Democracy Lab

Putin Walks Alone

Why the American president's cancellation of their pending summit meeting is just a blip on Vladimir Putin's radar.

MOSCOW — This morning, Russian president Vladimir Putin attended the funeral of his life-long friend and martial arts coach Anatoly Rakhlin, who died in St. Petersburg at the age of 75. A charismatic and strong character, Rakhlin met 11-year-old Putin back in the early 60s at "Trud" sport school. He trained the future president in sambo, a Soviet military hand-to-hand fighting technique, and in judo for 13 years.

Seeking solitude after the funeral, the president took a walk on Vatutina Street, an unusual gesture for the Russia's president, who never walks alone. Later, news agencies ran photographs of a sad-looking Putin on the streets of his former hometown, reminiscing about his teenage years.

Despite Putin's habitual tardiness, or even his frequent absences, from his martial arts classes, Rakhlin's tutelage enabled him to grow into a great fighter. In an interview many years ago, Rakhlin told me that he and Putin's German teacher convinced Putin's parents that their son was not an ordinary student, but a talented one.

"People close to us, of more senior age, sort of protect us from death," says Sergei Markov, a political analyst faithful to Putin. Asked to comment on what is likely to be going through the president's head today, he continues, "When they pass away, we think of our own destiny."

How, by contrast, is President Obama's decision to cancel his trip to Moscow weighing on Putin's mind? Most Moscow analysts agree that the Russian president is not greatly worried. News of the cancellation never made top headlines in the Russian mainstream media. A story like that would be out of place in the context of the television narrative of Putin as a strong, proud man fighting for Russia's sovereignty.

"Channel One and Rossiya Channel have the biggest number of viewers -- their managers must have decided not to explain to Russians that Obama's move was actually Russia's defeat," radio journalist Sergei Darenko told me.

Kremlin insiders say that in this presidential term, Putin is much more focused on his image at home than on how he's seen in the West. His priorities lie in the Russian public's perception of his legacy and of what he wants to achieve for the country. "Obama is not as important as the situation at home and economic issues," says Yevgeny Gontmakher, deputy director of INSOR, a think tank advising the Kremlin.

While President Obama recently accused Putin of having a Cold War mentality, the unfortunate truth is that it's not a tenable position.

"Our modernization of the army has failed, while America's defense ministry budget is equivalent to Russia's entire national budget. Putin knows better than anybody else that there is no room in the Kremlin for any Cold War ideas," says military expert Aleksander Golts.

As Putin walked and reminisced, many of the world's news outlets analyzed the beginnings of a new cold spell between Russia and the United States. The media accused Russia of helping wanted U.S. whistleblower Edward Snowden and of avoiding compromise with the United States on Syria, Iran, and other current issues.

In an effort to understand Putin's thought process, I've been reading tweets by Alexey Pushkov, head of the Parliament's international affairs committee. In a recent tweet, Pushkov explains the Kremlin's take on the tension with Washington: "Russia is a country with a 1,000-year- long history of victories. Obedience contradicts its national psychology, and strikes at the very heart of the nation."

Was Putin supposed to let Snowden go to U.S. prison? No. According to Pushkov's logic, Russia does not submit to anyone's demands. Putin himself postponed the pending delivery of S-300 air defense systems to Syria, Markov says. Russia views its position as vindicated by the increasing radicalization of Syrian rebels. "Now Washington should compromise," Markov told me. "Hundreds are dying in Syria every week. So it's time for the U.S. to admit that it made a mistake by supporting the Islamists there and make a peace agreement with Assad."

Many things happened while Putin walked along the streets he knew so well as a child. Far East cities suffered from floods. Police arrested hundreds of illegal migrants all over Russia. Homosexuals all around the world called for a boycott of next year's Sochi Olympics. And Russian neo-Nazis hunted and tortured gay men.

Putin walked on. He needed a moment to grieve for an old friend.

