Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
Excerpts from the JRL E-Mail Community :: Founded and Edited by David Johnson

Boston Globe
November 18, 2001
Putin on the line

IT NEVER could have happened with Joseph Stalin - different America, different world, and the talk show had not yet become louder than music. Even the more outgoing Nikita Khrushchev might have dropped into propaganda mode with his ''We will bury you'' speech had he been invited to sit in front of a radio microphone and take calls from the average capitalist.

But in this new century, with the Cold War a relic and ''fear of the bomb'' now referring to the tinder box of terrorism, Russian President Vladimir Putin had what resembled a fireside chat on National Public Radio last week.

Speaking through an interpreter with NPR's Robert Siegel, Putin talked about his emotional visit to Ground Zero in Manhattan, his hopes for the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and what he feels is now a more liberal Russian press. He answered questions selected from nearly 2,000 e-mails sent to the station, as well as talking with callers jamming the phone lines.

The questions were often personal, ever seeking, as Americans do, the cult of personality. Hubbard in Jackson, Miss., wanted to know what Putin liked to read. The answer: Tolstoy, Chekhov, and Gogol.

Linda of Moscow, Idaho, invited Putin to visit ''the other Moscow,'' and he said he would like to go there - and to the namesake of his birthplace, St. Petersburg, Fla.

Larry in Mendon, Mass., asked how old the president was when he earned his black belt in the martial arts and if he found time to practice. Putin, who joined a gym at age 14, earned the black belt at age 18, and still practices, said: ''I do love the sport tremendously. And I think there is more to it than just sport. I think it's also a philosophy, in a way, and I think it's a philosophy that teaches one to treat one's partner with respect.''

Philip in Fairfax, Va., wanted to know how Putin felt when Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union ''the evil empire.'' The Russian president said he tossed it off as just ''a slogan of the day'' rather than long-term policy.

Asked if President Bush's characterization of Osama bin Laden as ''evil'' was also an exaggeration, Putin said the description was ''mild'' and quipped: ''I have other definitions and epithets to offer, but ... I am talking to the media; this is hardly appropriate.''

Answering an e-mail question on the influence of human rights activist Andrei Sakharov, Putin called him ''a visionary'' and ''one of those people who turned on the light.'' Asked if he was disturbed that Sakharov supporters were now critical of the Russian army's behavior in Chechnya, Putin said, ''No, it doesn't bother me ... there should always be people who criticize the authorities.''

What a difference a century makes. The change makes a person hopeful that even the terrorist regimes that seem beyond human reason today might evolve into the voices of rational conversation tomorrow.

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