Vladimir Putin was lonely and homesick after moving to Moscow to work in the Kremlin in 1996 and planned to return to St. Petersburg within a year, according to a friend, documentary filmmaker Igor Shadkhan.
“But then things began to happen very fast and suddenly Putin became president,” said Shadkhan, who’s been dubbed “court director” by the Russian media for his series of films about Putin and his former classmates over the past two decades.
After 14 years as president and premier, Putin ended his 30-year marriage in June and his judo mentor died this month. He is again lonely -- and too scared of what will happen to himself and the country to relax his grip on power, Shadkhan said.
“Many of the people in his entourage will want revenge as soon as he steps down because many of them are humiliatingly dependent on him,” the 73-year-old chain-smoker said in a day-long interview in his St. Petersburg studio Aug. 14. “He trusts no one, not even his own people.”
Putin, whose grandfather cooked for Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, rose from deputy head of the Kremlin’s property department to acting president in less than three years when Boris Yeltsin resigned on Dec. 31, 1999. Putin was elected three months later with 53 percent of the vote and re-elected in 2004 with 72 percent. After serving as premier due to term limits, Putin overcame the largest protests of his rule to win again in 2012 with 64 percent of the poll. With the term extended to six years from four, he may stay in power until 2024.
Shadkhan said he’d never heard of the former spy until 1992, when St. Petersburg’s new government decided to make a documentary series called “Power” about Anatoly Sobchak, the city’s first democratically elected mayor, and his team of “young reformers,” which included his protégé Putin. Putin was head of external relations for the mayor and insisted on hiring Shadkhan, whose award-winning shows were popular on Soviet television.
“Who is Putin?” Shadkhan said he replied when approached about the proposal. He agreed to meet with Putin, though he made it clear he had no appetite for bureaucrats, having just returned from an exhausting trip to the Arctic to shoot a 10-part program on Stalin’s forced-labor camps.
“Stories about gulag prisoners tear your heart out,” said Shadkhan, whose Jewish grandparents were victims of Soviet repression. “You can’t help weeping.”
When the director arrived at City Hall, a Putin deputy who now runs state oil champion OAO Rosneft, Igor Sechin, was so excited to meet the director that he “rushed” to greet him, Shadkhan said. Putin, wearing a gray suit, politely asked Shadkhan to wait 15 minutes so he could finish some paperwork.
“Why me?” Shadkhan was quick to ask when he finally sat down with Putin. “Pick another director. After the gulag series, I’m unable to work on anything else.”
Shadkhan said he then got a taste of the skills Putin honed running a spy ring in East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall three years earlier.
“I want you because I’ve seen ‘Test for Adults,’” Shadkhan said Putin told him, referring to his most famous work, in which he interviews people both as children and adults. “He recruited me.”
Shadkhan was smitten and agreed to make the first, and, as it turned out last, “Power” episode about Putin. The 45-minute show portrays the ambitious 39-year-old as a smart, savvy and trustworthy politician with a KGB pedigree. Putin later said in “First Person: Conversations With Vladimir Putin,” which came out two weeks before the 2000 election, that he used his “friend” Shadkhan’s documentary to reveal his KGB past to thwart would-be blackmailers.
“The tape was shown on Leningrad television, and the next time someone came along hinting about my past, I immediately said, ‘That’s enough,” Putin said in the book. “It’s not interesting. Everyone already knows about that.”
The film was funded by OAO Bank Rossiya, a local lender where some of Putin’s friends worked, including Yury Kovalchuk who is now the bank’s billionaire majority owner, Shadkhan said.
Putin, a black belt in judo, is shown throwing an opponent to the mat, chairing meetings and driving his light-gray Volga. The piece ends with a shot of Putin staring pensively out the window of his parked sedan as the theme song plays to “Seventeen Moments of Spring,” the classic Soviet mini-series about a James Bond-like Russian spy in Nazi Germany, which was popular across the former eastern bloc.
Shadkhan stands by his first take on Putin and still considers him a friend, though he’s worried about what he says are his increasing authoritarianism and failure to enact meaningful social, political and economic reforms.
“Putin is the child of the Soviet Union and that’s the problem,” the director said. “He’s nurtured a horrible Russian phenomenon in which every functionary follows his example.His moves are often driven by mistrust and others simply imitate his style. Authorities don’t help, they attack you.”
Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said that while the president has a “deep respect” for Shadkhan’s opinions and work, not everything he says is “indisputable.”
In the “Power” piece, Putin says totalitarianism isn’t something that can be imposed from the top in Russia because it’s “embedded in our own people’s mentality.” Shadkhan said he’d now like to ask Putin who’s “to blame for the resurrection of the authoritarian regime? The people?”
Shadkhan said the loneliness and distrust that he first sensed in Putin, now 60, seem to have only deepened over time.
