Customer Reviews: First Person: An Astonishingly Frank Self-Portrait by Russia's President
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on September 25, 2000
This is a remarkable little book of questions and answers. If you read it, you will probably start to understand the enigma called Putin. Almost ten years ago the President of Russia Vladimir Putin left the KGB in the rank of a colonel. One might say that the KGB officer would not be the best person to head a new and democratic Russia. But Putin served in the foreign intelligence and that is the big difference. As he admits in the book, the foreign intelligence officers in the KGB due to many years they spent abroad, were the group most critical towards the Soviet system, because they were able to compare the living standards, economic growth etc.
Soviet foreign intelligence as this type of organization in any other country used to hire the best people, whose tasks included gathering and analyzing information and feeding it back to Moscow. KGB officers saw very vividly the growing gap between the West and the East. Some people defected, but the majority honestly served to the hopeless cause and disintegrating, but their own country.
Putin talks about his family in this book and the story is amazing, albeit not so unusual for a 50 year-old Russian man. His father served in a submarine before WW2, and went to the War as a volunteer. He was almost killed in encirclement. His wounds left him limping for the rest of his life. His mother Maria by miracle avoided death after fainting from hunger in the blockaded Leningrad, but fortunately she moaned and made people aware that she was still alive and was separated from the dead bodies. But the blockade took a life of their son. Vladimir Putin was the only survived child out of their three children.
Life was tough after the war. They were poor. His father worked in a factory and his mother was a simple girl from the province. They lived for many years in a communal apartment in Leningrad, occupying one small room on the fifth floor and sharing the kitchen and facilities with two or three other families. Young Vladimir spent some time chasing rats with a stick in their staircase.
Putin came from humble, decent, and hard-working family. His rise to the presidency and the speed of his ascendance is truly amazing considering his background. He is not and never been a professional politician, although he got a law degree from the Leningrad University. Political activism was never his passion, as it was with Stalin and other communist gangsters. It was not a quasi-religious passion as it was with Lenin. In fact Putin, who wares a little golden cross on his chest, had only two real passions: espionage (originally in a form of spy movies) and sport (judo). Given how apolitical and low-key he is, it is truly amazing that he left behind people, who eat, drink and sleep politics. One of Putin's favorite historic figures is Ludwig Erhard, who become famous for his pragmatic free-market philosophy in post war Germany.
Russia seems to be tired of zealots, communist gangsters and political activists. For sure he is a professional spy, but fortunately he is not a politician. The emergence of Putin from the nowhere may be a first little sign of hope and Russia's recovery after one hundred years of nightmare and social engineering. Worth reading, although frankly I am not sure about translation. I read it in Russian and I am glad I did. Thank you.
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on November 7, 2014
The Russian journalists asked some pointed questions. I came away from the book feeling I know more of what makes him tick. He will not do what is best for America, or even what we want to pressure him into doing or not doing. He will do what he thinks is best for Russia, which is his job. We all know he is former KGB. For him as a child watching spy movies and being patriotic, that's what he aspired to become. It is no different than H.W. Bush having been the head of our CIA before being VP the POTUS. He was in East Berlin when the wall came down. Form what I can tell, he is not a communist. He was very disillusioned by what the Soviets had done in Eastern Europe and the purges of Stalin. He does fancy himself as a Peter the Great type personality. He strives to restore the National pride Russia had before communisim. A great read for anyone that cares about world politics.
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on December 26, 2014
I find this self portrait of the most controversial contemporary political man absolutely stunning. He is sometimes humble or cold or simply human. An balanced man with a solid brain and a will to make his homeland independent. Very far from Putin that medias want to sell us. And around him people are telling stories quite consistent with what we conclude ourselves from his own words.
I enjoyed this book and hope it will help people to understanding of this man's mind good will.
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on May 4, 2000
The mysterious new Russian President gives us insight, in his own words, of his background, character, and personality. A series of interviews with his wife, daughters, friends, colleagues, mentors, and even former school-teachers gives a human dimension to this cold-eyed ex-KGB agent. Boris Yeltzin's hand-picked successor, hither-to unknown in the Russian political scene, might have been carefully "packaged" by the press to win the election. His KGB past, while a concern to many Russian citizens, ironically also gives him an image of incorruptability. His handling of the Chechnyan conflict has been popular in Russia while drawing criticism from abroad. Many of his interviewers' questions are quite pointed in regards to the War, and his answers are frank and revealing. His years of involvement in the martial-arts inspire his straight-forwardly aggressive but curiously humble approach to solving Russia's many problems. He might not be America's choice for the Russian leadership! But overall, it seems clear that he has a vision of a unified Russia, economically strong, and in partnership with the rest of Europe and the US. And he may be the only person who can unite the various bickering factions within the Duma, confront the oligarchs and mafiya, and bring internal reform to his country. Maybe of equal importance, after years of Yeltzin's embarrassing corruption, alcoholism, and failing health, the vigorous youthful Putin might instill new self-respect in Russia. I recommend "First Person". This is a very interesting and fast-reading book, giving us an unprecidented intimate look at a powerful new leader.
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on March 17, 2014
