin might be planning to crack down in advance of the parliamentary election (of sorts) scheduled for September, or the 2018 Presidential election. Putin might be getting ready for an all-out war in Ukraine or elsewhere.”

Anton Vaino has served in the Putin administration for a number of years, including as a personal assistant to the Russian autocrat, for the past four years.

While having never studied politics, the younger Vaino has published two ‘academic’ pieces. In 2012, a Russian journal published an article about a unique device Vaino patented, named the “Nooscope”. According to Masha Gessen, the twenty-nine page article on the “Nooscope” is difficult to comprehend and provides a description of the bizarre device, “which ‘consists of a network of space scanners,’ and scopes out the noosphere. Or, as the article puts it, “The nooscope’s sensor network gives clear readings of co-occurrences in time and space, beginning with latest-generation bank cards and ending with smartdust.”.”

Diagram of Anton Vaino’s Nooscope
A diagram of Vaino’s Nooscope translated by Moscow Times

Vaino later published a book that according to Gessen, offers a recipe for Russian global domination using the principles of a Russian martial art called Sambo.

While the reasons for Vaino’s sudden appointment are foggy, there is little doubt that the Vaino family’s trusted role within the repressive organs of the Soviet nomenklatura helped pave the way for Karl Vaino’s grandson’s accession to the heights of Putin’s kleptocracy.

UPDATE: On January 29, 2018, Anton Vaino was added to the top of the US Kremlin-Oligarchs pre-sanctions list.

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