Tuesday, May 9, 2017


First Person

Part 7


After a couple of false starts, Putin finally goes to Moscow in 1996. Government work suits him perfectly and he rises from post to post at dazzling speed. Then he is commanded to take over the FSB, the former KGB. This comes as a blow. Putin and Lyudmila do not want to return to the closed, stifling, stressful life of the secret services. Putin refuses the rank of general, becoming the first-ever civilian director of a security organ. Thankfully, the post doesn't last very long. Out of the blue, Yeltsin names Putin prime minister. Meanwhile, tension in the Caucuses is rising as Chechen rebels demand independence. Fearing a potential domino effect, Putin takes a hard line. He is willing to sacrifice his own political career to crush the Chechens and thereby avoid what he sees as a devastating, large-scale war.

What did you do for work after leaving Yakovlev's office, when no ambassadorial post materialized?
After we lost the elections in Peter, a few months passed and I was still without a job. It really wasn't very good. I had a family, you know. The situation had to be resolved, one way or another. But the signals from Moscow were mixed; first they were asking me to come to work, and then they weren't.
But who did make you an offer?

Borodin, as odd as it may seem. Chief of Staff Pavel Borodin brought me into the presidential administration. I don't know why. We had met several times. That was essentially the extent of our relationship. Borodin talked to the chief of the presidential administration, Nikolai Yegorov, about me. Yegorov summoned me to Moscow and offered me a job as his deputy. He showed me a draft presidential decree and said that he would take it to Yeltsin's office for a signature next week and I could start work. I agreed, saying "Good. What am I supposed to do?" He said, "Fly home to Peter. When he signs it, we'll call you."
I left, and two or three days later Yegorov was removed from his post and Anatoly Chubais was made chief of administration. Then Chubais eliminated the job that had just been offered to me. So I ended up not moving to Moscow.
Some time passed, and there was another change of administration, now under Chernomyrdin. Aleksei Alekseyevich Bolshakov was his first deputy. He was a fellow-Petersburger. Bolshakov ran into Borodin at a reception, and said to him, "What are you doing? You promised the guy a job and then you dropped him, and now he's sitting there without a job." Borodin was insulted. "I didn't drop him. It was our little pal Chubais who ruined it." ''Then take him on at your office," Bolshakov said. But Borodin thought I wouldn't go to the General Department because I had grown accustomed to other kinds of work. Bolshakov insisted: "Well, then think up something else." On that note, they parted, and Borodin promised to think of something. And so he did, but I only found out about it later.
Aleksei Kudrin called me. At that time he was chief of the president's Main Control Directorate.* He told me to come over and they'd see what they could do. Although the one post had been eliminated, there were other possibilities. I flew to Moscow and met with Kudrin,  and he talked to Chubais. Chubais, before leaving to go on vacation, offered me a job heading the Directorate for Public Liaison. That really wasn't my cup of tea, but what could I do? If I had to work with the public, then I would work with the public. The job would still be in the president's administration. So I agreed to take it.
*The U.S. equivalent of Russia's Main Control Directorate is the Inspector General's Office.
Kudrin and I got into his car and took off for the airport. On the way he said, "Listen, let's call up Bolshakov and congratulate him. He's one of us, from Peter, and he's been promoted to first deputy." "Well, alright," I said. We dialed Bolshakov's phone number right from the car and were transferred through to him. As head of the Main Control Directorate, Kudrin could get through  to anyone. Aleksei congratulated Bolshakov, and added, "Here's Volodya Putin, and he'd like to congratulate you as well." Bolshakov said, "Put him on the phone.'' I took the phone, and Bolshakov said, "Where are you?" using the familiar form of address. "What do you mean, I'm right here in the car. I'm going with Aleksei to the airport." "And where were you?" he said. "At the Kremlin. They were deciding which job I should have. I'm going to be the head of the Directorate for Public Liaison." "Call me back in 30 minutes," said Bolshakov. But the car was getting closer to the airport.
I was all ready to board my plane, when at the last minute Bolshakov called us back. "Listen, can you stay in Moscow?" he asked. "I'll go see Borodin tomorrow." I didn't understand what he was talking about, but I stayed. It never occurred to me that Bolshakov remembered me. I didn't know why he was doing this, but I didn't feel comfortable asking him. I could think of only one explanation. You see, Aleksei Alekseyevich Bolshakov was a prominent person. At one time, he was the first deputy of the executive committee of the Leningrad City Council, the person who really ran the city. There were good reports about Bolshakovthat he was a can-do, energetic, hard working man. Though he had never really been an orthodox Communist, the tide of democracy had swept him away. Sobchak decided that he had to go.
Bolshakov wound up almost on the street. He got some work, but no one imagined that he would land himself a good post again, much less in Moscow. From time to time, Bolshakov would appear in Smolny on business. I never forced him to wait in the reception area. I would always stop what I was doing, kick everybody out, come out into the reception area myself, and say, "Aleksei Alekseyevich, right this way." We were never close, but maybe he remembered me.
The next morning, I went to Borodin, and he offered me a job as his deputy.
That is how, in August 1996, I ended up in the government building on Old Square in Moscow, as deputy to the head of the president's General Affairs Department. I was in charge of the legal division and Russian property abroad.

