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A seller demonstrates a traditional Matryoshka doll, or Russian nesting dolls, bearing the faces of presidential candidate and current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev in St. Petersburg March 3, 2012. Russians will go to the polls for their presidential election on Sunday. (ALEXANDER DEMIANCHUK)
A seller demonstrates a traditional Matryoshka doll, or Russian nesting dolls, bearing the faces of presidential candidate and current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev in St. Petersburg March 3, 2012. Russians will go to the polls for their presidential election on Sunday. (ALEXANDER DEMIANCHUK)

Vladimir Putin: A 21st-century czar Add to ...

Unlike in so many autocratic states, and Russia is surrounded by them, there are no personifications of Putin – no statues or celebratory billboards or schools named for a Great Leader.

His campaign slogan may say it all: “If not Putin, who?”

Back at the suburban sports club, the manager scrounges up enough equipment for me to dress for the second period. It doesn't help my side, as we go down to Mr. Putin's team, 16-9. He is the top scorer, with four goals.

“With linemates like these,” he says, pointing to Mr. Yakushev and Mr. Fetisov, “it's hard not to score.”

Like many Russians, Mr. Putin embraces strangers only once he gets to know them. The dour exterior flips, almost like early spring weather, to warmth.

We repair to a private bar upstairs where, even though it's 1 a.m., someone has laid out a buffet of crab, shrimp, sardines and salmon, which the two teams wash down with draft beer from St. Petersburg.

Cabinet ministers, businessmen, sports legends – the hockey guys sit in seeming obeisance around Mr. Putin and the table of seafood before parading out a signed jersey and a wood carving, gifts for the Prime Minister to mark a recent national holiday. He nods in appreciation, handing the items to an aide.

Through the window, Mr. Fetisov points to the spot where Stalin died.

“What do Russians think of Stalin today?” I ask Mr. Putin.

He jerks his head back, as if to show awe.

“Stalin is the most popular figure in all of Russia,” he says. “There was an opinion poll. He was No 1. No. 2 was Lenin. No. 3 Peter (the Great). I was No. 4.”

Over the years, there has been an active debate about Mr. Putin's true feelings toward Stalin. He has expressed respect for the tyrant's management style, and his ability to hold the country (many countries, in fact) together. His tactical skills, too.

In recent years, state-issued textbooks have been rewritten to show Stalin in a more favourable light. But curiously, Mr. Putin says he does not approve of this revision (a claim that is hard to square with his omnipotence).

So, what does he not like about Stalin?

“The mistruths, how he misled the people during the war.”

Stalin's ghost would haunt any Russian leader, but none more than the current one, the man raised in the ashes of that horrific war, indoctrinated by the secret police Stalin created, and today, still shadowed by the pressure and temptation to bring a firmer hand to this vast, complex and restless land.

In the coming days, perhaps in the coming years, Mr. Putin will get to speak with his actions, whether he wants to or not. His choice will be the one of history. He can reach back to a Kremlin of old, to command and control a fading empire in the hopes its decline can be arrested. Or he can lean forward into a Kremlin of new, to curtail its powers at his own expense and let Russians shape their own destiny in a way that no tsar, no central party and no autocrat ever imagined.

The forward choice would certainly go against his style, perhaps against his material interests. But deep in his KGB mind, in the mind that identifies problems and seeks solutions, he may see the inevitable, understanding that the tsars who did not move with their people were left with no escape.

Even at the height of his power, he just might fear the question, “If not Putin, who?”

John Stackhouse is editor-in-chief of The Globe and Mail. He was a foreign correspondent from 1991 to 1999 and foreign editor from 2001 to 2004.

Editor's note: Prime Minister Vladimir Putin of Russia is believed by some to suffer from an ailment that may have been caused by a stroke in utero. Incorrect wording appeared in an earlier version of this article, which has been corrected.



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