By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, March 2, 2008
ST. PETERSBURG -- At the age of 23, Dmitry Medvedev went to a cathedral in this city, then called Leningrad, and was baptized into the Russian Orthodox Church. Even in the relatively liberal environment of Mikhail Gorbachev's Soviet Union, it was a quiet act of defiance for a postgraduate law student whose prospects depended on not straying too far from the ruling ideology.
"I think it marked the beginning of a new life for me," said Medvedev, 42, in a recent interview with the Russian magazine Itogi.
A year later, in 1989, Medvedev campaigned for Anatoly Sobchak, one of his law professors at Leningrad State University, who was running as an independent candidate for the Congress of People's Deputies and calling for an end to the Communist Party's monopoly on power.
"He was very young, and it was extremely dangerous for his future," Lyudmila Narusova, Sobchak's widow and now a member of the Russian parliament's upper house, said of Medvedev in an interview. "It could have ruined his entire future career, because nobody knew who was going to win. Nevertheless, Medvedev willingly chose this path."
Nineteen years later, Medvedev is about to become Russia's third president, succeeding Vladimir Putin, who has ensured the victory in Sunday's election simply by blessing Medvedev's candidacy. But after a heavily stage-managed campaign, bereft of authentic competition, many Russians wonder whether a Medvedev administration heralds a break with the rule of his popular predecessor or a caretaker government that will consolidate the centralization of power Putin engineered.
Will the democratic dreams of the young Medvedev resurface to challenge the policies he has helped implement as the sidekick of a president who has crushed political pluralism? Or will they emerge again only in speeches, never in practice?
"After the campaign, I can say I know nothing about who he is," said Georgy Bovt, editor in chief of Profil magazine. "He is intelligent, well-bred, educated -- that's all I can say. How is he going to manage the country? We don't know."
Medvedev's campaign declined an interview request. The candidate has been cocooned inside his campaign, taking few questions from anyone outside a select pool of journalists filing uniformly glowing reports.
Medvedev actually claims to have campaigned for only one day in the past two months; the rest of his appearances, he said, were part of his work as first deputy prime minister. The Central Election Commission, explaining the overwhelming coverage of Medvedev on state television compared with the scant attention paid to his opponents, which appeared to violate electoral rules requiring equal access to news media, said the channels weren't covering a candidate but a government minister.
A former law professor, Medvedev has begun to articulate a reverence for the rule of law, which human rights organizations say was applied very unevenly during Putin's tenure. He has also said he will tackle corruption, which Putin failed to do in any comprehensive way.
"We're talking about freedom in all its forms -- personal freedom, economic freedom and, in the end, the freedom of self-expression," Medvedev said in a campaign speech. "One of the key elements in our work in the next four years will be ensuring the independence of the legal system from the executive and legislative branches of power."
But Medvedev's essentially unopposed candidacy is built on Putin's increasingly autocratic system, which has cleared the landscape of any troublesome opponents.
Putin, too, spoke of the primacy of the law in his early years in power and infused his speeches with pledges of fealty to democratic values. Biography, however, proved a better guide to his impulses: A former Soviet spy, he was distrustful of political competition. And if Medvedev has had any concerns about the centralization of power under Putin, he has never voiced them publicly.
The likelihood that Putin will become Medvedev's prime minister has led some to predict that the next president will be a soft-spoken puppet.
"Medvedev will be the glove on the hand of Putin's group," said Dmitry Oreshkin, an independent political analyst in Moscow. "The parliament is loyal to Putin. The security services are loyal to Putin. The mass media is Putin's. Any independent step by Medvedev will be considered a declaration of war on the current elite, and they will strike back."
Others, however, see a new beginning.
"Behind his external intelligence and mildness, there is a very strong character," Narusova said. "He is very purposeful. It's ridiculous to hear that Putin is going to rule and that Medvedev is going to fulfill his orders.
"I would like to note," she continued, "that from his entire circle, which consists of both hawks and liberals, Putin picked the most liberal figure."
Medvedev has never served in the military and, unlike many of Putin's other intimates, has no background in the security services. He speaks of a Russia that is great and demands respect, but with none of the slashing vim of a Putin speech.
