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Vladimir Putin: We are strong because we are right

© Mikhail Metzel/TASS
The Russian president in the TASS special project Top Officials
Andrey Vandenko 
by
Andrey Vandenko

Andrey Vandenko was born on November 8, 1959 in Lugansk, Ukrainian SSR. In 1982, he graduated from the Taras Shevchenko National University of Kiev with a degree in journalism. Since 1989, he has been living and working in Moscow. For over 20 years, he has built his career as a journalist specializing in interviews. His work is published predominantly in Russia’s leading mass media outlets, and he is the recipient of numerous professional awards.

Part 1
On health, wrong statement and the other side of the coin

In the TASS special project Top Officials, Vladimir Putin talks about healthy lifestyle, the "fifth column" and oil prices "plot" and argues with Russian philosopher Nikolay Berdyayev

 

- What’s your health status now, Vladimir Vladimirovich?

- All worries are in foes’ dreams!

- The foes are making hints…

- Really? It’s the first time I hear about it. What are they saying? Just fantasying?

- I won’t retell it to you. As a matter of fact, I’ve come to the firsthand source.

- Let them think this way. It’ll make them relaxed and will bring us benefits, too.

- But this isn’t idle curiosity, you know. The country’s health depends on your physical, moral and psychological condition. In a way…

- Do they call into question my bodily or psychic status?

{article_photo:761046:'Putin awarded eighth dan in kyokushin-kan karate-do':'right':'50'}- Their assumptions differ.

- I’m OK, all’s fine… And what sport are you doing?

- No sport for quite some time. Only sports on TV.

- That’s bad. No, TV surfing is no sport… And work requires certain energy, strength and physical activity.

- But why did you ask about it? Just because you…

- I do sports regularly.

- On a daily basis?

- Exactly. Absolutely on a daily basis. Frankly, though, I stopped doing it during trips. When the flight is long and the time difference is big you don’t sleep yourself out...

- By the way, do you adapt easily to local time zones or do you live by the Moscow time?

- I don’t adapt well. And when you’ve gotten adapted, it’s time to return home… Therefore, I try to live mainly by the Moscow time but long trips make it impossible, of course.

- Let’s go back to the issue I started with. Vyacheslav Volodin (first deputy chief of the presidential staff) said at the Valdai Forum, “No Putin, no Russia.” But you later said that the statement was absolutely wrong.

- Yes.

{article_opinion:240:'If a person thinks of essence and results of his work, as well as  interests of people, then even a mistake does not look so terrible'}- But this was a formula having a particular connotation, nowadays at least. Many people inside and outside of the country associate Russia with you personally.

- I think that’s natural. The head of state, person number one in a nation is always associated with his country in one way or another. And not only in Russia. The individual is elected by direct secret balloting, people have delegated him certain powers, he is charged with conducting policy on people’s behalf. And, of course, the nation expects a definite conduct from its leader. The voters proceed from the assumption that they elected the head of state and trusted him and he will meet their expectations, defend their interests and struggle to improve their living in the economy, in the social sphere, in the international arena, and in the matters of security. There are many tasks. There is nothing unusual or anything specifically Russian in the fact associations of the kind spring up.

- Still very few leaders can boast the popularity ratings you have.

- That’s true but the problem is you’ll be unable to work if you think about ratings all the time. The worst thing of all is to get enslaved by contemplation of one’s ratings. As soon as someone starts doing it, he immediately turns into a loser. Instead of engaging in real business and moving forward with no fear of stumbling along the way, one who thinks about ratings abandons all activity. Then the rating begins a downhill slide. Vice versa, if a person thinks of the essence and results of his work, as well as the interests of the people, then even a mistake does not look so terrible. And he can speak of it straightforwardly and confess his blunder. And you know, this won’t affect the rating much, people will understand perfectly well the true intensions, sincerity and honesty, and especially, a direct dialogue. It is really valuable and people will always appreciate it.

{infographics:7260:'Vladimir Putin's approval raitings in 2014':'right':'50'}- But still, when the level of support exceeds 80 percent after 15 years in power… This is both obvious and incredible.

- I’ve already said that I feel myself a part of Russia. It’s more than just love. Each of us can speak of loving his Motherland. We all love it but I really feel being part of our people and I can’t imagine for a second living outside Russia.

Getting the support of compatriots for a long time, one cannot but make every effort to justify their trust. Quite possibly, that’s the key principle and groundwork for relations between the people and the leaders whom they elect.

- But every coin has two sides. At a certain period, all achievements are linked to the leader but as time change, all the misfortunes may also be ascribed to him.

- Sure thing.

- And what’s next?

- As the saying goes, once you pledge, don’t hedge. One has to work.

- We see that Uralvagonzavod (Russia’s main manufacturer of tanks) is with you.

