First Person is an intimate, candid portrait of the man who holds the future of Russia in his grip. An extraordinary compilation of over 24 hours of in-depth interviews and remarkable photographs, it delves deep into Putin’s KGB past and explores his meteoric rise to power. No Russian leader has ever subjected himself to this kind of public examination of his life and views. Both as a spy and as a virtual political unknown until selected by Boris Yeltsin to be Prime Minister, Putin has been regarded as man of mystery. Now, the curtain lifts to reveal a remarkable life of struggles and successes. Putin’s life story is of major importance to the world.
The product of six interviews conducted by Russian journalists (and translated into English by Catherine A. Fitzpatrick), First Person is a book-length Q&A session in which Russian president Vladimir Putin discusses his childhood, his life as a spy, and his surprisingly rapid rise as a politician in the 1990s. Parts of this unusual autobiography are plainly banal (he weighs 165 pounds and likes beer), but interspersed throughout are candid comments by one of the world’s most powerful men. Putin admits that he didn’t know much about Stalin’s violent purges in the 1930s when he joined the KGB (“I was a pure and utterly successful product of Soviet patriotic education”). He also scolds Soviet leaders for the invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia during the cold war: “These were major mistakes. And the Russophobia that we see in Eastern Europe today is the fruit of those mistakes.” At another point, he expresses frustration with some of the things critics have said about him: “Why have they made up so much about me? It’s complete nonsense!” On the war in Chechnya, he is predictably defensive: “I was convinced that if we didn’t stop the extremists right away, we’d be facing a second Yugoslavia on the entire territory of the Russian Federation–the Yugoslavization of Russia…. We are not attacking. We are defending ourselves.” There’s also an interview with his wife, who, when asked if her husband ever gets drunk, responds: “There hasn’t been any of that.” (After Yeltsin, this is apparently of concern to Russians.) The interviewers also ask her whether he ever looks at other women. She replies with a question of her own, intriguingly: “Well, what sort of man would he be, if he weren’t attracted by beautiful women?” But Putin is, appropriately, the main show. Readers interested in Russian politics will want to review the final pages closely, as the president discourses on contemporary topics. Confronted with tough questions about Russia’s treatment of a journalist who filed negative stories about Chechnya, Putin says, “We interpret freedom of expression in different ways.” That’s a KGB man talking–and yet another reason Putin is worth watching. –John J. Miller
- First Person An Astonishingly Frank Self Portrait by Russia s President