Behind the Scenes in Putin"s Court: The Private Habits of a Latter-Day Dictator

The President wakes late and eats shortly after noon. He begins with the simplest of breakfasts. There is always cottage cheese. His cooked portion is always substantial; omelette or occasionally porridge. He likes quails’ eggs. He drinks fruit juice. The food is forever fresh: baskets of his favourites dispatched regularly from the farmland estates of the Patriarch Kirill, Russia’s religious leader.

He is then served coffee. His courtiers have been summoned but these first two hours are taken up with swimming. The President enjoys this solitary time in the water. He wears goggles and throws himself into a vigorous front crawl. This is where the political assistants suggest he gets much of Russia’s thinking done.

The courtiers joke and idle and cross their legs in the lacquered wood waiting rooms. He rarely comes to them quickly. They say three, perhaps four hours is the normal wait for a minister. He likes to spend some time in the gym where Russian rolling news is switched on. There he enjoys the weights much more than the exercise bikes.

He sometimes reads after the sweat. This is because he likes to work late into the night. He summons his men at the hours that suit his mental clarity – the cold hours where everything is clearer. The books he finds most interesting, are history books. He reads these attentively. Heavy, respectable tomes: about Ivan the Terrible, Catherine II, Peter the Great.

But there sometimes fly rumours: that he has read a novel. In 2006, the President is said to have read a thriller in which working class men beat up Chechens and cops and seize the governor’s office from corrupt thieves with machine guns – Sankya by Zakhar Prilepin.

Now those that claim to know his bedside, say he has much enjoyed The Third Empire, a fantasy about an imaginary Latin American historian from 2054, who recounts the exploits of Tsar Vladimir II, the in-gatherer of all Russian lands. But his courtiers are at pains to make it clear – the President is no reader.

He spends time completing his cleanse. He immerses himself into both hot and cold baths. Then the President dresses. He chooses to wear only ­tailored, bespoke suits in conservative colours. His choice of ties is usually dour.

And now power begins. The early afternoon is about briefing notes. This mostly takes place at his heavy wooden desk. These are offices without screens. The President uses only the most secure technologies: red folders with paper documents, and fixed-line Soviet Warera telephones.

The master begins his work day by reading three thick leather-bound folders. The first – his report on the home front compiled by the FSB, his domestic intelligence service. The second – his report on international affairs compiled by the SVR, his foreign intelligence. The third – his report on the court complied by the FSO, his army of close protection.

He is obsessed with information. The thickest, fattest folders at his request are not intelligence reports: they are press clippings. His hands first open the Russian press digest. The most important papers come at the front: the obsequious national tabloids – such as Komsomolskaya Pravda and Moskovsky Komsomolets. These matter most, with their millions of readers. Their headlines, their gossip columns, their reactions to the latest Siberian train wreck affect the workers’ mood.

Then he moves onto Russia’s quality press: the lightly censored broadsheets, Vedomosti and Kommersant. These matter in the Kremlin court: this is their gossip, their columnists, their analysis. He pays particular attention to the regular columns about Vladimir Putin written by Andrey Kolesnikov in ­Kommersant. His courtiers say he enjoys this one greatly and always reads right to the end.

Then the least important folders: his foreign press. These are clippings compiled both in the presidential administration, and his Foreign Ministry. The departments do not hide from him the bad news. They like to make a point: the President must know how far these foreigners demonise him. But to please him, they also dutifully include materials in German in the original, the language in which his long-ago KGB posting in Dresden, left him fluent.

The courtiers wait at the door and by video-link he likes to watch them ­gossip and writhe in boredom, or play with their electronic gadgets. But he ignores them and works his way through the reports.

The President rarely uses the internet. He finds the screens within screens and the bars building up with messages confusing. However, from time to time, his advisers have shown some satirical online videos: he must know how they mock him. His life has become ceremonial: an endless procession of gilded rooms. His routine is parcelled up into thousands of units of 15 minutes and planned for months, if not years ahead. Following his morning review the schedule folders embossed with the eagle are presented to him. After glancing at them, he follows the plan: without a smile or a joy.

Mostly, these meetings are meaningless. There are those who come to pay homage to him: receiving the crown Prince of Bahrain, awarding bronze medals to Udmurt Heroes of Labour, or reviewing promotions in the management of the federal space industry.

He does not live in Moscow. He dislikes the place: the traffic, the pollution, the human congestion. The President has chosen the palace at Novo-Ogaryovo as his residence. Home is out there, to the west of the city, away from the red walls, the mega-estates, the mega-malls – out in his parkland.

It is 24km from the palace to the ­castle. The route is closed and cleared of all traffic when the President chooses to commute. He can reach the Kremlin in less than 25 minutes, while Moscow sits in gridlock.

