9 may, 2010 13:00  

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s interview with the filmmakers who made the documentary Lessons from History


Question: Mr Putin, first of all, thank you very much for agreeing to meet with us.

While our film is about the war and the blockade, the siege of Leningrad, it is primarily aimed at young people who are currently 17 years old. We talk to students in their final years of secondary school, and ask them what they know about the war, what they feel about it, and what the siege of Leningrad means to them. What is striking is that many students say that their great-grandparents fought in the war, but that they barely knew them. While they talk about the war a lot at school, at home, somehow...

In your family, your father fought in the war and your mother survived the blockade. Did your parents talk to you about the war when you were a child?

Vladimir Putin: Of course they did, but not very often. In general, it was not a subject we often discussed. I have a feeling that my parents did not like talking about it very much. Nevertheless, it was something we talked about, especially when marking particular memorable events.

Question: Do you think they were trying to protect you, or was it a painful subject for them?

Vladimir Putin: I think it was painful for them. They avoided the topic. Not least because they lost a child during the war: my brother, whom I never met. It was a tragedy, they were clearly very difficult times. That's why they did not like talking about it.

Question: What about your personal perception of it...Naturally, this is something that changes with age...While in childhood, it is mainly shaped by war movies, etc., with age you come to understand the tragedy of it. How did your understanding of what the war and blockade really were change as you grew up?

Vladimir Putin: You know, with age I came to see those stories they told me as a child in a different light. For example, I knew that my mum visited my father in hospital after he had been wounded. My father had told me that he was with a partisan unit in the beginning of the war, but I later found out that in reality he was with a sabotage group. When I was President, I requested documents from the archives. My father was no longer alive then, had already passed away. Amazingly, the documents tallied with everything he had told me, right down to the tiniest detail.

I did learn that there were 28 of them who were sent across enemy lines to gather intelligence and carry out sabotage operations. Only four of those 28 survived. One thing that my father had never told me, something I learnt from the archives, was that the group was led by a Russian citizen of German descent.

Question: He wasn't interned at the beginning of the war?

Vladimir Putin: I don't know. I don't know anything about that. They only gave me the archival documents, record cards, personal records, and I was surprised to learn that the group was led by an ethnic German. It was probably because he knew German. I do not know why those in charge back then made that decision. But it was new to me, it was something I knew nothing about. After that my father was sent to the front and fought at the Neva Bridgehead. He was wounded there, and my mother told me how she would visit him in hospital. My father shared his hospital food ration with her and would give her provisions. And then he started having fainting fits from starvation, as he was probably giving all his food to my mother. The hospital staff noticed this, and as sad as it may sound now, but this was the thinking back then, they banned her from visiting. They had banned her from visiting him, and this was truly tragic, when he had recovered, he went to visit her at home. He arrived as they were carrying corpses out of the building, and there among those corpses, he saw my mum. It turned out she was still alive. I will not go into all the details here, but they carried her back in and she lived. It was one thing when they told this story when I was very young. Of course I did not really understand the scale of the tragedy the city, its residents, and my relatives experienced during the war. Later, I started to see everything differently and came to understand the true meaning of the blockade, the enormous suffering and the great tragedy it was for millions of people. My understanding has certainly changed with age.

Question: Mr Putin, what are your primary associations with the word blockade?

Vladimir Putin: The first thought that comes to mind is the tragedy of it, that it was a tragedy for a large number of ordinary citizens. The soldiers were at least fed a little better, but there was a period when civilians were on their own. They died from cold and starvation. Therefore, the blockade is above all an enormous tragedy for millions of people. On the other hand, it is also an unprecedented feat of heroism, and endurance. It was a quite remarkable feat: the amazing endurance of such a large number of people, their collective heroism.

Question: Mr Putin, we ask school children a lot of questions in our film, including questions about the war. But we were quite struck by their responses to the question "What do you dream of?" We also asked veterans the same question: "What did you dream of?" The war altered the lives, and dreams, of most veterans. The 17 year olds of today dream about quite bourgeois things: a successful career, an apartment, a good salary, a nice car, and so on. On the one hand, there is nothing wrong with that. They are prepared to work to for all that. But on the other hand, personally, I was struck that nobody said: "I want to win the Noble Prize", "I dream of becoming the President," and the like. Do you think it is good that this new generation is so bourgeois and thinks so pragmatically or you do you feel that they are missing some real values?