- It’s not one or another enterprise that matters.

{article_opinion:241:'The worst thing of all is to get enslaved by contemplation of one’s ratings'}- It’s a collective image.

- People who declared their position openly and put forward certain initiative appeared at Uralvagonzavod at some point. But were the enterprises few in number that got the assistance of the government that I headed during the crisis in 2008? The problem was actually bigger than our help or the system of effective measures, which we had devised and implemented. The Russian government and your most obedient servant never shunned responsibility. In late 2008, at one of the United Russia party’s public events I recalled the crisis of 1998 and said baldly, “We won’t admit it ever again, take my word!” This was a very risky statement. Putting responsibility of this kind on oneself without knowing all the components of the new crisis and controlling all the instruments that had sparked it and were developing it… But it was extremely important at that time to give members of the cabinet, administrative crews in the regions and, most importantly, the man in the street the feeling that the Russian leadership understood the situation and assessed it appropriately and had the clues to what was to be done. In such cases this is even more important than concrete actions. But our actions, too, were quite adequate to the state of things at the moment.

On Uralvagonzavod, the “fifth column,” “death-active” movies and monarchy

On renaming streets, the Ukrainian passport and oil prices plot

On Forbes list, corruption level and about who steals from whom

On friends, offences, attempts to sow discord and discomfort

On loneliness, daughters, personal environment and ability to say “No”

On low sense of danger, mistakes, opposite lane driving and philosopher Nikolay Berdyayev

On God, the absence of secret desires and the year of 2018

Part 2
On Uralvagonzavod, the “fifth column,” “death-active” movies and monarchy

 

- But I mentioned Uralvagonzavod as an example, meaning that you have a big group of supporters. But there are people that don’t accept your politics or vocabulary. How do you treat them?

- Very well.

- The hell with them, yeah?

- You see, we can call one another hurtful names endlessly. I’ve faced the situation for quite a few years and I think that all depends on overall culture and on political culture. We can struggle with opponents but refrain from insults and scuffles, etc. Yet this doesn’t mean we cannot defend our viewpoints. We can and must do it but within the confines of law, as I’ve always said. If we break out of these brackets we’ll dash into destruction. And then it’ll be too difficult for us to reassemble the things we hold dear.

{article_opinion:244:'No foreign country with a sense of self-respect will ever let the use of outside finances in internal political struggle'}- But do you want to turn your opponents into allies or let them alone?

- You can’t turn everyone into your allies and you shouldn’t even dream of it. On the contrary, it’s good to have around some people who have doubts. But they should propose constructive solutions. If we face opponents of this type, they are very useful. But others who act along the “Worse is Better” formula exist, too. And this is also inescapable, unfortunately.

The problem is centrifugal forces seeking to pull the state down get into play every time when its basic parameters become feeble. Just like in the human body – if your immune resistance is down, you immediately catch the flu. These bacilli and bacteria are seeded in the organism and reside there all the time but if the organism is strong, you suppress the flu with your immunodefense. Doing sports is a must!

- This is indisputable but there are people who don’t agree with you on some other points. Doesn’t this necessarily mean they are “the fifth column” and enemies?

- No, of course not. And still this doesn’t mean there are no people who are serving foreign interests in Russia. They exist, too. Who are they? They use money from foreign countries in domestic political struggle and don’t have scruples when they take the money.

- But our Motherland is making such borrowings increasingly more difficult. Let me name the laws making NGOs equal with foreign agents, restricting foreign ownership in Russia mass media…

- No. It may look more difficult but it is still possible. One will always find channels to get the money and use it for intended purposes. Of course, the recent decisions restrict the use of foreign funds in domestic political struggle in Russia. They kind of put up certain barriers but these barriers are bypassed and we should watch closely to prevent this. None of the foreign countries with a sense of self-respect will ever let the use of outside finances in internal political struggle. Try and do something like this in the US and you’ll land in jail at once. They have far more rigid state agencies there than we do here. On the surface, everything looks dignified and democratic but all chances vanish as soon as you get down to such things.

You can’t turn everyone into your allies and you shouldn’t even dream of it
Part 3
On renaming streets, the Ukrainian passport and oil prices plot

 

- It’s not necessary to proclaim monarchic rule. It’s enough for you to move a finger and tomorrow they’ll revive the GULAG or, for example, the cult of personality so that a street named after Vladimir Putin appeared in every town. A steering committee that demands renaming of Sacco and Vanzetti Street named after the Italian anarchists who were electrocuted in America surfaced in Yekaterinburg recently. They said Sacco and Vanzetti had nothing to do with Yekaterinburg, while Vladimir Vladimirovich (Putin) prevented destruction of the country in 1990s and stopped the rampage of gangsters and oligarchs, and so on… And what do you think about it?

