19 february, 2010 23:50  

Vladimir Putin gives an interview to the authors of the documentary film Anatoly Sobchak: Ten Years On by the Russia 1 national television channel


“The time when I worked with Mr Sobchak was the most valuable part of my education. It was in that period that my basic principles of work and communication took shape. The fundamentals of my personal principles and behaviour probably began to develop much earlier, at home and later at the university, where I studied and he taught. However, my work with him had tremendous practical significance for me.”

Vladimir Putin From a documentary film Anatoly Sobchak: Ten Years On by the Russia 1 national television channel

QUESTION: Mr Putin, you began working with Anatoly Sobchak almost twenty years ago. What drew you to him, and why did you join his team?

Vladimir PUTIN: It was a natural and spontaneous choice because Anatoly Sobchak worked at the Law Department at Leningrad University, whose graduate I was. He didn't teach any seminars or lectures in my group, but I think he taught other groups in my year. Be that as it may, we shared an environment, the environment that played an important part in my education. I gained knowledge at that time but, more importantly, I learned about justice, and good and evil. Law is closely connected with morality.
When the changes we all remember began at the beginning of the 1990s, I watched his political career with great sympathy and, occasionally, with admiration. Importantly, I watched the way he presented his views and ideas, his position on national development. So it was a natural choice for me.

QUESTION: However, the notorious August [1991] coup came just a short time after you started your job. At that time it was difficult to say who would take the upper hand, and you stood by Mr Sobchak. You were by his side defending the Mariinsky Palace in Palace Square. Did you realise the danger you were running because the future was still very unclear?

Vladimir PUTIN: Yes, that was a difficult time for us and for the nation, but it was also a very interesting time. To understand what all of us were feeling, I should tell you perhaps how I came to work with Mr Sobchak. When I returned from abroad, I worked for the rector of Leningrad State University, Stanislav Merkuryev, as his deputy in charge of international affairs. At the same time, I was an officer of the KGB foreign intelligence service ...

RESPONSE: ...which, in fact, had engineered the coup.

Vladimir PUTIN: No, the foreign intelligence service had nothing to do with any coup.

RESPONSE: I mean the KGB, not the intelligence service.

Vladimir PUTIN: I don't think so. We would need to investigate this properly but I think if the coup had been masterminded by the KGB, it would not have failed.
The problem was that not a single government agency in our country worked properly at that time.

QUESTION: Was it a paralysis of power?

Vladimir PUTIN: The regime was on its deathbed. But I came to work with Mr Sobchak before the coup.

RESPONSE: You were a KGB staff officer at the time.

Vladimir PUTIN: Yes, but formally I was the Leningrad University rector's deputy in charge of international affairs. The rector certainly knew that I was a KGB intelligence officer but I don't think anyone else knew it. Possibly, two or three other people. It was classified information.

I was in charge of the university's international ties. As part of my job, which, to use the standard term, was my cover, we made several proposals to the city. The university had extensive contacts and I thought that some of these opportunities would be of interest to the entire city. So we made our proposals and established certain contacts, promoting some of our projects in the city's interests.

They caught Mr Sobchak's attention and he offered me a job. The rector asked me to come in and told me that the mayor had invited me for an interview. I went to meet with him. I remember his spacious office in Mariinsky Palace vividly. Mr Sobchak said: "I want to offer you a job." I replied after a small pause: "I would like to come and work for you because I share your convictions and because you are popular politician. Your offer is very flattering but I am afraid I cannot accept it." There was another pause and he asked in surprise: "Why is that?" I answered: "I don't think I should mention it at all-but then, you are one of the top city officials, the highest official in the present system. So I don't think it will be a serious violation if I tell you that I am not just a deputy rector. I am a staff officer of KGB foreign intelligence." And he said: "So what?"

"Imagine that word leaks out that there is a KGB officer in your closest circle (the political situation was extremely controversial at the time). That could ruin your reputation. I don't want that."

