Alexander Voloshin - He's The Man
Alexander Voloshin—He's The Man

Birthday Boy

A Week in the Life of the Kremlin Chief of Staff

A Stringer/eXile Exclusive
By Matt Taibbi (

By most accounts, he’s at least the second-most powerful man in Russia, after President Vladimir Putin.

According to a significant minority, his status is even greater. There are many observers who believe that Kremlin Chief of Staff Alexander Voloshin is not merely the man whispering in the king’s ear, but the gatekeeper to the throne, whose good graces Putin himself once had to court in order to pass. Although the full story has never been told satisfactorily, most versions of the maneuverings within the Kremlin during the summer of 1999—which landed Putin in the post of Prime Minister—have Voloshin occupying a central role, brokering Putin’s ascension.

Then as now, the balding, bearded, shifty-eyed Voloshin was the Kremlin Chief of Staff, only then he was serving under ailing president Boris Yeltsin. He was considered a central figure in the Yeltsin “Family,” the privileged group of court insiders who surrounded Yeltsin in the waning days of his rule. He was known to enjoy a close relationship with Yeltsin’s daughter, Tatyana Dyachenko, and was long thought to be a henchman for another key “Family” member, the notorious businessman and oligarch Boris Berezovsky.

Years before, Voloshin’s name was linked to Berezovsky’s in the scandal surrounding the AVVA, a kind of Russian national car, modeled after the Volkswagen, that Berezovsky had proposed building. Together with Voloshin, who worked on the project, Berezovsky raised an enormous amount of capital to finance the construction of the AVVA. But as so often happens in Russia, the car was never built, the money disappeared, and everyone involved got promoted—Berezovsky assumed control over a large part of Russian industry, and Voloshin began to advance quietly in government, eventually becoming Yeltsin’s right-hand man.

Because of this link, it was frequently speculated that the decision to put forward the unknown KGB veteran Vladimir Putin as a candidate for Prime Minister that summer was conceived by Berezovsky, with the faithful Voloshin merely executing the plan.

Two years later, however, Berezovsky is out, his commercial empire is in ruins, and he is facing a series of criminal investigations. Voloshin, meanwhile, has remained in place as Putin’s Chief of Staff. To the surprise of many, Voloshin also survived Putin’s first major cabinet reshuffling last month. There was speculation that Putin would dispense with all of the major holdovers from the Yeltsin era once he’d completed his first year in office. Staying power through successive periods of purges is rare in Russian national politics; Voloshin’s ability to remain entrenched in the Kremlin over the course of the last few years suggests that there is some compelling reason why he has not suffered from his associations with either the mafia overlord Berezovsky, or the deposed monarch Yeltsin.

Which brings us to the present. A few weeks ago, the eXile, along with its Russian partner Stringer, unexpectedly came into possession of a compact disc containing some six hours of telephone conversations. The package in which the disc was delivered contained a note indicating that the recordings had been made on Voloshin’s Kremlin telephone line—not the phone on Voloshin’s desk, but the one in the reception area of his office. Through a careful review of the disc, we were able to determine that the recordings covered a six-day period—from Wednesday, February 28 through Monday, March 5 of this year.

Your guess is as good as ours as to the source of the recording. In fact, we’d prefer to leave it to Stringer to explain that end of the story when they publish their lengthier feature about the recordings next week. Suffice to say that we’ve determined that the recordings are genuine, and that we will make an effort to allow doubters to decide for themselves. Audio excerpts of the recordings will be posted on the eXile website following the release of the Stringer feature next week.

The period covered by the recordings was an extremely interesting one for several reasons. For one thing, it came during Voloshin’s birthday—the Chief of Staff turned 45 on day four of the six-day period (Saturday, March 3). The disc therefore contains calls from scores of Russian political heavyweights, with one tripping over the next to offer gifts and effusive expressions of congratulation. The nature of these conversations, and the way in which they were received by Voloshin and his subordinates, go a long way to determining the status of these politicians in the eyes of the Kremlin.

