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FIRST PERSON An Astonishingly Frank Self-Portrait by
Russia's President By Vladimir Putin with Nataliya
Gevorkyan, Natalya Timakova and Andrei Kolesnikov;
Translated from the Russian by Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
PublicAffairs: 208 pp., $15 paper

Homo Sovieticus

September 24, 2000|NINA L. KHRUSHCHEVA | Nina L. Khrushcheva is senior fellow at the World Policy Institute of The New School and the granddaughter of Nikita Khrushchev

First, there was Pavlik Morozov, a legendary Soviet folk child who so believed in the bright future of communism that he enthusiastically informed on his father for having more grain than an average "builder of communism" in a collectivized state was allowed. Then there was the Soviet children's classic, "Timur and His Team," the story of an honest and endearing Pioneer (communist Boy Scout), who, in his romantic zeal to become a perfect communist, devoted his childhood to unmasking the imperfections of less enlightened and faithful citizens.

Other books and movies throughout Soviet history have glorified those who passionately confronted enemies from all sides who sought to undermine the Soviet Union: A novel, "Kortik" (A Dagger), by Anatoly Rybakov; a thriller and movie, "Mesto vstrechi izmenit nelzya" (Meeting Place Cannot Be Changed), by Arkady and George Vainer; a TV series, "Semnadtsat Mgnovenii Vesny" (Seventeen Moments of Spring), which included a gorgeous state-of-the-art spy-hero, Shtirliz; and "Shchiet i Mech" (The Sword and the Shield), which turns out to be Russian President Vladimir Putin's favorite movie.

Now there is "First Person: Conversations With Vladimir Putin" (or, as the English subtitle bluntly announces, "An Astonishingly Frank Self-Portrait by Russia's President"), a collection of interviews and monologues about and with Putin, his friends, former teachers, colleagues and his family. The book portrays Putin as a "hero of our time." As the early socialist glorification of Pavlik Morozov and Timur were emblematic of the freshly established totalitarian regime, so Putin's memoir is an excellent piece of neo-Soviet post-liberal propaganda. Released on the Web in Russian right before the Russian presidential elections in March, published in English right after the presidential inauguration in May, the memoirs acquaint the world with Russia's president, descendant of the brave, honest and devoted heroes of the Soviet cultural canon. Putin himself tells us with proud shyness, "I was a pure and utterly successful product of Soviet patriotic education."

"First Person" exhibits Russia's new leader as unbendable, tough, honest and very romantic. A perfect "product of Soviet patriotic education," Putin decided on a career in the KGB because he was so enamored with the heroic deeds of Soviet detectives and intelligence officers, exactly as they were portrayed in such stories as "The Sword and the Shield." "What amazed me most of all," he says, "was how one man's effort could achieve what whole armies could not."

Putin wanted to serve his country so much that when he was in the ninth grade, he went to the office of the KGB Directorate in Leningrad "in order to find out how to become a spy." He was told that, first, the KGB did not "take people who come to [them] on their own initiative" and "second, [one] can come to [them] only after the army or after some type of civilian higher education." "What kind of higher education?" asked young Volodya. "Any." "But what is preferred?" "Law school." Putin went on to take a law degree.

So forcefully and willfully has Putin pursued his career that one might have trouble distinguishing him from a young Vladimir Lenin. However, there is a softer, modern side to the story, one without the harshness and burning fanaticism of his early socialist years. Written from the presidential pulpit, his memoirs portray him as a more human, less official apparatchik. We almost immediately learn, for example, that he "was a hooligan, not a Pioneer," an informal and popular street leader: "If I had to compare it with my adult life, I would say that the role I played as a kid was like the role of the judicial branch, and not the executive." Although he continued as a good college student, we are told, he was neither a Komsomol ("Young Communist League") functionary nor an active obshchestvennik (one not involved in any extracurricular activities).

What is surprising, however, is to find out what a meritocracy the KGB was at the time Putin became an agent in the mid-1970s. His experience suggests that it was possible to be hired by the KGB on the basis of good college grades alone. In addition, Putin seems interested in portraying the agency as a society within a society, consisting of good and devoted enthusiasts who "work for the interests of State." Of course, in the late 20th century, it was no longer necessary to report on one's parents to prove oneself worthy of communism. Socialism had by then developed more subtle methods of influencing society and enforcing conformity. These means were, as Putin puts it, "less coarse," a characterization that allows him to present himself as a "boy from our street," an "invisible" hero of the state.

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