"The university, with all its traditions, is his cradle," said Igor Bunin, head of the Center for Political Technologies in Moscow. "His challenge is to lead Russia into the group of civilized countries. This idea is more important to Medvedev than the greatness of the country alone."
Medvedev was born in September 1965 to intellectuals with modest places in the Soviet hierarchy. "Both received degrees with honors, but their careers somehow didn't take off," he has recalled of his parents. His father was a physics professor, and his mother taught Russian as a foreign language.
Medvedev attended a local public school in Leningrad, where he met his future wife, Svetlana, in seventh grade. They now have a 12-year-old son, Ilya.
Medvedev's memories of the Soviet past, as he told Itogi magazine, include his dreams of getting a pair of Levi's or Wrangler bluejeans or a copy of "The Wall," by the rock band Pink Floyd. He remains a fan of the kind of driving, grandiose rock performed by groups such as Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple. His latest passion is his iPhone.
In 1982, he entered Leningrad State University's law school -- traditionally a path to the security services, the diplomatic service and the Soviet ministries. Other graduates of the school include Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin and Putin, who was recruited by the KGB in his senior year.
Medvedev, however, pursued an academic career. He "was an A student from the beginning to the end," said Marina Mitina, a former fellow student. "My other impression of him was his modesty. Modest, but with great self-confidence."
Medvedev was one of three students in his year invited to study at the postgraduate level and become a professor. "He had quite a reserved and strict manner of teaching," said Sergey Belov, a former student in Medvedev's class on Roman law. "There were very few jokes in his classes, partly because of the subject, but to a large extent it was connected with his own nature. He was very demanding."
Putin and Medvedev met through Sobchak and formed a bond that Putin later described as "comradeship." He calls Medvedev "Dima," the familiar diminutive of Dmitry.
In 1990, while still with the KGB, Putin became an assistant to the president of the university, responsible for international outreach. At that time, Sobchak was chairman of the Leningrad City Council. He became the first mayor of St. Petersburg in 1991, and both Putin and Medvedev worked for their former professor, sharing a desk and managing the city's committee for foreign liaison.
In 1996, after Sobchak lost a mayoral election, Putin went to Moscow and began his remarkable ascent in the administration of President Boris Yeltsin, first heading the FSB, the domestic successor to the KGB, and then becoming prime minister.
When Yeltsin resigned on Dec. 31, 1999, Putin became acting president. He was elected to his first four-year term in March 2000.
In 1999, Putin, then prime minister, brought Medvedev to Moscow as his deputy chief of staff. Medvedev later managed Putin's first election campaign, became a deputy chief of the presidential staff and was appointed chairman of Gazprom, the energy company noted for its bloat and insider deals. In 2003, he became Putin's chief of staff.
Under Medvedev's chairmanship, Gazprom has become a state behemoth with profits last year of $25 billion. But the natural gas exporter's turnaround has not been without controversy. The company has been accused of serving as a political bludgeon to intimidate Russia's neighbors and of strong-arming its way into potentially highly lucrative foreign-controlled enterprises such as Royal Dutch Shell's $22 billion oil and natural gas project in Russia's Far East.
Some observers, however, believe Medvedev acted as the state's legal caretaker at Gazprom -- an executive who scrutinized the fine print in contracts but did not set policy.
"Gazprom was always Putin's personal company," said Vladimir Milov, head of the Institute of Energy and a former deputy energy minister under Putin. "Putin, not Medvedev, decided everything, and to a very detailed extent."
For all the positions he has held, including as legal counsel for a timber firm in the 1990s, Medvedev remains a man of modest means, according to the recent income declaration he was required to make as a presidential candidate. He listed his assets as $113,000 in savings, an apartment in Moscow and a Volkswagen Golf registered in his wife's name.
Medvedev emerged as a potential successor to Putin when he was appointed first deputy prime minister in November 2005 and given the task of reforming such key troubled sectors as health care, education, agriculture and housing. State-controlled media have portrayed his management of what are called the national projects as an unqualified success.
But in a lengthy report on the Putin years, Milov, the energy expert, and Boris Nemtsov, an opposition leader, dismissed the projects as "the replacement of systematic reform by random, one-off, modest injections of cash which do not really solve anything."
None of this has been discussed in the campaign, for the simple reason that Medvedev didn't debate any of his opponents. The three of them squared off on television without him -- at 7 in the morning.