Gervorkyan was a co-author of an authorized biography of Putin, hastily slapped together in 2000, just after he became acting president. The book, “First Person,” was an early attempt at image-making and legend-building.
In hindsight, she says, all sorts of things jump out. Among them is the way Putin had an eye out for betrayal.
The dark mood of distrust that is reported to be pervasive within his inner circle almost certainly originates at the top. Political protest, police investigations, a capricious anti-corruption campaign, clan feuds and ambitions — all fuel it. Steadily, too, Putin’s poll numbers are eroding, as if the electorate itself is starting to betray the man in the Kremlin.
That’s, at least, how he would probably see it. “He suffers,” Gevorkyan says, from an inability to trust people — or, the people. And he comes from a culture that expects citizens to live up to the expectations of the authorities. In 1991, the head of the KGB — Putin’s old boss — said he took part in the failed hard-line coup against Mikhail Gorbachev precisely because the people were untrustworthy and no longer fulfilling their obligations to the state.
That attitude resonated with Putin (who told Gevorkyan that the coup leaders had their hearts in the right place, even if their plans were wrong-headed).
“The cooperation of normal citizens,” he told her 13 years ago, is “an important tool for the state’s viable activity.”
That isn’t as bland a sentiment as it sounds. It’s about the duty of citizens toward the state. But Putin is now a year into his third term as president, at the apex of that state, and the ground has shifted. The “viable activity” of the state is under stress — and the relationship between the state and a major part of its citizenry is in flux.
Putin’s approval rating — at 57 percent, according to the latest poll by the independent Levada Center — would be more than sufficient for any democratic politician, but in Putin’s system, as the analyst Kirill Rogov points out, it suggests an unacceptable opening for public doubt. A large majority of Russians say they don’t want Putin to run for another term in 2018.
Siege of Leningrad
Gevorkyan moved to Paris in late 1999 as a correspondent for the Kommersant newspaper. She was summoned back to work on the Putin biography after Boris Yeltsin resigned as president. With co-authors Andrei Kolesnikov and Natalya Timakova (today Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s press assistant), she met with the new leader for 30 hours of interviews at his Kremlin office and in a former KGB safe house. Most of the book, which came out a few weeks later, consists of questions and answers.