There was another pause. I don't know what he was like in everyday life, but none of us ever heard him use strong language in the office. I think that was the first and the last time I heard him use such words: "I don't give a damn!" He said sometimes he hated going out to his reception room because he didn't know what kind of people were working for him. What he wanted was to have hard-working people who have integrity. He said, "All I want from you is honest and responsible work."
I said: "I will report to my superiors. I am not sure what their reaction will be. If they approve, I will be glad to accept the job." He answered: "If necessary, I can call Mr Kryuchkov (he headed the KGB in those days). I'm sure we will come to an agreement."
I don't know what happened on his end, but when I reported to my superiors no one had any objections. So I left my job at the university and started to work at the mayor's office.

As for the coup, it was a very clear-cut situation. One had to make a choice. I made mine. I wrote a letter of resignation in the first hours after the coup began, and I informed Mr Sobchak about it. I wanted to avoid any ambiguity.

QUESTION: It was August 19. No one could be sure what the outcome would be. Did you realise that your future was at stake?

Vladimir PUTIN: I made my choice when I agreed to work for Mr Sobchak. We had worked together for some time. It was not a question of burning bridges. The point is that I had made my choice and I could not change it. It was my duty to be there, defending our shared ideals and the concept of national development which Mr Sobchak and I had put into words and implemented together. I could not do anything else.

QUESTION: What followed was the terrible winter of 1991-92 after the collapse of the Soviet Union. All economic ties were severed, and Leningrad was on the threshold of a siege like during World War II. Do you remember that winter?

Vladimir PUTIN: It was a difficult time. We went so far as to use the national strategic reserve, with permission of the federal government. We had to use up all our food reserves down to the last tin, to put food into shops.

RESPONSE: Humanitarian aid was distributed. That was humiliating, wasn't it?

Vladimir PUTIN: It was. But we must pay our European partners their dues. They helped us promptly, efficiently and unconditionally. I think they really wanted to help.

I followed the usual office routine. Nothing else was wanted of me. What mattered most was that European and American partners trusted and respected Mr Sobchak. A great deal was done in those days because he personally vouched for the result.

QUESTION: Mr Putin, I'm sure you remember the economic hardships a university professor had to take upon himself, despite the fact that he had no management experience. You learned the art of economic management, which you call bureaucratic management, together with him. How did you benefit from this experience?

Vladimir PUTIN: You know, as I have said already, when I was a university student, I did not attend Mr Sobchak's classes, seminars and lectures, but working for him was the most valuable practical experience for me.
When I started working in Moscow, I was surprised when people asked me where I had gained the knowledge, work habits and skills. I was really surprised. It was as if nobody had seen our entire team, including me, travel a tough road together with Mr Sobchak. Along the way we acquired our management experience.

St Petersburg has a population of 5 million; it is like a small European country. The huge city survived an acute crisis when the old economic and social system was collapsing. It was our duty to get the lives of 5 million people back to normal. It was a tough job. We made mistakes, of course, but we coped, in the final analysis.

QUESTION: One last question about 1991: Do you remember the day when, after the coup was overthrown, the members of the city legislature brought a long commendation list to Mr Sobchak but he refused to sign it? You agreed with him. Do you remember your motivation?

Vladimir PUTIN: Yes, I do. As you know, Mr Sobchak was justly considered a democrat. He was a true democrat in his convictions and conduct; a democrat of the purest and noblest kind. His entire life and work confirmed his right to be called a democrat. At the same time, I will never forget the events that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. I remember he returned from Moscow feeling very despondent one day. When I asked him: "What's wrong?" he said: "What are they doing? Why are they destroying this country?" I have never told this to anyone.

As the events unfolded, when the collapse of the Soviet Union became an accomplished fact, we spent a lot of time talking about it. I will not go into details now as it is a separate topic. I remember it all well, and I will talk about it but not now.
Later on, we tried to reappraise what happened but he, a democrat, was a true patriot of his country and a proponent of a strong state. It was a very important quality. That was another thing I learned from him. One can have deep democratic convictions and, at the same time, be a patriot and promote strong statehood.

