Even though my reading list is long and includes several titles that will, when I don’t get to them over break, slide onto the list of “Books I Should Ready but Somehow Never Find the Time for”, I decided to kick off my Winter 2010/11 with a more obscure title. Now, for as much of an international figure as he is, very few people are aware that Russia’s prime minister-turned acting president-turned president (until term limited)-turned prime minister again Vladimir Putin released an autobiography in 2000. Given what some could call an “accidental rise to power” (Putin was President Boris Yeltsin’s sixth, and last, pick as Prime Minister before resigning, which catapulted him from the head of the FSB to President in less than 10 months).
First Person: An Astonishingly Frank Self-Portrait by Russia’s President (2000) is not an autobiography in the traditional sense of the word (in fact, upon reading it one gets the impression that Putin is such a nose to the grindstone kind of guy that he would never have the time to write a formal book). Instead, it is a compilation of over 24 hours of in-depth interviews and covers everything from his past with the KGB and, toward the end, his thoughts on the major international issues at the turn of the century. Given some of the book’s rough edges, brevity (206 pages) and quick printing, First Person was likely meant to introduce to the world the fresh face that would be in charge of one of the most influential countries in the world. In this since it is comparable to the “books” released by American politicians when fielding a run for the presidency, only this is after the fact and is about someone who will likely not fall into the dustbin of history.
Besides the opportunity to learn more about the book’s namesake – until now I have had only a cursory knowledge of his history – another thing I really appreciated about First Person were the interviews with other figures of his life in between his anecdotal stories. Through these we get a different perspective on some of Putin’s stories from his wife Lyudmila, his children, his colleagues and even one of his school teachers. These are especially helpful in stories that Putin answers tersely and without much elaboration.
Lastly, just because I am compiling a list of the six most-interesting excerpts from his autobiography does not mean that I agree with everything he has done - I don’t. Depending on who you ask, Vladimir Putin is either a dictator-for-life “every bit a sinister and evil as Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler and Mao Tse-Tung”, someone who performed an extraordinary “feat of leadership in imposing stability on a nation that has rarely known it and brought Russia back to the table of power” or a Roosevelt/Reagan-esque man of nature who hunts whales and is an all-around badass. For those hoping to learn more about Putin’s own political views and world perspective from First Person will have to read between the lines or read the last 40 pages, “Part 9: The Politician.” It is in this section where Putin directly expresses his thoughts on the rule of law, NATO, Chechnya, prostitution, the role of the Russian president in a weak post-Soviet Union system, and so on. So with this said, I shall focus only on the human interest pieces.
I present to you, in no particular order,
The Six Most-Interesting Excerpts from First Person:
1. Romantic Marriage Proposals are for Losers.
After dating Lyudmila for nearly three and a half years,
One night we were sitting at his house, and he said, ‘You know what kind of person I am by now. In general I’m not very easygoing.’ He was being self-critical. He explained that he was the silent type; that he was rather abrupt in some things and could even insult people, and so on. He was saying that he was a risky life partner. And he added: ‘In three and a half years, you have probably made up your mind.’
“It sounded like we were breaking up. ‘Yes, I’ve made up my mind,’ I said. He let out a doubtful ‘Yes?’ Then I was sure that that was it, 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.’ (59-60).
2. Never Ask to Bum a Cigarette from the Guy.
We were waiting at a bus stop, and some people came up to us. Not thugs, but students who had been drinking. ‘Can I bum a cigarette off you?’ one of them asked. I kept silent, but Vovka [Putin] answered, ‘No, you can’t.’ ‘What are you answering that way for?’ said the guy. ‘No reason,’ said [Putin].
“I couldn’t believe what happened next. I think one of them shoved or punched [Putin]. Suddenly somebody’s socks flashed before my eyes and the kid flew off somewhere. … And we left. (52)
3. Where some Kids Wish to be Rock Stars and Astronauts, Putin Wanted to be a Member of the KGB.
Only after running through a lengthy list of “I wish I was a ______” does Putin decide to become a spy just like the characters in one of his favorite movies The Shield and the Sword. Even though such a dream eventually realized would turn out to be one of the major criticisms of his leadership style and a footnote of fear to the western world, he writes that at the time he had no understanding of what the KGB really did or stood for. For Putin, his “notion of the KGB came from romantic spy stories. I was a pure and utterly successful product of Soviet patriotic education” (42). So by the time Putin reaches the ninth grade, he inquires into the path he needs to follow to be a KGB agent.
In order to find out how to become a spy, sometime back around the beginning of the ninth grade, I had gone to the office of the KGB Directorate. A guy came out and listened to me. ‘I want to get a job with you,’ I said. ‘that’s terrific, but there are several issues,’ he said. ‘First, we don’t take people who come to us in their initiative. Second, you can come to us only after the army or after some type of civilian higher education.’ (23)
Putin then inquires as to what kind of higher education is preferred, which is law school. Only after fighting against the wishes of his parents (who encouraged to attend a technical school) and his high school coaches (who wanted him to pursue his Judo – in 1976 he was the Leningrad Judo champion) does he enroll in university as a law student. Working hard, as he nears the end of his schooling Putin becomes worried about whether or not he will be selected to be a part of the KGB; he yearns to walk in and ask for a job but decides to wait it out given what he was told as a child. Eventually he is approached, receives his training and is sent as a full-fledged member of the KGB to East Germany where – interesting enough – one of his tasks is to spy on the country’s red light district.
