There’s a long cover story on Vladimir Putin’s democratic credentials running in the Wall Street Journal today, even including this great photo with the 1980s haircut. Ever since the TIME selection, every newspaper and magazine out there seems to be fighting to have the next big scoop on Russia. They write: “The Kremlin squeezed the politically connected Russian tycoons who had consolidated former state industries and bought up media properties in the 1990s. The government wrested the main television station from an erstwhile Putin ally, Boris Berezovsky. It gained control of another independent TV station, Vladimir Gusinsky’s NTV, engineering its sale to state-owned gas giant Gazprom. The Kremlin jailed Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an oil, banking and media baron who had supported opposition politics, on fraud and tax-evasion charges. The mastermind of the arrest of Mr. Khodorkovsky was Mr. Sechin, the KGB veteran from Africa, current and former officials say. (The Kremlin says Mr. Sechin was a student, not an agent, in Africa.) Mr. Sechin was later named chairman of the board of OAO Rosneft, the state oil company that acquired most of Yukos’s assets. To Mr. Medvedev, meanwhile, Mr. Putin entrusted state-controlled Gazprom, the world’s No. 2 oil company behind Exxon Mobil. Those close to the company say Mr. Putin keeps a close watch on its affairs. Foreign officials who’ve met Mr. Putin have been shocked by the president’s detailed knowledge of prices and pipeline routes, diplomats say. Mr. Rybakov, the Soviet-era dissident on the Leningrad city council, mourns the tough-fisted turn Mr. Putin took. “It will take a generation for us to make up for the lost ground,” he said. “We had all hoped for much better.”
THE LENINGRAD ENIGMAIn Putin’s Past, GlimpsesOf Russia’s Hardline FutureBy ALAN CULLISON in St. Petersburg, GREGORY L. WHITE in Moscow and DAVID CRAWFORD in Dresden, GermanyDecember 21, 2007For much of the 1990s, Vladimir Putin worked side by side with the liberals who were fighting to bring democracy to Russia. Now the question arises: Did he ever believe in any of it?This week, Mr. Putin confirmed he would become Russia’s prime minister once the protégé he handpicked to succeed him, Dmitry Medvedev, is elected president. The swap, expected in May, would effectively cement Mr. Putin’s one-man control over a Russian political system of his own creation. The former KGB agent now commands a platform from which he can influence not only the course of his nation’s history, but the world’s.Whether Russia moves back toward democracy or deeper into autocracy will have much to do with a central riddle of Mr. Putin’s biography: During his rise in electoral politics, was he a true believer in democracy who later became disillusioned? Or was he infiltrating a nascent democratic movement to undermine it?Mr. Putin’s hard-fisted rule today bookends his earlier career with the Soviet Union’s state security apparatus, the KGB. An agent from 1975 until 1991, he espoused a vision of Russian greatness, former colleagues say, built on a Kremlin that evokes fear and respect.What’s harder to explain is the period in between the fall of the Soviet Union and his rise to power. In early 1990, with the U.S.S.R. crumbling, Mr. Putin was at a crossroads. As he wrapped up a post recruiting spies in East Germany, he told a colleague he was thinking about returning to the Soviet Union but worried he’d have to drive a taxi. A few months later, while still on the KGB’s payroll, Mr. Putin took a job on the vanguard of the pro-democracy movement then sweeping his homeland.By the end of 1991, the Soviet Union had disintegrated. Leningrad was rechristened St. Petersburg. There, for the next five years, Mr. Putin built a career as a deputy mayor in one of Russia’s most progressive city governments, earning a reputation as an advocate for economic reforms and foreign investment. He won over prominent liberal politicians. When he moved to Moscow in 1996, those connections helped propel a headlong rise to Russia’s presidency four years later.Since taking office in 2000, Mr. Putin has snuffed reforms that his St. Petersburg colleagues held dear, rolling back press freedoms, multiparty politics and open elections. Now 55 years old and at the end of the two consecutive presidential terms allowed under Russian law, he has engineered a way to stay in power.Few who knew Mr. Putin in the St. Petersburg years say they could divine his core motivations. Some say he remained guarded like the former spy he was. Others say he witnessed the messy business of building electoral politics in St. Petersburg, and recoiled.”Like anyone who is not a crazy person, he wanted good,” said Yuli Rybakov, a pro-democracy lawmaker in St. Petersburg who later served in Russia’s parliament. “But his idea of good came from somewhere else. He wasn’t a person who could understand that the experience of freedom and discussion would bring democracy. What we understand as democracy is, to him, anarchy.”The Wrong StandardsMr. Putin, for his part, insists that he is building democracy at a pace suitable to a country with a centuries-old tradition of autocracy. