Putin and Prigozhin went through an ‘amazing transformation,’ says former Kremlin speechwriter
Abbas Gallyamov used to have a pretty spectacular job: He was Vladimir Putin's speechwriter.
Putin was prime minister at the time, and Gallyamov worked for him on and off from 2000 to 2010. He said Putin was a pretty good boss. “Look, I understand it’s hard to believe it now, but actually he always seemed to be preoccupied with finding the most reasonable solutions to the problems,” Gallyamov said.
Gallyamov wasn’t Putin’s top speechwriter and didn’t communicate with him directly, but he was present at hundreds of meetings with the Russian leader and says “he was always very patient. He was never disrespectful towards others. He seemed like a good corporate manager.”
His proximity to the Kremlin meant that he also crossed paths with Yvegeny Prigozhin, the former leader of the Wagner Group who died in a fiery plane crash back in August.
That’s why the Click Here team sat down with Gallyamov to talk about both men and what he called their “amazing transformation” over the past year. Gallyamov now lives in Israel and has become persona non grata in Russia for his open criticism of Putin and his regime.
The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
CLICK HERE: So what was Putin like to work for?
ABBAS GALLYAMOV: It's hard to believe, but he was absolutely rational [back then]. He was perfectly logical. He always seemed to be preoccupied with finding the most reasonable solutions to the problems. You could never tell that he would turn into somebody he is now. Neither me nor anyone else could predict that the day would come that he would be destroying — let alone Ukraine, but Russia, too. After the war started, I was thinking a lot about why it happened, how it happened, how that kind of person turned into this kind of person.
CH: Putin is former KGB, so it's not crazy that he would seem to be one thing and turn out to be quite another.
AG: That's right. He was duplicitous. I met a lot of KGB guys in my life. It’s their peculiar feature, so maybe he was the perfect KGB guy from this point of view. But when I met him, he was in a situation where nobody was contesting his authority, which Ukraine is now doing. Nobody doubted his power. So he felt very comfortable at that moment, and that's why he didn't need to behave the way he's behaving now. So it's probably not that he changed. He has just now found himself in a situation where his power is challenged, both domestically and internationally.
CH: Did you ever cross paths with [Yevgeny] Prigozhin?
AG: Yevgeny Prigozhin became a political factor just one year ago, after the war started. Before this, he was a businessman and he was not involved in politics, just marginally in St. Petersburg on some local political [issues]. He opened a restaurant in the Moscow White House. It was a very good restaurant, I can say. This is the only contact I had with him.
CH: Did he come to your table? Did he interact with guests? Was he charming?
AG: When he was serving people, he was very charming. He was going around smiling and asking people if they liked everything, and so on.
CH: Did you ever expect he would become a military leader?
AG: No, of course not. Nobody could. It was such an amazing transformation during this past year. It was shocking. He turned out to be such a beast. Nobody could expect this, even Putin. Obviously, he took Putin by surprise. I think he took himself by surprise. He didn't expect this from himself, probably.
CH: Prigozhin seemed to surprise Putin with his so-called “March for Freedom,” when he said he would send Wagner fighters all the way to Moscow. When that began to unfold, what went through your head?
AG: Well, I was here in Israel and I had this great feeling of happiness. And I would say that a lot of Russians felt [this way]. I saw focus groups, which were conducted right after this event, and the dominating feeling was the mixture of anxiety and satisfaction. It's like in a horror movie, when you are afraid and enjoying it at the same time. On the one hand, Prigozhin is not a good guy; he is a criminal, he was an absolutely ruthless, unscrupulous, unprincipled, mean person. But on the other hand, he was literally doing what nobody else could do. He was shaking the system.
CH: Why do you think he stopped them from going all the way to Moscow?
AG: He didn't plan any coup. He is part of the system. He wanted to repair the system, to make it act more efficiently, but he didn't want to overthrow it. If Putin's regime collapses, Prigozhin would [have ended up] in prison. It was obvious. His message was simple: Hey, guys, if we go on like this, we will lose the war. We will lose the country. We'll end up in prison. I understand what is going wrong. I can fix it. Don't listen to [Defense Minister Sergei] Shoigu or [Army Gen. Valery] Gerasimov, and other military leaders. They are leading us towards an abyss.
You should understand, Prigozhin was not the enemy of the system. He was part and parcel of the system. Prigozhin committed so many crimes on behalf of the system to save the system. For him to end up in jail for life, of course he didn't want this. It was like a conflict [between] shareholders. They are all shareholders in one business. They don't want to destroy this business, but they're arguing [about] how the business should be run. [Prigozhin] wanted the board of directors to hear him, and the board of directors was not listening to him.
