Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

One Man versus the People: Vladimir Putin Has Stifled Dissent throughout His Political Life. but as He Prepares for Another Presidential Term, Russia's Disaffected Middle Class Are No Longer Willing to Stay Silent

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

One Man versus the People: Vladimir Putin Has Stifled Dissent throughout His Political Life. but as He Prepares for Another Presidential Term, Russia's Disaffected Middle Class Are No Longer Willing to Stay Silent

Article excerpt

In September 2003, Vladimir Putin rose to address the World Climate Change Conference in Moscow. He had summoned some of the world's leading environmentalists to Russia and, they were sure, this could mean only one thing: that the Russian president would support the Kyoto Protocol.

Owing to the treaty's complex mathematics, the future of this centrepiece of the fight against climate change depended entirely on Russia. The hall, packed with delegates, was silent as Putin rose to speak. Journalists had phone lines open. Officials leaned forward slightly to listen.

Looking back at the transcript now, it is hard to recall the tension in the hall, because Putin said nothing of any substance. He thanked the participants, acknowledged the importance of the issue, and that was it. It was bizarre. He had brought everyone to Russia - for this?

The assembled environment ministers and United Nations officials were disappointed. They whispered to each other and then, one by one, rose to chide Putin for not doing the decent thing.

When they finished, Putin delivered an unscripted reply. No one was expecting it and even his press aide failed to turn her tape recorder on in time. That was a shame, because his response gave a brief glimpse into the depths of his mysterious soul.

"Russia is a northern country," he said. "It's not scary if it's two or three degrees warmer. Maybe it would even be a good thing. We'd have to spend less money on fur coats and other warm things."

Putin was already known for his iron control and precise command of the facts. But, confronted by mild criticism spurred by understandable disappointment, his response was petulant, boorish, ignorant and inappropriate.

Putin has built a system in Russia where he never faces opposition. It is rare, indeed, for anyone to sight a human behind the screen of public relations he has erected around himself. By way of illustration, Masha Gessen has called her new biography of the leader The Man Without a Face.

The Russian media has been gutted since he came to power in 2000 and his public appearances are scripted. Photo opportunities are tightly controlled: Putin meeting dignitaries or engaging in manly outdoor activities, and so on. Compare this to how it was under Boris Yeltsin, who first made Putin prime minister and then appointed him acting president. All the classic pictures of Yeltsin are impromptu: his dancing with a chorus line in 1996; his conducting an orchestra in Berlin in 1994; his standing on a tank before the crowds defending Moscow's White House in 1991.

From Putin's first days as acting president, after Yeltsin's decision to mark the new millennium by standing down and handing over the nuclear briefcase, he demonstrated that he would have a different style of leadership.

His campaign for the elections of March 2000, like all his campaigns since, was deliberately low-key. He refused then and still refuses now to take part in public debates. He does not engage with the electorate except in carefully scripted, televised phone-ins. What little the Russian people could find out about his past before he became president of their country came from an official biography that was produced in a matter of weeks.

Putin was born in 1952 in Leningrad (now St Petersburg), a city that was then still devastated from the near-900 days of Nazi blockade. His father was a conscript in the Soviet navy and his mother a factory worker. Putin grew up in a communal apartment and has boasted of his past as a street fighter. He finished school with decent grades, studied law and joined the KGB on graduation in 1975. His career as a spy in the old German Democratic Republic was a failure.

The country he was guarding for communism turned capitalist on his watch after the Berlin Wall fell and he returned to a very different Soviet Union. Back in his home town, renamed St Petersburg in 1991, he resigned from active service to take up a job as deputy to Mayor Anatoly Sobchak, whom he had known as a professor in the 1970s. …

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