The Accidental Autocrat

Vladimir Putin is not a democrat. Nor is he a czar like Alexander III, a paranoid like Stalin, or a religious nationalist like Dostoyevsky. But he is a little of all these—which is just what Russians seem to want

Like many Russians, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin is a late riser. Sometimes he doesn't roll out of bed until 11:00 a.m. Russia's president lives with his wife, Lyudmila, and two teenage daughters, Maria and Katerina, about twenty-five miles west of the center of Moscow, at Novo Ogarevo, a country estate dotted with white birch and pine trees that was built in the late nineteenth century for a son of Czar Alexander II. The neighborhood is now a haven for wealthy Russians, who have constructed opulent and often tasteless dachas. Trim and fit for his fifty-two years, Putin usually starts his mornings with a vigorous workout in the compound's small indoor pool. (The butterfly stroke is a favorite.) The grounds contain stables, a recently restored Orthodox church, a vegetable plot, and a helipad, and Putin sometimes spends the day working at Novo Ogarevo, receiving visitors there rather than at the Kremlin. In any case, he seldom leaves for the office much before noon.

From Atlantic Unbound:

"Parsing Putin" (February 24, 2005)
Paul Starobin, the author of "The Accidental Autocrat," on the complex and inscrutable character of Russia's president.

On days that he does go to the office, Putin speeds across the Moscow River in the back seat of his armored Mercedes Pullman and then cruises down the Novy Arbat, a garish boulevard bordered by neon-lit casinos, sushi bars, and ugly Soviet-era high-rise office buildings. Putin's motorcade deposits him inside the Kremlin walls, near his office in the Old Senate, a mustard-colored neoclassical building commissioned by Catherine the Great in the 1770s. Lenin made his headquarters here after the 1917 Revolution, when the Bolsheviks moved the capital to Moscow from imperial St. Petersburg.

Putin's office, in the northwest corner of the second floor, affords a view of Red Square. The office is spare and impersonal, with a somewhat antiquated feel. It has a clunky television and a bank of several dozen phones with heavy handsets—direct lines to the offices of Putin's Kremlin aides and other senior officials. Down the corridor, in a remodeled set of rooms that once contained Stalin's living quarters, is a small candlelit Orthodox chapel with icon paintings on the walls. Putin's immediate predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, had the chapel built but rarely entered it (according to what Putin told one visitor); Putin, in contrast, goes there very often. His private dining room, also on the second floor, contains a collection of bottles of Spanish red wine, one of his favorites. He likes to wash down his appetizers—what the Russians call zakuski, which are often the tastiest part of a meal—with a couple of shots of vodka, and to end his repast with a cognac from Dagestan, a province in Russia's troubled northern Caucasus. (Yeltsin's popularity, and Russia's image, suffered from his occasional displays of public drunkenness; Putin benefits from a reputation for sobriety and takes care to imbibe modestly in public.) He sometimes has dinner at the Kremlin, but more often heads back to Novo Ogarevo, where his work continues. Sipping cups of tea, Putin frequently works past midnight. An aide told me that "VVP," as his staff members sometimes refer to him, never hits the sack before 2:00 a.m.

The Russians have a saying: "Tyajela ti shapka manomakha"—"The crown of the czar is very heavy." On September 1 of last year a group of heavily armed men and women seized a middle school in Beslan, a railway-junction town in North Ossetia, a northern Caucasian province. They herded twelve hundred hostages, most of them children, into the gymnasium and wired it with explosives. The hostage-takers were Islamic militants; the operation was apparently organized by Shamil Basayev, a warlord whom Putin has likened to Osama bin Laden and who is leading a decade-old insurgency in the Caucasian republic of Chechnya and seeking to widen the rebellion to surrounding, largely Muslim provinces. (North Ossetia, an exception in the region, is predominantly Orthodox Christian.) The insurgents boasted of having made their way to the school by bribing the police at checkpoints along their route. "All your officials are mendacious and corrupt," one hostage recalls being told. Russian special forces surrounded the school. After a fifty-two-hour standoff a bomb exploded in the gym, perhaps accidentally, precipitating an hours-long firefight that killed some 330 of the hostages and wounded about 700.

On the day after the bloodbath Putin addressed the nation on television from the Kremlin. He seemed stripped raw; the brief clip I caught on the news was painful to watch. "It is a difficult and bitter task for me to speak," he began. "During these last few days each one of us suffered immensely." The thrust of his message was shame and embarrassment that Russians, "living in conditions formed after the disintegration of a huge, great country," had failed to pay enough attention to their defenses. "We demonstrated weakness, and the weak are beaten." His face was drained of color. I wondered if he was in shock.

But he soon rallied, unveiling in the days that followed a series of measures designed, he said, "to put right the system of power and management in the country." One measure was to end the popular election of regional governors and have the Kremlin appoint them instead, subject to confirmation by regional legislatures. In the West a chorus of critics decried a retreat to Russia's authoritarian past. Such criticism, though a bit sanctimonious, is reasonably well grounded: in the years since an ailing Yeltsin appointed him Russia's president, on December 31, 1999, Putin has in numerous ways tried to reassert Kremlin control over the country. (Voters ratified Yeltsin's choice in a March 2000 election, and elected Putin to a second four-year term in March of 2004.) But the West's concerns nevertheless struck me as out of touch with the anxieties and priorities of ordinary Russians. I lived and worked in Russia from 1999 to 2003, as the Moscow bureau chief of BusinessWeek, and most of the Russians I met (with the exception of those in the liberal intelligentsia) were supportive of the general direction of Putin's leadership. In fact, the majority of the criticism I heard came from people who felt that he was not authoritarian enough.

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Paul Starobin is a contributing editor of The Atlantic and a staff correspondent for National Journal.

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