- I think people are doing it out of good and fair intentions.

- And such intentions will be displayed in any city if you give them a signal with your eyebrows.

- I see but it’s too early to put up monuments to each other yet. I mean myself. There is still some work ahead and the future generations will assess the contribution to Russia’s development each of us will have made.

- But what’s your attitude to such initiatives in general?

- As I’ve said, it’s too early to erect monuments...

- Yes, but streets?

- The same applies to streets and squares.

- But one street exists already.

- You mean Grozny?

- Yeah, Grozny (the capital of Chechnya)…

- Yes, and I won’t conceal it they didn’t ask me. But still Chechnya occupies a special place in our most recent history. There are many links to the activity of the first President of the Chechen Republic, Akhmat-Hajji Kadyrov. Everything was tangled so tightly there… But what’s done is done now.

- No one in the West has proposed monuments to you either?

- You recalled the early 2000s here, didn’t you? I haven’t forgotten how all of that was unfolding. The West would give even tougher assessments of my activity then. I lived through it all and I remember it.

It's too early to put up monuments to each other, and I mean myself
Part 4
On Forbes list, corruption level and about who steals from whom

 

- Forbes has put you at the top of the list of the world’s most influential people for the second consecutive year…

- You know, this is still less significant that internal ratings.

- But it’s a pleasant thing, don’t you agree?

- No, I can’t say, pleasant or unpleasant. The point is that world leadership is determined by a state’s economic and defense capabilities.

{article_slideshow:758269:'Forbes' list of world's most powerful people':'right':'50'}- We are obviously not No. 1 by these indicators.

- This is what I’m talking about. If we turn to interpersonal evaluations, I don’t know how Forbes made these assessments, it is their business. Perhaps, they do this on purpose to exacerbate my relations with Barack Obama, placing him second. The President of the United States and I know each other. I can’t say that we have quite close relationships but he is a clever person and can evaluate all this. This could be a method of internal political struggle in the United States, especially on the eve of the elections to the Senate. Let them sort out these things themselves…

Everything that is done in the course of electoral campaigns has sense and significance. I don’t want now to give an assessment of the US President’s steps on the international scene, and we have a lot of contradictions and our views frequently diverge and, all the more so, I don’t want to assess his internal political initiatives as this is a separate theme but I know that Obama realistically assesses what is going on in his country. I’m confident that he considers these ratings as an element of struggle aimed at causing him damage.

- This is what the US independent press means: it writes to spite the president.

- How can it be independent, if it works in pair with the political opponents of the head of the White House? There is no independence in this regard. This is full dependence and the servicing of certain forces. But these are my assumptions.

- We don’t have even this pair.

- We have everything. If you read our certain publications, and you surely do this, then you’ll see what expressions they use to characterize my activity or the work of the Russian government. Frequently, they descend to personalities…

- Do you read this?

- Sometimes my spokesman Dmitry Peskov brings all sorts of dirtiness.

- What do you do in response?

- Listen, those who do this want me to respond.

{article_photo:760557:'Russia’s parliament approves anti-offshore legislation':'right':'50'}- They’ll never get this as you have said?

- This is also a method of self-promotion. If you assail a higher-ranking person and he responds, this means that the assailant is a tough guy. All these techniques are well known. But I have no time for such things because I try to do real work rather than to confront someone. If I see something really reasonable in criticism, I take note of this so that I can use it.

- For example?

- It is difficult to give an example right now. These are things related to the organization of power, the activity of political parties and society’s control of the presidential administration’s work. Or this concerns work for creating a more favorable business environment, the registration of enterprises. Please note that we have done much in this regard in recent years. Perhaps, not everything and we need to intensify work but much has been implemented.

- Another question about the rating. According to the latest data, Russia was given some 130th place in the ranking of 170 countries by the level of corruption. It stands close to Benin in the rating.

- You know, you need first to see who draws these ratings.

- These ratings are largely drawn abroad, not in our country. This rating was compiled by the TRACE International association.

- Well, that’s clear. Take the ratings of higher educational institutions. Who draws them and which criteria are used? We struggle ourselves to raise the quality of our education but the ratings of higher educational institutions are drawn by the corresponding agencies, proceeding from the volume of endowment and the accumulated purposeful capital, which a higher school can use. But we have a completely different pre-history of the development of higher education! It is therefore possible to assign zero ratings to our higher educational institutions. And this rating is effectively used in the struggle for the market of educational services!

- Please, don’t get away from the question.

- I’m just approaching it... The same can be seen in geopolitics. Various instruments are used: accusations of the undemocratic nature of the state, the suppression of press freedom and weak struggle with the manifestations of terrorism and separatism. All methods are used, including ratings…

World leadership is determined by the state’s economic and defense capabilities
I can’t say that we have close relationship with the US president but he is a clever person and can evaluate all this
Part 5
On friends, offences, attempts to sow discord and discomfort

 

- I’ve mentioned Uralvagonzavod as a collective image. And there is also an idiomatic expression - “the friends of Putin.”

