John Stackhouse: Behind the scenes with Vladimir Putin
Posted: March 7, 2012 | 11:48 ET
How did the interview come about?
An agency representing Mr. Putin contacted me to say that he wanted to hold a roundtable session at his luxury dacha with newspaper editors from other members of the Group of Eight industrial nations.
Also invited were France’s Le Monde, Asahi Shimbun from Japan, La Repubblica from Italy, the German business paper Handelsblatt and The Times of London. Missing was a U.S. paper. The editor of The New York Times was unavailable and The Wall Street Journal’s Robert Thompson bowed out at the last minute. (The reason soon became evident when the son of WSJ owner Rupert Murdoch resigned as head of News Corp., the parent company, amid the British phone-hacking scandal.)
Did you feel co-opted at all?
The interview was to take place on the eve of voting day -- quite handy for Mr. Putin, but I saw it as a tradeoff. His campaign might enjoy a public-relations boost but in return we’d have a rare chance to grill one of the world’s more powerful and enigmatic leaders. And as we found out later from his spokesman Dmitry Peskov, the roundtable was his image makers’ idea, not Mr. Putin’s.
“He took some convincing,” Mr. Peskov explained, and was in a feisty mood, fired up by the campaign.
How did you decide what to ask?
Group interviews can be a disaster, so we met ahead of time at a Moscow hotel to plot strategy, not knowing how long we would have and wanting to leave time to explore this mysterious man’s past and personality.
An obvious place to start was the political campaign, as it would be top of mind for a man fresh off a swing through southern Russia. We’d focus on the message sent by protesters, the legitimacy of the process, his views of the opposition, and democracy in general. We’d move from there to the economy -- the need to wean Russia from oil and gas revenue, to reboot the once-celebrated science and technology sectors, to attract foreign capital, diminish corruption and, of course, the euro-zone crisis and its impact on Europe’s biggest trade partner, Russia.
Then we’d move to the world -- Syria, Libya and the Arab Spring, relations with U.S. President Barack Obama, NATO and missile defence.
Also, we’d each have a question or two on our own national interests.
The Brit wanted to ask if Mr. Putin would attend the London Olympics (there are fears he may snub the event in return for perceived slights). The Italian wanted to ask his opinion of Mario Monti, who replaced Mr. Putin’s good friend Silvio Berlusconi as Prime Minister in Rome. (There was some disappointment that he wasn’t curious about Mr. Putin’s Botox treatment, and whether he and Mr. Berlusconi share a doctor.) The Asahi Shimbun editor would take aim at Japan’s long-standing dispute with Russia over the Sakhalin Islands, while our German delegate wanted to take Mr. Putin back to his early days with the KGB in Dresden, and discuss his ability to converse with Chancellor Angela Merkel in her native tongue.
I wanted to ask about Arctic sovereignty and the 40th anniversary of the 1972 summit series of hockey.
The French editor surprised us by saying she had nothing specific in mind about France. She wanted to devote her time to Mr. Putin’s wife and two grown daughters, and why she hasn’t been photographed in public in years.
That uncorked a spray of gossip about the Putins. It was unanimous: The French editor should ask the first question.
What’s the dacha like?
We entered through a towering gate, where the bus stopped and a guard inspected our passports. While we waited, the German editor used his iPad to track our location, and got an aerial view of the property: three large houses nestled in a forest, with a helipad in a clearing.
We were taken to a large, classical mansion and from the road could see only a sliver of his private home, a modern structure with an indoor pool and gym.
Escorted up a grand staircase, we were led to a dining room appointed with fine china, silverware and chilled bottles of French wine. The only indication we were in Russia -- and not, say, Versailles -- was the heating stove on one wall.
The seating plan had the Times editor and me across from Mr. Putin, with the French editor on his right and the German on his left. The printed menu listed a six-course meal starting with raw fish and pumpkin soup, cleansed with a sunflower sorbet, and followed by duck as the main course and then by dessert. We estimated that, if we paced ourselves, we’d have at least an hour with him.
Off the dining room was a much larger “observation room” where staff and the Russian press corps could listen to the conversation.
What first impression did he make?
As a host, Mr. Putin is notoriously late. He has kept the Queen waiting for nearly an hour, and a CNN crew once had to sit in this room for five hours.