RESPONSE: It is painful to hear now that democrats have destroyed this country. "Democrat" is sometimes used as an insult. We have all witnessed the rise of the democratic movement. Now, it is accused of destroying the country. Thank you for mentioning it now. It is true that it's a separate subject. We don't have time for it in this short interview. But this is a really important point: Being a democrat does not mean that one cannot be a supporter of a strong state in politics or in personal convictions.

Vladimir PUTIN: You know, he consistently criticised the Communist Party and the KGB. I remember, however, an episode when Bella Kurkova came over from Moscow. She was a presenter of a very popular television programme. She brought a piece of the Dzerzhinsky monument with her, a really big piece, and put it on Mr Sobchak's desk. I was in his office at the time. "See, we have pulled down the monument to Dzerzhinsky," she said.

Mr Sobchak had always been a critic of everything that had to do with secret services and punitive agencies, so I was amazed at his response. "Here, we are having a revolution," Bella said, and he answered: "A revolution is probably a good thing but why should we pull down monuments?" It was a great surprise to me.

We know what the revolution did to England in the Middle Ages, when Oliver Cromwell came to power and became a bloodthirsty dictator. But his monument has not been pulled down. It is part and parcel of British history, good or bad. I was a bit confused to hear such words from Mr Sobchak. That was a good lesson, too.

RESPONSE: I'm sure you remember the time when municipal deputies demanded that Mr Sobchak remove the monument to Lenin in front of the Smolny, and he said it was part of history. That place was really part of the [1917] revolution.

Vladimir PUTIN: Not only in front of the Smolny but also the Dzerzhinsky monument in front of the Border Guard Office.

QUESTION: Mr Putin, when you remember Mr Sobchak, you often say that he had improved parliamentary standards tremendously. Can you imagine him as a member of parliament today?

Vladimir PUTIN: You know, every person is as unique as his fingerprints. Anatoly Sobchak was a striking personality and an extremely gifted politician. I don't think he has any equals on the present-day political scene.

Here is an example. When President Boris Yeltsin was running for second term, Mr Sobchak travelled around the country campaigning for him. I may be mistaken and this was during the first presidential campaign.

We travelled around towns and villages. Once, we came to a city in the south of the country. You should have seen the audience that greeted us in the conference hall. I whispered in his ear: "Why have we come here at all? What's the point?"
The audience was prejudiced against us, to put it mildly. It was downright hostile.

So we went up on stage and faced this aggressive audience. The air was close with suspense. I received notes from the public and passed them on to Mr Sobchak. At first, I put away all the really hostile questions. Then after some time I gave him one such aggressive note. He gave his reply, and I saw that I should not set aside all the biting and hostile questions, so I passed him all the notes after that.

In the end, as we got up to leave the audience gave us a standing ovation. I have never met a more graphic example of a job well done.

Why did they applaud? First, Anatoly Sobchak was a brilliant speaker and polemicist. But I don't think that was the main reason. What mattered even more was that he was honest in every word he uttered. When a question concerned something that the new government was to blame for, to an extent, he admitted it outright. He was good at that. He was also outspoken about the problems of the past and about what had brought Russia to the situation it was in.

His honesty and sincerity mattered more than anything else to the audience.

QUESTION: But then, honesty and sincerity in the traditional sense are not always an advantage for a politician. They can be drawbacks in some situations.

And, unfortunately, it was a drawback for Anatoly Sobchak. His uncompromising honesty made him many enemies. That was what brought about the witch-hunt that we all witnessed.

Mr Putin, I will never forget the way you supported him during that time. Despite the risk to yourself you stood by him like a real friend. As an experienced politician you must have realised that it could have been the end of your career.

