sobchak [1]

President of Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin, has been surely the most popular person within Russian politics and society. Media, critics, scholars and others whose field of professional, academic or personal interest is in Russian politics are mostly reviewing, supporting, criticizing, exploring or evaluating  Putin’s political decisions and policies. Of course, in recent months, they have been concentrated on Ukrainian crisis and the context beyond it. Besides that, they are “monitoring” Russian president’s relations with neighbor countries and with the most prominent European and world’s leaders. That is a highly legit and acceptable position, and is of crucial importance. But what about Russian president’s figure/character before coming into presidential post and highest level of politics? What were his professional ambitions? What was he good at? Probably the most common answer to these questions would be this: he had a career in KGB. That is not an incorrect answer but, in this article, I would like to take a slightly different approach to try to answer these questions. The “approach” is based on a person called Anatoly Sobchak, who in some amount affected Putin’s views on politics and values. Who was Anatoly Sobchak?

Anatoly Sobchak was born in 1937 in the town of Chita in the region of East Siberia where, as Olga Prodan in her Prominent Russians: Anatoly Sobchak article states, rebels were exiled during Imperial Russia. That fact implies existence of independent thought in that region, which possibly had some impact on shaping Sobchak’s character which was sometimes uncompromising. He was raised mostly by mother (father went to fight in WWII) in poor and semi-starving environment. In his student days, he proved himself as a top law student at Leningrad State University. Some years after graduation, he presented his doctoral thesis, but the thesis was rejected because he researched and put forward topic regarding liberalization of socialist economy and relations between private market and state economy. However, few years after, he presented another thesis which was accepted and made him a Doctor of Law (1982). This happened in context of emerging perestroika. After working as a lawyer and at the University, he went into politics in the end of the 80s.

In 1989, he was elected a People’s Deputy of the USSR. Meanwhile, massacre of nationalist demonstrators happened in Tbilisi, Georgia. Thanks to his talent and qualifications he was appointed head of the parliamentary inquiry into massacre. His report showed that there were some misconducts by security forces. Discussion about that inquiry was televised nationwide. This could be seen as Sobchak’s step-by-step entering even higher level of political scene.

In 1990 he was elected Chairman of Leningrad City Council, and the following year he was elected the first mayor of Leningrad (on that day Leningrad was renamed to St. Petersburg). Having in mind that St. Petersburg in the second largest city in Russia, “the door to Europe”, Sobchak, as the mayor, held a very important position for Russia’s political future (in the context of collapse of the USSR). That could be seen in his readiness and capability to coordinate opposition (to hardline communists) in his city (Boris Yeltsin was doing the same in Moscow). That is one the reason the coup against Gorbachev did not succeeded. However, the USSR collapsed shortly after that, and Sobchak became second most important leader after Yeltsin. In his term as the mayor he gathered educated professionals to manage the city of St. Petersburg. One of them was Vladimir Putin, current Russian president.

Stanislav Belkovski, in this book about Putin and “his search for the place in history”, states that the moment Putin found himself in Sobchak’s office, he also found his “father”. For Sobchak was the same – he accepted Putin as his “son”. In just for years Putin proved that he is very talented and capable public servant and he carried out respectable career (as president of City council for external (foreign) affairs, as the mayor’s assistant, as the first vice-mayor). Belkovski explains that Putin was doing everything to be seen as a “son” figure in Sobchak’s eyes. Sobchak was Putin “boss-father”. The crucial thing in their relationship was loyalty (interesting thing about the word “loyalty” is that many author are describing Putin’s system of running Russia as the system based on loyalty principle and huge importance of personal relationships within the political and contemporary system’s elite). It could be inferred that Putin’s has learnt something for other sources, not just from KGB which is commonly accepted fact about Putin’s professional background.

Later, things were not going so great for Sobchak. Instead of trying to promote himself to even higher posts in Russia’s political system, he ended up accused of corruption and financial impropriety. Accusations were diverse: mismanaging city resources, illegal privatization in elite areas of St. Petersburg. Some thought that Yeltsin is behind Sobchak’s fall because he did not have successful first term as president therefore Sobchak’s raising popularity could put in question his second term (he saw Sobchak as a political rival). Corruption affair was “in flames”, he lost elections and his health was not in such good shape. In the context of all this, he and his wife Ludmila decided that is better to leave Russia for some time because it was not the safest place for them at the time. They left for France where he began to receive medical treatment and teaching at the Sorbonne. However, he returned to St. Petersburg in 1999 (when Putin was gaining power as Yeltsin Prime Minister and “successor” of the presidential post). Criminal cases against Sobchak’s were closed and Putin appointed him as his representative to manage election campaign in region of Kaliningrad. Here we can see proof of loyalty within personal relationship and Putin’s respect for Anatoly Sobchak. Sobchak died in 2000 in rather strange circumstances, but heart failure was the official cause of death.

The aim of this article was to draw reader’s attention to, I think, not so exposed (in the West) Russian political figure which had an important role in Russia’s transformation and had close relationship with Putin. I think it is always good to know “the other side of the story”. Here, Sobchak’s influence on Putin in another side of the story apart from Putin’s career in the KGB. Loyalty is the crucial concept in their relationship and as I have already said, we can find it in contemporary Russia. Some would say that personal relationships among political elite alludes on some negative connotations (e.g. clientelism), but in Russia’s context it may be a part of national identity which is far more complex concept than any other (political) observation. Maybe in the eyes of identity approach to some issues, personal relationships would get the whole different meaning.

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