He dislikes coming to the Kremlin. He prefers working on his estate. He has cut down his meetings in Moscow since 2012 to a strict minimum: to meeting dignitaries that need to be impressed, or the formal gatherings that require those extravagant halls, with crystal-cut cut chandeliers and the mirrors as high as birch trees.

He finds the commute irritating.

Vladimir Putin takes part in an invitational ice hockey match in Sochi May 2014. Alexei Druzhinin/Reuters

The President keeps busy, even on Saturday and Sunday. At weekends, his schedule becomes more haphazard: but there are sometimes study sessions in the afternoon. Mostly, English language. His teacher helps him learn difficult words – singing songs together. There are times on Sundays he is said to pray or make a confession. But courtiers familiar with the office of the Patriarch are at pains to clarify – though not an atheist, perhaps a believer – his life is not that of a Christian.

The President loves ice hockey. This is his favourite sport. He thinks it is graceful and manly and fun. The President practices ice hockey as much as he can. He loves putting on that thick comfy helmet and picking up his agile hockey stick. This is what the court most feverishly covets: every few weeks, the President organises a game of ice-hockey.

A mark of intimacy, the treasured invite, the most bragged about occasion in oligarchic society, is watching one of the President’s hockey matches. These are his intimates – most, like him, from St Petersburg, the old associates, the ones he trusts. They are mostly businessmen; and on the US-sanctions list. Men like the brothers Arkady and Boris Rotenberg or Gennady Timchenko. They play and they lose. The teams are filled out with bodyguards.

The Presidential bodyguards wear his shirt and shout his name. The bodyguards of Dmitry Medvedev, his little Prime Minister, fill up the opposing, entertaining team. Despite his bodyguards being compulsory at the Presidential games, the Prime Minister himself is rarely present.

These men are the inner circle. The ones that rose with him out of the swamps of St Petersburg. He was only then a deputy mayor. They shared electricity wires between their dachas and ate cheap meat together. They feel they deserve this. They used to call him: the “Boss”. But over recent years they have come to call him the “Tsar”.

There are no stories of extravagance: only of loneliness. The President has no family life. His mother is dead. So is his father. His wife suffered nervous disorders, and after a long separation, there has been a divorce. There are two daughters. But they are a state secret and no longer live in Russia. There are rumours of models, photographers, or gymnasts that come to him at night. But there is a hollow tick to these stories, which no courtier can quite explain.

The President loves animals. He smiles at the sight of creatures that refuse to obey him. The President finds solace in the company of a black Labrador, who is not afraid of him. He enjoys the hunting parties. He enjoys the helicopter rides with camera-crews over the grey-white tundra looking for tigers and bears – the beauty of Russia.

Putin loves animals and smiles at the sight of creatures that refuse to obey him. Alexsey Druginyn/Reuters

The court interpreter says his life is monotonous. The meaningless meetings. The pedantic clip of presidential protocol. The repetitive routine these schedules have year after year. His motorcade goes in two directions: either to the Kremlin or to the airport. The President says that he works harder than any leader since Stalin.

None of them travelled, negotiated, or saw as much of Russia as him. His planes leave from the Presidential terminal: Vnukovo-2. For a while there were memorandums to move the Russian administration to these forested edgelands; half filled with housing estates coloured like giant Lego blocks. Build over the woods and scattered rubbish was their imagined aerotropolis: a Kremlin city built into jet-engine addiction. But he thought it too ambitious.

His planes travel in threes. One carries his motorcade; one, his delegation; the third that flies ahead for him. The fleet leaves Vnukovo-2 more than five times a month. His wish is to be everywhere: the industrial fair in Omsk, the inspections of Karelia, the summit in Astana, or the state visit to South Korea.

But in Russian time-zones his provincial governors, with their micro-garchs and their sallow police chiefs, use little tricks to deceive him. Recently, they were ashamed in Suzdal of their city of rotting wooden hutches so they covered them in tarpaulin facades of freshly painted cottages. They were ashamed in the factories and the military installations – hiding everything broken.

The visits abroad are conducted differently: the intelligence service plans ahead. The pilot group comes a month before the President to the capital in question. The luxury hotel his administration will occupy is inspected. The FSB and the SVR cooperate in this delicate matter. How secure is that room? How bio-contaminable is this bathroom?

The court has established itself on ­foreign soil a week before he arrives. The hotel becomes the Kremlin. They have booked and sealed 200 rooms. There is a special lift uniquely prepared for the presidential use. Diplomats cluck and confer with pot-bellied FSO inspectors and clammy-handed protocol ­officers.

His room is sealed: no one is allowed access to it. This is the work of the ­special security team. The hotel sheets and toiletries are removed and replaced. Their places filled with wash stuffs and fresh fruit under special Kremlin anti-contamination seals.

