Vladimir Putin: Modern-day tsar who would make Russia great again

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The Independent Online

Resplendent in fresh paint and new gilding, the imperial city of St Petersburg is celebrating its 300th anniversary with the most impressive procession of international leaders it has entertained certainly since Tsarist times, and perhaps ever. At the centre of the festivities is the quiet, diminutive figure of Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, President of Russia for the past three and a half years.

The anniversary extravaganza is his brainchild, a statement of his determination to bring his native city, and his homeland, out of obscurity and mark them on the map of the 21st-century world.

Putin will clinch Russia's place at the top table tomorrow when he joins leaders of the industrialised countries at their annual summit for the first time on an equal basis. And in three weeks' time, he will become the first Russian leader for more than a century to make a state visit to Britain. For a man whom few, even in Russia, had heard of as recently as five years ago, Putin has come a long way.

The first time most Russians would have noticed him was in the summer of 1998, when the then President Boris Yeltsin appointed him to head the Federal Security Service - the successor to the Soviet-era KGB. A year later, Yeltsin named him as head of Russia's embattled government. He was the latest in a string of increasingly desperate appointments to the post and was not expected to last. That forecast was both right and very wrong.

Four months later, on the last day of the old century, the youthful prime minister was parachuted into the presidency, when Yeltsin suddenly resigned and nominated him to be the Kremlin's next master. It is said that Putin was horrified and tried to decline. But Yeltsin talked him into accepting with appeals to his personal loyalty and his patriotism, then presented him as a parting gift with the Parker pen he had used to sign laws and treaties. Three months later, and with the advantage of incumbency, Putin was elected as president in his own right.

These were turbulent times in Russia. Yeltsin's health was failing and his drinking was becoming an ever greater liability. The economy was stuttering along, perpetually near collapse, after the debt default and rouble valuation of two years before. A series of bomb attacks in Moscow, attributed to Chechen rebels, had set the country on edge. Almost a decade after the end of the Soviet Union, Russians were disconsolate, tired and exhausted by change.

What Putin brought - and what his generation will always be grateful to him for - was a sense of stability. After his first year in office, Russians felt able to relax and plan a little.

In his three years in the Kremlin, Putin has visibly grown into the presidency. He is at ease with his power. He smiles more. And what he lacks in physical stature, he makes up for - and more - with focus and will-power. He comes across as self-sufficient, very calm and "together" and very much in control, of himself and his surroundings.

What impresses above all is how quickly he has learned how to be a modern politician capable of taking his place on the world stage. Indeed, he had to learn if he was to survive.

As a native of the city that was then Leningrad, Putin would have been brought up on his parents' memories of the exigencies of the war and the siege. An elder brother died in those years. But he is the first recent leader of Russia without personal memory of the war. His schooling and student years coincided with the last flickering of the Khrushchev cultural thaw, and the economic and political stagnation of the Brezhnev years. Crucially, he never experienced the years of Stalin's terror. His was a world of ideological stultification and growing disillusion, but not of fear.

As the son of a manual worker, he was spared the discrimination reserved for children of intellectuals. He seems never to have been troubled by political misgivings, choosing to join the KGB as soon as he graduated with his law degree from Leningrad University. He did well, but not spectacularly so, in his chosen career, rising to head a regional office in East Germany as the regime entered its terminal decline. He speaks excellent German.

Despite this inauspicious posting, his career timing was flawless. He resigned from the KGB and returned to Russia a year before the failed anti-Gorbachev coup of 1991. He threw in his lot with the Leningrad reformists, led by the man who would become the first non-communist mayor of the city, Anatoli Sobchak. Putin became his chief aide. Such a change of allegiance was not as unpredictable or as unusual as it might seem, however. The KGB recruited some of the most able graduates in the Soviet Union. It was seen as less corrupt than many institutions, and - because of their access to unvarnished facts - infinitely better informed.

The first Soviet leader to understand the need for radical reform was Yuri Andropov, the astute and ascetic former KGB chairman whose ambitions as Communist Party leader were cut short by his early death. Putin is seen by many as his true heir and this helps to explain how he has been able to unite behind him both former Communists and Russians who renounced the past altogether.

Putin landed in Yeltsin's entourage almost by accident, recommended by personal contacts for a job in the presidential office when his Leningrad boss, Sobchak, failed to be re-elected mayor. Putin might then have languished, secure but anonymous, had his reports not caught Yeltsin's attention with their incisiveness. When Yeltsin asked to meet him, they got on. In his memoirs, Yeltsin says he liked his directness, the fact that he gave straight answers to straight questions. While they seem never to have been personally close, there was an exceptionally strong bond of loyalty. In time, Yeltsin felt that he had found his long-sought heir.

