Sunday, September 15, 2013

От первого лица: Разговоры с Владимиром Путиным

People like to say that Russia is a big country and by so saying, infer that its physical size somehow influences the large amount of interesting things emanating from that country.  I am not convinced that is really how it works, but I do know that Russia is a fascinating country.  Before I went on my mission to Russia, I followed Russian politics the way most Americans did: I heard about it through the filter of American news organizations.  I knew Russia was the enemy, ideologically and militarily.  I also knew their athletes wore CCCP on their jerseys, and I just couldn’t figure out how in the world those letters stood for the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.  On my mission I solved the mystery of CCCP thanks to learning the Russian alphabet; I didn’t increase my knowledge of politics much, though, largely since that wasn’t something missionaries were supposed to be doing (and for good reason as there’s only so much time you have to be a missionary; politics can wait).  I did, though, begin my acquaintance with Vladimir Putin, easily Russia’s most powerful man.  On December 31st, 1999, I was with three other missionaries at a Church member family’s house to celebrate New Year’s Eve.  I mostly remember two things.  First, the Russian take on head cheese, kholodets, was pretty nasty.  Second, we watched on TV as Boris Yeltsin resigned and turned the country’s reigns over to Putin.

Book cover.От первого лица: Разговоры с Владимиром Путиным (ISBN: 5-264-00257-6), or First Person: Discussions with Vladimir Putin (my translation), by Nataliya Gevorkyan, Natalya Timakova, and Andrei Kolesnikov is a book that consists of not much more than a series of interviews with Vladimir Putin.  There were sections in which old friends, his ex-wife, an old teacher, and even his daughters made some comments, but it was mostly just transcripts of Putin talking to the three reporters.  Putin talked about his childhood, his schooling, his career ambitions, his family, his time in Germany, his athletic endeavors, and his meteoric rise from unknown in St. Petersburg to the heights of power in Moscow.  Putin went into quite a bit of detail about his childhood, schooling, judo exploits, and even talked quite a bit about his courtship of his ex-wife (they were still married when the book was written).  He also talked a lot about the early days of real, democratic politics in St. Petersburg, which was the springboard for his political career.  Finally, the reporters asked a lot of questions about the Russian issues of day, most of which had to do with Chechnya.  Putin explained why he chose the positions he did on Chechnya and how he figured it made Russia a more secure country.

The book was an interesting read because of the biographical feel to it.  I enjoyed reading about Putin’s early years.  The section about St. Petersburg politics was a little dry, but I did understand that it was key to Putin’s rise to power.  I found that Putin approached the interviews the same way he does all of his other public appearances: kind of dry and with a self-effacing element to it.  Other than a few of the answers to the Chechnya-related questions, he was pretty open and ready to share details.  With Chechnya and a couple internal Russian political affairs questions, the answers seemed a little more short and pointed.  The biggest drawback of the book is one that is not really anyone’s fault: it was written during Putin’s first term as Russia’s president.  Now that he’s in his third term, the book is quite out of date.  To be fair, I don’t think an updated book would be much different.  Any insight to one of post-Soviet Russia’s most intriguing figures is interesting, and this was no exception.

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