The Master and Medvedev

Why Vladimir Putin’s successful effort to handpick his replacement may backfire
putin and medvedev
(Photo credit: Anatoly Maltsev/EPA/Corbis

Dmitry Anatol’yevich Medvedev’s inauguration as Russia’s president was supposed to ensure stability—for his predecessor, mentor, and now self-selected prime minister, Vladimir Putin, and for the Russian people, who are enjoying their first sustained prosperity since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In effect, when Russian voters went to the polls in March, they granted Putin, whose approval rating hovers between 70 and 80 percent, the moral and de facto right to remain the country’s leader, albeit one working from Russia’s White House (the seat of government) and not the Kremlin.

Yet far from settling the issue of who runs Russia, the instatement of the Medvedev-Putin duo opens an era potentially fraught with danger. Not only does any form of power-sharing run counter to the currents of Russian history, but Medvedev’s electoral victory followed nasty factional struggles among those passed over by Putin—struggles that could still bear bitter fruit. And despite Medvedev’s demonstrated loyalty, the alchemy of power may yet inspire him to unseat the man who put him in office.

Dyarchy has never worked in Russia. Most recently, in 1993, the standoff between President Boris Yeltsin and his vice president, Alexander Rutskoi, ended only when the former shelled the latter’s lair in the White House. (Russia has had no vice president since then.) Traditions of autocracy, in fact, extend back to the 15th-century rise of Muscovy and have left an indelible, even determining, imprint on Russian political consciousness. For many Russians, the chaos of the Yeltsin years—when the Kremlin commanded little respect and ceded powers to other branches of government, regions, and up-and-coming oligarchs—only affirmed the validity of autocratic traditions. Now, with two centers of power forming, the situation is inherently unstable.

Not that Medvedev, whose surname happens to derive from medved, or “bear,” looks ready to pick a fight. Slender, soft-spoken, nattily turned out, and two inches shorter than his mentor (who is 5 foot 7), Medvedev would blend in with the financial types sipping their lattes at a Midtown Manhattan Starbucks. Born in 1965 in Leningrad, the only child of a professor and a teacher, Medvedev grew up in a cramped apartment he nevertheless remembers fondly, joined the Komsomol (the Communist Youth), and performed his military service at law school in what amounted to the Soviet ROTC. As did so many young Soviets in the 1980s, he pined after Levi’s and Wrangler jeans and Pink Floyd albums. He married his high-school sweetheart, Svetlana, and has a young son. A bright student by most accounts, he received his doctorate in civil law and served as an assistant professor at his law-school alma mater. In 1991, Anatoly Sobchak, the professor of jurisprudence who became St. Petersburg’s first democratically elected mayor, was impressed enough to invite him to join his administration.

At City Hall that year, Medvedev met the person on whom his fate would turn: Putin, the former KGB agent whom Sobchak had hired to run St. Petersburg’s external-affairs committee. Putin and Medvedev developed a fraternal relationship, with Putin, at 13 years senior, playing the role of older brother. In 1996, Putin moved to Moscow to head the FSB, the successor agency to the KGB. Three years later, in August 1999, Yeltsin named Putin prime minister. Aging, ailing, often drunk, and damaged by repeated scandals and the country’s economic collapse, Yeltsin was looking to leave office in 2000 without facing jail (or the seizure of his assets, to be sure). He appointed Putin as his successor with the understanding, it is believed, that Putin would allow him to retire as “Russia’s First President” free from the threat of persecution.

Putin ran for office in 2000 promising a diktatura zakona (“dictatorship of the law”) based on the restoration of the Russian state—a winning slogan among a people laid low by a decade of corruption, mafia banditry, and what they saw as humiliation by the West. After running Putin’s campaign, Medvedev served as his chief of staff, and soon found himself named chairman of the energy giant Gazprom, Russia’s largest company and the supplier of 40 percent of Europe’s natural gas—an early sign that Putin might favor him as his successor over other apparently more qualified senior aspirants.

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Jeffrey Tayler is an Atlantic correspondent.

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