Disillusioned with the KGB, Putin decides to embark on an academic career. He returns to Leningrad University intending to write his doctoral dissertation, but is persuaded to work for Anatoly Sobchak, the chair of the City Council, instead. He throws himself into politics. As Sobchak's deputy, he gets involved in the economic and political reconstruction of St. Petersburg and helps Sobchak in his bid to become mayor. But then things get rough. Lyudmila has a terrible car accident; their dacha is destroyed by fire; and Sobchak looses the mayoral elections. Putin resigns from the Council to plot his next move.
Did you ever think that the KGB had become obsolete?
I was offered a job in the central office in Moscow, but I turned it down. Why? I knew that there was no future to the system. The country didn't have a future. And it would have been very difficult to sit inside the system and wait for it all to collapse around me.
I remember how confused and upset Volodya felt about the collapse of the whole intelligence network in Germany. He would say, "You just can't do that! How can you do that? I know that I can be wrong, but how can the most highly qualified professionals be mistaken?" He was very disenchanted. I said to him, "You know, Volodya, don't get me started." Then he said, "I'm going to leave the KGB!" And I said to him, "There's no such thing as a former intelligence agent.''
Volodya spoke from the heart, and I believed him. But how can you escape the knowledge and information in your mind? You can stop working at this organization, but its worldview and way of thinking remain stuck in your head.
The work we did was no longer necessary. What was the point of writing, recruiting, and procuring information? Nobody at Moscow Center was reading our reports. Didn't we warn them about what was coming? Didn't we provide them with recommendations on how to act? There was no reaction. Who wants to work for nothing? To spend years of your life what for? Just to get paid?
Let's say, for example, that my friends in scientific and technical intelligence paid several million dollars for some information about an important scientific discovery. It would have cost our country billions of dollars to independently develop the same project. My friends would procure this information and send it to the Center. People there would look at it and say, "Wonderful. Great information. Thanks. Kisses. We'll recommend you guys for medals." But then they wouldn't use the intelligence. They wouldn't even try, because the technical level of our industry simply didn't allow for it.
In short, when we returned from Germany in January 1990, I continued to work in the agencies, but I began to think quietly about a backup plan. I had two children, and I couldn't afford to throw everything away. What could I do?
When Volodya came back from Germany, he told me that he had been offered a promotion in Moscow or Peter. We discussed which position would be better, and I said, "In Moscow, they're all bosses. There are no normal people there. One guy has an uncle in the ministry, another has a brother, a third has a brother-in-law. And you don't have anybody. How will you make it there?" Volodya thought for a while and then said, "But Moscow . . . there are prospects there." But I could see that he was clearly leaning toward staying in St. Petersburg.
I was happy to go "undercover" at Leningrad State University (LGU). I wanted to write my doctoral dissertation, check out the university, and perhaps get a job there. So in 1990, I became assistant to the president of the university, responsible for international liaison. I was in the "active reserves."
We followed perestroika and were aware of everything that went on from 1986 to 1988, but only from television. We heard people's stories about the happy mood of those years. But when we returned home, I didn't notice any changes, there were the same terrible lines, the ration cards, the coupons, the empty shelves. For a while after we returned home I was even afraid to go to the store. I wasn't able, like some people, to sniff out all the bargains and to stand in all the lines. I would just dart into the nearest store, buy whatever was most necessary, and go home. It was horrible.
Besides, we hadn't accumulated savings while working in Germany. The car ate up all our money. Our German neighbors did give us their old washing machine, a 20-year-old model. We brought it back home, and used it for five more years.
The situation changed for my husband at work. Despite the fact that, as far as I could tell, his work in Germany had been successful, he was clearly thinking about what to do next. I think at a certain point he felt that he had lost touch with his life's real purpose. And of course it wasn't easy, parting with the past and making the decision to go into politics.
At that time, the president of LGU was Stanislav Petrovich Merkuriev. He was a good man and a brilliant academic. I began to write my dissertation, and chose Valery Abramovich Musin, one of the top specialists in international law, as my academic adviser. I chose a topic in the field of international private law and began to draft an outline for my work.
At the university, I reestablished contact with my old friends from the law faculty. Several of them had stayed on there, defended their dissertations, and become instructors and professors. One of them asked me to help Anatoly Sobchak, the chair of the Leningrad City Council. Sobchak needed someone good on his team. Apparently he was surrounded by crooks. Would I go and work for him? "You know, I have to think about it," I said. "I'm a KGB personnel officer, after all. And he doesn't know that. I could compromise him." ''Just talk to him," my friend said.
I should note that by that time Sobchak was already a famous and popular person. I had followed him with great interest, followed what he did and said. True, I didn't like everything I saw, but he had gained my respect.
It was even nicer that he'd been a teacher in the university where I had studied. Back when I was a student, I didn't have any personal connections to him. Some people have written that I was practically his favorite student. That's not true. He was just one of our lecturers for one or two semesters.
I met Anatoly Aleksandrovich Sobchak at his office in the Leningrad City Council. I remember the scene very well. I went in, introduced myself, and told him everything. He was an impulsive man, and said to me right off: "I'll speak to Stanislav Petrovich Merkuriev. Come to work starting Monday. That's it. We'll make the agreement right now, and you'll be transferred." I couldn't help but say, "Anatoly Aleksandrovich, I would be happy to do this. I am interested. But there is one circumstance that might be an obstacle to this transfer." "What?" he asked. I replied, "I must tell you that I am not just an assistant to the president, I'm also a staff officer of the KGB." He was silent for a moment. I must have really surprised him. He thought and thought, and then suddenly he said, "Well, screw it!"
Of course I wasn't expecting that reaction. This was our very first personal encounter. He was a professor, a doctor of law, chair of the Leningrad City Council. I didn't expect such frank talk.
Then he said, "I need an assistant. Frankly, I'm afraid of going out into the reception area. I don't know who those people are."
The people in Sobchak's outer office, his closest cohorts were harsh and rude in the best traditions of the Komsomol, the Soviet school. This disturbed the city council deputies and led to a conflict between Sobchak and the city council. Since I understood this, I told Anatoly Aleksandrovich that I would be happy to come and work for him, but that I would first have to tell my bosses at the KGB and resign from my post at the university.
This was a fairly delicate moment for me. It was difficult to tell my superiors that I intended to change jobs.
I went to my boss and said, "Anatoly Aleksandrovich is proposing that I leave the university and go to work for him. If it's impossible, I'm ready to resign." They replied: "No. Why? Go and work there. There's no question about it."