The second, more pressing subplot of the recordings involves the no-confidence vote that was about to be put forward in the Parliament. To backtrack a little, the Duma, on the initiative of the pro-Putin Unity party, had put forward the idea of passing a vote of no confidence in the government of Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov. The measure, which ultimately failed, has been variously interpreted as a ploy by the Kremlin to create an excuse to dissolve the Parliament (which would have allowed for new elections that would presumably have resulted in a greater pro-Kremlin majority) and as a means of restoring the credibility of the captive opposition, the Communist party, by allowing them a loud but ultimately unsuccessful public rebellion. In either case Voloshin, as a key Kremlin insider, was assumed to play a significant role in the hatching of the plot.

The recordings seem to bear out that assumption. And, because they cover such a lengthy period of time, they also provide a rare look at how day-to-day affairs are managed at the seat of power in Russia: the protocol observed by politicians looking to gain an audience, the language they use on the phone, the strategies they employ in repeat calls to press some issue with the chief. The also provide an off-camera look at Voloshin himself, as he appears in the calls he takes personally.

Unfortunately, the material on the recordings is too vast to cover in the space of one article. A more complete version of the transcript story, including in-depth commentary, will come out in the May issue of Stringer, which will hit the newsstands in about a week and a half. In the meantime, we will have to limit ourselves to a broad review of a week in the life of the Kremlin chief, beginning with the day one.
Wednesday, February 28, Call #6
Journalist Alexander Minkin
Alexander Minkin: Called Voloshin two days before ripping Pavlovsky

Alexander Minkin: Called Voloshin two days before ripping Pavlovsky

The call to legendary muckraker Minkin was the sixth of the day made on Voloshin’s office phone. Early calls included a pair of Duma officials asking for passes to get into Voloshin’s office for a later meeting, a call from a Mr. “Volin” asking for information about a man who had approached him claiming to be a presidential representative based in Ryazan, and a call from Voloshin’s secretary, Elena Petrovna, to the Vakhtangova theater. Apparently Voloshin has a taste for the theater; his secretary would order him tickets several times over the course of the week. In this case, it appeared that the Man Behind Putin was dwelling on the familiar theme of the ugly behind-the-scenes hero. “We’re interested in two tickets,” Elena says to the cashier at Vakhtangovo. “Cyrano de Something.”

Minkin is the first big name to call. It’s worth noting that the bearded journalist, lately back with Moskovsky Komsomolets, was a Duma candidate in 1999 on the Fatherland All-Russia ticket—opposing, in other words, the Voloshin-supported Unity Party. Both Fatherland and Minkin fell on hard times after Unity dominated the 1999 Duma elections, but Minkin, it seems, has found a way to put himself back in the Kremlin’s good graces. At the very least, Voloshin’s secretary does not hang up the phone when he calls:
Cyrano De Bergerac: An ugly hero the chief can identify with?

Cyrano De Bergerac: An ugly hero the chief can identify with?

The timing of Minkin’s call was interesting. Just two days later, Moskovsky Komsomolets ran a lengthy article by Minkin which blasted the man who many consider to be Voloshin’s closest political ally, Kremlin ideologue Gleb Pavlovsky. The thrust of Minkin’s article was that Putin’s chief ideological adviser was a cheat and a liar and should be removed by a regime that has enough “common sense” to know better. Minkin’s article was aimed at least in part at a general audience, making such populist observations as the following:

As far as Pavlovsky is concerned, those who can’t understand him, should read Yelena Bonner’s words: “I knew Pavlovsky for what he was back in 1980 or 1981, when he gave evidence against Sergei Adamovich Kovalev’s son to the KGB. He showed who he is.”