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov says Mr. Putin had looked “positively and sympathetically” on Western-led efforts to advise the St. Petersburg government in the 1990s. But later, arriving in Moscow, Mr. Putin saw that some initiatives to build civil society represented an effort to remake Russia according to outside standards, Mr. Peskov said.Most inside Russia welcome Russia’s restoration under Mr. Putin, following a decade of upheavals of the 1990s. Thanks in part to soaring oil revenues, he has fostered a vibrant market economy that would have been anathema to central planners.But Mr. Putin’s Russia bears little resemblance to the thriving democracy that reformers hoped prosperity would bring. Russians are freer than they were under the Soviet Union, with its ever-present secret police and strict travel limits. But parliament, which in the 1990s regularly challenged the president, is firmly in the grip of Mr. Putin’s United Russia party. Regional governors, once a political force, are now presidential appointees. Next year’s presidential election is considered a formality because the government has crowded out all viable candidates except Mr. Medvedev.This Russia — heady consumer capitalism in a one-party state — mirrors Mr. Putin’s leanings, say former and current colleagues.Accounts of Mr. Putin’s pre-Kremlin years are sketchy. During his KGB days he appeared unremarkable, even in a service where officers are trained not to attract attention. As a functionary during most of the 1990s, he was hardly considered a rising star. Recollections of the period are drawn from colleagues, while Mr. Putin’s account is drawn from a biography and a book of interviews he authorized.Rats in StairwayVladimir Vladimirovich Putin was born in 1952 in the city then known as Leningrad, where his father worked in a factory making railway cars. He grew up in a dilapidated fifth-floor walk-up apartment where he recalled rats living in the stairway.As a boy he dreamed of joining the KGB, he said in the book of interviews, published in 2000. He studied law at Leningrad State University after a KGB agent suggested that was the best route into the service.He graduated in 1975, and underwent KGB training in Russia. In 1985, the agency sent him to Dresden to recruit spies. Mr. Putin’s devotion wasn’t to the Soviet system, whose decay he recognized, but to the spy agency as the protector of Russian greatness, recalls Vladimir Usoltsev, who shared a KGB office with him in Dresden in the mid-1980s.”He always had a poetic touch — the peculiar pride in belonging to the special corps of defenders of the Motherland, the Chekists,” Mr. Usoltsev said in an interview, referring to the Soviet Union’s dreaded post-revolutionary secret police.Klaus Zuchold, a former agent of the East German Stasi secret police, remembers the future president praising Mikhail Gorbachev’s efforts to reform the Soviet Union. But Mr. Zuchold says Mr. Putin reserved the highest respect for Yuri Andropov, a former KGB chief. During Mr. Andropov’s short tenure as Soviet leader in the early 1980s, he had tried to liberalize the moribund Soviet economy while cracking down on political dissent.As Mr. Gorbachev’s economic restructuring and political openness took hold, the Eastern bloc sank. The Berlin Wall fell in 1989.In early 1990, as his tour in Dresden drew to a close, Mr. Putin told his agents to step up surveillance of Dresden hotels, which were filling up as Westerners flowed into the country. As East Germany collapsed, Mr. Putin offered KGB jobs to one of his Stasi contacts. Mr. Zuchold says Mr. Putin recruited him as a spy in January 1990, and toasted the recruitment with a bottle of Crimean champagne.Mr. Usoltsev, the KGB colleague, said the future president seemed worried as his exit from Dresden neared. The future president, he recalled, said he might go back home to practice law. Failing that, he recalls Mr. Putin saying, “Perhaps I will have to drive a taxi.”Instead, Mr. Putin returned to Leningrad and became the chief KGB agent at Leningrad State University, according to the book of interviews. He worked undercover as a deputy dean responsible for foreign students. Lawmaker Mr. Rybakov remembers Mr. Putin standing with the police who were monitoring a pro-democracy rally at the time.Around the same time, Mr. Putin offered his services as a driver for an up-and-coming politician, a feminist defender of ethnic minorities. “He said he believed in her cause and so he wanted to help,” said Ruslan Linkov, an aide to the politician, the late Galina Starovoitova. On a trip to meet voters in the provinces near Leningrad, Mr. Linkov said, Mr. Putin drove and spoke little.Mr. Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, says Mr. Putin didn’t volunteer for Ms. Starovoitova, saying Mr. Linkov’s recollection “does not conform with the facts.”