Who Is Putin? The Long And Subtle Manipulation Of A Public Biography
Even Russians are unlikely to have noticed that over the 23 years of Vladimir Putin's presidency, the biography the Kremlin presents of him has been repeatedly altered. Having recently celebrated his 70th birthday, Proekt reveals details of how the authorities have hidden facts and evidence about Putin's life and his relationship with his family and friends — and the Russian people.
In January and February 2000, Russia was one of the main topics at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Specifically, the change of power in Moscow, where former KGB officer Vladimir Putin, heralded as Boris Yeltsin’s successor, was preparing for his first presidential election.
"Who is Mr. Putin?" the American journalist Trudy Rubin asked the Russian delegation. Anatoly Chubais and Sergei Kiriyenko, leaders of the now-defunct, center-right SPS party, looked at each other but couldn't answer. Neither could then-Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov. The audience laughed, but the situation was difficult. The country of 146 million people had been entrusted to a man whom few people knew, either in Russia or abroad.
Just weeks later, Trudy Rubin would get an answer to her question, with the publication of First Person, a compilation of more than 24 hours worth of interviews with Putin by Natalia Gevorkian, a journalist at Kommersant. The book—solicited by Valentin Yumashev, Boris Yeltsin’s Chief of Staff—came out just in time for the Russian presidential election.
The book was partly personal, with fragments about Putin’s daughters and quotes from his wife Lyudmila Putina. In it, she recalls seeing her future husband for the first time. "Volodya (Putin) was standing on the steps of this cash register. He was very modestly dressed; I would even say poor. He was very plain, and I would not have noticed him on the street,” describes Putina.
"Putin wanted to be liked," Gevorkyan recalls. "He loved to talk about himself,"
What was the Putin Biography "First Person"?
But it was also political. Before publication, Putin asked to make a change to a section of the book about Russia’s relations with NATO. In his attempts at reformulating a phrase about the possibility of Russia one day joining the Atlantic alliance, "it was clear that he wanted to look tough on NATO, but didn't understand what he was saying," Gevorkyan says.
After its publication, First Person became Putin’s official biography—posted on the site of the President of Russia and regularly quoted by journalists who write about Putin. Yet if you look now, First Person can no longer be found on the Kremlin’s website.
According to Gevorkian, the book disappeared from the presidential website after an international consortium of investigative journalists published a series of articles known as the "Panama Papers" in 2016. Putin was one of the main protagonists of the story: journalists had discovered that Sergei Roldugin, a St. Petersburg cellist, owned a network of offshore accounts—most likely as a means of hiding assets for Putin.
Young Vladimir Putin
Putin in 1983
Russian Archives via ZUMA
A necessary truth
Around the same time as First Person was published, another ambitious writer, Oleg Blotsky, a retired military officer and defense policy journalist, set out to detail Putin’s life. On the condition that he not write anything about their daughters, Blotsky obtained days worth of interviews with Vladimir Putin and Lyudmila Putina. Blotsky published Vladimir Putin: A Life Story, in 2001, and then followed it up with Vladimir Putin: The Road to Power. However, the Kremlin quickly changed its view on Blotsky’s otherwise highly complimentary biographies.
“After the second book, it became clear that the truth was out there, but not the necessary truth,” a former staffer in Putin’s presidential administration admits. “And the project was urgently curtailed.”
Blotsky's books can only be found in private collections; electronic versions do not exist. "They decided not to allow any more personal biographies,” a former Kremlin insider explains.
When did Putin and his wife get separated?
Though Blotsky's books painted an image of Putin as an ordinary man, the danger they posed was in the large number of stories Lyudmila Putina revealed about her now ex-husband, just as Putin was beginning a relationship with his secret mistress, Svetlana Krivonogikh, who, in 2003, gave birth to Putin's daughter, Elizaveta.
In that context, many episodes found in the books take on a different meaning, like the following passage about Putina’s pregnancy.
"Not having a husband to help me during pregnancy was not a problem for me, as I had been quite independent since childhood,” Putina says. “Imagine this: me, seven months pregnant with Katya, Masha in one hand, a bag of groceries in the other, and walking to the sixth floor. Then a husband and wife enter the staircase and see me climbing up—a silent scene. The man's eyes got big, big eyes. He could only exhale, ‘Luda, is it possible?’ Then the man grabs Masha and her bag and takes them to the sixth floor. But it was just once. And I have at least three such trips in a day. Then I know a neighbor told my husband several times, ‘Volodya, you have to help. You have to help, Volodya!’ But this did not have much effect because Vladimir Vladimirovich (Putin) had a principle: a woman in the house should do everything herself.”
