Troubador Putin

BBC Radio 4

Released: 27/03/2012

ISBN: 9781780881140

eISBN: 9781780889276

Format: Paperback/eBook

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Putin is the highly personal biography of Russia’s leader – a man many regard as the world’s most interesting politician – and is the result of six years of research by the authors. Chris Hutchins is a highly successful investigative journalist and much-published author of biographies. Alexander Korobko is a London-based Russian journalist and television producer with the kind of journalistic connections in his homeland that helped to make this book epic.

Hutchins travelled throughout Russia to meet and gain the confidence of the people who know Vladimir Putin best, including those who knew him as a child, a teenager and a young intelligence officer, long before he first entered the world’s stage as Russia’s leader. The sources proved to be so good that Hutchins was told in 2005 that Putin would step down as President in 2008 to become Prime Minister, and then return to the Kremlin in 2012 – a move which now seems certain to prove the accuracy of all three predictions.

Putin’s stunning ability as a politician – he had never even stood for office until President Yeltsin made him head of the government in 1999 – took many totally by surprise. A British diplomat who travelled to St Petersburg with Tony Blair to meet the then-President elect describes in detail how Putin completely outwitted the British Prime Minister who was, until that moment, regarded as the elder statesman. In just eight years he rescued his country from financial ruin (a feat the experts had predicted could not be done in less than forty) and in doing so saved the nation’s pride.

But this book is about the man, not just the politician. Who are his friends? What makes him laugh? What has made him cry? How rich is he? What has his wife got to say about him? What are his real views on the oligarchs? Who does he turn to in times of trouble?

Putin leaves no stone unturned. Intelligent books about him have been few and far between because, of all the world leaders, the man his friends call Vlad has managed to remain a mystery. This book goes some way to revealing the man behind the enigma.

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Vlad the enigma

John Murray on the Putin behind the tough guy image

Vladimir Putin once said the only difference between a hamster and a rat was the "the hamster has better PR than the rat." When a Moscow tabloid published a story in 2008 portraying Putin as a love rat, he acted swiftly to restore his hamster status.

The Moscow Korrespondent article, headlined ‘The Sarkozy Syndrome’, claimed Putin was about to leave his wife Lyudmila for the 24-year old Olympic gold-medal winning gymnast Alina Kabayeva, described by a photographer who had photographed her naked as "full of sex".

Speaking from his friend Silvio Berslusconi’s Sardinian villa, a furious Putin rubbished the story. A week later the newspaper closed down and ever since the Kabayeva story has been off-limits for the Russian media. But Moscow has been buzzing with the rumour that Putin is the father of Alina’s son, born in 2009.

The authors of this biography cannot make up their minds about whether Russia’s action-man, soon-to-be President for a third term, is truly a babe-magnet. They quote one ex who says "girls just threw themselves" at the young Vladimir, whose '‘short, strong fingers" – those of a future Judo black belt – were what she fondly recalled. For the wife of a former Swiss ambassador, however, Putin was "cold" and "without charisma", though she noted "Russian women fancy him, probably because of the power."

This is a very personal biography of Russia's leader which goes some
way towards ending the enigma that is Vladimir Putin - or Vlad to his friends. The author, Chris Hutchins, a well-known British journalist and author of biographies of the rich and famous, has already done a book on Abramovich. His associate on this one,Alexander Korobko, is a London-based Russian journalist. They've spent six years working on PUTIN and although it's an easy, sometimes racy read, rather than an academic study, it's revealing in places.
Putin is often portrayed in the West as mean spirited and petty, yet here he is shown to be the opposite. Hutchins and Korobko tell how Putin gave away his $60,000 Patek Philippe watch to the son of a shepherd on a one-day visit to the remote republic of Tuva in Southern Siberia. Then, when a worker at a weapons factory in the city of Tula, 200 kms south of Moscow, shouted at Putin during a visit: "Vladimir Vladimirovich, give me something to remember you by!", Putin took off his replacement watch, a $6,000 Blancpain, and gave it to him.

Money figures large in this entertaining, well written, if not too critical biography of the person Moscow’s leading tabloid has dubbed "our past, our present and our foreseeable future."

Putin’s reputation was made and rests on his cleaning up the awful mess left behind by his predecessor Boris Yeltsin.

Yeltsin’s notorious loans-for-shares scheme – the Biggest Heist in History the authors call it –"handed over the commanding heights of the economy to a handful of speculators at bargain basement prices." As a result a good deal of the national wealth in everything from natural resources to manufacturing and banking came under the control of a new elite.

Putin’s mission on gaining the presidency in 2000 was to recover the country's wealth and wrest political power from the oligarchs. This can largely be called accomplished, though at a cost to political and media freedom, a price most Russians have been willing to pay in exchange for the stability and prosperity – for some more than others – the Putin era has brought.

For how much longer is another question. Putin’s approval rating, which peaked in 2003 at 73 per cent, was 37 per cent last month. That he remains Russia’s favourite politician says a lot about the opposition, though the opposition might say it says something about Putin not allowing them access to the public.

Hutchins and Korobko are inconclusive on the awkward bits in the Putin story. They fail to dispel, for example, the whiff of corruption that still hangs over his time as Leningrad city official in 1991, when he allegedly issued licences to Soviet firms to export oil, timber and rare metals in return for food. The raw materials were exported, but the food never arrived.

The city council concluded that $92m had been stolen in the transaction and called for Mayor Sobchak to sack Putin and for the public prosecutor to initiate an investigation, neither of which happened. Thereafter, the story gets murkier and murkier.

Accusations and counter-accusations, more firings, threats and deaths in mysterious circumstances; the only way to clear up the mess would be an independent inquiry or, God forbid, a Tribunal.

by John Murray, The Irish Indeoendent

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