My superiors, who were fairly subtle people and understood the situation, did not try to impose any conditions on me. Therefore, although I was formally listed in the security agencies, I hardly ever set foot in the directorate building.
What's interesting is that the bosses never once tried to use me for any operations. I think they understood that it would have been pointless. Moreover, at that moment, everything, including the law-enforcement agencies, was falling apart.
Vladimir Churov (deputy chair of the Committee for Foreign Liaison of the St. Petersburg mayor's office):
Before 1991, the offices in Smolny were clearly divided. The big bosses had two portraits hanging in their offices of Lenin and Kirov and those who were a rank below them had only Lenin's portrait. After they took the portraits down, empty hooks were left on the walls and everyone could pick what he wanted to hang in his office. Most guys selected a portrait of Yeltsin. Putin ordered himself a portrait of Peter the Great. Two portraits were brought to him for selection. One was a romantic painting of a young, curly-headed Peter wearing epaulettes; and the other,the one Putin chose was an engraving. It was one of the last portraits of Peter the Great when his reforms were at their most active; right after the failed Prussian campaign and the Northern war, when Peter laid the foundations of the Russian Empire.
I think that Vladimir Vladimirovich chose that portrait of Peter on purpose. It was a rare and little-known picture. Peter looked rather mournful and preoccupied.
On one occasion my colleagues from the agencies tried to exploit my proximity to Sobchak. Sobchak used to go on business trips and was frequently out of town. He would leave me to run the office. One day he was in a big rush before a trip, and his signature was needed on a document. The document wasn't quite finished, but Sobchak couldn't wait for it. So he took three clean sheets of paper, put his signature at the bottom, and gave them to me, saying "Finish it up," and left.
That same evening my colleagues from the KGB came to see me. We spoke about this and that, and then they mentioned how great it would be to have Sobchak's signature on a certain document. Couldn't we discuss it? But I was a seasoned person, I had survived so many years without one slip-up and I sized up the situation right away. I took out the folder and showed them the blank sheets of paper with Sobchak's signature. And they and I understood that this was testimony to the great degree of trust that Sobchak had in me.
"Can't you see that this man trusts me?" I said. "What do you want from me?" They immediately backed off. ''No more questions," they said. "Sorry." And everything was nipped in the bud.
Still, it was an abnormal situation because, after all, I continued to get a salary from them, which, by the way, was more than I was getting at the city council. But soon circumstances arose that forced me to think about writing a letter of resignation.
Relations with the deputies in the city council were not always smooth, mostly because they lobbied someone's interests. Once a deputy came up to me and said, "You know, we have to help so-and-so. Could you do such and such?" I had already put him off several times. One day he said to me, "There are bad people here, all sorts of enemies, and they've sniffed out that you're a KGB agent. You have to foil them. I'm prepared to help you, but you have to do me a favor." I realized that they wouldn't leave me alone. They would blackmail me, pure and simple. So I made a difficult decision and wrote my letter of resignation. I was just sick and tired of that brazen blackmail. It was a very difficult decision for me. Although I had done virtually no work for the agencies in almost a year, my whole life was still tied up in them. Besides, it was 1990. The USSR hadn't collapsed yet. The August coup hadn't taken place. No one was sure about where the country was going. Sobchak was a prominent politician, but it was risky to tie my future to his. Everything might unravel at a moment's notice. And I also had a hard time imagining what I'd do if I lost my job at the mayor's office. I thought that if worse came to worst, I would go back to the university and finish my dissertation and earn some money somewhere part-time.
I had a stable spot in the agencies, and people treated me well. My life in the system had been full of successes. And still I wanted to leave. Why? I couldn't quite put my finger on it. It was the hardest decision of my life. I thought for a long time, collected myself, sat down, and in one quick draft, wrote my resignation letter.
After I turned in my resignation, I decided to announce publicly that I had worked in the security agencies. I turned to my friend Igor Abramovich Shadkhan, the film director, for help. He was a talented man. His most famous film was Test for Adults, and he worked in the television studio in Leningrad at that time. I came to him and said, "Igor, I want to speak openly about my professional past so that it stops being a secret and so that no one can blackmail me with it."
He taped an interview in which he asked me in detail about my work at the KGB, what I had done, when I had served in intelligence, and so on. The tape was shown on Leningrad television, and the next time someone came along hinting about my past, I immediately said, "That's enough. It's not interesting. Everyone already knows about that."
But my letter of resignation had gotten stalled somewhere. Somebody, somewhere, apparently just couldn't make a decision. So when the coup happened, I was still an active KGB officer.
Where were you on the night of August 18-19, 1991?*
* August 18-19, 1991, was the date of Russian president Boris Yeltsin's resistance to the attempted coup by Soviet hard-liners, which led to the breakup of the USSR in December 1991.
I was on vacation. When it all started, I was really worried because I was way out in the sticks. I got back to Leningrad on the 20th. Sobchak and I practically moved into the city council. Well, not just us two, a whole bunch of people were camped out there, and we were there with them.
It was dangerous to drive out of the city council compound, but we wanted to take some active measures. We drove to the Kirov Factory and to other plants to speak to the workers. But we were nervous. We even passed out pistols, although I left my service revolver in the safe. People everywhere supported us. It was clear that if someone tried to disrupt the situation, there would be a huge number of casualties. But then that was it, the coup was over, and they chased away the coup-plotters.
What did you yourself think of them?
It was clear that they were destroying the country. In principle, their goal preserving the Soviet Union from collapse was noble, and they probably saw it that way. But the means and methods they chose only pushed the country further toward collapse. Once I saw the faces of the coup-plotters on TV, I knew right away that it was all over.
But let's say the coup had ended the way the plotters had planned. You're an officer of the KGB. You and Sobchak probably would have been tried.
But I was no longer a KGB officer. As soon as the coup began, I immediately decided whose side I was on. I knew for sure that I would never follow the coup-plotters' orders. I would never be on their side. I knew perfectly well that my behavior could be considered a crime of office. That's why, on August 20, I wrote a second statement resigning from the KGB.
But what if it had been blocked like your first letter?
I immediately warned Sobchak of that possibility. "Anatoly Aleksandrovich," I said. "I already wrote one letter, and it died somewhere. Now I have to write again." Sobchak immediately called Vladimir Kryuchkov [then KGB chief], and then he called the head of my KGB division. The next day, they informed me that my resignation memo had been signed. Kryuchkov was a true believer in Communism, who sided with the coup-plotters. But he was also a very decent man. To this day I have the greatest respect for him.
Did you suffer?
