MICHELE NORRIS, host:
The icy, impassive eyes of Russian President Vladimir Putin stared down from the cover of this week's Time magazine. Time has named Putin its Person of the Year for 2007, calling him czar of the new Russia.
And explaining the choice, managing editor Richard Stengel writes, at significant cost to the principles and ideas that free nation's prize, Putin has performed an extraordinary feat of leadership in imposing stability on a nation that has rarely known it, and brought Russia back to the table of world power.
Well, Richard Stengel joins us from New York.
And, Mr. Stengel, you make it very clear in your essay that the Person of the Year is not to be considered an honor or an endorsement, but a recognition of the world as it is. So what reality is it that this choice is recognizing exactly?
Mr. RICHARD STENGEL (Managing Editor, Time Magazine): Well, the reality that Vladimir Putin is going to influence the course of the 21st century. A lot of people confuse Person of the Year with an award or an honor or even a popularity contest. And really it's a recognition of those individuals who are shaping the greatest and most powerful forces in the world.
BLOCK: Well, what is it about his time as Russian president that made you so convinced?
Mr. STENGEL: Well, basically, what you had in Russia, not too many years ago, was an economic basket case and a country that was on the verge of chaos. You know, in many ways, Yeltsin, for us at any rate, was a kind of avatar of democracy, but he was one of the worst managers in human history and the country was basically collapsing. What you had even before that with Gorbachev is that because Mr. Gorbachev put glasnost before perestroika, that is, freedom before order or economic order, the country started to unravel.
And what Putin has done is basically reverse that, often for worse, and put order before freedom, and basically took the country by the collar and kind of stood it up again. You know, he's improved the economy. He's cracked down on all kinds of dissent, which is not a good thing. But the Russian people seem to really appreciate having order imposed on them. And he has 70 percent approval ratings in Russia.
BLOCK: You mentioned the crackdown. And of course, all of this transformation that you're talking about has come at great cost. He's jailed his critics. He's jailed democratic activists, clamped down on the media. Does that factor into your decision-making or no?
Mr. STENGEL: Oh, it absolutely does. And you know, you do a kind of cost-benefit analysis. But you know, we have a history of putting guys who are not good guys and certainly not Boy Scouts. I mean, you know, the person who Putin could end up being like, Joseph Stalin, was Person of the Year twice. And it's a recognition that these are people that are shaping events.
BLOCK: How does this work? How does the voting go and who gets to choose?
Mr. STENGEL: You know, it's - people think it's a scientific process or there's a measuring stick or there are some Person of the Year algorithm. It really isn't. It's really subjective. And you know, we do it internally in a kind of interesting way. We poll all of our correspondents. I talked to former Persons of the Year and other wise women and wise men. And at the end of the day, I make the decision, but there's no real science to it. It's really just a kind of seat-of-the-pants feeling, I've got to say.
BLOCK: You went to Russia to interview Vladimir Putin. In the three and a half hours or so that you spent with him, did you see Vladimir Putin ever crack a smile?
Mr. STENGEL: Well, I don't know, I wouldn't call it a smile. He has a -something that's sort of a half a smile. If you look at our cover image, it's a little bit like the "Mona Lisa" and you could maybe interpret it as sort of a smile there. He didn't get any of our jokes at all, and maybe that was just bad translation. And in fact…
BLOCK: Or bad jokes.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. STENGEL: Yeah, they certainly weren't good jokes, but as a good host, you should laugh anyway. And we had, after the first hour and a half, we adjourned to go to have a dinner upstairs, which they said would be an informal dinner, but it was about the most formal dinner I ever attended with, you know, fancy place settings and a menu embossed with gold. And about two-thirds of the way through the meal before the main course was served, he stood up and he said, well, there's no more food. It's 10:00. Thank you very much. And then he said bye-bye in English and walked out of the room. So it was pretty dramatic.
BLOCK: Before you'd gotten to the main course or does…
Mr. STENGEL: Yes, exactly. The veal looked really good, but we didn't get it.
BLOCK: Well, Richard Stengel, thanks very much.
Mr. STENGEL: Thank you very much, Melissa.
BLOCK: Richard Stengel is managing editor of Time magazine, which has picked the Russian president Vladimir Putin as its Person of the Year.