This may explain why there is so little visible security at Putin's dacha, Novo-Ogarevo, the grand Russian presidential retreat set inside a birch- and fir-forested compound west of Moscow. To get there from the capital requires a 25-minute drive through the soul of modern Russia, past decrepit Soviet-era apartment blocks, the mashed-up French Tudor-villa McMansions of the new oligarchs and a shopping mall that boasts not just the routine spoils of affluence like Prada and Gucci but Lamborghinis and Ferraris too.
When you arrive at the dacha's faux-neoclassical gate, you have to leave your car and hop into one of the Kremlin's vehicles that slowly wind their way through a silent forest of snow-tipped firs. Aides warn you not to stray, lest you tempt the snipers positioned in the shadows around the compound. This is where Putin, 55, works. (He lives with his wife and two twenty something daughters in another mansion deeper in the woods.) The rooms feel vast, newly redone and mostly empty. As we prepare to enter his spacious but spartan office, out walk some of Russia's most powerful men: Putin's chief of staff, his ideologist, the speaker of parliament—all of them wearing expensive bespoke suits and carrying sleek black briefcases. Putin, who rarely meets with the foreign press, then gives us 3 1/2 hours of his time, first in a formal interview in his office and then upstairs over an elaborate dinner of lobster-and-shiitake-mushroom salad, "crab fingers with hot sauce" and impressive vintages of Puligny-Montrachet and a Chilean Cabernet.
Vladimir Putin gives a first impression of contained power: he is compact and moves stiffly but efficiently. He is fit, thanks to years spent honing his black-belt judo skills and, these days, early-morning swims of an hour or more. And while he is diminutive—5 ft. 6 in. (about 1.7 m) seems a reasonable guess—he projects steely confidence and strength. Putin is unmistakably Russian, with chiseled facial features and those penetrating eyes. Charm is not part of his presentation of self—he makes no effort to be ingratiating. One senses that he pays constant obeisance to a determined inner discipline. The successor to the boozy and ultimately tragic Boris Yeltsin, Putin is temperate, sipping his wine only when the protocol of toasts and greetings requires it; mostly he just twirls the Montrachet in his glass. He eats little, though he picks the crusts off the bread rolls on his plate.
Putin grudgingly reveals a few personal details between intermittent bites of food: He relaxes, he says, by listening to classical composers like Brahms, Mozart, Tchaikovsky. His favorite Beatles song is Yesterday. He has never sent an e-mail in his life. And while he grew up in an officially atheist country, he is a believer and often reads from a Bible that he keeps on his state plane. He is impatient to the point of rudeness with small talk, and he is in complete control of his own message.
He is clear about Russia's role in the world. He is passionate in his belief that the dissolution of the Soviet Union was a tragedy, particularly since overnight it stranded 25 million ethnic Russians in "foreign" lands. But he says he has no intention of trying to rebuild the U.S.S.R. or re-establish military or political blocs. And he praises his predecessors Yeltsin and Mikhail Gorbachev for destroying a system that had lost the people's support. "I'm not sure I could have had the guts to do that myself," he tells us. Putin is, above all, a pragmatist, and has cobbled together a system—not unlike China's—that embraces the free market (albeit with a heavy dose of corruption) but relies on a strong state hand to keep order.
What gets Putin agitated—and he was frequently agitated during our talk—is his perception that Americans are out to interfere in Russia's affairs. He says he wants Russia and America to be partners but feels the U.S. treats Russia like the uninvited guest at a party. "We want to be a friend of America," he says. "Sometimes we get the impression that America does not need friends" but only "auxiliary subjects to command." Asked if he'd like to correct any American misconceptions about Russia, Putin leans forward and says, "I don't believe these are misconceptions. I think this is a purposeful attempt by some to create an image of Russia based on which one could influence our internal and foreign policies. This is the reason why everybody is made to believe...[Russians] are a little bit savage still or they just climbed down from the trees, you know, and probably need to have...the dirt washed out of their beards and hair." The veins on his forehead seem ready to pop.