Terribly. In fact, it tore my life apart. Up until that time I didn't really understand the transformation that was going on in Russia. When I had come home from the GDR, it was clear to me that something was happening. But during the days of the coup, all the ideals, all the goals that I had had when I went to work for the KGB, collapsed.
Of course it was incredibly difficult to go through this. After all, most of my life had been devoted to work in the agencies. But I had made my choice.
Have you read the things that were published in Moskovskiye Novosti and Ogonyok in those days? For instance, General Kalugin's exposures?*
*Oleg Kalugin served the KGB for 30 years, but eventually broke with the world of KGB secrecy, and, during the perestroika years under Mikhail Gorbachev, campaigned for public accountability among the security services. Kalugin was stripped of his many KGB decorations by KGB hard-liners in 1990. They were restored the following year.
Kalugin is a traitor. I saw Kalugin during my time in Leningrad when he was deputy head of the Directorate. He was an absolute loafer. A loafer, perhaps, but he remembers you.
He doesn't remember anything. He does remember, and he says that from the point of view of the intelligence service, you worked in a province and had nothing to show for your performance.
Oh, he doesn't remember a thing. He couldn't remember me. I had no contact with him, nor did I meet him. It is I who remembers him, because he was a big boss and everybody knew him. As to whether he knew me, there were hundreds of us.
A few months after the coup, the House of Political Enlightenment, which had belonged to the Communists, was given to the city. Fairly soon afterward an international business center was opened there. But the new leaders treated the Communists generously and left them part of the building. The Communist Party of the Russian Federation occupied almost a whole wing of the building, along with other Communist organizations. There was a flagpole on the roof of the building. The Communists decided to use it to hang a red flag. And each time the new city leaders drove out of Smolny, they would see that red flag. It was perfectly visible from the windows in Sobchak's and Putin's offices.
Putin gave the order to have the flag removed. But the next day it appeared again. Putin gave the order againand again the flag was taken down. Back and forth it went. The Communists began to run out of flags and started using all sorts of things. One of their last versions wasn't even red but more of a dark brown. That put Putin over the edge. He found a crane, and under his personal supervision, had the flagpole cut down with a blowtorch.
When did you leave the Party?
I didn't. The CPSU ceased to exist. I took my Party card and put it away in a drawer.
How did St. Petersburg get through 1993?
It was just like Moscow, only people didn't shoot each other. The mayor's office was in the Smolny building by then, and the deputies were in the Leningrad City Council building.
So there was basically the same kind of conflict in Peter as Yeltsin had with the Supreme Soviet [parliament]?
Yes. But it is important to note that there wasn't the same division between the law-enforcement agencies that there had been in 1991. The *FSB leadershipViktor Cherkesov was the head announced their support for the mayor from the start. The FSB introduced a number of measures advocating the arrest of extremists who were plotting provocations, planning to blow things up, or trying to destabilize the situation. And that was the end of it.
*The FSB (Federalnaya sluzbha bezopasnosti) is Russia's Federal Security Service. It replaced the KGB. Putin was named director of the FSB in 1998.
Marina Yentaltseva (Putin's secretary from 1991 to 1996): The first time I saw Vladimir Vladimirovich was from behind the glass door of an office. I was sitting across from the door and putting on my lipstick. Suddenly I saw the new director of the Committee for Foreign Liaison walking down the hall, and I thought, "Uh-oh, now he definitely won't hire me for the job." But everything was fine. He pretended that he hadn't noticed a thing, and I never put my lipstick on at work again.
I wouldn't say that he was a strict boss. Only people's stupidity would make him lose his temper. But he never raised his voice. He could be strict and demanding and yet never raise his voice. If he gave an assignment, he didn't really care how it was done or who did it or what problems they had. It just had to get done, and that was that.
In 1991, Sobchak decided to create the Committee for Foreign Liaison at the Leningrad City Council. It was headed by Vladimir Putin.
At that time, the city's foreign trade was in the same shape as the whole country. It was dominated by state monopolies and monstrous, government authorized firms such as Lenfintorg or Lenvneshtorg. Customs, banking, investment, the stock market, and other such structures simply didn't exist.
The Committee had to quickly create the preconditions for cooperation with Western market economies. They began by opening the first branches of Western banks. With Putin's active involvement, they opened branches of Dresdner Bank and Banque Nationale de Paris.
The city administration concentrated on attracting foreign investors. The Committee created investment zones, such as the Parnas zone and the Pulkovo Heights zone, that still exist to this day. They also developed an original scheme: They invited a large investor, Coca-Cola, to take over a plot of land in Pulkovo Heights and install high-capacity power and communications cables, hoping that other companies would follow suit. It worked. After Coca-Cola developed their piece of land, Gillette came, then Wrigley, and then some pharmaceutical companies. An economic zone thus took shape within the city, where total investment now exceeds half a billion dollars.
Furthermore, with the Committee's encouragement, the city's infrastructure began to be modernized to create the conditions necessary for successful business. The first major deal that Putin supported was the completion of a fiber-optic cable to Copenhagen. This project had been initiated back in the Soviet era but never completed. Now the efforts were successful, providing St. Petersburg with world-class international telephone connections.
Finally, there was the problem of personnel. There were few specialists who spoke foreign languages. With Sobchak's support, Putin created a faculty of international relations at LGU. The first class was announced in 1994. Graduates of the program are now working in our Committee and in other organizations.
Much has been written in the St. Petersburg press about the food delivery scandal.
What was that?
In 1992, there was a food crisis in the country, and Leningrad experienced big problems. Our businessmen presented us with a scheme: If they were allowed to sell goods mainly raw materials abroad, they would deliver food to Russia. We had no other options. So the Committee for Foreign Liaison, which I headed, agreed to their offer.
We obtained permission from the head of the government and signed relevant contracts. The firms filled out all the necessary paperwork, obtained export licenses, and began exporting raw materials. The customs agency would not have let anything out of the country without the correct paperwork and accompanying documents. At the time, a lot of people were saying that they were exporting certain rare earth metals.
Not a single gram of any metal was exported. Anything that needed special permission was not passed through customs.
The scheme began to work. However, some of the firms did not uphold the main condition of the contract they didn't deliver food from abroad, or at least they didn't import full loads. They reneged on their commitments to the city.
A deputies' commission was created, headed by Marina Salye, who conducted a special investigation.
No, there wasn't any real investigation. How could there be? There was no criminal offense.
Then where does this whole corruption story come from?
I think that some of the deputies exploited this story in order to pressure Sobchak into firing me.