Igor's comment is right on the mark. When idiots like John McCain sneer at Putin and say they say KGB in his eyes, they reveal that they know nothing about the Russians. Putin was a foreign intelligence officer, not a KGB thug beating up dissidents. They were- and are - an elite. I never met one I did not respect. They were serious, well-educated professionals. And by the time I had contact with them, clearly understood that the Communist regime would not last. We belittle Putin at our peril.
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on March 27, 2014
When PM Putin visited president Bush at his Crawford, TX ranch, Pres Bush remarked that he could look into Mr. Putin's eyes and see his soul. That might have brought some laughs & derogatory remarks from the general public. For those doubters I highly recommend this book which illustrates that Mr Putin has a soul, a conscience, and a high mentality. It is true that we do not understand the Russian soul or mind, therefore, I highly recommend this book as well as "The Story of Russia" (available on to anyone who might like to try. You will not be disappointed
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on November 8, 2014
Helpful, thoughtful study of Putin, his family and friends – all in the form of interviews. So you get to hear them talk about themselves. Typical Russian earthy frankness. Very credible, since what these people say accords very well with what we see Putin doing and saying on the world stage.
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on May 21, 2000
Once upon a time, there was a belief in America that anyone could rise from the humblest of beginnings -- such as Abraham Lincoln, born in a cabin he built with his own hands -- to become President.
In Russia, without political opinion polls, focus groups or special interest funding, Vladimir Putin rose from a rat-infested cold water apartment to become President of his nation. This book is about a man who spent his professional life assessing people and situations, and thus is not afraid to make tough decisions. In Russia, for the immediate future, tough decisions are needed.
Putin's hero, Czar Peter the Great, used his regal power to make Russia a great, rich and powerful nation. Putin intends to provide similar dynamic leadership with democratic principles. An example may be Singapore, a mix of authority, discipline and prosperity.
The question-and-answer format of this book is based on six four-hour interviews by three journalists. Putin admits he was, ". . . a pure and utterly successful product of Soviet patriotic education." He was smart, dedicated, hard-working and very good in his chosen career with the KGB. He wasn't a old cloak-and-dagger "sneak and peek" spy; he spent his time reading reports, assessing East German officials and skillfully pushing paper.
Trained as a lawyer, he was appalled at how Communist officials assumed they were the law simply because they were Party members. Putin was never a dissident, he was the ultimate Organization Man whose goal was a richer, happier, stronger and freer Russia. He worked hard to become an insider, and as such saw the total incompetence of the Party.
His wife says, "He always lived for the sake of something. There are some people who work hard for money, but he works hard for ideas." When first married, they had a 10-foot by 12-foot room in his parents' 275-square foot apartment. Try and think of any American president since Lincoln -- another idea man -- who lived in any similar conditions.
Like Lincoln, whose greatest idea was "to preserve the Union," the prime challenge for Putin is to preserve Russia. His practical experience taught him that a free market economy is far superior to the chaos, conniving and cronyism of communism. He says the Soviets failed because they ". . . had a terminal disease without a cure -- a paralysis of power."
Two things are clear; Putin is not afraid to act, and he will never betray Russia. He learned from his father's World War II experience, ". . . there are always a lot of mistakes made in war. That's inevitable. But when you are fighting, if you keep thinking that everybody around you is always making mistakes, you'll never win. You have to take a pragmatic attitude." He approaches life in that fashion.
His political heroes also rebuilt shattered nations. Charles DeGaulle saved France from itself; while in Germany, Ludwig Erhard succeeded because ". . . his entire conception for the reconstruction of the country began with the creation of new moral values for society." The Soviet collapse created a similar challenge for Putin. This book explains what his "effective authority" is all about. It's the best book available this year about a politician with new ideas.
This is a refreshingly candid portrait of the soul of the new President of Russia, a fascinating contrast to "personality politics" that mask any inner feelings of American politicians. Putin trusts the Russian people enough to be honest; our politicians hire spin doctors to create "centrist" or "moving to the right" or "compassionate conservative" images. The contrast is ominous.
Then, stop and think. Does America really need tough, effective authority? Or are we better off with superficial candidates and trivial issues? If Putin succeeds, he will outdo Peter the Great. In America, do we need a great crusade? or merely to be left alone? Another Lincoln? or a Shrub?
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on May 21, 2013
This is an interesting biography format. It's composed almost entirely of interviews with Putin and those who knew and know him. While it's obvious that these people will portray Putin in the best light possible (for fear of being imprisoned), I think it becomes clear that Putin grew up in a totally different time than the old Soviet Stalinist, totalitarian regime we imagine. When he's assigned to East Germany in 1985, he's even shocked at how ideologically backwards they are full of fear and stagnation, a state Russia left three decades ago. (They were however economically better off.) It is evident that the Soviets became relatively more progressive, and he continually contrasts his ideology with KGB old-timers, although you may question the sincerity. But to think that Putin was stationed in East Germany when the Berlin Wall came down puts things into perspective. He is part of a new generation of Russians. Also, being a KGB agent is not necessarily a bad thing, because of all the people in the Soviet Union, it was the KGB agents who had greatest access to the West, and they often discovered completely different perspectives and cultures than their own. I doubt many were shocked and cried, "I knew it all along, these decadent Westerners are impoverished and immoral!" More likely, they wondered why the West so was so wealthy and their citizens were allowed to think and express themselves more freely.