Putin has said that next spring, at the end of his second term as President, he will assume the nominally lesser role of Prime Minister. In fact, having nominated his loyal former chief of staff (and current Deputy Prime Minister) Dmitri Medvedev to succeed him as President, Putin will surely remain the supreme leader, master of Russia's destiny, which will allow him to complete the job he started. In his eight years as President, he has guided his nation through a remarkable transformation. He has restored stability and a sense of pride among citizens who, after years of Soviet stagnation, rode the heartbreaking roller coaster of raised and dashed expectations when Gorbachev and then Yeltsin were in charge. A basket case in the 1990s, Russia's economy has grown an average of 7% a year for the past five years. The country has paid off a foreign debt that once neared $200 billion. Russia's rich have gotten richer, often obscenely so. But the poor are doing better too: workers' salaries have more than doubled since 2003. True, this is partly a result of oil at $90 a barrel, and oil is a commodity Russia has in large supply. But Putin has deftly managed the windfall and spread the wealth enough so that people feel hopeful.
But all this has a dark side. To achieve stability, Putin and his administration have dramatically curtailed freedoms. His government has shut down TV stations and newspapers, jailed businessmen whose wealth and influence challenged the Kremlin's hold on power, defanged opposition political parties and arrested those who confront his rule. Yet this grand bargain—of freedom for security—appeals to his Russian subjects, who had grown cynical over earlier regimes' promises of the magical fruits of Western-style democracy. Putin's popularity ratings are routinely around 70%. "He is emerging as an elected emperor, whom many people compare to Peter the Great," says Dimitri Simes, president of the Nixon Center and a well-connected expert on contemporary Russia.
Putin's global ambitions seem straightforward. He certainly wants a seat at the table on the big international issues. But more important, he wants free rein inside Russia, without foreign interference, to run the political system as he sees fit, to use whatever force he needs to quiet seething outlying republics, to exert influence over Russia's former Soviet neighbors. What he's given up is Yeltsin's calculation that Russia's future requires broad acceptance on the West's terms. That means that on big global issues, says Strobe Talbott, president of the Brookings Institution and former point man on Russia policy for the Clinton Administration, "sometimes Russia will be helpful to Western interests, and sometimes it will be the spoiler."
How do Russians see Putin? For generations they have defined their leaders through political jokes. It's partly a coping mechanism, partly a glimpse into the Russian soul. In the oft told anecdotes, Leonid Brezhnev was always the dolt, Gorbachev the bumbling reformer, Yeltsin the drunk. Putin, in current punch lines, is the despot. Here's an example: Stalin's ghost appears to Putin in a dream, and Putin asks for his help running the country. Stalin says, "Round up and shoot all the democrats, and then paint the inside of the Kremlin blue." "Why blue?" Putin asks. "Ha!" says Stalin. "I knew you wouldn't ask me about the first part."
Putin himself is sardonic but humorless. In our hours together, he didn't attempt a joke, and he misread several of our attempts at playfulness. As Henry Kissinger, who has met and interacted with Russian leaders since Brezhnev, puts it, "He does not rely on personal charm. It is a combination of aloofness, considerable intelligence, strategic grasp and Russian nationalism" (see Kissinger interview).
I retain three indelible images from that time. The first: the legions of Ivy League—and other Western-educated "experts" who roamed the halls of the Kremlin and the government, offering advice, all ultimately ineffective, on everything from conducting free elections to using "shock therapy" to juice the economy to privatizing state-owned assets. The second: the long lines of impoverished old women standing in the Moscow cold, selling whatever they could scrounge from their homes—a silver candleholder, perhaps, or just a pair of socks. The third, more familiar image: a discouraged and embattled Yeltsin in 1993 calling in Russian-army tanks to shell his own parliament to break a deadlock with the defiant legislature when everything he was trying to do was going wrong.
