Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
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#17 - JRL 7135
The Sunday Times (UK)
April 6, 2003
A president's private passions: Revealing portraits of Vladimir Putin
Do a series of intimate photographs of Vladimir Putin, by Konrad R Mller, reveal the truth about Russia's iron ruler?
Christine Toomey reports

The flint grey-blue eyes have a softer focus. The clenched jaw line is more relaxed. The bulky shoulders of his diminutive frame, built up through a strict regime of judo and swimming, are less hunched than usual in these images that offer a rare glimpse into the private world of Russia's president, Vladimir Putin.

Despite attempts, however, to present himself to an international audience as a down-to-earth muzhik (bloke), who loves nothing more than to relax by feeding the horses he keeps on his private estate with chunks of apple and sugar, the gaze of this former spy remains uncannily cold. Putin has elevated the art of media manipulation to new heights since his election to the presidency three years ago. Now he is on an international charm offensive. And, like everything he undertakes, it is handled with steely determination.

Over a 12-month period, he invited the German photographer Konrad R Mller into his private residence on the outskirts of Moscow four times. It was the first time such access had been granted. On one occasion, after keeping the 62-year-old photographer waiting for more than an hour early one morning, Putin smoothed relations by sitting Mller down in a small tea pavilion in the grounds of his estate and personally buttering bread for him to eat with sausage and caviar.

'Behind his icy exterior, Putin can be very charming,' says Mller. 'He seems keen to dispel this image most have of him as a former KGB apparatchik. It was clearly a calculated decision to allow me into his home. Maybe he felt more comfortable with me because I am not a press photographer.' Mller has spent the past three decades photographing world leaders - including the former Soviet presidents Leonid Brezhnev and Mikhail Gorbachev, and Putin's predecessor, Boris Yeltsin. In contrast with these formal Kremlin portraits, Mller photographed Putin at home and travelled extensively with him.

Mller felt he caught the truest glimpse of the man behind the presidential facade when Putin visited an orphanage. 'This is a man you can easily imagine could have become a wild street kid had he not been taken under the wing of a dedicated teacher and, later, socialised by a tough judo instructor.' Putin's brutal childhood as the only surviving son of elderly, ailing and distant parents in St Petersburg (then Leningrad) soon after the second world war has been well documented.

But it is the photographs taken in his private residence that provide the key to the way he now wants the world to view him. The enormous brick complex at Novo-Ogarevo is topped with a sweeping roof of towers and battlements and stands on a slight rise in sprawling grounds. It is the home he shares with his wife, Lyudmila, their teenage daughters, Masha, 17, and Katya, 16, their labrador, Connie, white poodle, Tosca, and the five thoroughbred horses that Putin has spent the past two years learning to ride.

Whenever he has the time, he takes his favourite, a five-year-old white stallion called Obereg, for a gallop. As he rides he looks earnest, unsmiling, concentrating hard. These early-morning sorties are followed by half an hour of swimming laps in his 25-metre pool. Often, later in the day, there follows a session of unarmed combat with a young training partner so he can hone his skills as a black belt in judo.

This action-man image has earned the president respect at home, particularly among the young and those tired of ailing Soviet leaders and the hard-drinking antics of Yeltsin. It is also mercilessly promoted by his entourage of media consultants, widely believed to have been behind the mysterious appearance of a hit single called I Want Someone Like Putin, extolling the president's virtues, in the Russian pop charts. 'If only I could find a man like Putin, full of strength. A man like Putin, who does not drink. A man like Putin, who does not insult. A man like Putin, who does not run away,' went the song that dominated the airwaves. Although the Kremlin claimed to have no knowledge of its origin, the girl band called Singing Together who performed it were believed to have links with the suspiciously similarly named pro-Putin youth group Working Together, dubbed by some the Putin Jugend (Youth).

Denial and false modesty are favourite tactics of Putin's spin doctors, particularly when it comes to the personality cult that has grown up around him. This erupted in mass hysteria on his 50th birthday in October, when Putin memorabilia, including Putin vodka, ice cream, carpets, watches and even a frost-resistant Putin tomato, were everywhere. A man in Siberia changed his name to Putin - 'The angel,' he said, 'who educated me spiritually.' A local authority constructed an electronic message board that flashed 45,000 birthday greetings. Putin feigned dismay at such exuberance, and the Kremlin called for restraint.

There are those, however, who believe such hysteria was far from spontaneous. 'I do not believe this personality cult is coming from the people, but is being whipped up by the administration,' says Vladimir Pribylovsky, the director of the political think-tank Panorama. 'It is a dangerous tendency in what is still, after all, a relatively young and fragile democracy. I am reminded of Stalin's words in 1937 when he said, 'Well, what can I do about all these people having my portraits in their offices? Should I send them to prison?' Officially, Stalin was always ignorant of the cult that surrounded him.'

Pribylovsky says Putin is a chameleon. 'In the West he tries to be Gorby. For the East he tries Stalin's image. For pensioners he looks like the father of the nation. For young people he is a sportsman. For those who are Orthodox he is in church with a candle.' Pribylovsky believes this has sinister overtones. 'If we are not the Great State, at least we will pretend we are. If we don't have real democracy, at least we will pretend that we do.'

Such pretence is most marked when it comes to the country's growing lack of press freedom. According to some estimates, more than 80% of all media outlets in Russia are now state-controlled, compared with 50% when Putin took power in 2000. This media arm lock has guaranteed him unprecedented popularity ratings - regularly topping 80% - and ensured that parliament remains little more than a rubber stamp.

If the trend continues, few doubt that Putin will easily win next year's presidential elections. That this man, once described by a former KGB master as a 'nonentity', should sit so secure is also due to the increasing control he exercises, not just over the media but over the whole of Russian society. One recent survey showed that a quarter of the country's political and administrative elite now have a background in the military or the security services - a far higher proportion than was the case under Mikhail Gorbachev.

For many Russians, Putin's strong-man style is the key to his attraction. The youngest man ever to be leader was swept into power on a wave of nationalism, prompted partly by his decision to send troops back into Chechnya. He has continued to display Soviet-style authoritarianism in his dealings with every crisis since - most notably his response to the Kursk nuclear submarine tragedy in 2000 and, last year, the disastrous handling of the Moscow theatre siege. Such tactics have, however, seriously tarnished his international standing. The 'strategic partnership' he forged, particularly with George Bush and Tony Blair, on everything from the expansion of Nato to the war on terror, has also been under immense strain since Russia joined France in opposing military action in Iraq.

Touching pictures of Russia's president sitting on a park bench with his former teacher, caressing one of his own horses, fishing or staring thoughtfully into the middle distance, dressed in polo shirt and jeans, will do little to improve that rift. Nor will they soften the opinions of those both at home and abroad who believe he is moving his country back in the direction of a police state.

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