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Insight: Vladimir Putin, St. Petersburg, and Russia

Aired March 26, 2000 - 2:30 p.m. ET


JONATHAN MANN, HOST: For centuries, Moscow has ruled Russia, but St. Petersburg has inspired it to revolution and reform. Vladimir Putin is the son of one city, the apparent heir to the other. A tale of one man and two cities, and the vast country that surrounds them.

Hello, and welcome to this special edition of INSIGHT.

St. Petersburg, Petrograd, Leningrad. In the last 100 years, this one place has been through three names, two wars, and the Russian Revolution launched from these very streets. St. Petersburg is a place that evokes different eras and different ideologies, and more than any other city in Russia, it has come to represent change.

We've come here ahead of the first round of Russia's presidential elections on Sunday, because this is the birthplace of the man who is widely expected to win, acting president Vladimir Putin, and where his ideas were formed and his careers in espionage and politics began.

Putin is widely admired in Russia, but little known. What kind of change is he likely to bring?

On our program today, Putin, St. Petersburg, and Russia.

Even to a first time visitor, St. Petersburg feels different from Moscow. Its history makes it different. Its very existence is a challenge to Russia to change. But how to change Russia and how much has been a quandary for leaders from Peter to Putin, and everywhere you look you see an example.


MANN (voice-over): Begin with the weather. St. Petersburg's singular location on the water on the very western edge of Russia seemed like a good idea at the time. Symbolic, strategic, smart. But in the 300 years since, the city has been perennially damp and frequently flooded. A lesson to Mr. Putin and everyone else about what can happen when reformers don't plant their ideas on solid ground.

On the waterfront, one of the most celebrated monuments in all of Russia, Peter the Great on horseback, master and mount are looking literally to the west. But where did the great reformer want to take Russia? Peter was himself quoted as explaining that his plan was to turn his face, his nation's face to Europe for a few decades, then when Russia had what it needed, Peter suggested, Russia could turn away and Europe could gaze at its behind.

St. Petersburg's favorite living son, acting President Putin, is a man who made a career out of gazing back at the west. He spent a good part of his career as a spy and has the appropriate kind of biography. There are things about him no one really seems to know.

Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin was born in this working-class neighborhood on the southwest side of the city. His father a factory worker like many of the people who still live here 47 years later. Putin had his eyes on a career in the KGB even as a teenager, but he came here first, the law school at Leningrad State University, specifically because, he said, he had been told it was a good way to get into the agency. It was. He was recruited even before he got his degree.

ROMAN MAKAROV, LAW STUDENT (through translator): Many graduates of our department went into state security. It was the usual practice. I think many people enrolled in law departments specifically to work later in state security. I think that nowadays this practice still exists.

MANN: A friend from his college days who went into the KGB first and recommended Putin for a job says he would have been easy to overlook.

PAVEL KOSHELEV, FMR. KGB AGENT (through translator): There were young men in his class who were more energetic, who stood out more as social leaders, as personalities. He was not one of the top students nor one of the most noticeable, but he was one of the strongest, one of the most interesting inwardly.

MANN: After graduation it was in Leningrad that he got his start as an international man of mystery, spying on Westerners. His next assignment was to Dresden in what was still East Germany. There are only unconfirmed and contradictory accounts of what he did there. Putin was a spy in the Soviet Union's most important satellite state. He told interviewers who compiled an authorized biography that he never went into the West, but his efforts were aimed there.

NATALIA TIMAKOVA, PUTIN AIDE/BIOGRAPHER (through translator): In his own words, he worked in what was called political espionage. He collected information on then enemies of the Soviet Union, mostly NATO countries, their plans, their programs.

MANN: But one former KGB general says Putin could never have been much of a spy.

OLEG KALUGIN, FMR. KGB GENERAL: To me it looks laughable because you look for information and recruit agents not in Dresden in East Germany. You do it in Washington, in London, in Paris and Brussels, after all.

MANN: Putin was in East Germany when the Berlin Wall came down and the Communist world crumbled around him. In 1990, he returned to Leningrad and a job at the university, but still working for the KGB, too. His old friend says his loyalty never wavered and never does, but he was clearly different.

KOSHELEV (through translator): I saw how much he had changed after he returned from Germany. He thought differently, he saw life differently. I think it was Germany that gave him a new outlook on the problems in our country, the shortcomings of the Communist Party and in our ideology. But he remained a person who served the state.

MANN: And when Putin was offered a transfer to Moscow, he says it was not his new political ideas that prevented him from accepting it. He told his biographers he turned it down because he felt his parents were too old and his children too young to move. His two daughters are now in their teens, his parents deceased.

Instead, with about 16 years in the KGB and the rank of lieutenant kern, Putin entered politics to work for one of his former university professors, Anatoly Subchak (ph).

