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Cover Story

Putin inauguration: World view of a Russian feeling dissed

As the second presidential inauguration of Vladimir Putin approaches, a former correspondent who once worked for him looks at the world view of the Russian iron man. His theory: The president is feeling dissed by the West and believes it conspires to "destroy" Russia.

By Angus RoxburghContributor / May 6, 2012

On the May 7 inauguration of President Putin, a former longtime Moscow correspondent who once worked for him looks at the world view of the Russian iron man, who feels dissed by the West. This is the cover story in the May 7 edition of The Christian Science MonitorWeekly.

Alexey Druzhinin/AFP/Getty Images

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My first memory of Vladimir Putin – if you can call it a memory – goes back to late 1991, just a month before the collapse of the Soviet Union, when I caught sight of him, without knowing who he was, of course, in St. Petersburg. I was making a series of reports for the BBC in the city, which had just been given its original name back, after 67 years as "Leningrad." As we filmed a meeting between the mayor, Anatoly Sobchak, and a visiting British politician, a small, fair-haired man flitted anonymously in the background.

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Rewatching the footage 20 years later, I recognize the features: soft, thin hair parted to one side; glassy eyes; and protruding lips. He walks with his head pressed forward and an aggressive gait, rolling slightly from side to side. This is Mr. Putin at 39, recently returned from a five-year posting as a spy in East Germany and now head of the city's "external relations committee." He is unobtrusive and slightly nervous, just as you would expect from a man used to living in the shadows. He fingers his chin self-consciously, knowing a Western TV camera is pointed at him – possibly for the first time in his life.

Putin's job was to attract foreign investors to the city. He would later succeed in bringing in giants such as The Coca-Cola Company. But in 1991 his immediate priority was to solve the city's food crisis – a colossal task, as I saw for myself when I toured the St. Petersburg "food depot."

In the communist system, all agricultural produce was brought to an enormous central area, to be sorted and transported to the city's shops. Don't imagine a Western-style fruit distribution center, where apples and oranges are individually wrapped in tissue and packed into shock-resistant boxes, then whisked out to retail stores. In a system devoid of incentives, almost all the produce went to waste. Workers were fishing through crates of potatoes that had already turned into a stinking black mush, picking out the few that could be salvaged and tossing them into another crate. Eventually a few of them might have reached a shop, and some might even have been sold and eaten.

Putin's task was to arrange emergency food supplies from the West. It was a job that, I think, had two profound effects on the future Russian leader and may still shape who he is today as he's about to assume the presidency for another six years as one of the country's most enduring, enigmatic, and controversial rulers in modern history.

First, it placed him at the center of the most humiliating moment Russia had endured for perhaps half a century. His country was on the brink of starvation. The Soviet planning system had collapsed, and the half-baked reforms introduced by Mikhail Gorbachev had merely introduced an element of chaos. Long lines of angry customers were forming outside empty food stores. Russia was forced to beg for humanitarian aid, like some third-world country. A fellow correspondent in Moscow once coined the phrase "Upper Volta with rockets." That was really how the decaying Soviet Union looked, and Putin knew it. When he came to power nine years later, he vowed never to let that happen again.

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