Thursday, May 31, 2007

“He writes about Putin, and it’s interesting!”; Andrei Kolesnikov’s Real-Life Putin

In association with the Blog-Carnival : Russian Media, my rather modest contribution is published below. The article is also available to download in (PDF) format in case it is too long to read in a blog post. Please visit Krusenstern for more information on the Blog Carnival as well as articles by other authors (available in English and German) about the state of the Russian Media.

The presence of Russian president Vladimir Putin on national television is large, to say the least. Russian federal channels in their news segments talk exclusively about those in power. By some estimates the president, the cabinet, the parliament and the pro-Kremlin party United Russia together capture over 91% of news time. More intriguing is the fact that 71% of those 91% is positively inclined news, 28% is judged to be neutral and only 2% is clearly negative. Without looking at the objectiveness of these estimates, a glance at the 8-o’clock news on Rossiya or the 9-o’clock news on Perviy Kanal will convince even the casual observer of the truth in those surveys.

It is also fair to say that most of those reports are usually dull and purely factual, unless something extraordinary happens, like Mr. Putin’s speech in Munich, or a report on Russian minister for emergency situations Mr. Shoigu scolding his subordinates for a typical case of incompetence. The viewers do not receive the information they want, and with the approval rating of the Russian president floating around the 70% mark it is certain that what they really crave for is what happens in the life and most importantly in the mind of their president. These people must then turn to newspapers, and those who value quality reporting open Russian daily newspaper Kommersant and look for the latest article by Andrei Kolesnikov, a member of the so-called “Kremlin pool” of journalists. Such presidential pools are a usual practice in most Western states, where a group of journalists is fixed to work with the head of state and follow in “his footsteps” at home and abroad.

Kolesnikov’s articles are not the usual reports one might expect from a journalist traveling with a head of state, especially one traveling with Mr. Putin, who is now labeled as the “head of a gangster state” by some conservative reporters in the West. His reports are neither purely informational, nor entirely opinion pieces; they are not simply anecdotal stories, satirical observations, or unbiased studies. Instead they are narratives presented in fact to be “articles” but in essence being all of the above. Kolesnikov's reports, written in the as-it-happened narrative style, pay a lot of attention to details such as facial expressions and gestures, and poke fun at Putin and other leading politicians. "I wanted to prove that this can be a human interest genre," he once said in an interview with the St. Petersburg Times. Asked why he wasn't expelled from the Kremlin pool, he said, "If you don't lie, it's difficult to find a reason."

The chief editor of Kommersant, Andrei Vasiliev, recalls that people always ask him how come Kolesnikov is still working in the Kremlin, and has not yet been kicked out? The only response of Mr. Vasiliev is that “Putin really likes it (the work of Kolesnikov)”. This may be surprising since Mr. Kolesnikov sometimes approaches the line and on rare occasions crosses it outright. It was Mr. Kolesnikov who spread the word of President Putin’s sarcastic remark to the Israeli prime-minister regarding the criminal case brought against the Israeli president, which later turned into quite a scandal:

Vladimir Putin next, probably thinking that the microphones were off, (the press was already leaving the auditorium) said the following:

- Say hello to your president! He turned out to be a powerful man! Raped ten women! I would never have expected this! It was a surprise to all of us! We are all jealous!

This was a time when one does not believe what he hears. Mr. Putin, obviously wanted to show support for Mr. Olmert, who was in a difficult position, due to the proceedings against Israel’s President Moshe Katsav. Even more so, Putin wanted to show support for Mr. Katsav, but the latter was not at the negotiating table – even in the role of translator

Nevertheless, Mr. Kolesnikov has been working for Kommersant (up until 2006 owned by exiled Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky) in the Kremlin since 2000 and will likely continue to do so; the journalist has since published two books summarizing his articles and including personal observations on President Putin. Unlike his predecessor Elena Tregubova, who is now seeking exile in London for fear of retaliation from the “all-mighty Kremlin”, Mr. Kolesnikov has done two key things according to Kommersant editor-in-chief Mr. Vasiliev: “one: it is clear to everybody how to write about Russian president Putin; two: no one except for Kolesnikov can write about Russian president Putin, in a way that can be readable.” For those who have been in touch with the Russian media, it is evident that Andrei Kolesnikov did for print journalism what Leonid Parfenov did for video journalism.