- Yes, please.

- This expression is used not only by our internal opposition but also by the State Department.

- In what connection?

- The US intention was that the first package of sanctions hit exactly President Putin.

- I understand. The Americans have made one very pleasant for me and systematic error.

- “Pleasant” in quotes?

- No, literally. What does this error mean? They proceeded from a false assumption that I have some personal business interests due to ties with the people on the list. And by pinching them, they were kind of hitting me. This does not absolutely correspond to reality. I believe, we have to a great degree put an end to the so-called oligarchy. What is this? This is money influencing upon power. Today I can definitely say that we have no such situation in Russia. No oligarchic structures substitute state power or influence upon state decisions in their interests. This fully refers to those people whom you have mentioned. All of them are rich and they made their fortunes a long time ago…

{article_slideshow:758181:'Putin and Obama meetings how the dialogue evolved':'right':'50'}- In different ways.

- I agree but mainly a long time ago, and absolutely within the legal framework. They took nothing, they privatized nothing like what had been done in the 1990s.

- Are we talking about the Rotenbergs, Kovalchuks, Timchenko?

- Yes. What state property did Timchenko get? Please name at least one asset. Nothing.

- I will say another thing.

- Yes, please.

- I quote the newswire. Gennady Timchenko believes the US investigation against oil trader Gunvor and money-laundering allegations seek to target the president of Russia. Then word-for-word, “I am 100 percent sure that this is the case.”

- This is good that you quote Gennady Nikolayevich. Probably, this is so. But I told you what the systematic error is. The US believes some of my financial interests are seated there and they are rootling.

- But did they aim at you?

- Probably, yes.

- Do you feel bitter for your friends?

- They are Russian nationals, they consider themselves patriots of this country and this is true. Someone has decided they should be punished for this. And it just strengthens the acknowledgement of such their quality. There is nothing offensive in this. I believe this is a gross violation of human rights. Some of those blacklisted, as far as I know, have filed lawsuits but not in order to protect themselves but to show the unlawfulness of the taken decisions. What relation does anyone of them have towards the relative decisions which I took on Crimea, sorry for tautology? Nothing of the kind. They did not know anything in the very least. They read about it in a TASS story or heard it in a TV news report. They were being chased for nothing… This is a direct violation of human rights. That’s why they have turned to court. If courts in the United States and Europe are indeed independent and unbiased, the decisions will be taken in their favor, and if not… This is a very good litmus paper.

{article_photo:758383:'Issues related to sanctions often turn into assaults on Putin — Peskov':'right':'50'}- Vladimir Vladimirovich, you have a reputation of a person who does not denounce “your” men.

- Yes, I try, if they behave decently and do not violate anything. And if they act to evade law, then they are no more “my” people.

- But if the friends are offended…I meant this when I asked whether you felt bitter for them?

- On the contrary, I am a kind of glad about this. I am glad that I do have such friends, whom our opponents, let’s call them so, blame for the fact that Crimea has become part of the Russian territory. This does credit to my friends. They have no relation to this, but this does credit to them.

- Isn’t this the reason to take a different attitude to those who offended close friends?

- I believe this is a result of wrongful decisions based on false information, including inside Russia itself. They throw something and say, “These are the friends of Putin and they should be punished, they will revolt and there will be a mutiny aboard.” There will be nothing like that.

{article_opinion:249:'I became president of Russia not to satisfy personal ambitions'}- Does it reflect on your contacts with the G7 leaders?

- No, this is not so. Listen, during the grave events in the Caucasus I saw and heard beyond these things. I gave you the example: when we were struggling against international terrorism for our territorial integrity, we were refused this right. I heard many things at that time. Those who did so believed that Russia will always be in a vulnerable state. And they went on to always press on the tender spot.

Now the situation is different. We have a consolidated country. Despite the natural presence of the opposition and people who do not accept what we are doing, the society is still consolidated. I assure you that the West doesn’t like it much. And the attempt to punish my friends, whom I am not going to abandon, is a desire to sow discord within the elites, and then maybe into the society.

- Now I am talking not about friends, but about you. When you were spending a night at Bush’s ranch, who looked into your eyes and then saw something …

- The soul.

- Exactly! He saw the soul. And you and Obama now talk “on feet.”

- So what? You know, if we want just to clap each other on the shoulder, call each other friends, pay visits and go to G8 summits but the only value of informal communication is the permission to sit near, with no account for our interests and no attention to Russia’s position in solving these or those key issues, then what is this for? I became the president of Russia not to satisfy personal ambitions. I do not need this if Russia’s interests are neglected. Therefore, we will not pay visits to each other and will meet at these or other venues and in a business-like atmosphere. But we need to principally but openly and even we can say like partners, if not friends, discuss all problems and search for solutions. I hope this will be like this in the practical work.

