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
From Publishers Weekly
Prior to his sudden rise to the Russian presidency, Putin was virtually a mystery; this transcript of recent interviews goes a long way toward filling the blanks in his past. In eight chapters of q&a, punctuated with anecdotes from friends and family members, Putin recounts his boyhood in St. Petersburg (then Leningrad), the three years he spent as a KGB intelligence officer in Dresden, his return to the collapsed USSR and decision to enter politics and, finally, the day Boris Yeltsin asked him to take up the Kremlin reins. In Russia, this slim volume surfaced quickly during the brief interim between Yeltsin's resignation and the March elections. But rather than focusing on his political views and ideology, the interviewers devote the bulk of the text to Putin's biography--an indication of just how unknown the new Russian president is to his constituency. And the book succeeds in humanizing the uncharismatic politician. Through his childhood memories, readers learn that the gaunt, stoic man in the newsreels was once a spunky teen cruising the streets of Leningrad in search of girls and judo matches and dreaming of being a Soviet secret agent. Putin, it would seem, was just the socialist boy-next-door, or, in his own unironic words: "a pure and utterly successful product of Soviet patriotic education." The question he leaves unanswered is: how does such an ordinary and unassuming guy find himself the president of Russia in an era of unabashed political intrigue? (May)
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