An aide told us the dinner might begin a “little after” the scheduled 6 p.m. start time but promised that Mr. Putin -- a nighthawk who often works until 2 a.m. -- would stay until the last good question was answered.
An hour later, we were advised that he had been further delayed and an aide offered some soup or traditional Russian pancakes, with yogurt and caviar. The German editor accepted, saying he had missed lunch.
The British editor suggested we take a pool on our host’s arrival. He predicted 8:15 p.m. I claimed 8:39. The others bracketed us between 8 and 9 p.m. When there was a scurry downstairs to suggest Mr. Putin was approaching the house, it was just after 7.
What is he like?
In person, Mr. Putin seemed bigger than I had expected of a man said to be 5’6” or 5’ 7” -- which suggests someone of Mr. Berlusconi’s stature. But he is well built and walks -- strides, really -- with such confidence, he seems taller.
His hands were also softer than you might expect of an ex-spy. From all I’ve read about his spying days, I had come to expect hands that might be able to break a hand in its grip. While he’s clearly strong, he does not come across as weathered.
It’s hard to warm to Mr. Putin, for he does so little to show a more human side. Small talk is out of the question. So are personal details. And I doubt he’d score high on an empathy meter. When we asked him about Syria, he said something telling: The media were viewing the situation emotionally. “It’s important not to let emotion affect our decisions,” he said. Not sure anyone could run for U.S. President with that kind of view. But cold and calculating is what many Russians want, and it’s certainly what they all now have.
What language did he speak?
Russian -- with a simultaneous translation to English that we could hear on earpieces. This was awkward for those who wanted to tape the interview, especially the Japanese editor, with his halting grasp of English.
I was surprised that Mr. Putin did not speak German with the editor of Handelsblatt. He studied the language as a child, as well as working for the KGB in East Germany. He also said nothing in English, although he is able to carry on a basic conversation.
How did he handle the questions?
He’s a pro when it comes to dealing with media. He ducks nothing, and speaks more directly than most Western politicians.
He also didn’t seem to mind our inability to stick to script. The German, being with a business paper, went straight to budget deficits and privatizations. The Brit jumped in, and bounced us over to Syria. The Italian was clearly restless, whispering to me that we needed to get Mr. Putin off such issues and on to the euro crisis.
The Japanese editor could not get a word in and finally demanded the floor. He read a long statement on the Sakhalins, concluding with, “What is your view?”
Mr. Putin was well briefed. He rebutted with a detailed history of bilateral negotiations, as well as Russia’s historic position that two islands may belong to Japan, and concluded by using a Japanese term for a “tie” that he’d learned through his lifelong devotion to judo. “If it is to be two islands,” the editor replied, “it will not be a tie.”
It was one of the few times Mr. Putin had no response.
Which questions seemed to get under his skin most?
The ones about his family and his controversial decision to seek the presidency again. When agitated, he pulled off his earpiece and leaned forward. When asked about personal matters, the veins in his forehead protruded and his steely eyes glistened.
Le Monde’s editor raised the issue of his wife -- a former flight attendant (they were not married until both were in their 30s) who has not been seen with him in more than a year.
He described her as “a very private person.” There has long been an understanding in the Russian media that Mrs. Putin and their two grown daughters are off-limits, but even the cognoscenti say they have not seen her in a long time. An aide explained earlier she has been devoted to a charity involved in the promotion of the Russian language, and travels extensively, always on commercial flights with a bodyguard. For an echelon of Russian society that uses private jets like second cars -- and the Putins are at the pinnacle – it’s hard to believe.
“Moreover, the media today are very cruel,” Mr. Putin added, tearing into us and, presumably, the many Russian journalists watching via video. “Leave them alone.”
He also was clearly piqued at critics of his so-called “swap” of jobs with departing president Dmitri Medvedev, saying that he just doesn’t get it: He’s the more popular of the two and should be president. He seemed less irritated with the question than the inability of so many people to accept his answer.
How did hockey come up?
We had stretched the conversation to close to 10 p.m. and, with coffee and tea behind us, Mr. Putin announced it was time for him to get to his regular pick-up hockey game.
I asked if I could join him -- and to my amazement, he agreed. The other editors watched in astonishment as Mr. Putin nodded to his press secretary to see that I was taken care of. I probably came across as a gate-crasher but that’s journalism.