But Minkin was not only playing on popular anti-KGB sentiment; he was also clearly making a rhetorical pitch to Russia’s chief KGB icon of late, Vladimir Putin, who would not be likely to look down upon Pavlovsky for having given evidence to the KGB. In the piece, Minkin argues at length that Pavlovsky has outlived his usefulness to the regime, that Putin, safely in power, has no need for an intriguer and creator of false enemies and media distractions. Toward the end of the article Minkin makes a classic appeal from the ordinary Russian to the better judgment of the Tsar:

The president should use clever, experienced, and respected people with good reputations. The president has enough common sense.

If Voloshin were indeed a close ally of Pavlovsky, it would be hard to imagine him having a friendly chat with a reporter who was just days away from running a demolition job on his friend. The tone of Minkin’s article suggests an appeal aimed over Pavlovsky’s head; perhaps criticism of Pavlovsky was not unwelcome to Voloshin, whose name was conspicuously absent from the Minkin piece. It’s impossible to draw any conclusions, but the timing, again, is interesting.
Call #15
Anatoly Chubais: Persona non grata in his own former office

Anatoly Chubais: Persona non grata in his own former office

After Minkin there are a series of well-wishers calling to congratulate Voloshin on his birthday, plus a few routine bureaucratic calls. But the 15th call of the day presents some interest. In it, a functionary from the ITAR-TASS news service calls Voloshin’s office to request a phone number for Pavlovsky, whose birthday was that coming weekend—March 5.
This innocuous little conversation is interesting mainly in light of Voloshin’s secretary’s reaction in response to similar requests regarding people other than Pavlovsky. For instance, in the 33rd call of that same day, during the afternoon, a caller is spurned when he asks for the number of Anatoly Chubais:

Of course, it was completely natural for this Semenishyev to call Voloshin’s office looking for Chubais’s number—after all, it used to be Chubais’s office! (Chubais was Yeltsin’s Chief of Staff in 1996). But it appears that Chubais, who has been struggling to maintain his seat as the director of the national power company RAO UES, is no longer on Voloshin’s short list of friends. On the other hand, the idea that Voloshin’s office would be a good place to look for a number for Pavlovsky—the dissident-turned-media-mastermind who once claimed to have “created” the Putin phenomenon—elicited no surprise whatsoever. Pavlovsky’s name would figure heavily in Voloshin’s phone traffic in the upcoming week.
Call #28
The Foreign Affairs Ministry
Just one day before, on February 27, the Russian oil company Zarubezhneft, in conjunction with Tatneft, was given permission by the UN Iraqi Sanctions Committee to drill 45 oil wells in northern Iraq. Just over a week before that, on February 16, U.S. and British warplanes attacked Iraq, prompting, on February 21, a call from Iraq for Russia to remember its “responsibility” to hold U.S. power in check. In light of these events the following call, from the Russian foreign ministry, offers some interest:

Alexander Staliyevich never made it into his office that afternoon; he was tied up in meetings all day and didn’t take any calls. Later in the day his secretary would call up a friend and conspire to appropriate for herself a pair of theater tickets, to a show called “Kopellio” that the Kremlin palace had offered to Voloshin. “They offer them to him because they think he’s such a theater buff,” Elena says. “But in fact he doesn’t go anywhere…. They say, ‘give it to him’, but they don’t necessarily mean exactly to him.” The two women discuss the ins and outs of the operation for a while. Elena finally explains to her friend at one point what the plot of “Kopellio” is, leading the conversation in a decidedly Gogolian direction.
The plot is apparently the following: a boy falls in love with a doll… in short, a comedy.
But I know “Kopellio.” In general, to be honest, it’s not altogether a comedy.
Well, that’s what I heard, that’s what I was told.