Subchak was newly elected to lead a reformist city government that took power in Leningrad and pointedly changed it's name back to the pre-revolutionary St. Petersburg. Subchak was already prominent in Russia's emerging pro-democracy movement and well known nationwide.

But then, as before and after, Putin himself stayed out of the spotlight, working behind the scenes on Subchak's and St. Petersburg's behalf. His title was deputy mayor. His job, finance business affairs and attracting investment to the city. His record was mixed. His successes compromised by scandal when millions of dollars disappeared in a complex barter arrangement between city hall and some shadowy export companies.

ALEXANDER BELYAEV, FMR. CITY COUNCILLOR (through translator): I think Putin is honest, because I have no proof that he sharply increased his standard of living or his wealth. But at the same time, here in St. Petersburg, he created at times through his actions a system which became criminal and corrupt.

MANN: Subchak was defeated in his first attempt at re-election, dogged by allegations of corruption. Putin chose to leave city hall, as well, out of loyalty to his disgraced boss. Years later he was still clearly marked by the man who had been his mentor. When Subchak died earlier this year, Putin was prominent among the mourners and later publicly seen in tears.

In 1996, Putin did make the move to Moscow and a nearly sudden transformation from city bureaucrat to Kremlin superstar.

TIMAKOVA (through translator): It is phenomenal, and even though we spent a lot of time with him and wrote an entire book about him, I still don't understand how it happened.

MANN: Putin began on the Kremlin staff. Within a year he was promoted to deputy chief of the Kremlin staff. In 1998, he was promoted again to deputy chief of staff. Within months of that, he was named director of the Federal Security Service, the domestic successor to the KGB. In March of 1999, he joined the Russian Security Council. By August he was prime minister. And New Year's Eve, Boris Yeltsin retired and made him acting president. Less than three years after Vladimir Putin went to work in the Kremlin, he was running it, and running Russia. Even his critics are stunned at the speed.

KALUGIN: Well, I don't believe Mr. Putin ever had any aspirations. I think for him the great advancement in his career was a major surprise, almost a miracle like to millions of Russians.

MANN: Miracles don't happen often to any one man, they don't happen often to troubled countries. Putin hasn't promised anymore of them. Instead, he has run a largely low-key campaign, making little of his plans or his promises. Putin isn't being called on to address any deep immediate crisis. Rising oil prices have helped put the Russian economy on to stronger footing, and the war in Chechnya, by no means over, has gone well enough to impress most voters.

Russians have wearied of a system that isn't working, they are weary of leaders who don't really work either. Putin is at least working and promises no more and no less than to get Russia working, too. So without knowing exactly what he will do, Russia is poised to elect an unremarkable man doing who has spent his life doing what others have asked of him. His character and career nobody otherwise would have noticed.


MANN: We have to take a break now, but INSIGHT in St. Petersburg will continue in a moment with a look at Vladimir Putin's artistic side.

Stay with us.


MANN: Welcome back to St. Petersburg.

This is the Winter Palace built by Catherine the Great. Its corridors lead on to the Hermitage, the most famous museum in all of Russia. Gallery after gallery of paintings and sculptures and antiquities.

We have come here to see a different side of Vladimir Putin, because the museum's director, a man of culture and history, has known Mr. Putin for years.


MIKHAIL PIATROVSKY, HERMITAGE MUSEUM DIRECTOR: Well, if politicians can use museums as a place where they do have negotiations, as Putin has done, but together with Tony Blair, so maybe we can use museum to go around and to think about politics and politicians.

Romans, Romans, Romans. I think Romans are -- would be a good example for the country like Russia which is -- now wants to come back to its glory, trying to be proud about itself.

Romans are people who really have been strong in having their ideas of what they want to do and to go to the end to realize their, not only dreams, but also plans. I think each one of the features which are characteristic for Putin, because -- well, I know him, I know him many years. He is a strong man, he is a man a little bit of a Roman style of character, because he is really thinks emotionally about Russia and about glory and history and richness of Russia.

And here in this room of Roman culture, we have a great symbolic example of the richness of Russia. This is a vase from Colavine (ph), the famous vase from Colavine, which is made from one big piece of the semiprecious stone and jasper which was brought from Ural (ph) Mountains to be put here at one of the entrances of the Heritage Museum. Everybody knows it as one of the symbols of Russia's richness and glory in the 19th century.

And what people in Russia do dream now -- they do dream about, well, not exactly coming back, but being able to be as proud of Russia today as we have been proud of it for Russia's ancient old history.

Now we go to upstairs. We have two important portraits. This is Peter the Great and Catherine the Great. They have been strong rulers. They have been cruel rulers. But they have created -- they did create the city and Russia, which has done a lot for history.

Now when we go and see the beautiful halls of -- we're in the most beautiful halls of Machouder (ph), part of the picture gallery. I think it is important for Hermitage, this combination of Russia and Europe, it is important to know this about Putin, he is the first ruler -- well, he's already a ruler being the acting president -- the first Russian ruler who speaks fluently one of European languages, who is accustomed to live in Europe, and this is very important.