Andrei Kolesnikov began his journalistic career in sixth grade when he published an article in the regional newspaper “The Road to Communism”. After graduating with the country’s top degree in journalism from the Moscow State University, he started working for the newspaper “Uskoritel’” in 1988 (a game of words based on the slogan of the Soviet perestroika). The newspaper was quite liberal at the time for the region, and amid an election scandal Mr. Kolesnikov left the paper to work in Moscow. In the country’s capital he worked for the “Moskovskaya Pravda”, later for the “Moskovskie Novosti”, and finally in 1996 he settled in Kommersant. He was offered a position in the Kremlin pool of journalists in 2000 by Mr. Vasiliev, and according to the latter it took a lot of persuasion on his part. Mr. Kolesnikov was picked because of his prior meetings with Mr. Putin in a collaborative effort with two other journalists Natalia Gevorkyan and Natalia Timakova to write a book about Vladimir Putin when he was not yet president titled “From the First Person” (От первого лица). Kolesnikov did not want to take the job because he knew then just as he knows now that President Putin is a secretive person and his true character is hard to figure out; how then is one to report on his day-to-day activities? In a recent interview with Russian magazine Sreda (Среда) Mr. Kolesnikov said the following about Putin:

He is a very secretive person in all aspects. Closed in a way he was taught in the KGB, and closed in a way a person is closed based on his natural instincts. I cannot say I know this person. Once I heard a remark from one documentary movie director, making a movie on Putin. He said: “when I see Putin, I think I know what he is really thinking about; moreover I feel he is thinking of what I am really thinking of all of this.” This is a man, a director, who seriously lives with such an idea. It lightens up his entire life. He switches on the television, and a drama unfolds in front of him: Putin is saying something and in his mind seeks advice from him. And that is it, you can easily set up an appointment with a psychiatrist after that.

All that I know of Putin, I tell. I have nothing to hide because I don’t really know that much. Once a trendy magazine asked me about Putin, and then they were afraid to publish it after I told them everything. I was very surprised. I write about people I see every day and am not worried there will be any problems. If I were worried, I would have probably not written a single article.
Andrei Kolesnikov does not hesitate to make satirical remarks about President Putin answering questions about Russia’s “democracy” or human rights problems; he makes it clear that if freedom of speech is not present in Russia on television then Russia does not have freedom of speech. Yet he is not a journalist who writes opposing articles, and he probably believes that the profession of a journalist is not to write biased articles (opposing or supportive). This is one of the reasons behind his success, the reason why his views and observations of Kremlin life find so much common ground with the hero of his reports. It may seem he does not care about the consequences; maybe he does not, but only because the goal he sets for himself is to stand next to the man in charge of Russia and observe, rather than criticize, in miniature detail his environment. Whether the resulting observations will be critical, satirical, unilaterally supportive is up to the hero of those observations, sometimes it is Vladimir Putin, but often it is him in his interactions with colleagues, state officials and common people. During a meeting of President Putin and his French colleague Jacques Chirac, Kolesnikov observed and reported the following moment:

When the journalists were leaving the negotiating room, Vladimir Putin reached for his handkerchief, used it, and then could not restrain himself, and out of the best intentions offered it to Chirac. Chirac politely declined, and showed that he too had a handkerchief.

Jokingly, Mr. Kolesnikov explains that because the wives of top Kremlin officials enjoy opening up Kommersant every day to find out what has been said about their husbands in Mr. Kolesnikov’s articles, that he does not have any censorship problems. It may seem that the journalist is simply successfully playing a game of pleasing most officials and singling out a minority, so as to not get the blame from the entire state apparatus; by constantly shifting around the minority everyone gets to laugh at everyone else at some point in time.

But Mr. Kolesnikov’s credibility and reputation is not only solid among the heroes of his reports, but also among his colleagues, something that suggests professional work. On a recent visit of the Russian president to Minsk to see Belorussian president Lukashenka, some members of the “Kremlin pool” received a very nasty welcome. Not only were they sniffed by police dogs before entering the assembly hall, but a photo correspondent of Kommersant and an MK journalist were not let in due to their lack of accreditation. According to Mr. Kolesnikov, the Kremlin press-service played along with the Belorussian side, who denied the accreditation of the journalists for publishing unflattering material on President Lukashenka. Mr. Kolesnikov as a retaliation to both the Russian and Belorussian state press-services initiated a boycott of the event’s coverage by spurring up the rest of the “Kremlin pool” to leave the audience in a demonstrative fashion. According to Mr. Kolesnikov the Kremlin officials later did not shift any blame onto the journalists but instead issued significant signs of protest to the Belorussian side.