The Russian press corps was in a frenzy. Two female reporters cornered me and asked, tape recorders to my face, “Is it true you’re going to play hockey with the Prime Minister?”
I made my way outside and one of Mr. Putin’s aides told me to wait on the steps. “You will go with the Prime Minister,” she said.
The crowd had thinned, and for a moment I was alone on the front steps of the dacha, a crisp late-winter chill in the air, crunchy snow underfoot. Using my cellphone, I called my desk in Toronto to pass on the oddest of messages: “We need to move to Plan B. I’m going to play hockey with Putin.”
From the darkness, a black sports car emerged and the passenger door opened. Mr. Putin was at the wheel, wearing jeans, turtleneck and bomber jacket.
“You drive!” I blurted out in shock.
“Of course,” he said.
What was the drive like?
The contradictions were overwhelming. Here I was with Vladimir Putin in his armoured sports car in a motorcade sailing through the night of suburban Moscow. Every so often we passed a cluster of cars pulled to the side to let him pass, blocked by flashing police lights. The interior was as silent, even serene, as those woods around his dacha. Yet in each of those clusters of cars, probability would suggest half the people -- maybe more -- wanted to get rid of Mr. Putin and wouldn’t get the chance to fully exercise that view. I also couldn’t help but wonder if he just might stop and throw me out, to be dealt with by his guards. I wouldn’t be the first journalist to meet a harsh fate in Putinland.
But what he wanted was to talk about hockey. He’s genuinely concerned about the sport. He has come to love it, even though he started playing less than two years ago. He sees it as a national calling, and I soon realized why I was sitting beside him. Only two nations see hockey as a matter of faith as much as sport.
When the motorcade finally reached the rink on the outskirts of Moscow, I thought for a flash that we were headed for the ditch because Mr. Putin took the cloverleaf turn a bit fast, and had to brake hard to stay behind his pace car.
Who were the other players?
I had no idea who would be at the rink, and at first blush thought it was just his security detail, with perhaps some ringers from the military, on the ice. A closer look revealed two very familiar players: Slava Fetisov (the great Red Army and NHL veteran of the 80s and 90s) and Alexander Yakushev (a hero of the 1972 Canada-USSR Series).
I sidled up to the bench to meet the mighty Yakushev, who is still a great, fast bear of a skater, as he was in 1972. I tell him he was one of my heroes. “What do you mean, ‘was’? he fired back.
The mood on the bench was jovial, not unlike that of any beer league in Canada. The players had nicknames, and took more verbal shots at each other than physical ones. The chance for the Russians to jab a Canadian was too rich to resist.
Once the game started, the Russians encouraged me to join in, and summoned their equipment manager, who tracked down skates (one size too big) and a hodgepodge of other gear.
I didn’t tell my hosts but I’m not much of a hockey player, never have been. I’ve laced up maybe half a dozen times in the past decade. It could have been humiliating.
What’s Putin like on skates?
He took all the faceoffs when he was on the ice, which created some awkward moments.
When I got on the ice, my teammates directed me to centre ice, where I realized I was to face off against Mr. Putin. There was no way to win this one. I slapped the puck hard anyway, winning the draw and getting a look from him. It was my last hard faceoff.
The game proceeded at a brisk pace, with Mr. Putin (the rookie) and me the weakest players on the ice. Mr. Yakushev, approaching 70, could skate circles around us -- and still could put you through the boards, if he so chose.
Mr. Putin was determined along the boards, and didn’t mind fighting for the puck in the corner. At one point, I was impressed at the force that he and Mr. Fetisov used to jam the puck through our goalie’s pads. He is also one of those players who work on technique whenever there’s a break.
Pretty good, backhand especially.
Beating Mr. Fetisov to a rebound and putting it through the goalie’s pads. And a penalty shot.
During a two-on-one, Mr. Fetisov threw his stick to block a pass to me from another forward. The referee blew his whistle and pointed to me, giving the universal signal for a penalty shot.
With the Russians lined along the boards, I nervously took the puck from centre, and made a straight line to the net, opting to shoot high on the blocker side. That the puck did what I wanted it to do was perhaps a first. The referee’s arm went down to indicate a goal.
Mr. Fetisov came right over and tapped me with his glove. “Nice shot,” he said.
< Next PostPrevious Post >