Vladimir Putin: I do not think that. You know, I don't think that because I have had the opportunity to understand that when our young people find themselves in extraordinary circumstances, they meet the challenges they are faced with, and as strange and surprising as it may seem to us, they display heroism, courage, and patriotism. So in extreme situations they display these traits, while in a normal, routine environment they behave quite pragmatically, which I think is no bad thing, it is good.

Question: A 17 year-old girl asked me this, after I asked her what the differences were between their generation the generation of the 1940's. She said "They were one, that generation was better and more honest, and in general, I feel that generation had something which ours lacks. But she still said "I am proud of my motherland, of its past achievements: victory in the Great Patriotic War, Gagarin's space flight... Can you tell me what is there for me today to be proud of?" Maybe this is routine now, as they probably do not understand what the 1990's were like, when they were growing up, while today... As Prime Minister and as the second president of Russia, how would you answer that question? What is there for young people to be proud of today?

Vladimir Putin: You know, answering your previous question, I said that when people find themselves in extreme situations, they display all the traits that others think they lack. I was referring, first of all, to circumstances related to counter-terror operations and other such situations. Just recently I had a conversation with a former officer, who has seen active service and who is well known in our country.

He spent a significant amount of time fighting in various anti-terror operations in various places. Being originally from the Caucasus, he told me quite sincerely that for him there was no one better than a Russian soldier. And this is most directly manifested today in all those brave people who love their country. This statement applies not even to career officers, but to those young lads, regular soldiers. The Russian soldier is the most effective fighter.

This does not mean, of course that we should always live in a militarised environment. What I want to say is that first, our young people do have these qualities, and secondly, under normal circumstances we should always seek to surpass our competitors, to be competitive in the economy, public life, and political system. In order to ensure we are an efficient state. Only then will we have a stable future.

There are plenty of areas in which we can apply our talents: science, business, or sports. There is always an opportunity to shine. An individual should aspire to find his place in life. Of course, the state and society should help, but first and foremost, it is our own responsibility to find the right way to channel our talents and succeed. When we achieve these results in our own minds we grow in our own sights and our confidence builds. I believe that every young man and woman has this opportunity.

Question: Essentially, you are telling the young lady to be proud of her own generation as well?

Vladimir Putin: Yes, of course. We are currently preparing to mark the 65-th anniversary of victory in the Great Patriotic War. Society was mobilised from the start of the war, and throughout it: I am first of all referring to the mobilisation of their morale to defend our country. Today, however, people are plucked straight out of their protected environment and plunged into extraordinary situations, they have no internal motivation spurring them on to achieve great feats. And this is even more difficult than when the country, society as a whole, is mobilised to fight. This means that this quality is always there, in the heart and soul of any Russian, of any Russian citizen. And I believe it always will be.

Question: Last question, I can't help asking this. Both Russian and western journalists consider you a pragmatic politician. "Putin is a pragmatist," they say. Today, the entire world, including Russia is facing the difficult consequences of the global economic downturn. However, you still increased pensions for war veterans. Is this a decision of a pragmatist or the son of a war veteran and a blockade survivor?

Vladimir Putin: It is based on several factors, and in part my pragmatism. The first is that I believe that when government makes certain commitments, it needs to do everything it can to implement them. This is what determines the public's trust in government. It is the basis of any domestic and foreign policy. If the government always delivers on its promises, it will create a very good environment for the resolution of many other issues. Trust is the foundation of domestic policy.

This was the first consideration. We promised that in 2010 we would adopt a new pension system, which would lead to a sharp increase in pensioners' incomes. Of course, we could have used the economic downturn as an excuse. But there is also another, purely pragmatic, aspect of the matter. I am deeply convinced that by raising the incomes of the elder generation, we are simultaneously creating the basis for the further development of our economy, as it boosts domestic demand.

Specifically, it will boost demand for the domestically produced goods, rather than expensive imports, since elderly people are the main consumers of the former. They primarily buy everyday goods and groceries. These are mainly Russian made commodities, and hence it benefits our economy. Of course, there is also a moral and emotional side to the decision.

We wanted this to be a present for our older generation as we celebrate the 65-th anniversary of Victory. And especially to our war veterans. Very few of them are still alive, and there are fewer of them with every passing year. Therefore, it is duty. If we are able to do this, then it is something that ought to be done.

Besides, I believe that the old pension system was not fair enough, it did not properly account for work done during the Soviet era. I believe the state was obliged to redress this unfairness and that is what we have done.