The Making of Mr. Putin

First Person: An Astonishingly Frank Self-Portrait

by Russia's President Vladimir Putin, with Nataliya Gevorkyan, Natalya Timakova, Andrei Kolesnikov, Translated from the Russian by Catherine A. Fitzpatrick. The Russian original, Ot pervovo litsa, is available on the website
Public Affairs, 207 pp., $15.00 (paper)

At this year’s forum in Davos the question “Who is Putin?” was put to the members of the Russian delegation. They became confused, looked at one another, and mumbled something incomprehensible. There was laughter in the hall. But indeed, who is he?

For a certain group of Russians—let’s call them left liberals—the answer was obvious from the beginning: Putin is a bloody tyrant and a future dictator. This point of view requires no detailed evidence. It is enough that Putin worked in the KGB for many years. For that matter, for this part of the liberal intelligentsia, which has recently supported Grigory Yavlinsky and his Yabloko Party, conclusions are obvious in advance and without any argumentation. In their dogmatism the members of this group are indistinguishable from their opponents. It’s no accident that this group is called the “liberal gendarmerie.” The opponent of a bad person almost always seems good in their eyes. Black and white are their basic colors.

By the time of the election, left liberals had formed their judgments from uneven but identically repellent components: Putin worked in the KGB; he is presiding over the war in Chechnya; he hates the Radio Liberty correspondent Andrei Babitsky and called him a traitor. With this, the question of trusting Putin became closed and the left liberals called on everyone to vote for Yavlinsky. (Five percent of the voters did so.) The logic was the following: “We know that we will be defeated, but we will take defeat with our heads proudly raised. We will express our protest against impending dictatorship. We will lose beautifully.”

Yavlinsky himself, asked for whom would he cast his vote in the case of a second round of elections—which could only have been between Putin and the Communist candidate, Gennady Zyuganov—answered that he would vote for no one, that both were abhorrent to him. This is exactly the way he behaved during the elections of 1996, when the choice was between Yeltsin and Zyuganov. Yavlinsky didn’t like either of them. By acting this way, however, in the name of purity, he helped no one with anything—neither people nor ideas.

The right-wing liberals, headed by Anatoly Chubais, a former deputy prime minister and minister of finance, and Sergei Kirienko, who briefly served as one of Yeltsin’s prime ministers, supported Putin. Being political pragmatists, they were concerned with real change, the necessity of using all available means in order to get a package of desperately needed liberal reforms through the Duma, including changes in the punitive and unworkable tax laws and, most important, measures providing for the private ownership of land. Both men knew from firsthand experience what real politics and real struggle were like in the endlessly complex and confused Russian situation. Both of them knew what it means to take responsibility and make decisions, with all the consequences, including falling from the heights of power at the caprice of Yeltsin and his circle. Both fell and got back up without wasting time on complaints and…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.