Yet the articles of Andrei Kolesnikov speak louder than any of his interviews and reports about him (including this one). My personal favorites are illustrated below, and focus on the Russian President’s two interactions with a journalist from Le Monde. As an end note, Mr. Kolesnikov recalls arguing to President Putin that he (Kolesnikov) had lost a feeling of living in a free country. He added that he also did not have a sense of fear one would have when living in a dictatorship. President Putin responded by saying: “you don’t think that maybe this is what I was aiming to achieve – that one feeling would disappear and the other would not yet be born?”

Excerpt from article on Russia-EU summit in Brussels (November 11 2002)

At this point the question of the French journalist surfaced. He asked why Russian troops in Chechnya use anti-personnel mines and whether Putin thinks that while fighting terrorism in Chechnya he is actually destroying the Chechen people.

The Russian president began approaching the issue from afar: he stated that no one could blame Russia for suppressing freedom. He later dwelled on the attempts to create a caliphate on Russian territory and later internationally. But then the Russian president turned directly to the journalist. He began to explain the imminent danger facing the journalist. He was in danger if he were a Christian, as radical-extremists hunt down Christians.

- But if you are Muslim, it will not save you either. Come to our country, it is multi-confessional with good doctors who can perform a circumcision on you… - Vladimir Putin paused trying to find the right words. – And I recommend the operation to be done in such a manner that nothing would grow back ever.

The Danish prime-minister tried to say something, but maybe changed his mind, or couldn’t find the words. And then all those at the table – Javier Solana, Romano Prodi – tried to make it seem as though nothing ever happened

Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin was already answering another question, when the French journalist, who just received a risky offer from the Russian president, stormed out of the assembly hall. Where could he have gone after the Russian President just communicated to him that there is no safe place for him to be?

Excerpt from article on a press conference of EU members and Russia in Rome (November 6 2003)

Meanwhile, I instantly recognized the journalist asking the question. I could never have forgotten his face. My mind treasures him like the most precious memory. It was the same man from Le Monde who a year ago asked Vladimir Putin about Chechnya in Brussels, at the same exact EU-Russia summit, and instantly received an offer to get a circumcision. And now he is here asking about the dictatorial regime building up in Russia in connection to Chechnya and the YUKOS trial:

- Do the EU and Russia have any conflicting views with regards to this and will the rule of law prevail in Russia

- No! – said Vladimir Putin firmly.

It is hard to say what the “no” should have been attributed to. In a desperate attempt to be unbiased I will say that, it may have reflected Mr. Putin’s relationship to the issue as a whole. What he could have said now, by the sheer force of the firepower was meant to surpass all he has ever said about terrorists in the toilet and journalists on the operating table. His words were to become the food for journalistic reports for many future months. They could have made or destroyed his presidential race. These moments should have become the moment of truth for the Russian president.

- No! – even more firmly, as if getting more air in his lungs, he said.

And at this moment the heavy hand of Silvio Berlusconi landed on that of the Russian president. Instinctively, Mr. Putin attempted to drag his hand back, but the Italian prime-minister, it appears was ready for this and did not let it occur.

NOTE: The author of the article is the author of “Russia’s True Tales of Terra” a blog on Russian foreign policy, business, economics and culture. The article has been prepared for the Blog-Carnival : Russian Media hosted by Krusenstern. Any reproduction of the article in full without express permission from the author is prohibited. To contact the author please e-mail:

The excerpts of Andrei Kolesnikov’s articles from Kommersant are available in open access at the Kommersant Library website only in Russian. For the purposes of this article they have been translated by the author.

Material used in preparation of this article, apart from excerpts from Andrei Kolesnikov’s books “I Saw Putin” and “Putin Saw Me”, include: Andrei Kolesnikov’s interview with “Sreda”, Andrei Kolesnikov’s interview with “BelGazeta”; Andrei Kolesnikov’s interview in the St. Petersburg Times.


Krusenstern said...

Great, just great !!! That's a perfect prelude for the Blog-Carnival Russian Media.

Vegetius Renatus said...

Congratulations! A great text.

nikolay i. said...

Thank you, folks!

Was worried it would be too long, but it went well from what i presume. Wanted to reflect on both the positives and the negatives on the Russian media, I think i managed to do that.

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