We talked with Vladimir Putin on six separate occasions, for about four hours at a time. Both he and we were patient and tolerant; he, when we asked uncomfortable questions or were too invasive; we, when he was late or asked us to turn the tape recorder off. "That's very personal," he would say.
These were meetings "with our jackets off," although we all still wore ties. Usually they happened late at night. And we only went to his office in the Kremlin once.
Why did we do this? Essentially, we wanted to answer the same question that Trudy Rubin of the Philadelphia Inquirer asked in Davos in January: "Who is Putin?" Rubin's question had been addressed to a gathering of prominent Russian politicians and businessmen. And instead of an answer, there was a pause.
We felt that the pause dragged on too long. And it was a legitimate question. Who was this Mr. Putin?
We talked to Putin about his life. We talked--as people often do in Russia--around the dinner table. Sometimes he arrived exhausted, with drooping eyelids, but he never broke off the conversation. Only once, when it was well past mid-