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Unraveling The Putin Enigma, From The Inside

They've known him from up close, and their insights help explain the mystery of the Russian president's rise. And, perhaps, what he'll do next.

"Putin is obsessed with television."
"Putin is obsessed with television."
Vincent Jauvert

MOSCOW — The master of the Kremlin had disappeared. For ten days, Vladimir Putin didn’t offer a single sign of life to his people. He was nowhere to be seen on television, nor heard on the radio. Usually omnipresent, he canceled all the appointments on his agenda. He didn’t even attend, like he does every year, the annual meeting of alumni of the KGB, where he began his career. Between March 6 and 16 — a political eternity — the Russians didn’t know what happened to the Russian president. Or if he was even still alive.

In Moscow, political life came to a halt as the whole of Russia held its collective breath. From Saint Petersburg to Vladivostok, the public absence was perhaps the clearest sign that the functioning of this massive country relies on just one man only: a former 62-year-old spy, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, aka “VVP.”

Who is this enigmatic head of state, considered by many to be the most powerful leader in the world? Where does he come from and what does he want? How does he manage his country? To give a clearer portrayal of this disturbing figure, L’Obs asked men and women who knew Putin at different moments of his life — including those who know him now. They talk about the searing career of this small lieutenant colonel who became czar: his psychology, his fascination for television, his techniques for having the upper hand on anyone he is speaking to …

The first witness sees him almost every day. He’s a journalist who has been accredited for a long time at the Kremlin, and who like others wishes to remain anonymous. He says Putin’s disappearance was one of those manipulations of public opinion only he knows how to execute, and which, this time, almost went wrong. He says that when he saw Putin again, on March 16, his right cheekbone was “particularly swollen.”

“He obviously went through a new Botox injection. Don’t forget his almost official mistress, the former gymnast Alina Kabaeva, is a lot younger than him ... In my opinion, after the murder of Boris Nemtsov, he took advantage of this surgical operation to disappear and distract public opinion,” the source says. “But, when rumors of a military coup became insistent, the president’s entourage thought it was best to put an end to the masquerade, that he could lose control of the people.”

After that, Putin decided to be more omnipresent than ever. “Since March 16, we’ve been receiving his updated agenda twice a day on our smartphones!” the journalist says.

TV obsession

Putin is obsessed with the media, especially television. “On his desk, there are no pens, only a remote control,” Boris Nemtsov told L’Obsa few years ago.

Sergey Dorenko is a famous television host who used to be very close to the president, to whom he owes much. In 2000, Dorenko was one of the main contributors to his presidential victory, tarnishing the image of Putin’s opponent on a nightly basis.

“Putin often told me, ‘Sergey, if you don’t talk about this information, it doesn’t exist,’” Dorenko recalls. “For him, the only power is television. He decides the programs, chooses the hosts. He summons the heads of networks in his dachas over any little thing. That’s how he runs the country.”

The czar of Great Russia has always built everything around the small screen. His political career started with a show that he himself ordered. That was 23 years ago. In 1992, Igor Shadkhan was a famous producer in Saint Petersburg: “One day, I got a phone call from city hall,” the 75-year-old man remembers, speaking in his office located next to the Neva, where several photographs signed by the Russian president hang on the walls. “I was offered to make a film on a certain Putin. ‘Who’s that? — a close associate of the mayor,’” he was told. He went to see him.

The 39-year-old deputy mayor mentioned the rumor about him: that he allegedly worked for the KGB.

“He told me, ‘Well, it’s true! And I want to confirm the rumor in my own way, in a documentary you’ll make.’ He chose me because I’d hosted a very popular show. He recruited me to make him seem kind.”

This is how the two men wound up producing, in 1992, the first film on Putin, called Clast (“Power”), in which he reveals he was indeed an intelligence officer in East Germany, but that he had “since then resigned from the KGB.”

“The film was paid for by the former bank of the Communist party of the city, Rossiya, where one of his close friends worked, Yuri Kovaltchuk,” the producer says.

A few years later, Kovaltchuk would become a billionaire and owner of Rossiya, which is now considered as the personal bank for Putin and his oligarch friends. As such, the bank has since been sanctioned by the U.S. following the annexation of Crimea.

A dazzling rise

Putin’s dazzling rise can be explained by his exceptional ability to make himself indispensable and remain secret.