Michael Klimentyev/AFP/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

The Whistleblower May Have to Hold His Tongue

Can Edward Snowden really find freedom in an unfree country?

MOSCOW — Every time I ask Russian public figures what they think of the life Edward Snowden now faces in Moscow, I hear a deep sigh. It will be comfortable enough -- on that there was a consensus. Unlike refugees from Russia's poorest regions, Snowden is not going to spend frigid nights in a blanket under a Moscow river bridge or in the foul-smelling labyrinthine netherworld under Kursk railway station. But can the American fugitive find happiness in Russia while Russian whistleblowers are striving to escape? Has he heard about the fate of homegrown critics like Sergei Magnitsky or the members of Pussy Riot?

Snowden's choice of Russia as the place to hide out from the U.S. justice system is "more than weird," says Vladimir Varfolomeyev, an editor at Echo of Moscow radio station. "He might as well be whistleblowing about America from North Korea, Iran, or Uzbekistan." Besides, if Snowden had heard of Pussy Riot or Magnitsky, he wouldn't have praised the rule of law in Russia, the journalist added. By contrast, opposition leader Ilya Yashin pragmatically endorses Snowden's decision to live in Russia, noting that "he didn't have a lot of room for maneuver."

Putin biographer Masha Gessen says that Snowden should prepare himself to enjoy the traditional "decorative comfort" that the Kremlin provided to the Russian spies who were deported from the United States back in 2010. For weeks, the 10 spies lived in closed Russian Foreign Intelligence service facilities without any access to the Internet or the use of mobile phones. When asked whether the Russian authorities plan to support Snowden, the whistleblower's lawyer Anatoly Kucherena only responded that "his American friends will take care of him."

But why would the Kremlin go out of its way to make life easy for Snowden? Gessen suggests that this is where Putin will bring his own KGB experience to bear. Back when Putin was stationed in East Germany as a Soviet intelligence officer, he and his East German counterparts lived all together in Dresden under fairly privileged conditions. A certain degree of material comfort was one of the rewards given to those who shared the same anti-Western intellectual stance. But that certainly didn't mean, of course, that these communist heroes could say whatever they wanted.

It reminded me of an unexpected meeting I had the other day during a visit to a manicure salon in downtown Moscow. Arriving for my appointment, I bumped into none other than Anna Chapman, the red-haired spy. This world-famous character, the salon's employees told me, had come to get her nails done for the second time that month. Anna Chapman was sitting on a red leather couch, turning the pages of fashion magazines, and taking pictures of the outfits she liked with her cell phone.

I had been trying for weeks to reach Chapman by phone and email for an interview about her virtual marriage proposal to Snowden. She smiled at me when I mentioned it; the popularity of her own joke was obviously satisfying. But the idea of an interview was immediately brushed away. "My popularity rating has been steadily high, so I don't see any use in speaking with reporters," Chapman told me. But she still took my business card -- "just in case my life situation changes," she said.

Though Anna Chapman is still in a position to enjoy the small pleasures of ordinary life in Moscow, she clearly feels uncomfortable in any unscripted public role. Spontaneously speaking her mind evidently isn't a part of her peculiar celebrity status as a former spy.

Time will tell if Edward Snowden can figure out how to live the life of a free man in Russia. The pro-Western young people hanging out in Moscow cafes certainly aren't expecting him to show up and join them for a glass of wine any time soon. "He'll always have to be thinking about his safety," says Yashin.

Last week, Kucherena gave his defendant a copy of Crime and Punishment. Dmitry Bykov, a prominent writer on the dangers of strong governments, sees symbolism in the gift. "Dostoyevsky's book says that the crime is not about murder and the punishment is not about prison," says Bykov. "The real crime is in the heart and against dignity. Snowden still has to walk along Raskolnikov's path."

Thanks to censorship and harsh laws, much of what Russians say nowadays tends to be expressed in Aesopian language. Reading between the lines and recognizing the symbols are skills that Snowden will need to pick up before he even gets around to learning the Russian language.