- So you feel no discomfort about the fact that there has been a cooldown?

- No, I do not feel anything. What discomfort should I have? I need the result.

- It turns out that you were right when you said that after Gandhi’s death, there had been no one to talk to.

- You understand, I said this with a certain irony.

{article_opinion:250:'If people act to evade law then they are no more “my” people'}- You say many things with irony.

- Yes, but your colleagues preferred to ignore it. By the way, then they also cited ratings (I do not remember what year this was) and asked, "Don’t you feel that you have no one to talk to?" That’s utter nonsense! I am well aware that the leaders of both Western and developing countries are people who have gone through an ordeal of inter-political fight and through a process of making up of a personality. All of them are distinguished figures in international politics. They defend the national interests like I am trying to do the same for the sake of this country.

Part 6
On loneliness, daughters, personal environment and ability to say “No”

 

- If I am wrong, please correct me, but it seems to me that when a person holds the post like yours, he is lonely. That’s his destiny.

- They always say like this.

- And in fact?

- In fact, to some part, this is so. You have mentioned my friends. I do not blatantly reject them but this is also approximate. This does not mean that we meet every day, drink champagne or vodka and “chatter.”

- What do you prefer?

- I prefer tea.

- And what drink are you served while we are talking?

- Ordinary tea. Would you like some? They serve it covered in a special teaware so that it does not get cold.

Moreover, I have a rather tight schedule. I even see my daughters once or twice a month, but I still need to choose time.

- In what country do they live?

- In Russia, where else?

- Here?

- Of course, they live in Moscow. We meet at home…

Yes, I have good relations with those people whom you have mentioned. I also try to keep in touch with my fellow students from the university.

{article_opinion:251:'I appreciate people who can say, “I believe that you are wrong”'}- Are they not necessarily billionaires?

- Not at all! Ordinary people. They mainly work in the law enforcement sphere, in the Interior Ministry, Prosecutor General’s Office, attorney offices and administrative authorities.

- Let’s name them all. They will be pleased.

- Well, there are plenty of them, 80 people! Someone will be pleased, others, on the contrary, will be not, as some of them live in the republics of the former Soviet Union, and the mere fact of the contact with me also poses a certain threat for them.

- And in Ukraine?

- Yes, and in Georgia and other countries.

- The agents of influence?

- No, they are not agents, they influence nothing. They live their own lives. They are ordinary citizens in their countries, very loyal and loving. But given the events in their countries, our acquaintance is a certain burden… If the businessmen, whom you have mentioned, were clamped down immediately just due to contacts with me and sanctioned, then those whom I have just spoke about are absolutely ordinary people. They have no capitals and they cannot be subjected to sanctions. But there are other measures of influence, which are very hard-hitting and maybe even dangerous. That’s why we should better not talk much about these people.

- Still if we speak about solitude.

- I have told you, I have such a workload that does not allow having a wide circle of friends.

- Just taking into account that you can learn everything about everyone…

- Yes.

- …and one can learn all sorts of things about anyone…

- Yes.

- …maybe this also affects?

- No, I try not to use my possibilities in this regard.

- In order not to be disappointed in humanity once and for all?

- No, simply… I worked for the KGB for almost 20 years and I know how the fact sheets are written. These reports and materials are not always objective. I try to rely on my personal impression, and direct contact and communication are important for me. And often my impression about a person is different from what I get from official documents. I judge by my own impressions of a person, not by papers. 

{article_photo:758984:'Putin against use of his name for commercial purposes — spokesman':'right':'50'}- Is this intuition?

- Well, this in not even intuition. Only partially. Personal contacts are more important. Although, especially, when we talk about making decisions, in particular, those related to personnel, there are certain rules. First one certainly needs to get information from various sources. This is natural. But in the long run, I try to make a conclusion based on my own impression of a person.

- What’s your immediate environment?

-You know, I don’t feel lonely at all. Odd as it may seem, the opportunities to socialize and the contacts I have are possibly few, and the time to see even those people who are regarded as my friends, the ones under sanctions, is scarce. That’s true. But loneliness, I believe, is something very different. It is not an opportunity or lack of an opportunity to see people. It’s a state of one’s soul. I feel no such loneliness of the soul at all.

- The people around you are very eager to find favor in your eyes. They are expecting something from you, waiting or maybe asking for something…

- I’ve long got accustomed to that, and I don’t believe that these people do something wrong. When people get in touch with me, they are waiting for certain decisions to be made or some action taken. That’s absolutely normal. Many just would like to discuss something, but there always is the wish to have something done and an expectation of reply. That’s true and it could hardly have been otherwise.