Only problem maybe is, or will be for English-speaking ruler of this language, which he speaks fluently, is German. But -- well, this is another thing, he is a generation which is accustomed to live in several languages, to live in an active combination of Russian and European style of life, and this is new, this is -- we have this we have for the first time.

I would like to look and to show you some very romantic pictures which I think speak about another part of the personality of Vladimir Putin, how I understand it. He is a very pragmatic man, strong man, so some of you people will be afraid of him being too strong personality. But he is also a very delicate person, a little bit of a romantic, a little bit shy, and I think that romanticism which we can see in Mounet (ph) paintings.

This small girl, by the way, has two girls. This picture of virgin, this small -- this child, a boy with a dog is part of a romantic side of life, children, love for the common people, which I think is an important part of his personality. That is why looking around at all politicians, I think he is maybe the least one who will -- could become a dictator when he would get too much power in his hands. Much more -- he is much less dangerous in this sense than other personalities, because while everybody who is in power there is that temptation. So this is a romantic part of a man, who also has, I think, another feature which is very important, I don't -- can't find the picture, which would be good for this maybe (UNINTELLIGIBLE) or something.

He has no complex of inferiority. He is a person who is very sure of himself and properly sure. This is another thing which makes him quite different from many others people. He is sure of himself. He understands what he is doing and he has no complex of inferiority. This way, he is not a man of envy and hate.


MANN: Another break now, but when we come back, a look at one of the reasons why Vladimir Putin is so popular in Russia, and it is not a pretty picture.

Stay with us.


MANN: St. Petersburg was not really part of Russia until Peter the Great willed it. This was an empty marsh considered unfit for year-round habitation. There were no people here until the czar forced them to come, no city here until the czar forced people to build it, and thousands upon thousands died in the effort. St. Petersburg is, according to one aphorism, a city built on bones.

Welcome back.

Russia's most successful leaders, especially its reformers and revolutionaries, have not been gentle men. Something to keep in mind as more lives are uprooted and lost in another distant corner of the country, in the war in Chechnya.

Here is CNN's Steve Harrigan.


STEVE HARRIGAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The two men wear the same uniform, but the man on the right stole his from a dead Russian soldier. The man on the left is about to order the execution of the man on the right.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): Take him over there and kill him. That's my order. Kill him.

HARRIGAN: A brief encounter between a Russian general and a rebel prisoner that may seem strange to someone unfamiliar with Chechnya, strange that a general would order and execution in front of television cameras, strange that such an order once filmed would never be reported on the news, and strange that the language used would come from criminals.

HARRIGAN: Kill here is mutshi (ph), the Russian verb that means, to wet. To "wet" someone in criminal slang is to kill them, it's a term made famous by acting President Putin.

VLADIMIR PUTIN, ACTING RUSSIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): We will wet them even in the outhouse.

HARRIGAN: Wetting Chechen rebels, killing them, is a policy that made Mr. Putin popular, but it has yet to prove a policy that works. A war the generals said would end in December, then January, then February, is still being fought.

And the water flows both ways. Twenty-two policemen from the town of Sergiev Posad were sent to Chechnya, ambushed and sent home in coffins.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): So many dead policemen. All of this could have been avoided.

HARRIGAN: At least these Russians can mourn their dead.

(on camera): If there is any fate worse than losing a family member at war, it may be the fate that many Chechens now share: never knowing what happened.

(voice-over): What happened to Merat Yandiev (ph) after he was dragged off camera and put inside an armored personnel carrier? The Russian military prosecutor says he was not murdered.

YURI DYOMIN, CHIEF MILITARY PROSECUTOR (through translator): With so many people around, especially journalists, it would be suicide for an officer to order an execution. It did not happen. He was just trying to intimidate him. The suspect was taken away for questioning.

HARRIGAN: Seven weeks after the order was given to wet Merat Yandiev, we tracked down his family, refugees now, to see if Merat was still alive. His father, his brother, his mother still don't know.

Steve Harrigan, CNN, Ingushetia, Russia.


MANN: Vladimir Putin was still prime minister, second in command to then-President Boris Yeltsin when he ordered the troops into Chechnya.

And so a final thought: Mr. Putin for much of his career has in fact been a secondary figure serving under more powerful men. It's a trait he shares with his hometown. For all of its charm and virtues, St. Petersburg is Russia's second largest city, the second place visitors are likely to see or invest. Now, Mr. Putin is seeking his first elected office, the first real mandate of his own. St. Petersburg, Russia, and the world will have to wait and see what Mr. Putin will do when or if he is finally number one.

That's INSIGHT from St. Petersburg, I'm Jonathan Mann, thanks for joining us.



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