For being a former KGB agent. Although they probably had other motives too. Some of the deputies wanted to make money off those deals, and they wound up with nothing but a meddlesome KGB agent. They wanted to put their own man in the job.
I think the city didn't do everything it could have done. They should have worked more closely with law enforcement agencies. But it would have been pointless to take the exploiters to court they would have dissolved immediately and stopped exporting goods. There was essentially nothing to charge them with. Do you remember those days? Front offices appeared all over the place. There were pyramid schemes. Remember the MMM company? We just hadn't expected things to get so far out of hand.
You have to understand: We weren't involved in trade. The Committee for Foreign Liaison did not trade in anything itself. It did not make purchases or sales. It was not a foreign trade organization.
But the granting of licenses?
We did not have the right to grant licenses. That's just it: A division of the Ministry for Foreign Economic Relations issued the licenses. They were a federal structure and had nothing to do with the municipal administration.
Volodya changed a lot when he went to work at the mayor's office. We began to see less and less of each other. He was very busy. He would leave the house early and come back at night. And of course he was tired. Even when we grilled shish kebabs out at the dacha, he paced along the fence, lost in thought, in another place. He became wholeheartedly involved in St. Petersburg's affairs and then his emotions were drained. He had become a pragmatist.
The Putins had a dog, a Caucasian sheepdog called Malysh. The dog lived at the dacha and used to dig under the fence all the time and try to get out-side. One day she did finally dig her way out, and she got hit by a car. Lyudmila Aleksandrovna scooped her up and took her to a veterinary clinic. She called from the vet's office and asked me to tell her husband that they weren't able to save the dog.
I went into Vladimir Vladimirovich's office and said, "You know . . . we have a situation . . . Malysh was killed." I looked at him, and there was zero emotion on his face. I was so surprised at the lack of any kind of reaction that I couldn't contain myself and said, "Did someone already tell you about it?" And he said calmly, "No, you're the first to tell me." And I knew I had made a blunder.
In fact, he is a very emotional man. But when he has to, he can hide his feelings. Although he also knows how to relax.
One night my friends and I went to an erotic show in Hamburg. Actually, it was hardly erotic. It was crude. And we were there with our wives! They were traveling abroad for the first time, and they had talked me into it. "Maybe it's better not to go?" I said. "No, no, we have to. We're grown-ups." "Well, alright," I said. ''Remember that you're the ones who wanted to."
We went in, sat down at a table, and the show began. Some black performers came out on the stage a huge black man, about two meters tall, and a black woman, who was just a little girl. Slowly they began to strip to some good music. Suddenly, without taking her eyes off the pair, my friend's wife got up from the table, stood, and then bang! fainted. It was a good thing her husband caught her, or she would have hit her head.
We revived her and took her into the bathroom, where we rinsed her face. We went up to the second floor and were walking around when the performers, who had just finished their number and come off the stage, passed bystark naked. My friend's wife saw them and bang! she fainted again.
We sat down at the table. "How are you feeling?" I asked my friend's wife. Lowering her eyes, she replied, "I think it's something I ate. Everything's fine. It will pass." I said, "No, let's go. We've seen everything. We've gotten in touch with the sublime. Now let's scram."
Whenever there was a problem, I was there as a scout who knew the German language. It wasn't my first trip to Hamburg. You won't believe me, but I was assigned to study their red-light district as part of my job. At that time we were trying to bring order to the gambling business in St. Petersburg.
I don't know whether I was right, but I thought that the government should have a monopoly over the gambling business. My position contradicted the new Law on Anti-Monopoly Activity, but I still tried to do everything in my power so that the government could established strict control over the gaming industry.
We created a municipal enterprise that did not own any casinos but controlled 51 percent of the stock of the gaming businesses in the city. Various representatives of the basic oversight organizations the FSB, the tax police, and the tax inspectorate were assigned to supervise this enterprise. The idea was that the state, as a stockholder, would receive dividends from its 51 percent of the stock.
In fact, this was a mistake, because you can own tons of stock and still not really control something. All the money coming from the tables was cash and could be diverted.
The casino owners showed us only losses on the books. While we were counting up the profits and deciding where to allocate the funds to develop the city's businesses or support the social sector, they were laughing at us and showing us their losses. Ours was a classic mistake made by people encountering the free market for the first time.
Later, particularly during Anatoly Sobchak's 1996 election campaign, our political opponents tried to find something criminal in our actions and accuse us of corruption. They said the mayor's office was in the gambling business. It was almost comical to read this. Everything that we did was so absolutely transparent.
You can only argue about whether our actions were correct from an economic point of view. Obviously, the scheme was ineffective and we didn't achieve what we had planned. We hadn't thought things through sufficiently. But if I had remained in Peter, I would have squeezed those casinos to the end and forced them to work for the betterment of society and to share their profits with the city. That money would have gone to pensioners, teachers, and doctors.
We had an unpleasant incident when Vice President Al Gore visited our city. When the vice president was being met at the airport, an official of the U.S. Consulate General in St. Petersburg was rude to one of our city leaders. I don't remember exactly what happened, but I think the U.S. official pushed the district commander. After that incident, Vladimir Putin issued an official statement that we would refuse to deal with this U.S. official in the city administration.
The U.S. ambassador to Russia came to resolve the conflict. He eventually recalled not only that official but the consul general as well. As a result, Putin had the greatest respect for the entire U.S. diplomatic corps.
Yet another international political clash took place, in Hamburg in March 1994. The president of Estonia, Lennart Meri, who incidentally was well acquainted with Putin and Sobchak, indulged in some crude attacks against Russia in a public speech at a seminar of the European Union. Putin and some other Russian diplomats were in the hall. After Meri made yet another derogatory remark, referring to Russians as "occupiers," Putin got up and walked out of the room. This was a brave act; the meeting took place in the Knights' Hall, with its 30-foot-high ceilings and smooth marble floor. As Putin exited, his footfalls echoed across the floor. To top it all off, the huge steel door slammed behind him with a resounding crash. As Putin later told it, he had tried to hold the door open, but it was too heavy. Our Foreign Ministry commended his action after the fact.
Vladimir Vladimirovich always seemed so calm when dealing with foreign delegations and people of very high rank. Usually when you talk to big bosses, you feel shy or uncomfortable. But Vladimir Vladimirovich was always at ease. I envied him and wondered how I could learn to be that way. So I was surprised when his wife told me that he was fairly shy by nature and that he had to work hard to seem at ease with people.
