As the Russian invasion of Ukraine unfolded, I went back to a book PublicAffairs published in May 2000 called First Person: An Astonishingly Frank Self-Portrait by Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, just after he succeeded Boris Yeltsin as the leader of post-Communist Russia.
At my suggestion, three Russian journalists arranged to conduct twenty-four hours of open-ended interviews with Putin – this at a time when real questions could be asked. The transcripts became the book, along with a remarkable trove of personal photographs that were all credited “Courtesy of Vladimir Putin.” Those here have been copied from the book. One of the best is this one with Toska the family’s pet poodle at their dacha.
I wondered whether anyone would discover the book as a means of understanding the Vladimir Putin who has just eradicated the world’s belief that a brutal territorial war would not be a factor in the twenty-first century as it has been in the past. Carlos Lozada, The Washington Post’s excellent nonfiction book critic did just such an appraisal this weekend, drawing on First Person and other Putin writing. It is a invaluable addition to the news flow.
My approach to the book is different. Yes, there are hints to be found of what he thought two decades ago that have new resonance in the light of current events. For instance, Putin said that the Kremlin’s devastation of the breakaway province of Chechnya was essential to prevent other parts of the former Soviet Union from seeking political independence from Russia. His discussion of NATO reflected a deep sense that Russia was being demeaned, as perceived losers usually are. The book is still available to buy. There is even an ebook version.
The most striking parts for me are the photographs, like this one with his parents, and the vivid description of Putin by his wife, Lyudmila; his daughters, Masha and Katya; his friend Sergei Roldugin, a musician who calls him “Vovka”; and his early colleagues in the KGB, where Putin was employed before going into politics. He came from an ordinary Russian family and pursued what he considered a patriotic career, with some prospect of adventure. Judo was his determined athletic activity.
“Sometimes,” said Roldugin, who stayed friendly with him after he joined the KGB, “Vovka and I would go to the Philharmonic after work. He would ask me about the proper way to listen to a symphony. If you ask him about Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, he can tell you a lot because he loved it terribly when he first heard it and I explained it to him. And then Katya and Masha took up music. I’m the one to blame for that.”
Putin’s wife, Lyudmila, was a stewardess. The interviews with her reflect a measure of warmth as she watched her husband rise in the KGB ranks while she ran what seems like a conventional household.
She describes how she and Putin met, “My girlfriend and I flew to Leningrad for three days. She was also a stewardess on our crew, and she invited me to the Lensoviet theater to a performance. . . . She had been invited by a boy but was afraid to go by herself, so she invited me along. When the boy heard that she was inviting me, he brought Volodya.” (Another diminutive of Vladimir.)
The courtship was protracted: “I spent three and a half years courting him!” she said.
“One night we were sitting at his house,” Lyudmila remembered, “and he began, ‘You know what kind of person I am by now.’ . . . It sounded to me like we were breaking up. But then he said, ‘Well, then, if that’s the way it is, I love you and propose that we get married.’ . . . Three months later we were married. We had our wedding on a floating restaurant, a little boat tied up at the riverbank.”
Putin divorced her in 2014 and took up with younger women including, it was reported, a star ice skater.“Lyuda,” as he called her during their marriage, and his daughters are thought to be beneficiaries of the billions Putin has profited from being Russia’s president.
But in 2000 he said, “Lyuda is still basically running the finances, and I won’t start now. I’m not very good at saving money.”
So, how did this book come about?
At the millennium, on December 31, 1999, Boris Yeltsin, exhausted from the decade he had spent reinventing Russia after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, resigned as president and named Vladimir Putin, then his prime minister, as “acting president.” Putin was elected to the position a few months later.
At the time I was finishing work on Yeltsin’s book Midnight Diaries and was visiting him at his dacha outside Moscow. Also present was his literary agent, Andrew Nurnberg, and his close adviser Valentin Yumashev, effectively Yeltsin’s chief of staff. Why did you choose Putin? I asked. Because, Yeltsin said, he was the only one of the would-be successors who was not a lackey. That is as close an explanation of what happened as we are likely to get. There was certainly no process described. Yeltsin said that he considered Putin tough enough to handle a country that, incredibly, had gone through a largely bloodless revolution but was still reeling from the upheaval.
And Clinton was also very tall…..
The next morning, Yumashev joined Nurnberg and me at breakfast at the former KGB guest house where we were staying. We were the only guests, attended on by a large and attentive staff.
“How can Putin introduce himself to the world?” Yumashev asked us. “Should he write a book?” After all, Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader and Yeltsin had done so and been published around the world.
No, I said, because no one would believe he actually wrote it while running the country. Instead, it was then I proposed that three prominent journalists interview him with no conditions, and PublicAffairs would publish it as a form of self-portrait. Nataliya Gevorkyan, Natalya Timakova, and Andrei Kolesnikov were recruited. I never met them, but found their biographies on the internet this week. It would be interesting to talk to them now.
When the transcripts arrived, PublicAffairs retained Catherine Fitzpatrick, a Russian specialist who had worked at Human Rights Watch to translate them, and the book was edited by Kate Darnton of our staff. I asked Kate what she recalled about the process. She said, “I do remember when you were advocating for us to publish it. Nobody knows about this Putin guy, you said, people need to know who he is. I remember giggling at the photos. How absurd they seemed. . . . Totally goofy in its overblown machismo.” The world has now come to know Putin’s favorite shots of himself – bare chested and on horseback and in various other manly poses. No more shots like this:
First Person was published as a paperback, and the reception was generally positive, reflecting the fact that Russia seemed no longer to be a threat to the United States or to the West in general. In retrospect, the most perceptive review was by Robert G. Kaiser,a former Moscow correspondent, a colleague of mine from my Washington Post days. He wrote, “The ideal leader for Russia in 2000 would be a resourceful and courageous figure who could help his countrymen understand and appreciate what a free Russia could be. . . . Measured against this standard, sadly, Vladimir Putin appears on the compelling evidence of this volume, to be the wrong man at the wrong place at the wrong time.” To read the full review search Robert G. Kaiser, Vladimir Putin.
The book came and went, as so many do, which is why reading it now – almost twenty-two years later – is so striking. Vovka, Toska, Lyudya, Masha, Katya framed against the persona of a man committed to unrestrained war on Ukraine, with all the mayhem that entails.
First Person is truly astonishing. This picture from the book of Putin in his KGB uniform shows the young man becoming what he has turned out to be.