That Russia needed fixing was acknowledged by all. But how was it that Putin got the call? What was it that lifted him to power, and to the dacha in Novo-Ogarevo?
It was the KGB that rescued Putin from obscurity—and turned the child into the man. Putin had begun to apply himself to schoolwork, and in 1975, during his senior year at Leningrad State University, he was approached by an impressive stranger who said, "I need to talk to you about your career assignment. I wouldn't like to specify exactly what it is yet." Putin, who had dreamed of becoming a spy, was intrigued. Within months he was being trained in counterintelligence. By the mid-1980s he was assigned to East Germany, where he worked undercover, pursuing intelligence on NATO and German politicians. He was in Dresden, not Berlin where the action was, and probably would have been only a bit player in the Le Carré version of the cold war. But when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, so did Putin's KGB career. As angry crowds moved on the local KGB headquarters, Putin and his colleagues feverishly burned files that detailed agents' names and networks—so much paper, he recalls in the memoir, that "the furnace burst." Then he slipped into the crowd and watched as the newly liberated mobs sacked the detested building. Within two years, he left the KGB altogether.
Putin's big break was a friend's introduction to Anatoli Sobchak, the liberal mayor of St. Petersburg, who was happy to bring in an intelligent, no-nonsense outsider to help push his reformist agenda. Putin ran the office that registered businesses and promoted foreign investment. He was responsible for ensuring that President Clinton's visit to the city in 1996 went smoothly—it was the first time American officials saw Putin in action. But later that year, Sobchak, damaged by a perception of ineffectiveness and rumors of corruption, lost his re-election bid. As Putin tells us at the dacha, as a member of the losing team, he was suddenly untouchable. "Nobody would hire me there," he says.
So Putin headed to Moscow. What transpired next seemed to Kremlin watchers as unlikely as Chauncey Gardiner's unwitting rise to power in the Jerzy Kosinski novel Being There. Although Putin often says that he had no connections when he arrived in the capital in mid-1996, he had several powerful allies who landed him work in the Kremlin. He became deputy to the head of Yeltsin's general-affairs department. Within two years he was asked to head the FSB, the spy-agency successor to the disbanded KGB. Putin, in his memoir, says he received a call out of the blue asking him to head to the airport to meet Russia's Prime Minister, Sergei Kirienko. Kirienko offered congratulations. When Putin asked why, he replied, "The decree is signed. You have been appointed director of the FSB." Then, in August 1999, Putin was named Prime Minister. It's a grand title, but it doesn't come with much security: Putin was Yeltsin's fifth Prime Minister in 17 months. But Putin did far better than survive; within four months a declining Yeltsin asked Putin to take over as acting President. Putin tells us he initially declined but that Yeltsin raised it again, saying, "Don't say no." By the last day of 1999 Putin was running the country.
Experts generally believe that Putin won Yeltsin's endorsement because he was competent, because he wasn't part of any of the major Moscow factions competing for power and because his KGB past gave him a source of authority. But they also widely assume that he made a deal with Yeltsin and his family: in return for Yeltsin's endorsement, Putin would not pursue corruption charges against the outgoing President and his relatives, despite the rumors that surrounded the family's dealings. It's impossible to verify, but neither Yeltsin, who died this year, nor his well-connected daughter Tatyana Dyachenko was ever a subject of public investigation (though Putin quickly fired her from her position as a Kremlin image consultant).
Indeed, Putin's first decree guaranteed Yeltsin and his family immunity from such probes. Putin explains things to us this way: "Mr. Yeltsin realized that I would be totally sincere and would spare no effort to fulfill my duties and would be honest and see that the interest of the country could be secured." Eight years on, one can't help seeing a parallel with the latest maneuverings in the Kremlin: just as Yeltsin rewarded Putin for his loyalty, now Putin is doing the same for his anointed successor, Medvedev. There is already a new Putin joke: Putin goes to a restaurant with Medvedev and orders a steak. The waiter asks, "And what about the vegetable?" Putin answers, "The vegetable will have steak too."