It was easy talking to him. Although at first glance he seems very serious, in fact it is easy to joke with him. For example, he would say,"Call Moscow and set up an appointment for a meeting at a specific time so that I don't have to sit in the waiting room and waste a hell of a lot of hours." And I would reply, "Yes, just like the people waiting in your front office." He would give me a mock-scolding look. "Marina!"
I had a good relationship with his wife, Lyudmila Aleksandrovna. She and I would talk just like good acquaintances. I remember one time when I was a guest in their home and we were sitting in the kitchen drinking tea. Vladimir Vladimirovich telephoned. She told him, "Marina and I are drinking tea." And he probably said, "Which Marina?" because his wife answered, "What do you mean,
which Marina? Your Marina!"
We grew especially close after Lyudmila Aleksandrovna had the car accident.
In 1994, I was involved in negotiations with Ted Turner and Jane Fonda about holding the Goodwill Games in St. Petersburg. They had come in person, and I was accompanying them to all their meetings. They had a very tight schedule.
Suddenly I got a call from my secretary, telling me that Lyudmila had been in an accident. "Is it serious?" I asked. "No, apparently not. But the ambulance took her to the hospital just in case." "Let me try to get out of this meeting and go to the hospital," I said.
When I arrived at the emergency room, I spoke with the chief physician, who assured me, "Don't worry, she's not in any danger. We're just going to put a splint on, and everything will be fine." "Are you sure?" "Absolutely," he said. So I left.
I was driving our Zhiguli and was going through a green light. Katya was asleep in the back seat. And suddenly another automobile came crashing into the side of our car. It was going about 80 kilometers an hour. I didn't even see it. I had the green light and didn't even look to the right. The other car had run a red light, swerving around another car that had stopped for the light.
We were fortunate that the driver crashed into the right front side of the car. If he had hit the front or back door, one of us would probably have been killed.
I lost consciousness for about half an hour, and when I woke up, I wanted to keep driving but I realized I couldn't. I hurt a little, and I was exhausted
When the ambulance picked me up and gave me a sedative, I remember thinking, "Lord, now I'll catch up on my sleep!" I had not gotten enough sleep for several weeks.
My first thought, of course, was about my daughter. "What's happened to my child? My child was sitting in the back seat," I said immediately. And I gave one of the bystanders the telephone number of Volodya's assistant, Igor Ivanovich Sechin, so that he could come and pick Katya up, since the accident had taken place about three minutes away from Smolny. There was one bystander who was very concerned and helped me the most. She called the ambulance, she called Sechin, she took care of Katya, and she stayed nearby through the whole thing. Then she left her telephone number and it got lost somewhere in the car. That was too bad. I have wanted to thank her ever since.
The ambulance was summoned right away, but it took 45 minutes to get there. The doctors examined me and thought that my spine was broken. I was too timid to tell them to take me to the Military Medical Academy, to Yuri Leonidovich Shevchenko, so I was taken to another hospital, a place where people with traumas are always taken. The hospital was horrible. It was full of people who were dying. There were gurneys in the hallway with dead bodies on them. I'll remember it for the rest of my life. It was called the October 25th Hospital. If I had stayed there, I probably would have died, since they had no intention of operating on my spine. I don't think they even knew how.
Furthermore, they didn't even notice the fracture at the base of my skull. I would have suffered post-traumatic meningitis with a fatal outcome.
A woman called our office and said "Lyudmila Aleksandrovna asked me to call you. She's been in an accident. She asked me to telephone." What should I do in a situation like this? Vladimir Vladimirovich wasn't in his office. He was in the meeting with the foreigners. One of his deputies took a car, went to pick up Katya, and brought her right to the office in Smolny. I kept asking, "Katya, what happened?" And she said "I don't know. I was sleeping." She had been lying on the back seat. When the car crashed, she was probably thrown and knocked out.
At first I thought that Lyudmila Aleksandrovna was okay because she was in the doctors' care. And I needed to take the little girl to a doctor because she was bruised and seemed subdued. We went to a doctor right at Smolny, and he advised me to take her to a pediatrician.
We went to a children's neurologist at the pediatric institute to see if Katya had suffered a concussion. The doctor couldn't really tell us, but said that the child needed some peace and quiet. The doctor asked her what had happened, but Katya wasn't in any condition to explain anything. She was probably in shock.
The driver who had brought Katya to Smolny said that Lyudmila Aleksandrovna had been conscious when the ambulance came for her. I thought to myself, "Well, that's alright, then, it can't be too bad." Later I called the hospital to find out what the diagnosis was. Nobody told me anything about a skull fracture or a cracked vertebra.
Still, we were wondering. Vladimir Vladimirovich asked me to phone Yuri Leonidovich Shevchenko at the Military Medical Academy. He wasn't there. I phoned a second time, a third, a fourth, a fifth time, and he still wasn't there. Finally, late in the evening, I got a hold of him. And he immediately sent his surgeons over to remove Lyudmila Aleksandrovna from the hospital and bring her to his clinic.
So Dr. Shevchenko, the current Minister of Health, is someone you know well?
No, we didn't have a close relationship, even after my wife's accident. It's just that he's a real doctor. About four years ago, in 1996, during the first Chechen war, he removed a bullet from a soldier's heart. The bullet had plunged into the soldier's heart muscle, and the guy managed to stay alive. He flies to Peter on the weekends and does operations. He's a real doctor.
Valery Yevgenevich Parfyonov brought me to the clinic. He saved my life by taking me out of the operating room. My ear was torn and they had decided to sew it up. They had left me naked on the table in a freezing operating room, in a terrible state of half-consciousness, and had gone away. When Valery Yevgenevich came, they told him, "She doesn't need anything. We just did an operation. Everything's fine.
He came into the operating room. I opened my eyes, and found an officer standing in front of me, holding my hand. He had a very warm palm. It warmed me up, and I knew that I had been saved. They did an X ray at the Military Medical Academy and told me that I needed an emergency operation on my spine.
Lyudmila Aleksandrovna was staying with the children at the government dacha outside of town. Masha was still in school. When the accident happened, Lyudmila and Katya were on their way to pick her up. Katya was sick that morning and had not wanted to go anywhere, but she had asked to come along to pick up Masha. Now I had to face picking up Masha and figuring out what to do with the children. I said to Vladimir Vladimirovich, "Let me take the girls out to my mother's house." He said, "No, that's awkward; but if you would agree to spend the night with the girls out at the dacha, I'd be very grateful." "Okay," I said.