Vladimir PUTIN: I don't want to discuss my own merits and faults now, and appraise my conduct at that time. However surprising it might sound, I don't consider myself a hardened politician. I went into politics because things had taken such a turn, partly at Mr Sobchak's bidding. It had never been my aim to hold a public office and, I repeat, I think we should talk about him more than about myself now.

Let us get back to what you have said: His uncompromising honesty made him a victim of a witch-hunt. I don't think, however, that his outspoken honesty, mainly in politics, was to blame. I think that was the result of political intrigues. Some people saw him as a rival, and some felt hurt by him-he knew how to hurt people with his trademark brilliance.

To be honest, he got carried away, at a certain time, by what might be described as the triumph of new power-not that it scored many great successes. Understandably, he wanted to advertise his own and our shared achievements. But then, he should have paid greater attention to the problems we had not solved yet. There were a great many such problems, far more than we have even now. I think that was his greatest mistake, and it is time we say so today.

Next, he made enemies easily because he told everyone, and I would like to stress that, very directly what he thought about themselves and their work. That annoyed people. In the end, that led to intrigues against him. A successful plot to crush him was made in the best Soviet traditions.

I remember a debate I took part in with our colleagues in the Communist Party in the State Duma. That was later, when the Duma voted for my nomination as prime minister in 1999. Do you remember what happened to Mr Sobchak then? A few days before the election, the prosecutor's office launched two criminal cases in which he was a witness. Some time later, leaflets were dropped from planes and helicopters all over the city alleging that Sobchak was a defendant in those two cases. What do you call that? That was an insult to democracy, to law and justice. Law enforcement agencies were blatantly manipulated for political purposes.
That was a good lesson for me. But then, the plot was not the heart of the matter. Later on, the culprits had to protect their rank, their epaulettes and their stripes. They went after him to finish him off. That's all there is to it.

QUESTION: Mr Putin, when you got through all that and became head of state, did you realise that it was inadmissible to manipulate law enforcement agencies for political purposes? Do you see that these agencies need reforms now?

Vladimir PUTIN: Of course. What do we see now? The crux of the matter is not even that someone may attempt to use law enforcement agencies for political ends, though such attempts are made and will continue to be made. They must be fought and stopped.

As we see, even such practical activities that have no bearing at all on politics make us see that law enforcement reforms are urgently needed.

President Dmitry Medvedev and top Interior Ministry officials are taking practical steps to launch such reforms.

QUESTION: Mr Putin, what did you gain as a politician and on a personal level from your work with Anatoly Sobchak?

Vladimir PUTIN: As I have said and can say once again, the time when I worked with Mr Sobchak was the most valuable part of my education. It was in that period that my basic principles of work and communication took shape. The fundamentals of my personal principles and behaviour probably began to develop much earlier, at home and later at the university, where I studied and he taught. However, my work with him had tremendous practical significance for me.

Apart from what I have said earlier, there is another factor I want to stress. That is trust in people. I will never forget one episode. Mr Sobchak was going away on a trip. He could not avoid the trip with his pressed schedule of international contacts. At the same time, there was an essential municipal project that had to be finished, and he couldn't go away because of that. We weren't sure of the successful outcome of the project because it depended on several meetings. It could have gone either way.

He was torn between these two responsibilities. We sat pondering the dilemma for a long long time. In the end, be took several blank forms, signed each of them, and handed them to me, saying: "When you finish the job in one of the two ways, both of which I approve, write down here what you deem necessary concerning the results of the project."

This trust was very important to me. I saw what a strong incentive it was, and how it gave me motivation to achieve success. That's important, too.

A death is always a tragedy, especially a premature death. When Anatoly Sobchak died, I felt some time later how much I missed him.

QUESTION: Do you still miss him?

Vladimir PUTIN: Yes, I miss him. I want to see him and ask his advice on some issues. It is a great pity that I can't.

RESPONSE: Thank you, Mr Putin, not only for this interview but for everything you had done for him.