I first landed in Moscow on a snowy winter evening in late 2001. I was 27 years old and The Globe and Mail had just named me its next Russia correspondent.
The country had just gone through a jarring transition of power. Boris Yeltsin, the bumbling-but-likable politician who had helped bring down the Soviet Union a decade earlier, was gone, replaced by a former KGB agent named Vladimir Putin – a 47-year-old that few people had heard of until he suddenly seemed to be in control of everything.
I spent much of my three-plus years living in Moscow trying to understand who Mr. Putin was, and what he wanted. But what was happening in Russia back then was a niche concern compared with events elsewhere. The United States was in the midst of a violent effort to reshape the Middle East; China was rising.
Two decades later, who Mr. Putin is – and what he wants – are questions that matter very much.
This project started out as an attempt to look at how Russia won back its role as one of the world’s main powers. The initial concept was just to add a question at the end of whatever interview I was already doing – whether it was a Russian dissident in London, an Orthodox priest in Serbia, or a Jordanian prince worried about Middle East peace – to ask for their perspective on Russia’s resurgence under Mr. Putin. In the end, I conducted interviews in nearly a dozen countries, from Bosnia-Herzegovina to Lebanon.
Gradually, a theme emerged.
I realized that those who support Mr. Putin, and who admire Russia’s combative new role on the international stage, often based their arguments on semi-truths the Kremlin had created for them. Arguing with Mr. Putin’s admirers about the revolution in Ukraine, or the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons in Syria, was pointless. They live in a different reality, with different heroes and villains.
Reporting is usually about trying to ascertain the truth, but facts have always been hard to establish in Putin’s Russia. While I lived in Moscow, I watched heartbreaking stories unfold – the 2002 Moscow theatre siege, in which more than 200 people died, and the 2004 Beslan school massacre, which killed 333. In the aftermath of each, the biggest questions went unanswered. What was the gas that Russian special-forces had used in storming the theatre? Who gave the order for Russian troops to open fire on a school full of children?
Those who asked questions too often, and too persistently, often ended up as unsolved mysteries themselves: Anna Politkovskaya, Alexander Litvinenko, Boris Nemtsov.
Hanging in the background of it all remains the event that first propelled Mr. Putin into power: the 1999 apartment block bombings in and around Moscow, which killed 367 people. The official version has always remained the same: the attacks were carried out by Chechen separatists, providing a casus belli, a provocation, for Russia to invade the breakaway republic – a war that transformed the previously unknown Mr. Putin into Russia’s unquestioned leader.
All this could be left to the historians, except that Mr. Putin is still with us. More than two decades on from when he first rose to prominence – and 12 years after he was first supposed to step down and let someone else lead Russia – Mr. Putin remains in the Kremlin. On July 1, Russians will vote in a referendum that could allow Mr. Putin to remain in power until 2036.
By then, the 47-year-old leader they elected at the turn of the century will be an 83-year-old, who will have ruled longer than any Russian leader since Peter The Great.
And as Mr. Putin has lingered, Russia’s influence has spread – along with the violence and the haze of semi-truths.
As I dived deeper into this project, I began questioning everything I knew about Mr. Putin, to the extent that I travelled to the eastern German city of Dresden to see what I could glean about his time as a KGB agent posted in the city in the last days of the Cold War. The more questions I asked, the more nebulous the answers became.
There are nonetheless two firm truths: Mr. Putin has changed our world over the past 20 years, by bending how we see it. And a lot of people – Chechens, Ukrainians, Syrians, Russians – died along the way.
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.