On the way to the dacha we passed the second hospital where Lyudmila Aleksandrovna had been taken, and I saw Vladimir Vladimirovich's car. He was getting ready to leave. I asked the driver to pull over, and I got out of the car. "The girls are in the car," I told him. He went over to them, and I went into the hospital they wouldn't allow the children in.
Lyudmila Aleksandrovna had just been operated on. She was conscious, and she asked me whether I had taken some warm clothing for the girls. It had gotten very cold that day, and there might not be warm things at the dacha.
When we were getting ready to leave, Vladimir Vladimirovich said that he would try to come back later but most likely wouldn't make it because his meetings would probably go late into the night.
The driver dropped us off at the dacha and left. But he forgot to tell us how to turn the heat on in the house, and it was terribly cold. The girls behaved beautifully. When we got to the house, they became helpful: "Aunt Marina, you have to take the blanket down from there, and the sheets are over here," they explained. They weren't in shock, and they didn't go weeping off into the corner. They tried to help.
The girls, of course, understood that it was all very serious. When we were on our way to the dacha and passed the hospital, and they saw their papa's car, they immediately asked "Is this where Mama is?" How did they know she had been taken to a new hospital? We hadn't told them about taking her to the Academy, so as not to worry them.
I put the girls in the same bed so they would be warm enough. At about three in the morning, I was startled by a knock on the door. I was frightened because there was no one else at the dacha. But it turned out that it was Vladimir Vladimirovich, who had at last gotten free from Ted Turner. He immediately found the switch and turned on the heater.
I had never seen him like this. I can't say that he was thrown for a loop and totally at a loss and didn't know what to grab on to. That wasn't the case. I just sensed that he was trying to come up with a plan in his head. Still, I never saw Vladimir Vladimirovich like this.
He came home at three in the morning, and left again at seven. I stayed with the girls until evening, when Ykaterina Tikhonovna, Lyudmila Aleksandrovna's mother, came from Kaliningrad.
How did she know?
I had sent her a telegram. Lyudmila Aleksandrovna might have been angry when she found out, but I did it anyway. I asked her to come of course, with Vladimir Vladimirovich's consent. She stayed with the children until Lyudmila Aleksandrovna was released from the hospital.
Did she take a long time to recover?
She spent about a month and a half or even two months in the hospital. They also discovered a fracture at the base of her skull. That worried them much more than the crack in her spine.
Lyudmila Putina: After the spinal operation, I lay in the intensive care unit and I kept telling the doctors that my jaw bones were shifting around. And they kept joking, "Don't worry, we'll put in new ones." But then the surgeon who had operated on me decided to check it out, and just in case, to take an X ray. That's sited her all the time.
When I got out of the hospital, I just crawled around my apartment for the first two weeks. Then, gradually, I began to be able to do things. In the end, it took me about two to three years to get back to my normal life.
Sergei Roldugin: Once Volodya came to my dacha with his driver. We sat and talked for a while and then went to bed. And I noticed he put an air gun down next to him. Evidently something was amiss. I said, ''Vovka, what are you doing? Do you think an air gun is going to save you?" "It won't save me," he said. "But it makes me feel calmer." This happened in the last days of his job at the mayor's office, when Sobchak's electoral campaign was just getting off the ground.
From the outset, it was clear that the mayoral elections in 1996 would be very complicated for us. I warned Anatoly Aleksandrovich Sobchak that these elections were going to be hard. In 1992, I had played a definitive role in Sobchak's election as the first popularly elected mayor of the city. As chair of the Leningrad City Council under the old system, Sobchak could have been removed by the council members at any moment. He needed a more stable position.
Sobchack finally agreed that we had to introduce the post of mayor. But because he had fairly conflictual relations with the majority of the deputies on the council, he wasn't sure that the proposition would pass. Meanwhile, his public popularity was very high. The deputies knew that Sobchak would be elected mayor if they voted to introduce the post. And they didn't want that. They liked the fact that they could always keep him on a hook.
Still, I was able to convince some of the deputies that it would be best for the city if we had the mayoral post. I also managed to mobilize the heads of the city districts. They didn't have the right to vote, but they could influence their deputies.
In the end, the decision to introduce the post of mayor was passed by the Leningrad City Council, by a margin of a single vote.*
Four years later it was clear that in order to win an election, he would need professional campaign managers and technicians not just a guy who could finesse the deputies. This was a whole new ball game.
You gave Sobchak some advice on how he should run the campaign?
I told him right off, "You know, you're on a completely different playing field now. You need specialists." He agreed, but then he decided that he would conduct his own electoral campaign.
Out of overconfidence?
It's hard to say. You know, running a campaign, bringing in specialists all of this costs money. And we didn't have any. Sobchak had been under investigation for a year and a half on allegations that he had bought an apartment with city funds. But in fact he didn't have any money either for an apartment or for an election campaign. We were not extracting funds from the city budget. It never even entered our heads to find the money we needed that way.
Yakovlev got the funds he needed at Moscow's expense. He was supported by the very same people who orchestrated the campaign against Sobchak. *
The title for Sobchak was mayor, a new title introduced for the democratically elected chair of the city council in the democratic reform period of the late 1980s and early 1990s. The name of the top leadership post in St. Petersburg was restored to governor in 1996 when Governor Yakolev was elected. Korzhakov played an active role against him . . .
According to the information we had, Soskovets did, as well. The law-enforcement agencies were brought in later. They played very dirty.
About a year and a half before the elections, a commission came to St. Petersburg from Moscow. The commission had been appointed by the heads of three agencies: the FSB, the Interior Ministry, and the prosecutor's office. They opened up several criminal cases and made Sobchak a witness in two of them. During the election campaign, someone sent an inquiry to the Prosecutor General's office, asking whether Sobchak was involved in any criminal investigations. The very same day the answer came back: Yes, there were two criminal cases under investigation. Naturally, they didn't explain that he was a witness, not a suspect, in these cases. The reply from the Prosecutor General's office was duplicated, and flyers were dropped over the city from a helicopter. The law enforcement agencies were interfering directly in a political contest.
Sobchak decided to run his own campaign office. Lyudmila Borisovna, his wife, got involved, and he pronounced her campaign manager. We tried to talk both of them out of this, because we weren't convinced that everyone in the campaign office would be willing to take orders from her.
We lost a lot of time debating about who should run the campaign. Aleksei Kudrin, who was also a deputy of Sobchak's, got involved. But Sobchak asked me to continue to work in city affairs. Somebody had to manage the economic activity of a city with a population of five million citizens during that period. At the last minute, between the first and second rounds, Kudrin and I tried to jump into the fray, but by then it was hopeless. We really blew it on the election.