- You are said to be an excellent listener. And you often agree with the conversation partner. And the person is leaving with a sense of certainty that Vladimir Putin is an ally, but this is not necessarily so.

- You know, I have been trying to treat people with respect, after all.

- No, I am asking about something different.

- It is a matter of respect for other people, for people’s opinions, and even for their requests. I will never forget one moment that occurred at the beginning of 2000, when a woman handed me some note. I took a look at it… I won’t say anything about what sort of request it was. It concerned not that woman personally, but some of her close relatives. Then that paper was lost. I still remember that as an impermissible inadvertency on my part. Possibly, there had been no way of meeting her request, but everything should have been done then to have that petition worked on properly. Possibly, I would have been told, “No, there is no way of settling it!” Then I would have given instructions to write back to that lady to explain why there was no way of helping her. But just losing it was very careless … You know, I still feel remorse. I feel awkward. Let me say once again, this does not mean that all grievances and requests that I get from people looking at me with hope must be sustained. Certain things cannot be resolved the way the people would like them to. It is impossible and against the law.

{article_opinion:252:'I see my daughters once or twice a month'}- Did it take you long to learn to say "No"?

- As far as I know, in Chinese there are sixteen ways of expressing negation. And yet none of them sounds literally.

- And how many synonyms are there in your vocabulary?

- It is not a question of form, it is a question of meaning. It is impossible to always say “Yes”, although I feel like replying in this way very often. I am forced to refuse…

- Who can object to you, and what consequences may follow?

- Only myself and the law. Nobody is allowed to violate the law, even the top officials.

- I am asking about others. Are there any bold guys who don’t just listen humbly, but dare argue?

- There are independent people, with an opinion of their own. I appreciate people who can say, “I believe that you are wrong.”

- What if we name some of these heroes?

- Let’s avoid bolstering their publicity. But there are such people.

Part 7
On low sense of danger, mistakes, opposite lane driving and philosopher Nikolay Berdyayev

 

- In the book called "First Person" you mentioned your low sense of danger. For an intelligence officer it is a weakness.

- That’s what a psychologist wrote down in my character reference.

- Is it a weakness for the President?

- This is not exactly what one can call a great merit. You should possess the skill of gauging all the likely effects. In making decisions you must take into account all possible scenarios in order to rule out the unfavorable ones.

- In other words, reckless moves?

-That’s it. Reckless moves should be avoided. The cost of a mistake is too high.

- Have there done any during your presidencies?

- No.

- Have you gauged them this time? The consequences of the actions taken in Crimea and the following ones?

- Yes. It was a strategic decision.

- Good. All’s well that ends well.

- You are quite right. I believe it will be precisely this way. Because we are stronger.

{article_opinion:254:'When you lack  inner certainty your cause is right, some hesitations are bound to follow, and these are dangerous'}- Stronger than who?

- Everybody. Because we are right. Truth is power. When a Russian feels he is right, he is invincible. I am saying this with absolute sincerity, not for boasting's sake. Had we known we had done something bad and unfair some place, then everything would be hanging by a thread. When you lack the inner certainty your cause is right, some hesitations are bound to follow, and these are dangerous. In this particular case I have none.

- But there are no people who never make mistakes.

- True. As for me, I did commit some flaws, of course.

- For instance?

- I won't be discussing them now, but when some major, large-scale undertaking is in progress, there is always something that possibly should have been handled differently. But there has been nothing global or strategic in this sense, and I do hope nothing like that will happen in the future. You know, I have a certain style of my own that has developed over years. I never take arbitrary decisions, decisions that may entail consequences I don’t foresee. And if I cannot see the consequences, I prefer to wait for the time being. It’s like overtaking another car on the road: never try unless you are certain. You must be pretty sure there is nobody down there on your way. The road may look empty because it goes down in front of you and then up and you may be just unaware another vehicle is speeding in the opposite direction. You have to be absolutely sure that nobody is driving the other way, that you really see the whole road in front. That you are in control of the situation. If you are sure, go ahead.

- And we are not in the opposite lane at the moment, are we?

- It's those trying to race us who are in the opposite lane now. We keep driving along ours at a steady speed. If you do everything right, it’s no use hurrying or making a fuss. It is like in the world of sports which you are so reluctant to join. Certain things are perceived on the basis of the first-signal system, but then with reliance on the previous experience and your understanding of how the situation should evolve, you’ve got to react fast.

- That’s a judo wrestler’s viewpoint. The philosophy of judo leaves no room for hustle and bustle.

- Basically, yes. But if you indulge in reflections for too long, you will reach nowhere. A specific result is an outcome of not just good research, but of a specific decision, of real action that follows, and not mere reflections on the subject.