The West (media, corporations, politicians, banks) have excoriated Putin as some old-fashioned, dangerous, dinosaur Soviet KGB agent who wants to bring Russia back to the good-old Soviet days full of purges and war with the West. The real reason they do this is that Putin has made Russia an independent power that will not submit to Western corporate, banking, and political power. The West had no problem with Yeltsin, even when he attacked his own Parliament with tanks (ironically, Yeltsin rose to power as a Parliamentarian under siege by tanks). Yeltsin destroyed Russia and created a dangerous organized criminal oligarchy, but the West loved him, because he sold cheap Capital to them and made Russia impotent. Of course, he has imprisoned political opponents and journalists, but at the same time, the West has supported his opponents, and if they had their way, there would be another pro-West Yeltsin in office selling cheap oil and impoverishing Russia.

We all grow up adoring democracy and villainizing autocracy, but history teaches us time and again that sometimes undemocratic autocracy does work, sometimes exceptionally well. Take into consideration South Korea's autocracy that allowed them to consolidate industry and become an economic world power. Take into consideration China today. And it was centralized autocratic government that allowed Germany to rise out of the rubble of the Great Depression and become one of the greatest economies in the world (until 1939 when Hitler went to war). Again centralized autocratic government allowed Stalin to make the USSR a superpower. So what are the drawbacks to autocracy? Obviously, under the command of a sociopath, you can get some pretty nasty genocide and purges. While it works well for large-scale industry, it fails to stimulate technological progress and innovation. Centralized autocracy works well to reward uncreative, dullard bureaucrats, but it punishes and often imprisons the rebellious, creative genius. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs would never have flourished in the Soviet Union.

Of course, Putin is halfway between the autocrat and democrat, but Russia should free itself completely from the shackles of organized crime and the oligarchs, before it's safe to unleash full democracy and allow all the rebellious and creative people to advance technology. For the time being, Russia is only a big oil giant.

The two big themes of Putin's character is that 1. he is fearless and 2. he never forgets a betrayal. If the West screws him, it will be the end of good relations with Russia, and if the West threatens him with force, he'll only laugh at us. What judo has taught him is to respect your opponent, and we should continue sparring with him, but ultimately treat him and Russia with respect and dignity.

Putin was only a lieutenant-colonel in the KGB before quitting. The West makes it look like he went from Director of the KGB to the President of Russia. After he left the KGB he even did a TV show and told everyone he had been in the KGB. Although, he later became the first "deputy to the chief of the presidential administration" at the FSB (the successor of the KGB) it only lasted a year.

He's a humanist enough to say, "...I realized that our identity is in our friends...If you look at a career as a means to achieve power, control people, or make money, and if you are prepared to lose everything doing that--well, that's another matter. But if you have priorities in life--benchmarks and values--then you realize that there's no point in sacrificing yourself and those who are a part of your life. There just isn't any point. You lose more than you gain."

Of course, let's not get sentimental, Putin is an autocrat who has imprisoned innocent opponents, but we can be thankful that until Hitler he has no ambitions for Russia to take over the world or seize its former possession under the USSR.

There's some interesting stuff in here like: "Many have forgotten, by the way, that when NATO was created at the end of the 1940s, the Soviet Union indicated its intention to enter this bloc... The Pact was a direct response to the formation of the NATO alliance."

Ultimately, the fatal flaw of this book is that it was published in 2000 and only includes a couple years of him being Prime Minister. The whole reason I bought the book was to understand how he was about to fight the oligarchs and organized crime and return Russia to economic growth. During his Presidency (2000 - 2008) the Russian economy increased sixfold. I supposed nationalized oil had a lot to do with this, but I would have liked some details.
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on April 16, 2014
Being that this was written in the year 2000, I would like to research the man a bit further. I find nothing notably distasteful about Putin in this first person account. He, as well as all of his family members, seem like regular folks to me.

Here in the west, he gets a tremendous amount of bad press, as many of Russian origin do. I have a more recent account of Putin that I plan to read soon.

Having said that, I thought that the book was thought-provoking and provided useful insight to Putin, his family and the Russian system after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

It is worthy of reading. You may discover that Putin may not be who or what you thought that he was.
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