For some time after our defeat in the mayoral elections, I stayed in my office in Smolny. The second round of the presidential elections was underway, and I was working for the St. Petersburg headquarters of Yeltsin's campaign. Vladimir Yakovlev, former governor of Leningrad oblast, now elected mayor of St. Petersburg, didn't kick me out of my office right away; but as soon as the presidential elections were over, I was asked rather harshly to free up the space. By that time I had already turned down Yakovlev's offer to keep my post as deputy mayor. He had made the offer through his people. I thought it would be impossible to work with Yakovlev, and I conveyed that to him.
Besides, during the campaign, I was the one who had initiated a statement signed by all the officials in the mayor's office that we would all leave Smolny if Sobchak lost. It was important to express our solidarity, so that all the people who worked with Anatoly Aleksandrovich and his administration would realize that his defeat would be a defeat for them, too. It was a good stimulus to get them all involved in the struggle. We called a press conference and made a public statement, which I read. So it was impossible for me to remain behind in the mayor's office after Sobchak lost.
Furthermore, I had attacked Yakovlev during the election campaign. I don't remember the context now, but in a television interview I had called him a Judas. The word seemed to fit, and I used it.
Although my relations with Yakovlev didn't improve after that, oddly enough they also didn't deteriorate. Still, I couldn't stay behind with him. The same went for many of my colleagues. Misha Manevich came to me and said, "Listen, I want to get your advice. Yakovlev is offering me the job of vice mayor." I said, "Misha, of course you should take it." And he said to me, "How can I? We all agreed that we'd leave." I said to him, ''Misha, what are you talking about? It was a campaign; we had to do that. But how can you leave all this? Who will work here? The city needs professionals." I talked him into staying.
Misha was an amazing guy. I am so sorry that he was murdered. It was such an injustice. Whose toes did he step on? It's just shocking. He was so mild, well mannered, and flexible in the best sense of the word. He had principles. He didn't accommodate everybody, but he never got on his high horse. He always looked for a way out, for an acceptable solution. I still don't understood how he could have been murdered. I just don't understand it.
Besides Misha, I talked several other colleagues into staying. Dima Kozak, who was head of the legal department, had already handed in his letter of resignation, and I talked him into coming back. But all told, a lot of people left Smolny.
I wrote my letter of resignation on the last day Vladimir Vladimirovich worked at Smolny. I left without having anywhere to go. There was no back up plan for me.
It had been hard working with Putin, but very interesting. It's always interesting, working with smart people. And I couldn't imagine ever working with anyone else. Vladimir Vladimirovich guessed my sentiments even before I handed in my resignation. He began to try to talk me out of it. "Marina, why have you decided to leave? Don't go," he said. He said that he didn't know where he was going to be working, and that he wasn't sure that he would be able to offer me a job in the future. I replied, "Regardless of whether you can offer me anything in the future or not, I still am not going to work here."
When I took my letter of resignation in for his signature, my eyes were wet. He noticed it, and tried to reassure me. "Marinochka, don't get so upset." I tried to get hold of myself. "Alright, that's it, I won't anymore." And he said, "Don't get so upset, please."
Of course I really suffered heavily through all this. I was sad to come to the end of such an interesting and quite meaningful period in my life. Still, I was absolutely certain that everything would work out fine for Vladimir Vladimirovich. I knew that such a smart person would not remain on the shelf for long.
In July, my family and I moved to the dacha that I had built several years earlier. I waited expectantly. Everyone was saying that I was "so needed by everybody" and that someone would definitely call me. Anatoly Sobchak had said he would definitely make me an ambassador. He had talked to Primakov. He told me, "I spoke to the minister. You'll be an ambassador." Of course I doubted that anyone would send me anywhere as an envoy, but it was awkward telling Sobchak the truth. I couldn't say "Anatoly Aleksandrovich, that's a total fantasy! You and I have no more hope of seeing an ambassadorship than we have of seeing our own ears!" And I was right.
Anatoly Aleksandrovich Sobchak was an emotional man. He liked to be the center of attention and to be talked about. It seemed to me that it didn't matter to him whether people were damning or praising him.
At the start of his job at the Leningrad City Council, Sobchak indulged in several sharp attacks on the army. He called the generals "blockheads," even though he didn't mean it, which I know for a fact. Sobchak had a positive attitude toward the army. But once when he was reaching for a snappy phrase in a public speech before a sympathetic audience, he used the word, and it was a mistake.
The generals really loathed him. Once there was a military meeting that he, as a member of the military council of the Leningrad Military District, was supposed to attend. It was on his calendar. But Alla Borisovna Pugacheva, the popular singer, was supposed to arrive in Leningrad at the same time. He said to me, "Listen, call the generals and tell them that I can't make it." He just wanted to meet Pugacheva. The generals had already moved their meeting once to accommodate his schedule. "You have to go," I told him. "Well, tell them I'm sick!" he said. And he went off to the airport to meet Pugacheva.
I called the commander, "You know, Anatoly Aleksandrovich is unable to come. He is sick." "Really? Alright, well, thanks for telling me." Two weeks later, I met the commander, and he said to me, insulted, "So he was sick, huh?" It turned out he had seen Sobchak meeting Pugacheva at the airport on television and that he had gone to her concert. And then he made an unkind remark about Lyudmila Borisovna, although she had nothing to do with it. ''So he has time to meet with those . . . even when he's sick. And he has no time to be involved with government business?"
When Sobchak flew off to Paris, where were you?
In St. Petersburg, although I was already working in Moscow by then.
Tell us about it.
What's to tell? Well, there was some convoluted story involving his departure. . . . It wasn't convoluted. I was in Peter, so I went to visit him in the hospital.
You just went to say goodbye?
No, I didn't say goodbye. I just visited him in the hospital, and that was it. He was in the cardiac unit, and then Yura Shevchenko, the head of the Military Medical
Academy, transferred him. And then on November 7, his friends, I think they were from Finland sent him a medevac plane, and he was flown to a hospital in France.
Just like that? Nobody organized anything in advance? Some people just sent an airplane?
Yes, his friends sent an airplane. Since it was November 7, a national holiday his absence from St. Petersburg was not noticed until November 10. From the outside, it all looked like a special operation organized by a professional.
What are you talking about?
There was nothing special about it. The newspapers wrote that he was whisked out, without even going through customs. That's not true, he passed through customs and passport control at the border. Everything was as it was supposed to be. They put stamps in his passport. They put him on the airplane. That was that.
Applause, applause. But they could have arrested him?
They probably could have. But I don't know what for.