- Before our conversation I had the deepest impression that this year is has been the hardest for you.

- It hasn’t. When were things easy in Russia?

- Let’s recall the “affluent years.”

- Affluent they may have been for some, but we had a war on in the Caucasus. Affluent! What was it so easy about them? Take Russia’s recent history, starting from 2000.

{article_photo:759665:'Putin We are guided by interests rather than feelings in dealing with our partners':'right':'50'}- I am referring to this particular period.

- OK, and what about the earlier days? Take any moment in the Russian history. Take the Soviet era. Take the pre-Soviet era.

- No, we shall not journey back in time that far. The focus is on you. You surely remember 1996, don’t you?

- Oh, yes, of course, we then lost the election, Sobchak lost the post of St. Petersburg’s mayor, and I went jobless… In that sense, yes, I spent a while thinking how to arrange my life, where to look for a job, and how to earn a living for the family. Literally, without an exaggeration. Of course, it was not easy. But you know, such things, such moments do happen in everybody's life. One may also recall 2000, when a decision was to be made on how to act in response to the militants’ attack on Dagestan. There were proposals for building a wall around Chechnya. A real wall. But that was absolutely unacceptable. Both for the people in Chechnya who trusted us and for Russia it would have been absolutely counterproductive, dangerous and harmful. Then there would have cropped up other walls and other separation lines. That would've been the end of it all. The country would have been lost…

You’ve mentioned the “affluent years.” We had to rebuild the economy, at least the basics of it. There was much criticism we were doing it all wrong. We were told we had given the people too much, that we had raised wages too high. That’s a reproach addressed to me. Our labor productivity falls behind wages. I am being told, “That shouldn't have been done!”

But could I have acted otherwise? You know, it is very good when our capabilities match our expectations. But the situation we had in the country in the 1990s and the early 2000 required we should show the people we were moving in the right direction and their life was getting better somehow. Hadn’t we done that, we would have possibly missed the chance of consolidating society and achieving certain results in restoring the country. We were repeatedly told by our colleagues in the liberal market economy-oriented bloc, “You shouldn’t by any means adopt the maternity capital program.” I myself heard many times, “It’ll be like pouring huge funds into a black hole. There's no way of calculating!” And the result will be nought, we were warned. The program would cause no effect on the birth rates. And we were given the examples of some West European countries where very large child birth benefits are paid to little avail. When I heard the opinions of almost everybody who was for and who was against, when I reviewed the results and situations in the European countries, I finally arrived at the conclusion that our situation was different. We should give our people a different family planning horizon. The quality of life in Europe is different. In Russia an extremely low level of incomes was one of the brakes on birth rates. The family just could not afford to have a child, let alone two. It is most important for us, in particular, in the regions.

There had been fears if the budget would cope with the extra payments, if the people wouldn’t be deceived. Now we can see we have not deceived anyone and succeeded. In combination with the other birthrate support measures it worked. Russia has not had a birth rate like that over the past decades.

- But aren’t we canceling the maternity capital now?

- It is a different question. I shall speak about that in the message to the Federal Assembly. I would not like to announce anything beforehand. One has to be very precise and careful here. The program is ending in one year’s time from now, and everybody should remember that. But, of course, it is necessary to give thought to mechanisms of supporting population growth. We have the perinatal centers, we have the maternity capital, we have a network of extra medical institutions, and we have benefits not only for families but also for medical establishments for the quality of services provided to expectant mothers. A great deal depends on their opinion… The package of measures has brought about a result that has surpassed our expectations. The demographic rates are positive and stable. Why am I discussing this in detail? I was the one who made a final decision, because there were votes for and against.

- Vladimir Vladimirovich, you confirm what I said in the very beginning. No matter which way you look at it but it all eventually rests on a single person.

- No, no. Not everything.

- Yes, but a lot.

- But I say that not everything and I repeat it. Yes, I often take part in the strategic decision-making. Eventually, what is the use of the person number one if he is doing nothing at all? If he just sits and reigns?

- One more quote. Nikolay Berdyayev, “A Russian loves Russia, but is not used to feel responsible for Russia.”

- He was a genius man and well respected.

- His words can be addressed to state officials and businessmen.

- There is no such nationality as a state official or a businessman as they mean the fields of expertise. And people’s mentality is definitely…

{article_photo:746154:'Most Russians like and respect Russia’s official state symbols':'right':'50'}- We will wait to see the feudal – he will tell us what to do, of course.

- If you let me finish my thought you will find out my stance… Where does it all root from? A common Russian person as a rule had nothing to own and always worked for his feudal. So what was left over for him was a blessing. He knew that everything could be snatched away. It all takes roots from the times of serfdom.

