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.
(Page 3 of 6)
Putin appears to have impressed President Yeltsin's family and closest advisers not only with his vitality and can-do attitude, but above all with his strong sense of loyalty toward his benefactors. When his former boss Sobchak became embroiled in a corruption scandal, Putin stuck by him and helped him escape to Paris to avoid prosecution. Putin also showed great loyalty toward Pavel Borodin, a Russian official who gave him his first job in the Kremlin. When the state prosecutor started investigating Mr. Borodin for involvement in a multimillion-dollar bribery and money-laundering scam, Putin – now FSB chief – got rid of the prosecutor by using a well-worn KGB trick: secretly shot footage allegedly showing him with prostitutes. (Putin later put up $3 million in bail to get Borodin out of a Swiss jail, where he was serving time for the kickback scheme, which involved a Swiss construction firm.) His new patrons evidently understood he would show the same loyalty to Yeltsin and his family – and that his secret service connections were a help, not a hindrance.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
He finally stepped into Yeltsin's shoes when the president resigned on the last day of the 20th century. Ten days earlier Putin had told a gathering of secret service agents: "I want to report that a group of FSB operatives, sent to work undercover in the government, is successfully carrying out its mission." Maybe it wasn't entirely a joke.
Putin, though now acting president, was still scarcely a public figure, and when he allowed a cameraman to follow him on one of his first days in the Kremlin he looked gauche and unsure of himself. In unbroadcast footage he appears weirdly detached from the world around him. He hasn't bothered to look and see what view there is from the window of his new Kremlin office and is surprised when he pulls back the curtains. His desk is empty, apart from a couple of papers, one of which he quickly turns face down because it is from the FSB. At home, in the presidential residence, he is taken aback when asked about the furniture because he simply hasn't thought about it: For this austere man, home comforts apparently mean nothing.
It didn't take long for the secretive secret agent to transform himself into the man we know today – confident, brusque, abrasive, given to coarse language. A Russian journalist whom he met over lunch when he was still FSB chief describes his ability to mimic his interlocutors, to empathize with them and make them feel comfortable. Soon the new president was able to make foreign leaders feel at ease. George W. Bush famously looked into Putin's eyes and felt he got a sense of his soul. For his part, Putin soaked in and copied the manners and self-confidence of the world leaders he now mingled with.
The Putin we have gotten used to over the past 12 years is a strange mixture: On the surface we see the global politician, smartly dressed, brilliantly well-informed, and quick-witted; but under the veneer we also sense the ghost of the Leningrad school brat, the youth who, by his own admission, readily lost his temper and got into scraps. "I was a hooligan," he told interviewers shortly before he was elected president in 2000.
It was the coarse Putin of the Leningrad backyards we heard when he told a French journalist who dared to question him about the ferocious bombing of Chechnya: "If you're such a Muslim sympathizer, come to Moscow. We can have you circumcised!" It was the slumdog Putin who threatened to hunt down terrorists and wipe them out – to have them "scraped from the bottom of the sewers."
It was the unsophisticated Putin, his view of Western democracy conditioned by years of Soviet propaganda and KGB training, who said it was "normal" for demonstrators in the West to be "beaten about the head" by police, and who once told President Bush that the United States wasn't a democracy because the president was elected "not by the people but by an electoral college." "Vladimir," Bush whispered to him, "don't say that in public – it'll only show you don't understand our system at all."