To this day you don't understand?
No, why are you saying that? In fact, I do understand that they had no grounds to arrest him. He had been implicated in this murky story of the apartment. A case was opened up, but it fell apart in the end. They put the screws to Sobchak for four years and then hounded the poor guy all over Europe.
Did you yourself get to the bottom of this story?
No. Frankly, I didn't even know the details. Later, I looked into it for myself.
And did you find it interesting to dig into the details of this case because you wanted to know the kind of person you were working with? Or did you never have doubts at all?
You know, I was absolutely convinced that he was a decent person100 percent decent because I had dealt with him for many years. I know how he thinks, what he values, what he doesn't value, what he is capable of, and what he is incapable of. Remember the episode in the film The Sword and the Shield, when the Germans are trying to recruit the Soviet officer? They say, "You think we'll let you die a hero? Here's a photo showing you in a German uniform. That's it, you're a traitor." The Soviet officer grabs a chair and tries to hit the recruiter. Then the recruiter shoots him and says, "It was the wrong idea from the start. There was no sense in blackmailing him. Obviously, that officer's reputation in his homeland is flawless."
The same is true of Sobchak. He is a decent man with a flawless reputation. Furthermore, he is very bright, open, and talented. Even though we are very different, I really like Anatoly Aleksandrovich. I really like people like him. He's real.
Few people know that Anatoly Aleksandrovich and I had very close, friendly, confidential conversations. We used to talk a lot, especially on our trips abroad, when we were left virtually alone for several days. He was a friend and mentor to me.*
*This conversation took place two days before the tragic death of Anatoly Sobchak. On February 19, 2000, Sobchak died of a heart attack in the city of Svetlogorsk
That summer of 1996, right after the elections, we moved out of the city to the house that we had been building for six years, about 100 kilometers out-side of Petersburg.We lived there about six weeks. We sewed curtains, cleaned, settled in, and arranged the furniture. As soon as we had finished all this, the house burned down. It is a sad story. It burned to the ground.
We drove out to the Putins' dacha. They had just finished building it. We got there quite late, toward evening. My husband and I had wanted to go back the same day, but Vladimir Vladimirovich and Lyudmila Aleksandrovna started in: "What are you saying? Let's heat up the banya and have a steam bath!" And their daughters chimed in, "Let Svetulya stay!" Svetulya is our daughter.
Our house was made of brick, but finished with wood inside. On that day I was out at the dacha with my wife and kids. We had just moved in. Marina Yentaltseva, my secretary, had just arrived with her husband and daughter. We men went into the sauna, which is right inside the house on the first floor. We steamed ourselves for a while, then had a dip in the river and came back to the sauna rest room. Suddenly, I heard a crack. I saw some smoke, and then a flame came shooting out. In my loudest and most commanding voice, I yelled for everybody to get out of the house. The sauna was on fire.
Katya was in the kitchen, eating something. She turned out to be the most disciplined. When I shouted "Everybody get out of the house!" she dropped her spoon on the table and leapt out of the house without asking any questions. Then she stood outside the house and watched. I ran upstairs.
My older daughter, Masha, was another story. She was floundering around on the second floor.... I took Masha by the hand and brought her out to the balcony. Then I tore the sheets off the bed, knotted them together, tied them to the balcony railing, and said to Masha: "Climb down!" She got scared: "I'm not going, I'm afraid!" I threatened her: ''I'm going to pick you up right away and throw you off here like a puppy! What's with you? Don't you understand that the house is about to burn down?!" I took her by the scruff of the neck and tossed her over the railing, and they caught her at the bottom.
Then I suddenly remembered there was a briefcase in our room with cash in it all our savings. What would we do without that money? I went back and started looking, feeling around with my hand. I thought, well, I've got a few more seconds of this and then I won't be able to . . . I stopped looking for the stash. I ran out to the balcony.
Flames were shooting upward. I clambered over the railing, grabbing the sheets, and began to lower myself down. And here's an interesting detail: I was stark naked from the banya. I had only just managed to wrap a sheet around myself. So you can imagine the scene: the house is burning, there's a naked man wrapped in a sheet, crawling down from the balcony, and the wind is blowing the sheet out like a sail. A crowd had gathered on the hill, and they were watching with enormous interest. The two cars were parked next to the house, and they were heating up pretty rapidly. But the keys to them were inside the house, and the doors were locked.
We were left without keys. Everything was inside the house. Lyudmila Aleksandrovna said, "Let's push this one." We had a Model 9 Zhiguli. I shouted in hysterics, "To hell with the car! The house is on fire!" She looked at me with great surprise and said,"That's okay, we can still use it.'' She took a stone and threw it at the car window. Then she moved the gearshift out of "park," and we somehow managed to push the first car and then the other one. Then I stood silently staring as the house burned. It was a total shock for me.
Lyudmila Aleksandrovna was the first one to say, "Thank God, everyone is alive and well!"
The house burned like a candle. The firemen arrived, but they ran out of water right away. There was a lake right there. "What do you mean, you're out of water? There's a whole lake right here!" I said. "There's a lake," they agreed, "but no hose." The firemen came and went three times. Our dacha burned to the ground.
The girls suffered the most from this incident. They had brought all their treasures from home to the dacha, all their toys and Barbie dolls, which they had been accumulating their whole lives. Masha told me later that she couldn't sleep for several months after that. They had lost everything that was familiar to them.
When the firemen later analyzed the fire, they concluded that the sauna builders were to blame for everything they hadn't put the stove in the banya properly. And if they were to blame, then they had to compensate us for the damage.
The first way they could compensate us would be to pay us money. But it wasn't clear how much the dacha was worth. The house burned down in 1996. We had been building it for five years. I remembered clearly that back in 1991, I had bought bricks for three rubles a piece. Later I realized that I didn't have enough and had to buy some more, but by then they cost seven rubles a piece. The prices since that time had risen further, and we had no idea how to index them. So I liked the second option for compensation better to force them to restore everything as it had been. And that's what they did. They erected the exact same frame, then hired a Polish firm to put on the finishing touches. They completed the job after a year and a half of work. Everything was as it had been before the fire, and even better. We only asked that the sauna be taken out completely.
I was philosophical about the loss of the house. After that experience, I realized that houses, money, and things shouldn't add stress to your life. They aren't worth it. You know why? Because at any minute, they could all just burn up.
It's a national custom that all important matters are decided in the banya: What will you do now, without one?
Banyas are really just for bathing. Even that last time, we weren't trying to resolve any questions. We were just holding a wake for my former job.