4. As a Kid he Would Chase Rats with Sticks.
Following World War II, in which his father served with the Russian secret police, his parents move into a communal apartment in St. Petersburg where they eventually give birth to Putin (1952). Because Russia is facing major poverty and is still recovering from the war, the apartment is, in the words of Putin’s school teacher, “horrid … without any conveniences” (10). Although he goes on to explain his experiences with the other families in the commune, none of whom had any children, he briefly tells a story of the first time he learned “the meaning of the word cornered.”
There, on that stair landing, I got a quick and lasting lesson in the meaning of the word cornered. There were hordes of rats in the front entryway. My friends and I used to chase them around with sticks. Once I spotted a huge rat and pursued it down the hall until I drove it into a corner. It had nowhere to run. Suddenly it lashed around and threw itself at me. I was surprised and frightened. Now the rat was chasing me. It jumped across the landing and down the stairs. Luckily, I was a little faster and managed to slam the door shut in its nose. (10)
5. For What it’s Worth, Like All Youth He had His Reckless, Romantic Moments.
As a student at the Leningrad State University, because his student stipend was not enough to cover all of his living expenses, Putin and his friends get jobs at a lumber industry where they have to chop trees and repair houses. For only a month-and-a-half’s work they each earn 1,000 rubles, to put this into context a car at this time cost about 3,500-4,000 rubles. Ecstatic, he and his friends realize that after earning their pay, they now have to spend it on something. So with nothing better to do, the trio take a trip to the town of Gagry and spend the first night getting drunk and “chasing shish kebabs down with port wine.” Without anywhere to sleep, the group simply wanders around until they find an old lady who agrees to take them in and give them a room. There they “spent several days swimming, tanning, and getting good rest. But soon we had to get out of there and somehow get back home. We were running out of money.” Lest they quickly find themselves without money and far from home, they come up with a plan that requires them to purchase tickets to the deck of a steamship that will take them partially to their destination. From there they plan simply to buy cheap train tickets. By the time the trio make it down to the docks, a huge crowd had gathered.
The ship was giant … a beautiful white oceanliner. We were told that only passengers with tickets to the cabins were being allowed on, and those with deck seats were not yet being admitted. All the deck passengers had little tickets made out of hard cardboard, but we had larger-sized mixed-passage tickets that looked like the ones first-class passengers would have had.” As those of the first-class begin to board, one of Putin’s friends says to him ‘… I don’t like the look of this. I don’t think it’s going to work out. Let’s try to get on right now.’ And this Putin replies, ‘Let’s stand here and wait our turn.’ (31)
“Well, you can standaround if you want,” his friend says, “We’re going to get on.” When they begin to move, Putin runs after them.
The ticket-taker asked us what kind of tickets we had. ‘We have the big ones,’ we answered. He wasved us on.
So we were let on board the ship wit the first-class passengers. And then the foreman or somebody else yelled, ‘Are there any others for first class?’ The crowd on the dock was silent.
He asked once again … The crowd, hoping they would now be allowed on, cried out excitedly, ‘Yes, just deck passengers!’ to which he shouted, ‘raise the plank!’
They lifted the walkway, and suddenly panic broke out on the dock. People were furious. They had been deceived. They had paid money, and now they weren’t being let on the ship. Later they were told that there was a freight overage and that the ship was full.
If we hadn’t gotten on board when we did, we would have been left standing on the dock. And we didn’t have a single kopeck left. I don’t know what we would have done.
So we settled into some lifeboats, which hung over the water. And that was how we got home, as if we were lying in hammocks. For two nights I looked up at the sky, and I couldn’t take my eyes away. The ship sailed on, the stars seemed to just hang there. Do you know what I mean? Sailors may be used to that, but for me it was a wondrous discovery. (31-32)
6. He Once Threw His Daughter Out a Window and Pulled a James Bond while Naked.
After spending six years building a house, his family lives in it for only six weeks before it burns down due to a faulty sauna system. Taking the break from the sauna room with a few friends, Putin notices that his house is on fire. Instantly, he tells his youngest daughter Katya to get out, which she does without question mid-bite of her dinner. As for his oldest daughter, Masha …
She was floundering around on the second floor. I took Masha by the hand and brought her to the balcony. Then I tore the sheets off the bed, knotted them together, tired them to the balcony railing, and said to Masha: ‘Climb down!’ She got scared: ‘I’m not going, I’m afraid!’ I threatened her: ‘I’m going to pick you up right away and throw you off here like a puppy! What’s with you? Don’t you understand that the house is about to burn down?!’ I took her by the scruff of the neck and tossed her over the railing, and they [his wife and friends] caught her at the bottom.
“Then I suddenly remembered there was a briefcase in our room with cash in it – all of our savings. … I went back and started looking, feeling around with my hand. I thought, well, I’ve got a few more seconds of this and then I won’t be able to … I stopped looking for the stash. I ran out to the balcony. Flames were shooting upward. I clambered over the railing, grabbing the sheets and began to lower myself down. And here’s an interesting detail: I was stark naked from the banya. I had only just managed to wrap a sheet around myself. So you can imagine the scene; The house is burning, there’s a naked man wrapped in a sheet, crawling down from the balcony and the wind is blowing the sheet out like a sail. A crowd had gathered on the hill, and they were watching with enormous interest. (120)
For as interesting as this is, I will admit I’m a little confused by the phrase, “I’ll throw you off here like a puppy.” He must have left something out of the book.