When Yeltsin resigned, Putin granted the former president and his family immunity from investigation or prosecution. Despite criticism from some quarters, Putin has never betrayed confidences about Yeltsin. He has his picture on his desk. There is a continuity there that has been rare between one Russian leader and the next. Putin showed the same loyalty, and a degree of bravado and resourcefulness, in using his position in Moscow to charter a plane and spirit an ill Sobchak out of Russia on a public holiday. He did not tell Yeltsin, who evinced surprise and grudging admiration at this feat.

These unsuspected aspects of Putin's character, his quick thinking, his straight talking and his toughness have increasingly come to the fore in his exercise of presidential office. Foreign leaders, Tony Blair included, have learned to their cost that Putin is a shrewd operator who holds his own in debate and has a keen awareness of how image and politics plays with his home audience. At two successive meetings, Blair was wrong-footed at the closing news conference, most recently when Putin asked where Iraq's weapons of mass destruction might be.

The arts of presentation and the popular touch, however, are skills that Putin has had to learn, sometimes the hard way. After the Kursk submarine disaster in August 2000, Putin decided that he could help more by staying out of the way and leaving the experts to do their job than by visiting the Kursk's home port or returning to Moscow. To universal opprobrium, he remained on holiday in southern Russia for two days, before leaving for the Kremlin. He has never made the same mistake again.

Putin has also proved himself a veritable jackdaw in learning tricks of the trade from other world leaders. He reads his speeches from the sort of electronic screen first used by Reagan and adopted by Margaret Thatcher. He not only has his office in the Kremlin and a house in the Moscow suburbs, but an official country estate, a former hunting lodge, taken over from the Foreign Ministry, at Novo-Ogarevo, which he uses increasingly to host foreign leaders. It has the same advantages of security, privacy and supposed informality that Chequers and Camp David provide. But Putin has also been in the market for "nation-building" techniques, picking and choosing "best practices" from elsewhere that might boost his fellow-countrymen's pride in being Russian. He has a team compiling a citizenship course for schools. They have circulated packs that include the music and words of the national anthem (new words to the old Soviet tune) as well as a short history of Russian national symbols. Russian football fans travelling to the World Cup last year were given a bag containing a cap, flag, T-shirt and trinkets in Russia's national colours.

It is telling that, when asked by an interviewer to name his heroes, Putin cited Charles de Gaulle, Ludwig Erhard and Franklin D Roosevelt - all leaders who revived not only their countries' material fortunes, but their battered national morale as well. And it is clear that restoring a sense of Russian national pride is currently Putin's absolute priority. His increasingly skilful diplomacy, seen most recently in his ability to defy the United States over Iraq, without alienating Washington completely, is part of that effort. So is the dexterous ruthlessness with which he has silenced foreign criticism of Russian conduct in Chechnya, by subsuming the Chechen revolt as one aspect of the global war on terrorism. Putin may have a modest and unassuming air, but he evinces a deep sense of national purpose. Woe betide anyone who underestimates him.

Some portray Putin as a latter-day Peter the Great, smaller, slighter and less hirsute, to be sure, but just as committed to leading Russia into the big, wide world of modernity, whether Russians like it or not. There are parallels in their Westernising zeal. But Putin has to be careful. He may, as a recent biographer judged, be highly intelligent, efficient, unaffected and pragmatic, while relishing the sense of mystery that still surrounds him. But he is no Tsar and he has an electorate to answer to next year.

Life story

Born: 7 October, 1952, in Leningrad (now St Petersburg).

Family: Younger son of manual worker and teacher. Elder brother died during Leningrad siege. Married to Lyudmila, a linguist specialising in Spanish; they have two daughters.

Education: Graduated from Leningrad University in law, 1975.

Career: 1975: Went straight from university into the KGB, where he worked until 1990, including postings to former East Germany. 1990: returned to Leningrad University as pro-rector for international issues. 1991-96: adviser to the reforming politician and mayor of St Petersburg, Anatoli Sobchak. 1997: first deputy head of administration in President Yeltsin's office.

1998: director of the Russian Federal Security Service (successor to KGB). 1999, August: appointed Prime Minister of Russia. 1999, December: named acting President by Yeltsin. 2000, March: elected President of Russia.

Hobbies: Judo black belt.

He says: "I dream of the day when a Russian can stand up and say: 'I am proud that I was born in Russia."

They say: "The biggest enigma of all is what Putin will do if he succeeds in reviving the country. Will he try to breathe new life into the idea of Russia the Great, autocratic and expansionist, or will he write a new chapter of Russian history?" - Roy Medvedev, biographer

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