Lyudmila Putina:
It wasn't a question of whether or not to go to Moscow. It was understood that we had to go. And I wouldn't even say that Volodya and I discussed his new appointment very much. Volodya said that although they had offered him a new job that wasn't quite suitable for him, there were no other options. Then he got the other offer.
I didn't want to leave St. Petersburg. We had just started living in our own apartment, and now everything was going to be government-issue again. But how could I complain? We got a dacha in Arkhangelsk. True, the house was old, but it had two floors and six rooms two below, and four on the second floor fancy! And I fell in love with Moscow right away. The city just suited me. Maybe it was the atmosphere, or the bustling streets, or the fact that it's well kept. I was wild about Petersburg, but when I came to Moscow I got over it. My husband took longer to get used to Moscow, but he also grew accustomed to it. Here, you really get the feeling that life is in full swing.
I wouldn't say that I didn't like Moscow. It's just that I liked Peter more. But Moscow is a truly European city. It has its problems, of course, but life is bustling. I have to admit that Peter is provincial, at least politically. You have had an incredible career in Moscow. You got a promotion practically every year. In 1997, head of the Main Control Directorate; in 1998, first deputy head of the presidential administration, responsible for the regions; in 1998, director of the FSB, and later, secretary of the security council. In August 1999, prime minister, and since December 31, acting president. Have all of these positions held equal interest for you?
Not at all. In fact, there was a moment when I thought about leaving the presidential administration.
When was that?
When I worked in the Control Directorate. It was not very creative work. It was important, it was necessary, and I understood all that. But it simply wasn't interesting for me. I don't know what I would have done if I had left. I probably would have opened up a law firm. It's hard to say whether I could have lived on that, but it would have been interesting. Many of my friends are in private practice, and it's working out for them.
So why didn't you leave?
While I was still thinking about it, I was appointed first deputy to the chief of the presidential administration, responsible for the regions and contacts with the governors. To this day I think that was the most interesting job. I developed relationships with many of the governors at that time. It was clear to me that work with the regional leaders was one of the most important lines of work in the country. Everyone was saying that the vertikal, the vertical chain of government, had been destroyed and that it had to be restored
But do the governors themselves need that? Are they ready to line up under the vertikal?
They are. After all, the governors are part of the country, and they also suffer from management weaknesses. Not everyone is going to like everything. You can't please everybody, but you can find some common approaches. I was also interested in learning more about the country. I had only ever worked in St. Petersburg, apart from the time I spent abroad. . . . Of course, my seven years of experience in Peter was good experience, both administrative and managerial. But Peter isn't the whole country. I wanted to travel and see things.
So, why did you drop that interesting job and go to work as director of the FSB? Do you have some affinity for the agencies?
No. I wasn't asked whether or not I wanted to go, and they had given me no inkling that I was even being considered for such an appointment. The president simply signed a decree. . . .
But the chief of administration was Valentin Yumashev?
Yes. I was sitting in my office, when the phone rang. "Can you get out to the airport and meet Kirienko?" Kirienko was prime minister, and he was coming back from a visit with the president, who was on vacation in Karelia. I said, "Alright." What was this all about, I wondered. I was already suspecting something bad. I got to the airport and Kirienko came out. He said, "Hi, Volodya! Congratulations!" I said, "What for?" He said, "The decree is signed. You have been appointed director of the FSB.'' Well, thanks a lot, guys. . . . I can't say I was overjoyed. I didn't want to step into the same river twice.
You know, working in a military-style organization is, after all, a very difficult kind of service. I remember coming into the KGB building where I worked and feeling as if they were plugging me into an electrical outlet. I don't know, maybe I was the only one who felt that way, but I think the majority of people who worked there did too. It put you in a constant state of tension. All the papers are secret. This isn't allowed, that isn't allowed.And you couldn't even go out to a restaurant! They thought only prostitutes and black-marketeers went to restaurants. What would a decent officer of the security agencies be doing in such company?