The rest of the day is mainly a series of cold calls. A man claiming to be an old acquaintance of Voloshin’s calls up and says that he is “between jobs” and would like to discuss “service to the Motherland.” The day ends with a male evening watchman taking over for Elena and answering a few calls, both hangups.
Thursday, March 1 Call #2
“I’m not an ordinary citizen. I’m an investor.”
The second call to Voloshin’s office on this day comes from a belligerent official from the Orthodox Church, a Father Georgi Dolgoruky. In his threatening tirade, the priest reveals a thing or two about the relationship of the Kremlin to various nongovernmental political figures. Father Dolgoruky is upset that Voloshin has been ignoring him, and gives him a piece of his mind:

Dolgoruky calls back several times over the course of the next few days, but never reveals just what his “investment” is.
Sergei Kiriyenko: Wanted to get in touch with some tough guys

Sergei Kiriyenko: Wanted to get in touch with some tough guys

Call #8
Kinder Surprise
Early in the day there is a mildly suspicious call from the office of Sergei Kiriyenko. The caller asks Voloshin’s secretary for the phone numbers of some of “the prikreplyonnykh” (reinforced, protected), whoever they are:
Call # 15
Gleb Pavlovsky
Gleb Pavlovsky: Like his soulmate, is also a Pisces

Gleb Pavlovsky: Like his soulmate, is also a Pisces

Gleb Pavlovsky makes his first appearance on the recording. Apparently this phone number is not used only by bureaucrats and automatons; this is the voice of Pavlovsky himself:

It never comes out what that meeting was about, but it’s worth noting again that this comes just two weeks before the no-confidence vote. Further information supporting the idea that the two men discussed this issue comes later on.
Call #26
Rem Vyakhirev: CouldnÕt get a date

Rem Vyakhirev: Couldn’t get a date

This is not Voloshin’s private phone line, but his office phone; it is to be assumed that he has another line that his inner circle can call without going through a secretary. In this regard it is interesting that Rem Vyakhirev of Gazprom does not call on his own when he wants to speak with Voloshin, and does not call directly:
Gazprom would call several more times over the weekend. Following this call someone from Vyakhirev’s office must have reached Voloshin, because Elena is subsequently heard canceling an 11 a.m. appointment made for Saturday. On that day, the Chief of Staff decided to skip his meetings and celebrate his birthday, leaving Vyakhirev hanging.
Friday, March 2
Call #5
Birthday greetings
It is the day before Voloshin’s birthday and the congratulations begin pouring in right from the start. The first call comes from an automaton in the office of the president of the Far Eastern Federal okrug, asking where to send gifts. He is followed, ironically, by an automaton in the Federal Fisheries Committee—the place where onetime Far East heavyweight Yevgeny Nazdratenko moved after being banished from his post as Primorye governor. First the new Far East power calls, then the old-school version calls.

In the fifth call, however, a real heavyweight calls up, personally:
Boris Yeltsin’s daughter, Tatyana Dyachenko, would call several times in the next few days, and twice more later that day. More on her farther down.
Call #30
Dobrodeyev to Voloshin: “The problems that were there are removed.”
Oleg Dobrodeev: Was shitting his pants when he called from Sochi

Oleg Dobrodeev: Was shitting his pants when he called from Sochi

Most of the early part of Friday is taken up with birthday congratulations, from heavy hitters all over the country: the “office of cooperation with the government” at Slavneft, Boris Fyodorov, Transneft, the Ministry for Economic Development.

The best gift offer of the lot comes from Kemerovo governor Aman Tuleyev’s office.
Aman Tuleyev: Sent the biggest gift of all

Aman Tuleyev: Sent the biggest gift of all

In call #56, Tuleyev spokesman Sergei Sharikov surprises Voloshin’s faithful secretary Elena by asking where a “large” gift might be delivered. “Tuleyev wants to give a gift. A souvenir for Alexander Staliyevich. A Siberian bear. He’s pretty big, a real chuchelo….” Elena: “Oh, my!” Sharikov: “Ah, he weighs about 80 kilograms. So how should we do this? Also, we’re sending flowers.”