Putin is no vegetable. In 1999, when he assumed the role of acting President, he was a relative unknown. It was his response to a Chechen rebel incursion in the Russian republic of Dagestan in the North Caucasus that quickly set him on a path toward national glory. Alexei Gromov, who has served with Putin as press secretary since he came to power, remembers being in the room when Putin told his wife Lyudmila that he was preparing to go on a New Year's Eve trip to the war zone to meet with the troops. She was worried about his safety and went along with him. In the end, the trip may have been no more than a calculated, if risky, photo op, but it was effective. Russians met their new leader and admired his courage and energy.
The following year Putin stepped up Russia's invasion of the breakaway republic of Chechnya. Rambo-style, he promised a quick and decisive victory, reiterating his earlier pledge to defeat enemy fighters "even in the toilet." Grozny, Chechnya's capital, was all but obliterated; Russia reassumed power and installed a puppet leader. Despite heartbreaking subsequent Chechen terrorist attacks—including a 2004 assault on a school in Beslan, North Ossetia, where 339 civilians, most of them children, were killed—Russians by and large admire Putin for drawing the line in the south. Having watched Eastern Europe and the Soviet republics slip from Moscow's grip, Russians were happy to keep Chechnya—even a bombed-out Chechnya—in the fold.
To the West, meanwhile, Putin was a mystery. Russia watchers debated endlessly: Was he a pro-Western reformer? (He had worked for Sobchak.) Or a hard-liner? (He was a career KGB man.) Yet just as 9/11 helped define President Bush, so did external challenges allow Putin to grow into a leader. His first steps on the world stage were tentative. His global coming-out had occurred in Auckland at a 1999 meeting of heads of APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) nations. Sestanovich, who was traveling with President Clinton, remembers meeting Putin at Clinton's hotel suite. "He was new on the job then," says Sestanovich, "not at all sure of himself." But Clinton was willing to work with him. Putin tells us how, at an APEC dinner at which he was feeling somewhat lost, Clinton crossed the room past other world leaders and leaned down to talk to him. "Volodya," Clinton said, using the familiar form of the name Vladimir, "I suggest we walk out together from this room." Putin rose to his feet, and the two men strolled out together. "Everyone applauded," Putin recalls. "I will remember that forever." It was Putin's only sign of softness during the 3 ½ hours we spoke.
Now that Putin has solidified his grip on power, he no longer seems overly concerned with courting Western approval. Despite a chorus of disapproving clucks from the West, Putin has shackled the press, muted the opposition, jailed tycoons who don't pledge fealty. In Russia this has been a terrible time to be a democrat, a journalist, an independent businessman. Just ask Garry Kasparov. The chess grandmaster—the highest-rated player of all time—is a far cry from stereotypically dysfunctional champions like Bobby Fischer. Kasparov has a keen political mind and a lively sense of humor. For years he has fought an increasingly lonely struggle as a democratic activist facing an uncompromising state. On Nov. 24, while holding a political rally in Moscow, he was arrested on a technicality and spent five days at Moscow's Petrovka 38 jail.
A week or so after Kasparov's release, we are sitting in Moscow's Cosmos Hotel, where he is taking part in a human-rights meeting. Assembled is a ragtag group of Russian activists, and here Kasparov is a star. (Even here his two bodyguards sandwich him whenever he walks about.) Unlike many of Putin's other critics, who seem fearful of chastising their leader openly, Kasparov isn't cowed. "Putin wants to rule like Stalin but live like Abramovich," he says, referring to Roman Abramovich, the billionaire Russian oil trader who owns London's Chelsea soccer team. "Putin's system is more like Mafia than democracy."
Putin's administration has blocked democrats like Kasparov from participating effectively in politics by making it all but impossible for them to meet the entry requirements. The President, in our discussion, routinely suggests that Kasparov is a stooge of the West because he spoke to the foreign press in English after his arrest. "If you aspire to be a leader of your own country, you must speak your own language, for God's sake," he says. Kasparov recently gave up his long-shot race for President.