And then, if you were an intelligence officer, you were always the object of a potential vetting. They are always checking up on you. It might not happen very often, but it wasn't very pleasant. And the meetings every week! And the plan of work for the day! You shouldn't laugh. There was a notebook stamped "Classified," and on Friday you had to come in, open it up, and write your work plan for the week day by day. And then each day, you signed off on every hour.
In the Kremlin, I have a different position. Nobody controls me here. I control everybody else. But at the FSB I reported to the division head and the department head. He would open the work plan: What had been done during the week? And I would begin to report, and explain why something wasn't finished. I would explain that something was a large-scale project and that it couldn't be finished immediately. Then why did you put it in the plan? Only write down what you can do!
I'm telling you all this to explain what it was like. There was a lot of pressure.
I went into the office of the FSB director, and I was met by my predecessor, Nikolai Kovalev. He opened the safe and said, "Here's my secret notebook. And here's my ammunition." And I looked at all this mournfully.
Lyudmila Putina:
I believe the only appointment that we discussed at home was Volodya's post of prime minister. I remember we talked about the FSB once, about three months before he was offered the post, and he said that he would never agree to take it. We were taking a walk at the dacha in Arkhangelsk and talking about his work, and he said that he did not want to go to the FSB. I understood why. It would mean a return to the closed life. When Volodya worked in the KGB, it was really a very closed life. Don't go there, don't say that. Talk to that person, don't talk to this person. And then it had been such a hard decision to leave the KGB, that when he left, he thought he was leaving forever.
I was vacationing on the Baltic Sea when he called and said, "You be careful there, because I've been returned to the place where I began." I thought that he had given back the job as Borodin's deputy that he had been demoted. I couldn't decode what he was saying. I thought that something had happened in the country while I was away, that the situation had changed somehow. Then he repeated it: "I've been returned to the place where I began." And when he said it the third time, I got it. When I got back from vacation, I asked him how it had happened. "They appointed me, and that's it." I asked no more questions.
When Volodya returned to the FSB, they offered him the rank of general. He was still in the civil service. But you can't have a colonel commanding generals. You need someone with authority.
Did this new position affect our lives? No, but I had some friends in Germany, a husband and wife, and I was forced to break off all contact with them. I thought it would just be for a while, but to this day, we have not renewed our friendship.
How did they greet you at the FSB? There you were, a former KGB colonel . . .
I was greeted cautiously. Then things got better. As for being a colonel . . . Let's take a closer look. . . . First of all, I was a colonel in the reserves. I had completed my service as a lieutenant colonel, ten years earlier. During those ten years, I had had a different life. And when I came to work at the FSB, it was not as a colonel but as a civilian who held the position of first deputy to the chief of the presidential administration.
That is, you in fact became the first civilian leader of the security agencies?
Of course, but nobody paid attention to that, either because they were stupid or ignorant, or because they didn't want to.
Did the top leadership change under you?
It changed, but not a lot. I didn't make any drastic moves, really. I just took a look at the situation and the people and began to make the changes that I felt were necessary.
Why did Yevgeny Primakov say that you had put Leningraders everywhere?
Others said that I had fired all the Leningraders and put in unknowns. But I took the whole FSB leadership to Primakov for a meeting. And it turned out that everybody was in place. Nobody had been fired. Primakov then apologized, and said that he had been misled.
Is it true that as director of the FSB, you used to run into Vladimir Kryuchkov?*
It's true.
*Vladimir Kryuchkov was the former head of the KGB, and was one of the August 1991 coup-plotters.
No, not accidentally. I worked rather actively with the longtime veterans.
People have started to talk again about merging the FSB with the MVD, the Interior Ministry. What do you think about this?*
* On March 6, 1953, the day after Stalin died, his secret police chief, Lavrenty Beria, succeeded in merging the MVD with the MGB, as the KGB was then known. The merger lasted about a year, until Beria's execution in March 1954.