‘I Needed People’Mr. Putin soon found permanent work with one of the leading politicians of Russia’s nascent democracy movement. Anatoly Sobchak, Mr. Putin’s former law professor, had vaulted to prominence with stinging attacks on the Communist elite. Mr. Sobchak had been elected a deputy of the Leningrad council, and then its chairman.”I put the team together based on old acquaintances. I needed people,” Mr. Sobchak, who died in 2000 while campaigning for Mr. Putin, said in a newspaper interview shortly before his death. Mr. Putin spoke German and some English, and had a good recommendation from the dean. “I knew him as a good student,” Mr. Sobchak said.In the book of interviews, Mr. Putin said he was looking for a backup in case his KGB career didn’t pan out. He watched Mr. Sobchak’s rise with interest but wasn’t an enthusiastic supporter. “I didn’t like everything, but he got my respect,” Mr. Putin said.Mr. Sobchak offered Mr. Putin a position as an aide. Mr. Putin warned his former professor that he was a KGB agent. Mr. Sobchak hired him anyway.Around the same time, Mr. Sobchak hired another former law-school student as a legal adviser — Mr. Medvedev, the current presidential candidate. Western visitors to the office recall that Mr. Medvedev, then in his late 20s, sat at a tiny desk in an anteroom and was sometimes mistaken for a secretary.Mr. Putin quickly distinguished himself as a quiet and efficient technocrat who kept his word and let his boss take the limelight, former colleagues say. He remained on the KGB payroll as an active reserve officer, quitting only after the agency’s top officers led an unsuccessful August 1991 coup against Mr. Gorbachev.Back in Dresden, some of Mr. Putin’s former agents were under the impression that he was still serving the spy service. As late as 1993, Mr. Zuchold says, he and other ex-agents received encrypted radio messages under his name bearing holiday greetings.In May 1991, Mr. Putin was promoted to become head of a new committee on foreign economic relations, charged with drawing Western trade and investment to the city. The job landed Mr. Putin in the middle of democrats’ chaotic efforts to govern the crumbling Soviet Union. The 400 legislators who swept into the city council in Leningrad’s first free elections wanted to turn the council into a laboratory for reforms.”We thought we’d introduce the principles of parliamentary democracy right at the city level,” Mr. Putin recalled in a September meeting with foreign think-tank analysts in Russia. But the predominantly amateur politicians in the legislature couldn’t agree even on basic issues like appointing officials. “It turned into horror without end,” Mr. Putin said.As the Soviet state fell to pieces, the Leningrad lawmakers tried to form a Western-style city government. A referendum in June 1991 rechristened the city to its old name, St. Petersburg. Mr. Sobchak was elected mayor.Soon the mayor and council fell to power struggles. The St. Petersburg council continually challenged Mr. Sobchak’s decisions in court, and accused him of hoarding power. Mr. Sobchak accused the council of muddling management of a city facing food shortages and economic collapse.The Soviet Union dissolved at the end of 1991. Westerners flooded St. Petersburg in early initiatives to build democratic institutions. Mr. Putin had little time for them. American researcher Michael McFaul was then working with the National Democratic Institute, a nonprofit partly funded by the U.S. government that brought politicians including Walter Mondale to speak about basics such as drawing up a budget. Mr. McFaul’s first point of contact was Mr. Putin.”He very quickly saw that this was all bull-,” and assigned a subordinate to organize the NDI seminars, Mr. McFaul recalls.’We’re All Democrats’The aide assigned to run the conferences was Igor Sechin. At dinner at one event, Mr. McFaul said he was surprised when Mr. Sechin addressed him in Portuguese. The American spoke the language — he’d done research in the 1980s in Angola — but didn’t know how Mr. Sechin could have known that. Then Mr. Sechin explained that he, too, had been in Africa. “‘I worked for the KGB, but now we’re all democrats,’ some phrase like that,” Mr. McFaul recalls him saying.The appointment of KGB veterans to Mr. Sobchak’s government drew howls, particularly from ex-dissidents who’d been persecuted by the agency. The uproar heightened with the appointment in 1992 of Viktor Cherkessov to head the St. Petersburg branch of the KGB’s main successor, then called the Security Ministry. Mr. Cherkessov had been the bane of dissidents, some of whom now sat on the city council. Four years earlier, Mr. Cherkessov had spearheaded what would become the Soviet Union’s last push against those who disseminated anti-Soviet propaganda — filing charges against Mr. Rybakov, among others.As relations between Mr. Sobchak and the city council soured, the mayor began pushing to have the body disbanded. In late 1993, the council was dissolved by decree from Moscow.For all his skepticism about the council’s parliamentary democracy, Mr. Putin embraced market economics — it was necessary, he