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International Herald Tribune
November 15, 2001
A Modern Russian, but Nostalgic for Lost Prestige
By William Pfaff

PARIS- Who really is this Russian leader from nowhere, Vladimir Putin, in the United States this week?

Until Sept. 11, officials of the Bush administration had largely written Russia off. Its main geopolitical asset, its nuclear weapons force, was unusable. Its energy resources would be delivered to users by the market. In any case, the United States was rapidly developing its own bilateral relations with the ex-Soviet Central Asian states, undercutting Russia. All that abruptly changed when the United States was attacked. Washington suddenly saw a need for Russian intelligence cooperation, access to bases and resources in the former Soviet states of Central Asia and endorsement by Russia of its new war against terrorism. The Crawford ranch meeting assumed new importance.

Yet apart from whatever Mr. Bush, at their first meeting, saw in the eyes of Mr. Putin, the Russian remains a stranger.

I have a friend with interesting ideas about Vladimir Putin. The friend is a Russian, now in the United States but in touch with Moscow intellectual circles and the Russian political scene, possessing the unusual perspective of having been the child of a high Soviet official, educated amid privilege as well as the intrusive terrors of the secret police.

My friend calls the latter, collectively, "the beast," but nonetheless says:

"I know what they are as human beings. The new leader - God help me and help them all! - is a former spy, a young, disciplined, non-drinking man, reared in the milieu of the KGB, born at roughly the same time as the wealthy Texan he is going to meet but born in Russian poverty.

"Born in the ugly poverty of Leningrad's communal apartments, shared by several families, a poverty the boy from Texas and his parents could never have imagined, a hell of common life (I used to see it when I visited classmates), in which creatures fought for space in a small kitchen, a tiny bathroom and for such hot water as existed.

"Wishing to succeed, the young man volunteers for the KGB very early, undoubtedly expecting a romantic life of adventure. He soon learns to develop a professional second self, to live a double life, and he is a success, is noted and is awarded by assignment with the Communist secret police, the Stasi, in East Germany.

"Going abroad in those days, when even East Germany was 'abroad' and Russia was all but completely shut off from the rest of the world, was a revelation for the young man. He learned German very well. That was another revelation, opening another civilization and world to him. He may have gone on missions to rich West Germany. Whatever he learned, he kept in his heart.

"In those days we were taught that the U.S.S.R. was the center of the world, center of a Ptolemaic system. 'Abroad' in my youth meant a different galaxy. We were not meant to live there.

"My old nanny, who was completely apolitical, had an adult son who was a specialist in milk production and was sent on an official mission to Denmark in the 1950s. He returned deeply depressed. He told his mother: 'That was my first and last trip abroad. Their animals live better than people do in our villages here.'

"These experiences are vital. Once you have seen such things they remain deep in your subconscious. They remain with Putin now as he travels all over the world. He understands poverty, as the boy from Texas could never understand.

"The na´vetÚ of the rich boy blinds him. Only someone totally innocent of poverty could drop food parcels on the Afghans at the same time as bombing them. "Putin clearly wants to make Russia a great power again, but this is a goal he can't speak about. He needs the United States and has quickly gone aboard the anti-terrorism bandwagon. The world will forget Chechnya. He can become bolder with the leaders of the ex-Soviet Islamic nations - whose independence will be short-lived. They, too, will eventually be proclaimed 'terrorists.'

"Putin has big ambitions. They may also prove unrealizable. He knows that, too. He might be satisfied if he could give his people lives in decency and comfort. Today the president of Russia wants his country to be able to live in that other, once forbidden galaxy. "But even to think this way makes him trouble in Russia. He is caught between his two aspects. He is loyal to the old superpower and to the idea of Russia as world power. On the other hand he is a modern man. That makes him distrusted in his own country and the ally of the West against his own country's past.

"He has his dream of restoring Russia's lost status. That could turn the United States against him. His formation has prepared him to live with these dualities, this ambiguity. But they are dangerous and make enemies."

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