After a lengthy series of these calls, Voloshin himself unexpectedly comes on the line to take a call from RTR director Oleg Dobrodeyev, who is calling from Sochi. eXile readers may recall that the director of the local director of the VGTRK (All-Russian Television and Radio Committee) was removed in February, on the order of Mikhail Lesin, on the eve of a mayoral election in which a Communist candidate was threatening to defeat a pro-Kremlin incumbent. In this regard the following conversation is an extraordinary one. Note Dobrodeyev’s abject groveling before Voloshin—he apologizes no fewer than four times in the course of a very short conversation:
The context of this conversation may help illuminate the subtext surrounding the no-confidence vote. Again, to go back a bit, the communists had announced their intention to put forth a no-confidence resolution back on February 21. At the time, Pavlovsky, in an interview given to his website,, had characterized the Communist move as follows:

…the initiative of the communists (on a no-confidence vote to the government) is a political mistake first of all because the strongest player today is the President, and no matter what the outcome, he is risking nothing. For some unknown reason, the Communists think that the president will, under no circumstances, take such a step as dissolving the Duma.

Now, this may have been an act on Pavlovsky’s part, or he may have been giving a sincere assessment of the political situation. But from Dobrodeev’s call it does appear here that Zyuganov and the communists were legitimately “agitated,” and one might assume that the “measures” Dobrodeev called for might have included continuing the no-confidence campaign.

Voloshin here says, “Well, that’s fine, that’s good” and “We also will” when Dobrodeev informs him that the Communists are planning to take measures. Three days after this call, on Monday, March 5, the Unity party announced that it was considering supporting the no-confidence measure. On that same day, Voloshin gave an off-the-record phone interview—captured on these recordings and published later—in which he intimated that the whole no-confidence vote had been dreamed up by him and Pavlovsky with the aim of dissolving the Duma. These calls, taken in context, suggest that the chronology of the no-confidence story might be that it was a movement that began at least in part in earnest, only to be subverted and appropriated through an opportunistic ploy by Pavlovsky and Voloshin.
Call #64
Tatiana Dyachenko—at work and at play
Tatiana Dyachenko: Needed a letter to secure her ÒobjectÓ

Tatiana Dyachenko: Needed a letter to secure her “object”

Yeltsin’s daughter calls back twice. The first time, in call #64, she calls to read off a birthday greeting from her father to Voloshin. The text of the greeting reads suspiciously like the prose of Yeltsin’s close aide and biographer Valentin Yumashev:

Respected Alexander Staliyevich! I’m glad that in a difficult times I had the opportunity to work with you. More than once I’ve been convinced of your extremely high level of professionalism, your preparation, your competence, and your excellent business and personal qualities. I value the sincere and trusting relationship which has formed between us. From all my soul I wish you and those close to you, respected Alexander Staliyevich, strong health, success, and all my best.

But Dyachenko’s more interesting, and serious call comes about an hour later, in call #78. In it, she speaks directly to Voloshin, and discusses the “privatization” of Yeltsin’s presidential dacha in Barvikha, a neat piece of state embezzlement which is apparently being handled by Voloshin, former Federal Property Fund chief Igor Shuvalov, and director of Presidental Affairs Vladimir Kozhin. Note the way Dyachenko first makes sure to congratulate Voloshin on his birthday once again before getting down to business:
Dyachenko and Voloshin continue on to talk about some unspecified “second option.” Their choice of words in this matter suggests that they were aware of the possibility that their phone was being tapped. The word “object” stands out particularly in this context. Reports that the dacha had been transferred to the newly created “Yeltsin Fund” surfaced in subsequent weeks.
Call #85
“Kiselyov gives me heartburn.”
More birthday congratulations follow Dyachenko’s calls: from Sberbank, from the Ukrainian embassy, from a Duma Deputy named Konstantin Vetrov, and others. In between those, Voloshin’s secretary finds time to chat with a friend and make a sarcastic crack about Putin: “He [Voloshin] was planning on asking our Great Leader for the day off tonight.” Later on in the day, however, an unnamed man, obviously a ranking Kremlin economic advisor, calls up, apparently in a call from London. After a witty exchange of birthday greetings (“it’s not easy to reach that age, no mean feat,” says the caller, “and particularly in this wonderful country of ours, with such diseases as anthrax and mad cow”), he speaks with the boss about the possibility of appearing on NTV that weekend:
Voloshin later hangs up to go off to a meeting—possibly with Mikhail Lesin, who had called earlier to confirm a 4:30 p.m. appointment. After that, he spent the evening with Putin, who apparently gave him his day off. Voloshin does not show up the next day, but he does call in on Sunday.

