#15 - JRL 7230
June 19, 2003
Power, Putin and Scotland
By Tim Cornwell
'Nice Palace." So George Bush declared when he walked for the first time into the Catherine Palace, at Tsarskoye Selo, in the suburbs of St Petersburg, for talks with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, last November.
Nice palace, indeed; the building bears the inescapable mark of the Scots. Scotland's claim to have guided the founding principles of the US Constitution may be sketchy; that Scottish hands shaped Peter the Great's "Venice of the North" is indisputably etched in stone.
The two men held talks in the Blue Drawing Room, considered the masterpiece of Charles Cameron, Edinburgh architect. The judgment of his client, Catherine II, Peter's wife and successor, was broadly echoed by Laura Bush. "These suites," she concluded, "are superb". George Bush may not be aware of the influence of Scotland on the city where Vladimir Putin was born, educated, and where he began to make his transition from senior KGB officer to political animal. Vladimir Putin certainly is. He has been adept in rediscovering Russian history, tuning into a strong feeling among Russians that the Communist period cut them off from their past. It was captured perfectly in the 300th celebrations for the anniversary of St Petersburg this spring, which Putin turned into an international bonanza.
Charles Cameron. Irn Bru - which enjoys healthy sales in Russia, partly on the strength of going well with vodka. Putin is said to be a Rangers supporter. At Downing Street, he has supped on dishes prepared by Gordon Ramsay, who prepared an official lunch for the Russian leader back in 2000. So many cultural links, so little time.
On 25 June Vladimir Putin becomes the latest world leader - and arguably the most powerful - to touch down in post-devolution Edinburgh. He was last in Scotland in 1991, it is reported, part of a trade delegation lead by Anatoly Sobchak, then Mayor of Leningrad.
Putin picked up a Penguin on that trip, literally. On a visit to Ford's Bakery in Prestonpans, to seal a deal to set up a bakery in what was then Leningrad, former director Peter Ford saw him scoop a handful of Penguin biscuits into his jacket pocket.
"Putin spotted a plate of Penguin biscuits on the table, went over, picked up a handful and had them in his jacket pocket in a flash. He didn't even look around to see if anyone was watching and carried on as though nothing had happened," Ford related to the News of the World earlier this year "When he left you saw the Penguins sticking out of his pocket. It was really funny."
The contrast between then and now could not be greater. Increasingly - so critics say - Russia dances to Vladimir Putin's tune, in a way that Jack McConnell can only envy. The man who emerged from almost nowhere, named by Boris Yeltsin as his successor on the closing day of the last millennium, is building a personality cult in an all-too-Soviet manner, it is claimed.
Last year, after Putin made some passing remarks about the state of Russians' fitness, the governor of St Petersburg, Vladimir Yakovlev, ordered his aides to prepare a fitness programme for all 6,000 of his government staff. It was a pattern repeated by local political bosses across the country.
Putin's state visit to Britain will be the first by a Russian leader since the reign of Queen Victoria. It is fitting, perhaps, that his reception has the flavour of that accorded a Russian Tsar, rather than a grey Soviet chairman. He will be greeted at Heathrow Airport by Prince Charles, and escorted around Edinburgh by The Duke of York. The Edinburgh itinerary includes a guided tour of Edinburgh Castle, a speech at the Signet Library, lunch at the Palace of Holyroodhouse and a tour of the Faberge eggs exhibition.
It is suggested that Putin personally chose the trip to Edinburgh, though a state visit typically includes one destination outside London. He follows Nelson Mandela, the former president of South Africa, along with the presidents of Germany and Hungary. "St Petersburgers are in general proud and knowledgeable of the history of their city. Mr Putin would undoubtedly be aware of Charles Cameron's work," says one resident of the city.
The long history of Scots in St Petersburg dates from the creation of the city by Peter I. Each year there are several Burns Suppers. This year, the 6th Caledonian Ball at the celebrated Astoria Hotel is again expected to be a sell -out. There is, inevitably, an annual Highland Games in the grounds of the Peter & Paul fortress. The brothers Roman and Yakov Bruce, who claimed descent from the Scottish royal family, were close associates of Peter I, the city's founder. The Scottish architect William Hastie designed bridges; Scotsman Charles Byrd's factory manufactured Russia's first steamboat.
The architect Charles Cameron was invited to the city by Catherine II; as well as creating the interiors for her palace, she commissioned him to build the Pavolvsk Palace as a gift for her only son, Tsar Paul I. Cameron died in 1811, in St Petersburg, by then his home from home for more than 20 years, where he was called "Carl Carlovich".