One night, a few years after they met, Putin called Shadkhan and implored the filmmaker to meet him at the Grand Hotel Europe, the most expensive in the city at the time.
“I said ’yes’ because it seemed he didn’t feel well at all,” the director said. Shadkhan said he found Putin, who was deputy mayor by that time, alone at a small table in the back of the hotel’s restaurant with two glasses of cognac, “looking sad, even doomed.”
“What happened?” Shadkhan asked. “Well, nothing, sit with me” Putin said, according to the filmmaker. They sat opposite each other in near total silence for about 90 minutes before standing, saying goodbye and parting. “I guess Putin just wanted company and he chose me because I’d never asked anything of him.”
Putin isn’t always melancholy, Shadkhan said. The future Russian leader once urged the director to make a movie about Germans who donated food to families of Soviet soldiers who died in World War II, so they flew to Hamburg to meet some people Putin knew who had participated in the program.
Fluent in German, Putin knew Hamburg well from his KGB days and insisted on strolling through St. Pauli, the city’s red-light district, to gauge his companion’s reaction. Putin roared with laughter at Shadkhan’s visible shock, according to the filmmaker, who released “The Hamburg Way” in 1995.
Shadkhan said he still sympathizes with Putin and follows his career, as he does with everyone he’s profiled.
“I trust Putin,” he said. “He’s not an advocate of totalitarianism. I can’t believe I made a mistake portraying him as worthy of his authority in my films.”
In 2002, Shadkhan said Putin invited him for breakfast in the Kremlin. The filmmaker used the chance to talk about his latest documentary, about a mother of three infants who was convicted of murdering her husband and sentenced to prison despite “a complete lack of evidence,” Shadkhan said.
“What will happen to the kids if their mother is sent to jail?” the director asked. Putin called not long afterward and replied, “Well, shall we pardon your murderer?” Shadkhan said. “Yes, but she’s not a murderer,” Shadkhan rebutted. “Let’s pardon her,” Putin said and signed the decree, according to the director.
Six years later, Shadkhan asked Putin to pardon another mother of several children, Svetlana Bakhmina, a lawyer for Yukos Oil Co. who was convicted of tax evasion and embezzlement and sentenced to seven years in a penal colony. By then, Putin’s government had dismantled Yukos and jailed several of its executives, including Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a Putin critic who had become the richest man in the country. This time, Putin didn’t respond, Shadkhan said.
Khodorkovsky’s arrest at gunpoint on the tarmac of a Siberian airport in October 2003 and the subsequent dismantling and re-nationalizing of what was once Russia’s largest private company showed a darker side of Putin that Shadkhan said he hadn’t anticipated.
“That was when I realized how intolerant Putin is toward those who oppose him,” the filmmaker said. “And now several people are in jail for participating in anti-government protests in Moscow! Why?”
In the 1992 film, Putin calls the collapse of the Soviet Union a tragedy, though he admits that only “barbed wire” had held it together. A Stalinist mentality continues to haunt the country, Putin included, Shadkhan said. Putin, like many Russians, has a complicated opinion of the dictator who ruled from the mid-1920s until his death in 1953, the year after Putin was born, the director said. While Stalin defeated the Nazis in the global conflict Russia calls The Great Patriotic War, he also sent millions of people to die in prison camps.
In Shadkhan’s 2002 film about Putin, “Evening Conversation,” the Russian leader ducks questions about the dictator with a joke: “I don’t remember him.”
“There are things Putin respects in Stalin,” said Shadkhan, whose grandmother survived the gulag only to die of a heart attack after the doorbell in her apartment rang. “She thought they came to take her back to prison.”
Shadkhan last met Putin two years ago. Unlike their first meeting, nobody rushed to greet him. After waiting several hours for the room to clear of officials and executives who filed in to Putin’s inner office one at a time, Shadkhan’s turn finally came after 1 a.m., the filmmaker said. Putin stood up and hugged his old friend, who told a joke to break the silence. Putin didn’t laugh, Shadkhan said.
“Putin collects jokes and loves telling them, but he already knew that one,” Shadkhan said. “We talked late into the night. By the way, Stalin was also a night person.”
While Putin doesn’t share Stalin’s totalitarian impulses, he does have a similar understanding and sense of fear, according to the filmmaker.
“Stalin exterminated people out of fear because he was afraid of being betrayed if he eased his grip on power,” he said. “Putin is also scared. He’s a human being and has many reasons to be scared.”
Sooner or later, though, Shadkhan said Putin will have to overcome that fear and realize he must step down.
“Russia needs a new leader to move on,” Shadkhan said. “Putin’s gotten terribly tired. He’s stopped evolving. That’s the main problem. The country is changing, while Putin is not.”
Link to Russian version of the story: Одинокий Путин боится уйти из власти - автор фильма о президенте