Saturday, March 3

Voloshin is absent Saturday morning, but the calls keep pouring in nonetheless. Gifts continue to come in: an assistant to Kiriyenko calls to ask for a pass to drop off a gift, as does Dobrodeyev, the Belarussian embassy, and others. Dyachenko calls to ask which mobile phone Voloshin can be reached at; she gets the number, and is in addition told by the Saturday secretary, Irina, that there are “papers” in Voloshin’s office that are awaiting Tatyana Borisovna. Irina may be referring to the text of Boris Yeltsin’s birthday greeting, which has yet to be read to Voloshin himself. A representative of Gazprom also calls, and is upset to find that Vyakhirev’s meeting has been canceled.
Sunday, March 4
Call #4
Hung over?
A groggy-sounding Voloshin contacts Lena.
Monday, March 5
Call #52
“Fuck the Duma.”
Most of the day is occupied with late coming birthday well-wishers—the office of the president of Tatarstan, Vladimir Potanin’s office, a series of others. Not until call #52, from Svetlana Babayeva of Izvestia, does Voloshin himself come to the phone. The interview he gives, apparently off the record, goes into great detail about the no-confidence vote. In it, Voloshin, who calls Babayeva “Svet” and sends a number of chatty and even flirtatious comments her way, offers what seems to be a subtle mix of political posturing and candor. By this time, Interfax had already reported that the Unity party was considering supporting the vote, which would explain Babayeva’s comment about “livening up the landscape.” It should be noted here that Voloshin at one point uses the word trakhnut with regard to the Duma, which using its innocent meaning in this sense translates as to “give a jolt,” but also, of course, means “to fuck,”
Babyeva was right: not everybody understands that kind of humor. Fortunately, our readers do.

As is well known by now, the no-confidence vote was a failure; Unity backed out of it, and the whole bid collapsed. Was the whole incident designed to send a message to the Communists to stay in line—or else? And will the Duma really be dissolved in the fall? As they say—only time will tell.

Voloshin in these transcripts comes across as a chatty, cynical wit, with a talent for keeping his social and political connections warm. The conversations with Dobrodeyev and Dyachenko and the others suggest that he is a real decision-maker inside the Kremlin, on matters ranging from the privatization of dachas to the removal of pesky provincial television station managers. Significantly, he does not mention Putin even once in the dozen or so personal conversations of his captured on the tape. Figures such as Potanin and Vyakhirev try to get through to him and are rebuffed for days on end. His attitude also suggests a significant shift in the equilibrium of power towards his position. Five years ago, it would have been impossible to imagine Chief of Staff Anatoly Chubais sarcastically describing Viktor Chernomyrdin as “the only normal human being in government” to a reporter and flightily discussing the possibility of teaming up with a Gleb Pavlovsky to dismiss him. Obviously, the Chief of Staff is a much more important person now than he was five years ago, while the Prime Minister is correspondingly, it seems, a less important person.

It is also clear from the transcripts that certain people who used to be Kremlin fixtures are now no longer in the inner circle. Except for Kiriyenko, who of course occupies an important place in the Putin government, none of the famed “young reformers” made regular calls to Voloshin’s office. Neither Chubais nor anyone from his office called even once, not even to send a trite birthday greeting. Kokh is mentioned once, in a Gazprom call, but then Kokh has crossed the river to Putin’s camp. On the other hand, Pavlovsky and Tanya Dyachenko appear to be regular confidantes, as does Lesin, who is greeted with familiarity by Voloshin’s secretary on two occasions.

The eXile will continue to publish excerpts from the Voloshin telephone transcripts in the upcoming months. For a more in-depth look at the recordings, be sure to look for the next issue of Stringer.