At the end of 1996, friends from Saint Petersburg, impressed by his devotion to his boss, recommend him to President Boris Yeltsin. He arrived at the Kremlin through the back door, but worked so many wonders that, in just a few months, he was in charge of the management of all the transactions of the presidency — a position that requires great trust. “In late 1998, Putin invited me for dinner,” explains the journalist Elena Tregubova. “He had just been appointed as head of the FSB the former KGB. He had been catapulted at this strategic position because the Kremlin couldn’t find any other reliable candidate.”

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Yeltsin and Putin in 1999 — Photo: Kremlin

The journalist adds, “I was expecting to spend the evening with a boring man, but he could talk about any topic, he adapted to the person in front of him. I saw him again several times and I understood that this man excelled at public relations — he is a mirror in which the people he speaks to can reflect.”

At the end of Yeltsin’s reign, people close to the old president — who was battling alcoholism — chose the evidently transparent and reliable Putin as successor. Most top officials were delighted, recalled the then Finance Minister Mikhail Kasyanov. “We thought we needed a young, energetic man like him to pursue the democratic and economic reforms,” he recalled. “We didn’t imagine one second he had something else at the back of his mind.”

Just after his election, in 2000, Putin appointed Kasyanov as Prime Minister. “For three years, he kept a low profile,” he says. “He learned to navigate within the administration, to maneuver the tools of the government. He didn’t have his own team yet. He applied the reforms my team had proposed. Thanks to them, we created the basis for the economic stability Putin later boasted about to establish his popularity and his power.”

So much so that in 2004, he felt strong, tough enough to drop the mask.

He appointed a new prime minister, challenged democracy — in which he never believed anyway — and stopped any new economic reform. Then he started redistributing public properties to his friends in Saint Petersburg, starting with Gazprom. The Putin regime was being set up.

Alone and overwhelmed

Now, after 15 years in power, where is he? People who have been close to him since the beginning — and had continued to support him— are worried about the way he is currently governing. Last time he saw Putin, filmmaker Igor Shadkhan was saddened. It was in 2012, a few weeks after the large popular protests denouncing Putin’s third term. Shadkhan says he waited three hours in the antechamber of his office, before he was received at 1 a.m.

“He stays up late, like Stalin. To lighten the mood, I told a joke. He already knew it, so he didn’t laugh. The atmosphere was cold. He seemed alone. Overwhelmed. He doesn’t trust anyone, not even his close relatives,” Shadkhan said. “I think he’s scared. He didn’t move with the times. The time has come for him to hand over power. We need someone new.”

The historian and Russia specialist Hélène Carrère d’Encausse never hid her admiration for Putin, whom she met several times. She’s now very disappointed about his evolution. “At the end of 2000, a few months after his first election, he asked to meet me,” she explains. “I spent two hours in his office at the Kremlin, one-on-one. He seemed unsure of himself, but determined to rebuild Russia. And that’s what he did during his first two terms.”

But since he returned to the Kremlin in 2012, Putin, to Carrère d’Encausse’s eyes, hasn’t been the same. “I saw him again during the autumn of 2013, with experts. His remarks were considerably harder. The months before that, he had flexed his muscles on television. He made homophobic statements. He who had so much difficulty adapting to the bourgeoisie was letting himself go. It was like his real personality deep down was exploding.”

Where will this wind up? The expert’s answer is surprising: “The Russians are grateful for the annexation of Crimea, but they’re not fooled by his way of governing,” she says. “They think it’s enough. Something isn’t right anymore between Putin and the people … This is why I don’t think he’ll run for a fourth term, in 2018.”

Pavel Goussev, the owner of one of the largest Russian dailies, Moskovski Komsomolets, has an even tougher analysis. He’s a powerful editor — not an opponent at all. With his experience in the job and the networks he’s established, he’s the best informed man in the Kremlin. “Since he came to power, I’ve met Putin two or three times per year, in small groups of people,” he says in his office. “Last time, it was in November. Over the years, he’s gained a lot of confidence. Now, he has the highest trust in himself, and he rules alone,” the publisher explained. “He thinks Russia is him, and he is Russia. No one, even at the top, can take important decisions without his approval.”

Goussev notes that so much power concentrated in one man puts pressure on both the man and the state: “The situation is particularly dangerous.”

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