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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

Putin has selected his material in order to meet all the necessary requirements for being a "good man"--good neighbor, good friend, good everything. We see his family sharing a communal apartment in Leningrad with an old Jewish couple; we learn that the young Vladimir befriended them. The message is clear: Some of my best friends are Jews. Putin tells us that he sang songs of Vladimir Vysotsky, a semi-dissident bard, whose words became part of Russia's modern Soviet-mocking folklore. He joined a judo club while others were fashionably doing karate. "Karate," he explains, "we viewed . . . purely as moneymaking enterprises. . . . Judo is not just a sport--It's a philosophy." He attended Leningrad University, one of the most prestigious schools in the country, but got there on his own merit, with no connections, at a time when the only way to advance in the Soviet Union was by way of privileges. Putin's best friend is a violinist who taught Vladimir to understand music and art.

At home, Putin is at pains to emphasize his everyman qualities, conceding early love troubles until he met his wife, Lyudmila, with whom he has lived happily ever after with two daughters and a toy poodle. Another family dog also makes an appearance, a Caucasian sheep dog (quite appropriate for a spy), but it died in an accident. Their next pet, the toy poodle, "amazed [Putin] at first--she's so little," but then he learned to love the small pet too. All these details are meant to prepare us for a president who can be sensitive, loving and kind but also for a man who never backs down, who is just, honest and zealous for the truth.

Putin mixes his personal "common man" qualities with an astonishingly idealistic, almost blind, fondness for Soviet strength and statehood. He explains his zeal for the KGB by the fact that, during his college years, he "didn't know much . . . about Stalin's cult of personality. . . . How deep was that cult of personality? How serious was it? My friends and I didn't think about that. So I went to work for the agencies with a romantic image of what they did." It is even more astonishing that Putin insists that, at the time he was a KGB agent, if "there probably were some agents who engaged in persecution of people, I didn't see it. I personally didn't see it."

At several points in the book Putin does, however, mention that after 10 years of being at "the Organs" (of state security), he was no longer a romantic, but it was not until 1991 that his disillusionment with the system became final: "Up until that time I didn't really understand the transformation that was going on in Russia. . . . But during the days of the [August] coup, all the ideals, all the goals that I had had when I went to work in the KGB, collapsed."

Even after growing disillusioned with communism after the failed coup, Putin hardly admits that communism has any flaws. It is usually the people, he explains, not the system, who are flawed or, even better, it was the fault of Mikhail Gorbachev, who lost the Cold War too quickly, or the crowds that, in 1989, attacked the German Ministry of State Security in the East German city of Leipzig, where Putin was posted as an intelligence officer from 1986 to 1990. Although Putin "understood those people--they were tired of being watched by the MGB [the East German secret police], especially because the surveillance was so totally invasive," he insists that the "way in which they expressed their protest was upsetting.

"I regretted that the Soviet Union had lost its position in Europe, although intellectually, I understood that a position built on walls and dividers cannot last," he explains, "But I wanted something different to rise in its place. And nothing different was proposed. That's what hurt. They just dropped everything and went away." The personal tone is striking: Clearly Putin feels that the fall of the Berlin Wall was the first sad step toward the Soviet disintegration; 1991 coup-makers were right in trying to preserve the Union; and the Chechen war has been the necessary step to prevent the further disintegration of Russia.

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