Let me put it right out there: I believe we Americans have misunderstood -- or, as George Bush might have said, “misunderestimated” -- Vladimir Putin from the moment he entered our consciousness, at the very start of the present millennium. Here is how I remember him and what I think of where we are today.
Putin was my guest at a July 4th reception in St. Petersburg in 1995, when I was serving as the U.S. Consul General there. I recall taking him into my library. We spoke Russian in those days, before he began to learn English. His wife, still recovering from a bad automobile accident, did not accompany him. On that occasion, he was representing his boss, Mayor Anatoly Sobchak, who was off on a trip. Of course, I hadn’t the faintest idea that this man was destined to become the President of the Russian Federation--and neither did he.
It seems hundreds of books have been written about Putin, and thousands of articles. More are coming, and each of them will attempt to shed some additional light on this remarkable man, who has risen from humble beginnings to lead one of the world’s great nations, and has now, at the relatively young age of 66, broken the (post-Stalin) record set by Leonid Brezhnev for doing so. If I had had any idea in the mid-nineties that my guest would one day become Russia’s leader, I would have had him over to lunch, to say the least. But I didn’t, and I am just as glad, because it would have altered the dynamic. We were simply colleagues then.