We cannot say that there was no responsibility for the country. There could have been no proper attitude to current affairs, business and property. It had not been formed just like in the countries with the developed market system, when a person is aware that he must struggle for his and his family’s wealth. Our set of mind and mentality are hinging on community life. This is good and not so good at the same time. It is good because there is a sense of community. It is not so good because there is no individual responsibility. But saying that a Russian is not valuing… Or what did Berdyayev said exactly?

- “Not used to feeling himself responsible for Russia.”

- I would say that I personally feel responsible. All depends on a person on the whole. The simpler the person is, the more responsibility he has for his Motherland.

- I am talking about big-shot bosses, who are used to, you know, to…

- Berdyayev was not implying bosses, he was speaking about a typical Russian man.

- It is just simpler when there is only one person to make all decisions, while others are implementing them.

- Perhaps this is so, but you have quoted Berdyayev and I may even allow myself some impudence and argue with the classic. I am repeating it again, that the simpler the person is, the closer is to his roots, the more responsibility he holds for his Motherland. I will also explain why. He has no other Motherland, he is not going to either board a plane, train or mount a horse to take a leave or buzz off from here. He knows that he will be living here on this land, his children, grandchildren and grand-grandchildren will be living here as well. He must take care of them. If he does not take care of them, then nobody will. This is the foundation of the nationhood and patriotism of an ordinary Russian person, as well as of a person of any other nationality living here. We know well who initiated the people’s militia in 1612: an ethnic Tatar gathered people, gave away all his money on the militia and became a savior of Moscow and Russia. “The force is in the unification!” – and such personal patriotism of an ordinary Russian citizen is very strong.

- You are speaking about an ordinary person, as if separating the elite…

- No, no. I said that an ordinary person has it more, but in general this is the common mentality of all Russian people. Yes, those who have billions feel themselves as citizens of the world. They feel more freely, particularly if their money is in off-shore banking accounts. They’ve gone abroad and stay there, feeling good…

{article_opinion:253:'I never take arbitrary decisions, decisions that may entail consequences I don’t foresee'}- Is this bad?

- I believe this is bad. This is certainly bad. A man who is cut off his roots eventually starts regretting about it. There is nothing more near-and-dear than your native land, friends, relatives and the culture, in which one was raised.

- The world is without the borders now.

- It has always been. Was it different in the times of Lermontov or, for example, Pushkin? Just pack your bags and go. People went to spa resorts in Europe, travelled by sea to America. This is what we see today again. On the whole, nothing has changed a lot. There was a relatively short period of time in history, when the world was isolated with borders.

- Aren’t we trying now to build new walls?

-We are not and will not. We realize the malignity of the ‘iron curtain’ for us. There were periods in the history of other countries, which tried to isolate themselves from the rest of the world and paid very dearly for that, practically by degradation and collapse. Undoubtedly we are not taking this path. And nobody is going to build a wall around us. It is impossible!

 

- Have you been thinking about what comes afterwards?

-When afterwards?

- When Heaven calls you for an answer.

- You know if one gets there, there is only one phrase that is appropriate to say, “Glory to you o Lord!” What else?

{article_opinion:255:'I have sincerely served and keep serving my Motherland, and I do everything possible to realize myself in this'}- Is the president’s chair forever with you?

- No. This is not good and detrimental for the country and I do not need it as well. There are terms defined by the Russian Constitution. I believe it is important to observe requirements stipulated by the supreme law. We will see what the situation will be like, but in any case the term of my work is restricted by the Constitution.

- But the Constitution allows re-election in 2018.

- Yes it indeed allows but it does not mean that I will make such decision. I will proceed from the general context, domestic understanding and my personal feelings. Isn’t it too early to think about it right now? We are still in the year of 2014, and you are talking of 2018. There’s much time ahead and a lot can change…

- Do you have any secret desires?

- No. You see I am in such position that there is nothing secret…

- Are you tired of all this?

- No, this is not the case. I proceed from the present-day realities and mid-term perspectives. There is no sense for me…

{article_opinion:256:'The term of my work is restricted by the Constitution'}- To stare beyond the horizon?

- …to clutch at anything. You must understand there is no sense at all.

- You already have everything one may dream of?

- In terms of serving for my Motherland. I know that I have sincerely served and keep serving, and I do everything possible to realize myself in this. But I repeat that clutching at something is counterproductive, detrimental and in no way interesting. There is the Constitution and it is necessary to act and live within its framework. Yes, there is a possibility of my nomination for a new term. But I don’t know for the moment if it will be realized.

Interviewed by Andrei Vandenko

Born November 8, 1959 in Luhansk, Ukraine. In 1982, Andrei Vandenko graduated from the Kiev National University of Taras Shevchenko specializing in journalism. Since 1989, he lives and works in Moscow. Vandenko has more than 20 years of experience in the interview genre. He was published in the major part of top Russian media outlets and is a winner of professional awards.

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