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The Rollback of Democracy In Vladimir Putin's Russia

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, right, took part in a wreath-laying ceremony in Moscow on June 22, 2002. In 2004, Putin fired Kasyanov.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, right, took part in a wreath-laying ceremony in Moscow on June 22, 2002. In 2004, Putin fired Kasyanov. (Photos By Mikhail Metzel -- Associated Press)

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Putin's main virtue to the Yeltsin clan known as the Family was his loyalty. He once helped spirit his former boss, St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak, out of the country at a time when prosecutors were bearing down. That move made an impression in the Kremlin, where Yeltsin's advisers worried about retribution after he left office.

Igor Malashenko, a television executive who helped Yeltsin win reelection in 1996, was among the first to hear rumors that Putin would assume the presidency. Curious, he wangled a dinner invitation with the little-known spy. Not long after, Malashenko was summoned to the home of Valentin Yumashev, a Yeltsin aide.

"He asked me directly to support Putin as successor to Boris Yeltsin," Malashenko recalled.

"How can you trust him?" Malashenko asked Yumashev.

"He didn't give up Sobchak," Yumashev answered. "He won't give us up."

Backed by the tycoon Boris Berezovsky, the Kremlin advisers made it their mission to turn Putin into a credible successor. They taught him how to walk and talk like a president, how to dress, how to behave in public. "He was a fast learner," recalled Igor Shabdurasulov, a Putin aide.

But more important, they mustered the power of the state behind him, particularly state television, managed by Berezovsky, which lavished praise on Putin while tearing down his challengers with a vicious smear campaign. "I'm not defending the ethics of that process," Shabdurasulov said. "There were many things that today might not look all that pretty. But politics is a dirty business."

Project Putin worked. The former spy became acting president on New Year's Eve 1999 and was formally elected three months later. His first act in office was to sign a decree granting Yeltsin and his family immunity from prosecution.

But if the Yeltsin clan viewed him as a loyalist they could control, they were wrong. The project had a life of its own. A few months after his election, Putin gave a speech at a closed-door ceremony at the Lubyanka headquarters of the old KGB. The occasion was a Stalin-inaugurated holiday known as the Day of the Chekist, marking the founding of the Soviet secret police originally known as the cheka . Gathered there to listen to Putin were about 300 generals from the KGB and its successor agency, celebrating the rise of one of their own.

"Instruction number one for obtaining full power has been completed," Putin announced to the generals.

The few civilians in the hall thought it was a joke.

Only later, one recalled, would they realize how serious he was.


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