Meanwhile everything he will need arrives by the planeload: Russian cooks, Russian cleaners, Russian waiters. Russian lorries bleep and dock with two tons of Russian food. He will sleep on this soil one night. Meanwhile, teams of diplomats engage in multi-session food negotiations with the host.

The President cannot be served milk products, though that is contradicted by orders of Russian security services. The President cannot be offered food by the host – including the head of state or government. The embassy finds itself negotiating a tough position in countries with a rich culinary heritage: the President cannot consume foreign foodstuffs that have not been cleared by the Kremlin.

There is uncertainty here amongst the negotiators. Perhaps the President is secretly lactose intolerant? More likely, he is merely paranoid about poisoning. Russian materials are shipped in advance for the Presidential platter, where local cooks will be supervised by the FSB, SVR, FSO and their team of tasters. The President has refused to even touch food at foreign banquets.

The President is indifferent to the offence of the host nation. The interpreter talks about the plane landing on the hot tarmac. Excitement, fear and uncertainty tingle in the Russian embassy staff: he has arrived.

The President behaves as though he is made of bronze, as if he shines. He seems to know that they will flinch when meeting his eye. There is a silence around him. The voices of grown men change when they speak to him. They make their voices as low as possible. Their faces become solemn, almost stiffened. They look down: worried, ­nervous, alert.

“He doesn’t talk,” the interpreter says. “He feels no need to smile. He doesn’t want to go for a walk. He doesn’t want to drink... At anyone time there are 10 people around him... You cannot get more than 3m close to him because the space is guarded so carefully. He is endlessly surrounded by whispering aides, cameramen, bodyguards.

“The politicians whisper when he is in the room. They stay very attentive. There is next to nobody close enough to joke with him. When he enters a room the sound level drops. There was a time when I spoke loudly – ‘ladies and gentlemen of the delegation we must move to the next room for the signature’ – and a minister grabbed my hand. ‘Shut up,’ he hissed. ‘He is here.’”

The President has no time to think. He goes from gold room, to gold room, in an endless sequence of ceremonial fanfare, with the lightest ballast of political content. The photoshoot. The reception. The formalities that enthrall those new to the summit of power, but irritate those long enchained to it. He thinks very little on his feet: the speeches are all pre-written, the positions all pre-conceived, the negotiations mostly commercial in nature.

The ministers have arrived with him. There are very few close enough to address him directly, fewer still able to joke in his presence. But he takes little interest in them and the moment he can he retires to the sealed and secured bedroom. Because he has seen all this before.

The ministers like to imitate the ­President. They like to imitate his gestures and affect that world-weary air. They like to pretend they too disdain technology. They like to imitate his tone and parrot his scoffing remarks. But, unlike him, the ministers laugh and drink with the night. Their half-shadowed faces become puffy and garrulous. But he is nowhere to be seen.

“He looks emotionless, as if nothing really touches him,” the interpreter remembers. “As if he is hardly aware of what happens around him. As if he is paying little attention to these people. As if he is worn out... He has spent so long as an icon he is not used to anyone penetrating... He is not used to anything not being so perfectly controlled for him. He is isolated, trapped.”

“The impression... you get from being close to him is that he would have been quite happy to step down. But he knows he has failed to rule Russia in anything else but a feudal way. And the moment his grip falters... it will all come crashing down and he will go to jail... and Moscow will burn like Kiev.”

There are courtiers who claim to have heard him speak frankly. There was one who remembers one warm summer evening where he began to talk openly about the fate of his country. The President asked those, whose business it was to be with him that night at Nov-Ogaryovo, who were the greatest Russian traitors.

But he did not wait for them to answer: the greatest criminals in our history were those weaklings who threw the power on the floor – Nicholas II and Mikhail Gorbachev – who allowed the power to be picked up by the hysterics and the madmen, he told them.

Those courtiers then present, claim, that the President vowed never to do the same.

Author’s note: This piece of journalism is an amalgamation of more than three years of interviews, for my book Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell in and Out of Love with Vladimir Putin (Yale). In the course of my research I had the chance to interview everyone from former prime ministers, to Putin’s current ministers and regional governors, down to senior bureaucrats, close advisers, personal aides and ordinary people. Using information from these interviews, I have pieced together the private habits and routines of this latter-day dictator. The quotes here are from Russian officials, whose identities need to be protected. In the current climate of Russian politics, the punishment for revealing personal information is extremely severe and so it is impossible even to hint at the identities or occupations of my sources. The result is an example of what many call “new journalism” using the techniques of fiction to relay facts. While this article may read like a piece of imaginative writing, every detail has been carefully reported.

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