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Moscow News
February 26, 2009
A brief encounter with Vladimir Putin
By Anna Arutunyan

It was bound to happen eventually. Our humble editorial office, in a corner of the sprawling RIA Novosti building near Park Kultury metro, was graced on Tuesday by Vladimir Putin.

Our brief encounter - on a day dominated by the government's anti-crisis measures to cut back state funding for the Sochi Olympics and let private business take up the strain of construction costs - may not have registered as a seminal moment in the prime minister's busy schedule.

But for the staff of The Moscow News, and of Russia Profile, our sister English-language publication in the next office, the build-up to the big visit - which ended up lasting little more than 60 seconds - certainly was memorable, and more than a little stressful.

Putin was on the premises to chair the presidium of the Presidential Sports Council, which was reviewing the Sochi budget in RIA's newly-opened Olympic Press Centre. Putin spent over an hour in the talks, which ended with the announcement that due to the crisis, the construction budget would have to be cut back drastically.

After that, he took a quick, 15-minute stroll through RIA's editorial offices, including those of satellite TV channel Russia Today. After being shown the technological wonders of RIA's ultramodern, multimedia newsroom, he dropped in to say hello to the staff of Russia's oldest English-language newspaper - us.

But given all the preparation that went into this event, it was bound to be anti-climatic. Beyond the obvious security measures, quite a lot of nervous activity goes into preparing such a small amount of face time with the country's former president.

Everyone knows, meanwhile, that VVP himself might not actually show up, even if he had planned a field trip to our office. Certainty arrived just seconds before he did, in the form of a glamorous-looking presswoman who rushed in and said: "I've found them. They're coming. Get ready."

Our work, it seemed, was not in vain.

The organised panic began on Friday, when we were asked to tidy up our desks in preparation for the visit - which we were told was on provisionally, at that stage.

No one told me to hide some of the more controversial political tomes jostling for space around my computer, but I did so anyway. Just in case.

On Monday, I entered the newspaper's office to find that the door (normally pass code-controlled) had been taken off its hinges. Tatyana, the cleaning lady, was scrubbing the floors of the halls leading to the restrooms (which Putin never saw). I asked her about the door.

"Don't you know who's coming tomorrow? They'll be here at 11. They might pop in on their way to the press centre," she said.

Tatyana doesn't normally work on public holidays like February 23. "On Friday, we had to vacuum the press centre four times," she said. "Today we had to vacuum it again, and we'll do it again tomorrow." That, despite the fact that no one was expected to set foot there between vacuuming sessions.

After her work, she would be shooed away before anyone was to arrive, she said - adding that was always the protocol since Yeltsin's times.

Like Tatyana, our editor-in-chief, Tim Wall, also missed the experience of Putin's visit - as he was stranded in London in the middle of a visa run.

On Tuesday morning, we were asked to remove any traces of food or beverages by noon, and stay put at our desks until 5 p.m.

Then the choreography began in earnest: while I hastily prepared a memo about the history of our newspaper, a couple of expatriate editors were memorising their cues. One was trying to ensure that the emphasis in "Vladimir Vladimirovich" went on the right syllable, and repeating a polite request in Russian to pose for a group photograph. Another editor was diligently practicing a manly handshake.

At one point, there came word that our conference room - along with others dotted around the RIA offices - might be required for top-level discussions involving government officials, so a crate of soda water and wine glasses were set out on the table.

Amid the dress rehearsal jitters, the sense of tight security was all-pervasive. On Friday, an ominous-looking memo referred to a "special regime" on February 24 (without any mention of why) and asked employees to stay put at their desks. A staff member at Russia Today was told not to come to work because she had not been employed at the company long enough to be vetted.

By 1 p.m. on Tuesday, the "men in black" started showing up. For over two hours, we worked under the protective gaze of a small but powerfully built Federal Protection Service official who hovered near our desks.

Stern-looking people brought in a sad-eyed German shepherd, who dutifully made her rounds and spread an unmistakable scent of wet dog about the office.

In the end, it was all over far too quickly.

Running about an hour later than billed, Putin finally walked into the newspaper's office accompanied by RIA Novosti's editor-in-chief, Svetlana Mironyuk. Passing a display of Moscow News front covers, she smiled and pointed something out to him.

Directly in Putin's line of sight was an issue of the paper from last year - a photo-montage of Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, comically dressed up in a Superman suit, with the headline: "The buck stops here".

Reaction among the staff to Putin's entrance ranged from big smiles to rabbit-in-the-headlights paralysis. No one dared to step forward and press the flesh with him, perhaps sensing that the brief description given by Mironyuk of the newspaper's work was all he had time for.

Amid a throng of people that included Moscow News reporters, TV cameramen and Kommersant's special correspondent, Andrei Kolesnikov, Putin smiled enigmatically, asked how many people worked at the paper, took a few moments to scan our faces - and politely left.

Luckily, I didn't have to answer questions about what article I was preparing for this week's paper (and was thus spared from broaching the sensitive topic of Mikhail Khodorkovsky's new trial).

Asked what he thought of his visit, Putin reportedly told RIA Novosti's top brass, "Everything is cool."

We don't know if he was referring to the multimedia displays or our office, but we'd like to think the image of Kudrin in his Superman underpants was part of it.