CH: You say it didn’t seem like he planned it.
AG: Yes, he didn't plan it. It was an emotional reaction, an impulsive reaction. That's why he stopped because all of a sudden he understood, Oh my God, if I go on further, what will happen? I will have to take over Crimea, and the whole system will collapse. And I do not want this.
CH: You are, of course, no longer Putin’s speechwriter. You were added to the most-wanted list by the Kremlin. Why?
AG: I was saying what they didn't like — [such as] giving interviews like I'm doing with you now. They don't like that. I have quite a big audience in Russia, so they decided that they should try to react to this. I'm not sure that they even tried to scare me away. They knew that I left the country with my family, so they couldn't reach me.
CH: In the end, it appears they did reach Prigozhin. How did you hear about his plane going down?
AG: It was evening, and it was my daughter’s birthday. I came back from the party and poured whiskey for myself. And at this particular moment, a Russian journalist started calling me and asking for my comments. Did you hear Prigozhin’s plane went down? So that's how I heard it.
CH: Were you surprised?
AG: You know, the strongest surprise — the first question that rose in my head — was why on earth he was flying on a private jet above Russian territory.
CH: What was he thinking?
AG: Well, when I heard [he was flying above Russia], I was thinking, Why? I think I found an answer — of course, it's just my supposition — but I think Prigozhin was too rational, he was calculating too much. So he probably thought, OK, there are too many extremely important projects in Africa, both economic and political. I'm the only manager, and Putin wouldn't want to risk this project, so he would prefer to negotiate with me. Besides, I never criticized him openly, so why should he treat me like his enemy?
CH: So he was sure Putin had forgiven him?
AG: He didn't understand how bitter Putin felt, and he didn't understand how important it was for Putin to send this message to the Russian elites: Hey, don't think that you can create trouble for me and be OK. For two months, after Prigozhin’s mutiny and before he was killed, it was like a shock to the Russian political system. It seemed that the old rules stopped working. How could it be that you could create such trouble for Putin — literally humiliate him in the eyes of the whole world — and then get new projects, new contracts. For Putin, it was of crucial importance to send a message: The rules of the game didn't change. If you create trouble, it will end badly.
CH: What do you think will become of the Wagner Group?
AG: Judging by what is happening, [the government] will destroy it [and] take all the people to different structures. For example, Rosneft, one of Putin's oil companies, they're taking them into their own security service. Maybe [some go] to the military, maybe to other law enforcement bodies. But the name “Wagner” will disappear. The political factor of Wagner will disappear. I think for Putin they're like a very bitter memory. He wouldn't allow this to continue.
CH: The war in Ukraine is grinding on. A year from now, where will we be?
AG: Well, nobody can predict what will happen a year from now. In half a year, we have a presidential election, which, in view of Putin's political weakness, might end up in a real revolution. Or Putin might choose a successor. This is absolutely a possible scenario. The country cannot wage war for a long time without risk of the system being overthrown. This precocious mutiny showed how quickly it might happen out of the blue.
You know, the Russian elites are absolutely sure that this war should be stopped, that we should get on the track of [normalizing] relations with the outside world. Putin is the only factor that is hampering this thing to happen. But since he's getting weaker and weaker, there is a chance that Russian elites would convince him not to risk the system, not to wait until it’s literally overthrown like 1917. And I think that in certain moments, Putin doesn't understand this.
CH: So the election is coming. If Putin sits down for talks with Ukraine, will that be perceived as a good thing or as weakness?
AG: Look, Putin will never sit down [for talks]. That's why I'm speaking about a successor. Putin is definitely not able to do this, and Zelensky is not going to speak to Putin. That's why a successor is necessary. So what Russia needs now is an adequate person, not [someone] like Putin who will go on like the Titanic moving towards an iceberg. [Russia needs] somebody more skillful, more diplomatic, a negotiator. There are a lot of people like this in Putin's entourage. He can choose somebody whom he trusts and who will negotiate for Russia — but will not yield Putin [and] will not send [Putin] to the Hague. This is a really good way out for Putin and this is where Putin's interest lies now.
Dina Temple-Raston is the host and executive producer of the Click Here podcast as well as a senior correspondent at Recorded Future News. She previously served on NPR’s Investigations team focusing on breaking news stories and national security, technology, and social justice and hosted and created the award-winning Audible Podcast “What Were You Thinking.”
Will Jarvis is a podcast producer for the Click Here podcast. Before joining Recorded Future News, he produced podcasts and worked on national news magazines at National Public Radio, including Weekend Edition, All Things Considered, The National Conversation and Pop Culture Happy Hour. His work has also been published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Ad Age and ESPN.