has said, to raise living standards and win re-election for Mr. Sobchak. By 1994, Mr. Putin was deputy mayor, responsible for attracting foreign investment to the city. Western businessmen who worked with him say he was a quick learner and a no-nonsense negotiator.One foreign banker who hoped to develop some downtown real estate recalls that he went to Mr. Putin’s office to appeal for exemptions from Soviet-era tax provisions that made investment impossible.He started to explain his case. Mr. Putin interrupted. “‘Look,’ he said, ‘to stay in power, we need jobs. In order to get jobs, we need investment,'” the banker recalls. “I understand all this, so I’ll help you. Now get out of my office.”To MoscowIn 1996, Mr. Sobchak narrowly lost a bid for re-election. Mr. Putin, now jobless, moved for the summer to his family’s dacha outside St. Petersburg.By then, several former Sobchak staffers were in prominent jobs in Moscow. By the fall of 1996, an official Mr. Putin knew from his days in government set him up with a job as a functionary in the Kremlin property department. With rapid turnover in the waning days of Boris Yeltsin’s presidency, Mr. Putin advanced rapidly.In July 1998, he was promoted to head the FSB, the main successor to the KGB. Once in place at the agency, Mr. Putin called on colleagues from St. Petersburg. He promoted Mr. Cherkessov, the security-service officer loathed by old-time dissidents there.In August 1999, Mr. Yeltsin surprised the country by naming Mr. Putin prime minister and his heir apparent as president. Mr. Yeltsin stunned the world again with a New Year’s address on Dec. 31, 1999, in which he resigned and named Mr. Putin acting president. In one of his first appointments as acting president, he named Mr. Medvedev deputy chief of staff.Many Russians, weary from the devastated economy of the 1990s, a financial crisis in 1998 and an insurgency in the south, welcomed a firm hand. “Putin has the same principles and goals that Napoleon had in his time,” Mr. Sobchak, still a liberal activist, said in a newspaper interview in 2000. “Restoration of state authority.”After his election in March 2000, Mr. Putin slashed taxes and overhauled legislation to improve the business climate. He reappointed Mr. Yeltsin’s prime minister, free-market champion Mikhail Kasyanov. Andrei Illarionov, an outspoken young economist also known for his free-market views, became Mr. Putin’s economic adviser.”It was attractive to work with him,” Mr. Illarionov recalled. Like many other economists at the time, he says, he believed rebuilding Russia’s economy would inexorably lead to more democracy.Instead, Mr. Putin cracked down on rivals, in part with the help of old security allies. He gave Mr. Cherkessov, the KGB veteran, command of a national antidrug agency. Another staff job went to Mr. Sechin, the Portuguese-speaking former spy.Squeezing TycoonsThe Kremlin squeezed the politically connected Russian tycoons who had consolidated former state industries and bought up media properties in the 1990s. The government wrested the main television station from an erstwhile Putin ally, Boris Berezovsky. It gained control of another independent TV station, Vladimir Gusinsky’s NTV, engineering its sale to state-owned gas giant Gazprom. The Kremlin jailed Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an oil, banking and media baron who had supported opposition politics, on fraud and tax-evasion charges.The mastermind of the arrest of Mr. Khodorkovsky was Mr. Sechin, the KGB veteran from Africa, current and former officials say. (The Kremlin says Mr. Sechin was a student, not an agent, in Africa.) Mr. Sechin was later named chairman of the board of OAO Rosneft, the state oil company that acquired most of Yukos’s assets.To Mr. Medvedev, meanwhile, Mr. Putin entrusted state-controlled Gazprom, the world’s No. 2 oil company behind Exxon Mobil. Those close to the company say Mr. Putin keeps a close watch on its affairs. Foreign officials who’ve met Mr. Putin have been shocked by the president’s detailed knowledge of prices and pipeline routes, diplomats say.Mr. Rybakov, the Soviet-era dissident on the Leningrad city council, mourns the tough-fisted turn Mr. Putin took. “It will take a generation for us to make up for the lost ground,” he said. “We had all hoped for much better.”Kremlin officials argue that Russian voters are still too tainted by decades of communist rule to be relied on to make responsible choices in the voting booth. “We’re a very leftist country that’s not the least bit concerned with obeying the law,” said one. “When our American colleagues talk about democracy, freedom of the press and such, they don’t understand at all.”At the meeting with foreign analysts in September, Mr. Putin said Russia would need “strong presidential power” for years to come. Parliamentary democracy — of the type tried in the early 1990s — would be “very dangerous” for Russia, he said, for at least another decade. “Without internal discipline, and without ideology to unite people, it all leads to chaos,” Mr. Putin said.