Besides Putina's recollections, which sully the image of her ex-husband, Blotsky had constructed a photo archive—faces of Putin's coworkers, his colleagues, and numerous relatives, who now hold expensive assets.
In the spring of 2008, Putin temporarily left the Kremlin and handed over the presidency to Dmitry Medvedev for the next four years. On April 12, 2008, Moskovsky Korrespondent published a sensational report on Putin's imminent divorce from his wife and his impending marriage to the gymnast Alina Kabaeva.
Editor-in-chief Grigory Nekhoroshev admits that the journalists "decided to check [the public's reaction] by describing a rumor that had long been circulating in the Moscow community.” The reporters were guided by the practice of British tabloids, which regularly write similar stories about the royal family. But the Kremlin's subsequent reaction was not characteristic of an article that could easily have been considered gossip.
Pietsch reveals the Putins in intimate and sometimes unflattering ways.
"I have always had a bad attitude towards nosy types, with their erotic fantasies, prying into other people's lives," Putin commented about the article
Lyudmila Putina and her husband Vladimir Putin in 2015
Shutting down the presses
A few days later, the publication was shut down. References and even mentions of the magazine in other media began to disappear.
This wasn’t the first such incident. Several years before the Moskovsky Korrespondent story, Fragile Friendships, a memoir published by a German writer, Irene Pietsch, who had spent time with the Putin family in the 1990s, suffered a similar fate.
Fragile Friendships is primarily PIetsch’s impressions of her interactions with Lyudmila Putina. Problematic for the Kremlin are photos that Pietsch published of Putin’s daughters (who Putin has tried to keep out of the public eye) and quotes from Putina that hint at her husband’s infidelity.
Pietsch reveals the Putins in intimate and sometimes unflattering ways: Lyudmila laughs that the hare in the zoo has very big testicles, then complains that her husband will have a hard time making "extra money" in the civil service, and makes antisemitic comments about their contemporaries in the Russian elite.
Though the Russian edition of Fragile Friendships sold out of its initial 15,000 print run quickly, today it is almost impossible to find in either print or electronic form in Russian. (The original German version is easily accessible outside of Russia).
Story of a rat
It is surprising that all of these unofficially banned biographies of Putin were not only written with the participation and knowledge of Putin himself but were also generally complimentary towards him. The crackdown on their availability is perhaps because they all portray Putin as an ordinary man with his own emotions and weaknesses. And this does not coincide with the image that Putin wishes to project.
In 2018, the Russian TV channel showed a new film about Putin made by Andrei Kondrashov, a former Kremlin pool correspondent. At first glance, the film seems to mimic the earlier biographies of Putin. However, it has a subtle but deeply different message. The film presents Putin saving Russia and the world, whether it's by defeating terrorists who want to disrupt the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, or by taking on ISIS in Syria.
It even turns the tragic sinking of the submarine "Kursk" into a story of Putin's heroism, portraying the Russian leader courageously deciding to raise the remains of the Kursk from the seabed, against the advice of experts. "Nowhere else in the world has such an operation been carried out before," the documentary reports.
Absent this time are Lyudmila Putina and Putin’s children, Masha and Katya. Yet still present is an oft-quoted story about a rat that attacked Putin in the tenements of St Petersburg as a young man.
“Did you chase rats?” Kondrashov asks Putin on camera. “Well, I just walked up these stairs, went down, and saw a rat. I started chasing it and got it into a corner. It turned around and it ran after me, not just running, but jumping from staircase to staircase and trying to jump on my head,” Putin replies.
“Everyone should remember this: it is better never to drive anyone into a corner.”
Putin in 2013
Putin in 2011
Indignation at the West
Yet more telling than his rat parable is a shift in Putin’s focus. In an early 2000s documentary, the then-new president calmly discusses totalitarianism and the collective psychology of the Russian people; by Kondrashov’s 2018 film, there is virtually no more discussion of domestic politics, but an intense focus on foreign policy.
In particular, Putin expresses his indignation at the West’s reaction to Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. “These are things our partners should know,” he says. “It will be impossible to agree on anything with Russia in such a coarse way.”
Film director Vitaly Mansky puts the evolution in another way. “In the early 2000s there was an accessible ‘sanctity,’ a simple image,” he says. “In Kondrashov’s film and other similar works, Putin is already a historical, almost supernatural figure.”
It’s an image the Kremlin is keen to project, but one that it can only truly advance by trying to erase two decades of interviews and biographies of Vladimir Putin.
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