The Russia that Putin grew up in was a markedly different one. He was born Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin on 1 October, 1952, in what was then Leningrad, the son of a metal factory foreman. A brother had died years before, in the Nazi siege of the city. While he attended a top-ranked school, he became an expert in the Russian equivalent of Judo. But what the young Putin really wanted to be was a spy. "Even before I graduated from school, I wanted to work in intelligence," he wrote in First Person, billed as "an astonishingly frank self-portrait." "It was a dream of mine, although it seemed about as likely as a flight to Mars." Spy books and films, he wrote, "took hold of my imagination. What amazed me most of all was how one man's effort could achieve what whole armies could not. One spy could decide the fate of thousands of people. At least that's the way I understood it." At the age of 17, he says, he approached the KGB with a view to a job. An officer told him they took recruits only from the army, or with a university education.
Putin studied law at Leningrad State University; he was the only one in a class of 100, it is said, to have made the KGB.
He married his wife, Lyudmila, in the early 1980s. In 1984, the KGB posted him to Dresden. His work is thought to have involved tracking the political views of East Germans, but also recruiting agents to spy on western trade secrets. It would be a matter of speculation as to how much his work would have involved overseeing the East German Stasi's operations - which included, it is now claimed, a concerted attempt to recruit Scottish academics.
In 1991, Putin had formally left the KGB, where he is said to have reached the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, to work in the international affairs division of Leningrad University. From there, he went to work for Anatoly Sobchak, a prominent Soviet reformer with a reputation for speaking frankly.
When the old Soviet guard tried to overthrow Mikhail Gorbachev in their abortive coup, Sobchak sided with Boris Yeltsin and Putin supplied Sobchak with bodyguards. By 1994, he was St Petersburg's deputy mayor.
His meteoric rise began in 1996, when Yeltsin invited him to become a member of the Yelstin inner circle known as his "family." In 1998, Yeltsin named Putin head of the new Russian domestic intelligence agency, the FSB. Putin was named by Yeltsin first as prime minister, and then, dramatically, on New Year's Eve 1999, as the new acting president.
Chechnya is the issue which elevated Putin to public popularity, in the hard line he took on the breakaway republic and its formidable independence fighters from the first. It took him beyond the status of Yeltsin's protege to being his own master.
It also remains his weakness. He has won success, as Bush pursues the war on terror, by portraying Russia's war in the rebellious province in the same light.
But Chechen rebels and terrorists - whose ranks include the former Chechen president who won a popular election there - have a far greater claim to legitimacy than the likes of Osama bin Laden. Nor do they show any signs of giving up the struggle. In the Commons this week, one backbench MP after another urged Tony Blair to make clear that the Russian army's "seriously brutal" actions in the breakaway republic were unacceptable. They have been singing the same song ever since Putin's first visit to this country soon after he assumed the presidency.
Labour's Calum MacDonald MP (Western Isles) said Blair should persuade president Putin to deal with Chechnya. Thousands of civilians and Russian soldiers have died there since Russian troops re-entered the province in September 1999, the act by then prime minister Putin that lifted him above the rapid succession of Yeltsin appointees who had occupied his job.
Independent observers have repeatedly accused the Russian army of terrible human rights abuses against the Chechen people, including torture and execution, MacDonald said. "There is a widespread sense that we are letting the Russian government off rather lightly." Blair responded: "I always raise the issue of Chechnya with president Putin but I do so in a way that also recognises this point - that as a result of terrorism coming out from extremists based in Chechnya the Russian people have also suffered a very great deal.
"It's worth just pointing out that when we finally won the conflict in Iraq some of those people that were still offering resistance were in fact from Chechnya - extremists who were based there."
The exact nature of his relationship with George Bush remains one of the lasting mysteries of Putin's presidency. The White House spin machine hailed Bush's building of a personal bond with Putin that went beyond the usual diplomatic niceties. But the true common ground between Bush, a child of privilege who styles himself as an American ingenue, and the Machiavellian Putin, who climbed the ranks of the KGB and continued his rise to power in post-Soviet Russia, is much less than clear. The Kremlin, it often appears, pays little more than lip service to the "George and Vlad" show at their joint press conferences, from Crawford, Texas to St Petersburg.
It's obviously doubtful whether a politician such as Putin will see advantage in such a relationship with our own First Minister, so a "Jack and Vlad", show seems unlikely. But it might do McConnell good to be in the presence of such a master controller.