Europe’s Biggest Thief

Advocating for better mental health care is a top priority to me, but it’s not my only interest. I took time last week to have lunch with a friend of mine who works for a U.S. intelligence agency and our conversation quickly turned to Russia.

   I have been fascinated with the Kremlin and Moscow much of my life.  Perhaps, it started when I was a youngster living in Pueblo, Colorado when my mother began storing food items in the bathroom closet in 1962. The bathroom was the only room in our small house that didn’t have windows, which was why it was chosen as our family’s emergency bomb shelter if the Soviet Union attacked.

For those too young to remember, 1962 was when the Cuban Missile Crisis happened and at the elementary school that I attended, we did drills where we either hurried into hallways or ducked under our desks. That was supposed to help us if  bombs fell.

Being a thifty minister’s wife, my mom didn’t want to toss out the stored food after the crisis passed so she decided one night to add water to the packets of dehydrated meat that could be kept without refrigeration. Eating that miserable tasting stuff made me more angry at the Soviets than their plans to install missiles off our shore.

I also remember a billboard near our house that showed an angry Nikita Khrushchev about to pound his shoe on the table. I still remember the wording on that poster. It said: “We will bury you!”  That image might have terrified other children, but it made me wonder what sort of people these Communists were. Only later would I learn that both the shoe pounding incident and the translation of Khrushchev’s words were in dispute. I’d also discover the photo on that billboard was fake.

Regardless, I jumped at the chance to visit Moscow in 1994 and 1995 while researching Confessions of a Spy: The Real Story of Aldrich Ames.  It turned out to be a fabulous time to visit.  Muscovites were adjusting to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. While the nation was struggling with hyperinflation and the emergence of the Russia mob, most of the individuals I met and interviewed were wonderful folks, no different in many ways from you and me. They were eager to begin a new era of freedom. This was especially true of students and, of course, Russian journalists.

Although I’m certainly no expert on Russia, I still have several friends there and what has happened since 1991 is a tragedy. I suspect that historians will eventually describe it as a major missed opportunity to create a freer and modern nation.

Rather than helping his people rise to greatness, Boris Yeltsin turned out to be drunk who helped his Oligarch buddies loot the nation.  As the second Russian president, after Yeltsin suddenly resigned, Vladimir Putin took the reins with high U.S. expectations.  (Remember President George Bush’s famous statement – “I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy. ..I wouldn’t have invited him to my ranch if I didn’t trust him.”)

While Putin re-established political and economic stability, as well as, the rule of law, it now is obvious that he also has taken the low road as a leader.

Putin has used his power to imprison his political enemies, muzzle the media and thrawth the democratic system by installing a puppet president. Yes, he stripped Yelstin’s  Oligarchs of their stolen wealth. But he promptly turned his buddies lose to rape the country and engourge themselves.

Russia has gone from being an oppressive regime to a shiny example of a kleptocracy, which is defined as being a nation “ruled by thieves.” 

What prompted this blog? A recent Wikileaks revelation in Russia and a comment by my lunch guest who told me that a recent U.S. intelligence assessment pegged Putin’s personal wealth at $20 BILLION.


If that is accurate, then poor Putin may have actually lost money. In 2007, there was speculation in the English press that Putin’s worth was in excess of $40 Billion. And this week, the Russian version of wikileaks revealed that Putin has spent an estimated $1 billion constructing a secret palace (YOU REALLY SHOULD LOOK AT THE PHOTOS OF IT !)   for himself on the Black Sea. The website that contained that story was immediately shut down in Russia by the Russian government. Last year, Putin and the Kremlin said there was little money to give federal workers, such as teachers and doctors, modest pay increases. Yet, somehow Putin has managed to become one of the wealthiest men in Europe even though his yearly salary, according to the Russian government, is less than $63,000 per year.

The people of Russia, especially those who fought to end Communism, deserve better.

Putin’s $1 billion palace under construction on Black Sea.

About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.


  1. The year was 1964. I had been living in Singapore for two years as Far East Manager for The Borden Company. In those days, international companies brought their overseas managers home for a two month vacation every two years… so they wouldn’t “go native”.

    The company paid for first class air travel and didn’t care how long it took to “get home”. So I took advantage of that generosity to plan an interesting and exciting itinerary. Singapore-New Delhi-Moscow-Copenhagen-London-Paris-Berlin-Barcelona-New York….. with several days in each city.

    After a few days in the capital of India and a side-trip to see the Taj Mahal in Agra, I boarded a Soviet Aeroflot TU-114 for the flight to Moscow. This plane had eight engines and was so large that, as a first class passenger, I had a “stateroom” to myself…. like a small cabin on a cruise ship. I carried a tape recorder on such trips (in those days they used 3 inch reel-to-reel tapes) and I thought it prudent to ask the crew if I could use it aboard to record my trip. The answer was a resounding NYET (bear in mind that this was at the height of the Cold War and I was an American on an “enemy” airliner).

    The enormous plane finally got off the ground (I thought we were going to travel overland, the takeoff took so long) and within a few hours we were flying over the snow-capped Himalayas, crossed a checkpoint over Tashkent, and some eight hours later…landed in Moscow.

    As a first class tourist (InTourist) I was booked into the luxurious Ukraine Hotel in downtown Moscow and assigned a personal guide. I was in my room for over an hour before my luggage arrived there and I assumed it was being thoroughly inspected.

    I spent a lovely three days there, accompanied by my assigned female guide and our driver. We talked a lot… she asked me questions such as “what is advertising?”. She allowed me to buy her a lunch or two although that was against the rules. Kruschev never knew.

    After a nice visit I packed my bags and my driver took me to the airport to catch my plane to “the West” in Copenhagen. Outgoing Customs did not go well. The inspectors were not happy with my tape recorder, my sub-miniature camera, my business files on Laos and Vietnam, and several pearl necklaces I had bought in Hong Kong as gifts for the folks back home. I was detained in an interrogation room. Eventually a Soviet military person arrived to question me about my things, especially the camera. I explained that I was just a tourist using a sub-miniature Minox-type camera.

    He tried to appease me by saying that they would develop my film and mail it to me later. I got rather feisty and demanded my film… insisted that I would NOT board the plane until my film was returned to me. (Gulp!) They left… to consult others about this American. Had I been too arrogant….and would I spend the rest of my life in a Soviet prison?

    After what seemed an eternity, the Soviets returned, handed me my film cartridge, and said I could board my plane, an Aeroflot jet that had been waiting hours with passengers aboard for my situation to be resolved.

    Once airborne, I breathed a great sigh of relief. In Copenhagen there were no hotel rooms available and I had to stay at some old lady’s house where she rented the spare room. It didn’t even matter that I met a lovely Danish girl the next night and had no place to take her.

    I had survived my visit to Moscow and was back home in the West.
    Here’s one of the photos that I had rescued….. Sam in Red Square…. not the greatest quality but I risked my freedom over it, so it’s special!