The last of Muratov's journalists to die, Anna Politkovskaya, was shot in the elevator of her apartment building last year on Oct. 7. Alexander Litvinenko, a former FSB officer turned government critic living in London, accused Putin of sanctioning the killing. Within weeks, Litvinenko himself was dead too, killed by radiation poisoning from a mysterious dose of polonium 210. (Britain wants to charge a former KGB officer, Andre Lugovoy, who has just been elected to Russia's parliament, with the killing. He denies it, and Russian law prevents the extradition of Russian citizens.)
Muratov, for his part, doesn't know who ordered his journalists' killings. He says only that he blames "corruption," which has flourished during Putin's eight years.
Although few Russians seem to think Putin himself is corrupt, it is commonly believed that he is surrounded by business and political heavies who are amassing millions in payoffs. Indeed, if anything can bring him down, it may well be graft. As long as living standards rise, people are more likely to forgive the perception that officials are getting obscenely rich by demanding illicit payoffs. But if the economy stops growing—if the price of oil falls back to earth—Putin will face a challenge, whether from the masses in the streets or from military and civilian challengers.
One insider, who asked that his identity be protected, spelled out for us just one example of how the game is played, detailing the payments a prospective regional governor has to make to political bagmen in Moscow in order to get the Kremlin's nod for the post. For wealthier regions, such an endorsement can cost as much as $20 million, money that the politicians raise quietly from corporate "sponsors" that expect special treatment in return. The amount of money flowing to kingmakers in the Kremlin, in other words, is staggering.
When we finish talking, I take a look at an official Nashi poster hanging outside her office, which excoriates U.S. policies. It's reminiscent of Soviet-era propaganda with its non sequitur acceleration of hysteria: "Tomorrow there will be war in Iran. The day after tomorrow Russia will be governed externally!" But this is no fringe group. Putin frequently visits Nashi's training camps and meets with its leaders. And from there he sometimes launches anti-Western tirades, including a recent blast at London authorities who are demanding the extradition of the suspected killer of Litvinenko.
Putin's mission is not to win over the West. It is to restore to Russians a sense of their nation's greatness, something they have not known for years. This is not idle dreaming. When historians talk about Putin's place in Russian history, they draw parallels with Stalin or the Tsars. Putin, one can't stress enough, is not a Stalin. There are no mass purges in Russia today, no broad climate of terror. But Putin is reconstituting a strong state, and anyone who stands in his way will pay for it. "Putin has returned to the mechanism of one-man rule," says Talbott of the Brookings Institution. "Yet it's a new kind of state, with elements that are contemporary and elements from the past."
And there's plenty that could go wrong. The depth of corruption, the pockets of militant unrest, the ever present vulnerability of the economy to swings in commodity prices—all this threatens to unravel the gains that have been made. But Putin has played his own hand well. As Prime Minister, he is set to see out the rest of the drama of Russia's re-emergence. And almost no one in Russia is in a position to stop him. If he succeeds, Russia will become a political competitor to the U.S. and to rising nations like China and India. It will be one of the great powers of the new world.
Back at the dacha, with snow falling lightly outside, our dinner and discussion continue. Putin has been irritable throughout, a grudging host. Suddenly, at 10 o'clock, he stands and abruptly ends the evening. "We've finished eating, there's nothing more on the table, so let's call it a day," he declares. Actually, the main course (choice of sturgeon or veal) and dessert ("bird's milk" cake)—lovingly printed in gold ink on the prepared menu cards—haven't yet been served. The Russian President's brusqueness is jarring. Have our questions angered him? Bored him? Does he have another appointment? It's not clear. "Bye bye," says Putin—in English—as he walks briskly out of the room. The work of rebuilding Russia, apparently, is never done.
—with reporting by Yuri Zarakhovich and Dario Thuburn/Moscow