Looking Into Putin's Soul Again

Russia's outgoing president, Vladimir Putin, has decided to run for Parliament. David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker magazine and author of Lenin's Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire, talks about what the decision means and what the Russian people think about it.

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LUKE BURBANK, host:

Well, last month people in and out of Russia were trying to figure out: A, why Russian President Vladimir Putin suddenly fired his prime minister, and B, why he replaced him with Viktor Zubkov, some random guy no one had ever heard of.

Well, things started to make a little more sense this week when Putin - who by law, can only serve two terms in a row as president - announced his intentions to stay in politics, maybe even as prime minister someday. That's a job that could run the country, as long as it's cool with the president, which at that point could very well be - you guessed it, Alison - Victor Zubkov.

ALISON STEWART, host:

It's all becoming clear.

BURBANK: Random guy, mysteriously given huge promotion by Vladimir Putin. That's only one of the really interesting political stories going on in Russia right now.

Former world chess champ Garry Kasparov also says he wants to be the next president, maybe. That is, if shadowy forces don't literally kill him first.

This is all laid out in an excellent piece in this week's New Yorker by editor David Remnick. He's also the author of "Lenin's Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire," and he joins us now.

Hi, David.

Mr. DAVID REMNICK (Editor, The New Yorker; Author, "Lenin's Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire): Hey, good morning.

BURBANK: Thanks so much for coming on the show at this…

Mr. REMNICK: My pleasure.

BURBANK: …early hour. Let's start with Vladimir Putin's announcement. Did you see this coming?

Mr. REMNICK: No. No one did. There are, you know, in a normal political society, you can make forecasts and predictions and, you know, go on Sunday morning shows and make a fool of yourself, but sometimes you can be right because people talk and debate, and there's real politics. In Russia, there's no real politics. All the politics takes place in the brain of Vladimir Putin, and he is a trained KGB man, and so he's pretty good at keeping his own counsel. And so everything he's done concerning this upcoming elections has been a kind of surprise and very, very closely held.

BURBANK: If he is on this attempt to sort of stay in a powerful position - you know, some would even say continue running the country - would the Russian people let him do that? Do they have a say in the matter?

Mr. REMNICK: Well, they don't have much of a say in the matter except in the most technical way, and I can explain that. But they want him to. This is the great irony, that this may be hard for us to understand this, despite all our problems, that in 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed and communist ideology collapsed, there was an enormous amount of optimism - not least abroad -optimism about the future of a country that for, really, a thousand years has lived under nothing but despotism of one kind or another.

And we thought that there would be a kind of easy march to democracy, and it has been anything but easy. In fact, in the last several years, at the very minimum, it's been a march backwards toward a kind of authoritarianism. But at the same time, the country has gotten richer. Russia is awash in petro dollars. It's kind of like Saudi Arabia without the religious element. And as a result, people - or a lot of them - are, at least on a surface, happier than they were in the '90s. And they are willing to secede the entire political sphere of life to the Kremlin so long as they leave them alone.

It's almost like a societal arrangement, you know. You stay out of politics, and your life will get a little better. If you get into politics, you might end up in jail or worse. But if you stay out of it, things will be better. And most people are reasonably pleased with this new arrangement - tragic as it sounds.

BURBANK: One of the things that I read that I thought was very random was that the Russian government was celebrating the 125th anniversary of the birth of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, which made no sense to me until I realized he's a president who served four terms.

Mr. REMNICK: There is that, and also Putin has a kind of liking for Roosevelt because Roosevelt is seen - not only in Russia, but around the world - as somebody who rebuilt an entire nation following an economic Depression.

BURBANK: Would it have been easier, though, for Putin to just change the Russian constitution to stay in power, if that's what he's after?

Mr. REMNICK: Yeah, but that would have been looked on as, you know, as awful abroad. It certainly would have not gotten the approval of, you know, his trading partners and his political partners abroad. And this is a much more subtle and, on the surface, legal way of extending the status quo.

BURBANK: Your article in The New Yorker talks a lot about Garry Kasparov, the chess master. He's thinking about running for president, maybe. Does he stand any chance?

Mr. REMNICK: None. Zero. Nada. And I hope that people that read this piece of The New Yorker understand that the reason I concentrated on Kasparov - other than the fact that he's a, you know, an incredibly interesting and available personality - is that I want to focus on the opposition in a way to show how futile it is, at least in the short term.

If he ends up running for president, he'll probably never make it on the ballot because the federal government won't let him, meaning Putin's Kremlin. And if he's somehow by some miracle allowed on the ballot, he won't win. I mean, his support in society is in the low single digits. As I say, there is no criticism of Putin in the electronic media. We wouldn't be having this conversation on television in Russia. It's impossible. Garry Kasparov does not get invited on the equivalent of Tim Russert or your show or anything like that.

BURBANK: Which I think most people recognize as the equivalent Tim Russert.

STEWART: I thought it was interesting about Kasparov saying, though, he may not be able to survive it.

Mr. REMNICK: Well…

STEWART: That was a - I couldn't decide if he was being dramatic, or is that really accurate on some level?

Mr. REMNICK: I'm afraid he's not, you know, getting overdramatic about it. It's not like he's having a little ego moment. There have been critics, journalists and opposition politicians who have either gone to jail or have been killed, and it's unclear who killed them.

It's, you know, their tracks are well covered, but it's certainly understood -certainly by opponents of the Kremlin - that it's not beyond imagining that allies of the Kremlin somehow had take a hand in this. Although, again, it's not as if there's a document in which the Kremlin makes an order and it's carried out. It's a much more murky situation than that.

BURBANK: You have one sentence to answer this question, which is really unfair. This is very Larry King-esque…

(Soundbite of laughter)

BURBANK: But…

STEWART: Dave Lipton.

BURBANK: Yeah. Are Russians better off with less freedom but more food?

Mr. REMNICK: Well, I do think that for most average people, that a certain amount of stability and economic well-being historically precedes the yearning for democracy, whether we like it or not. And there's much that I don't like about what's going on there, but there's no doubt that a lot of people are more satisfied now than they were before. It's a long sentence, but it's one sentence.

BURBANK: No, and it's a great way to end this. David, thank you again for coming on the show and for writing this great article.

Mr. REMNICK: Thanks so much.

BURBANK: David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker magazine, also author of "Lenin's Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire." His article "The Czar's Opponent" appears in The New Yorker. We'll link to that from our blog, too. Thanks again, David.

STEWART: I'm completely geeked out. I love David Remnick.

BURBANK: I know.

STEWART: I had to get up all the courage to ask him a question. All right. That's really geeky. I'm going to stop now.

BURBANK: I'm so in your world.

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