 I'm against it. The community of special services has coalesced, and to disrupt it again would be bad. From the perspective of ministerial concerns, it might be okay; but from a policy perspective, it would not be advantageous, it is better to receive information from two sources than from one.
So maybe it would be even better if they kept watch over each other rather than merging their forces?
That's not a question for me. In Germany, of course, it was like that in 1933. Everybody was supposed to watch over everybody else. That was the principle behind the Gestapo.
It's interesting to note that you were twice appointed to posts previously occupied by another Petersburger, Sergei Stepashin. First, with the FSB, which was then called the FSK;** and later the post of prime minister. Is Stepashin not remembered fondly at the FSB?

** The FSK was the Federal Counterintelligence Service.
No, just the opposite, he was well liked. In the FSK, he handled himself in an unexpectedly mature manner, which earned many people's respect, including my own.
Sobchak very much supported Stepashin's appointment as head of the Leningrad directorate of the FSK. I was already working in the city administration by that time. I recall Sobchak telling me that after the coup, a democrat was going to head the FSK. I didn't like that at all. Here . . . some kind of policeman was going to be running the agencies. In the Cheka,* we've never liked policemen. Besides, Stepashin never had any relationship to the security agencies. No, I honestly wasn't bothered by the fact he represented the democratic wave. I myself was already from that milieu. But I was surprised. Do you remember the situation of the security agencies at that time?
 People wanted to tear them down, to break them apart, to shred them to bits. They proposed opening up the lists of agents and declassifying files. But Stepashin behaved completely unexpectedly. In fact, he used his democratic authority to protect the Leningrad special services. From the outset he said, "If you trust me, then trust me. What we can publicize, we will. But what will be harmful to the state, we won't publicize." You have to give him credit; he was able to establish working relationships with the leaders of the agencies. He was trusted.
*Cheka, a word formed from the Russian acronym for "Extraordinary Commission," is the name of the secret police organization founded by Lenin. The word is still popularly used to refer to the security police.
Later, Stepashin and I met in Moscow. We were not very close or friendly. But do you remember that after he resigned from the FSK, he worked in the government bureaucracy? I was in the presidential administration by then. And when the question arose of whom to appoint as Minister of Justice, I suggested Stepashin. I had discussed it with him beforehand: "Sergei, do you want it? I don't know if I'll be able to put it through, but I'm prepared to support you," I said. He said he did want it, because he was tired of pushing papers.    
Were you happy when Stepashin was appointed prime minister?
And did you know that at the same time, you were being considered as a candidate for this post?
When he was appointed premier? No. No, it never entered my mind.
Stepashin served as prime minister for only a few months. He didn't hide the fact that his dismissal was very painful for him. Did you speak to him face-to-face?
Yes. He knows I had nothing to do with his dismissal. Still, it was terribly awkward when I was telephoned on the eve of the event and asked to come to visit Yeltsin at The Hills the next morning. The four of us were sitting there together Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin, Stepashin, Nikolai Aksenenko, and I when Yeltsin demanded Sergei's resignation. You can imagine the state I was in. I am his colleague! What was I supposed to say Sergei, you're going to be fired? I couldn't say that aloud. I wouldn't be able to get the words out. Of course, it was all very unpleasant.
After you left Yeltsin's, did you talk to each other?
We said goodbye, and that was it.
And you and Stepashin never spoke about that morning again?
We did talk about it. I think he was offended. Or he was hurt. Time will pass, and he'll forget about it. He hadn't done anything obvious for which he deserved to be fired. But the president believed otherwise. He made the decision, and it probably wasn't just based on the two or three months that Sergei was prime minister. . . .
Boris Nikolayevich invited me to his office and said that he was thinking about offering me the post of prime minister but that he had to talk to Stepashin first. I wasn't especially surprised. It was clear that things were moving in that direction. I mean, not my appointment, but Stepashin's dismissal. Yeltsin didn't ask me if I would agree to become prime minister or not. He just said that he had already made a decision regarding Stepashin.
By the way, in his conversation with me, Yeltsin didn't use the word "successor." He used the phrase "prime minister with a future" that is, if everything went smoothly, it was a possibility.*
*Yeltsin changed prime ministers four times in 1989-1999. The order of Yeltsin's prime ministers is: Viktor S. Chernomyrdin (December 1992-March 1998), Sergei V. Kiriyenko (five months), Yevgeny M. Primakov (eight months), Sergei V. Stepashin (three months), Vladimir Putin (since August 10, 1999).
And then later, on television, Yeltsin mentioned me as a possible future president. He said this aloud to the whole country. And when I was deluged with questions, I replied, "If the president says so, that's what I'll do." Maybe I didn't sound so sure of myself, but what else could I say?
Do you remember the state the country was in at the time?
It was right before the elections, and Boris Nikolayevich had to make a decision. All those governors we've been talking about understood perfectly well that everything was frozen and that they had to make up their minds. Why did they form the OVR?* Because the governors had no alternative. They had to create an alternative.

*The OVR is the Fatherland-All Russia Party.
You mean an alternative to Unity?** 

**Unity is Putin's party, created in December 1999.
Lyudmila Putina:
I wasn't surprised that my husband's career advanced at the speed of lightning. But sometimes I would catch myself thinking: "How strange; I'm married to a man who yesterday was really just an unknown deputy mayor of St. Petersburg, and now he's the prime minister." But somehow I always believed that this could happen to Volodya.
I'm not afraid of it. And I'm not particularly proud. But I do admire Volodya. He's dedicated, not vain but dedicated. He always worked hard and achieved his goals. He always lived for the sake of something. There are some people who work hard for money, but he works hard for ideas. He's satisfied by the very process of work. It seems to me that people like that go far. You know, the fact that I am the prime minister's wife is more surprising to me than that he is the prime minister.
Marina Yentaltseva:
A few days after Putin became prime minister, his father died. Every weekend Vladimir Vladimirovich had been coming from Moscow to visit his father. At that time he was very burdened with work, but he would still come to St. Petersburg once a week, for at least half a day. He was afraid that he wouldn't get there in time to say goodbye to his father. But I was told that he was present for the last few hours of his father's life.
When Yeltsin announced to the whole country that you were his successor, were you quaking inside?
You were so sure of yourself?
No, that's not it. Remember what Gennady Seleznev said at the time: "Why did they do that to you? They've buried you." Everybody thought that that was the end for me. I also realized my career could be over, but for different reasons.
Let me try to explain. All of this took place as tension was mounting in Dagestan. I had already decided that my career might be over, but that my mission, my historical mission and this will sound lofty, but it's true consisted of resolving the situation in the Northern Caucasus. At that time nobody knew how it would all end; but it was clear to me and probably to other people too that "the kid was going to get his butt kicked" on the Northern Caucasus. That's how I saw it. I said to myself, "Never mind, I have a little time two, three, maybe four months to bang the hell out of those bandits. Then they can get rid of me."
I realized we needed to strike the rebel bases in Chechnya. Frankly, everything that had been done in recent years, especially in the area of preserving the government, was how can I put it mildly, so as not to offend anyone? amateurish. . . . Believe me, back in 1990-1991, I knew exactly as arrogant as it may sound that the attitude toward the army and the special services, especially after the fall of the USSR, threatened the country. We would very soon be on the verge of collapse. Now, about the Caucasus: What's the situation in the Northern Caucasus and in Chechnya today? It's a continuation of the collapse of the USSR. Clearly, at some point it has to be stopped. Yes, for a time, I had hoped that the growth of the economy and the emergence of democratic institutions would help freeze this process. But time and experience have shown us that this isn't happening.
This is what I thought of the situation in August, when the bandits attacked Dagestan: If we don't put an immediate end to this, Russia will cease to exist. It was a question of preventing the collapse of the country. I realized I could only do this at the cost of my political career. It was a minimal cost, and I was prepared to pay up. So when Yeltsin declared me his successor and everyone thought that it was the beginning of the end for me, I felt completely calm. The hell with them. I calculated that I had several months to consolidate the armed forces, the Interior Ministry, and the FSB, and to rally public support. Would there be enough time? That's all I worried about.
But the decision to begin a campaign in Dagestan and then in Chechnya wasn't yours to make. Yeltsin was president, and the burden of the first unsuccessful operation lay with him and with Stepashin.
Well, Stepashin was no longer prime minister. As for Yeltsin, he supported me completely. We discussed the situation in Chechnya at every meeting.
So that means that the entire responsibility was on your shoulders?
To a large degree. I met with the top officials of the Ministry of Defense, the General Staff, and the Interior Ministry. We met almost every day, sometimes twice a day, morning and evening. And with a lot of fine-tuning, the ministries were consolidated. The first thing that I had to do was to overcome the disarray among the ministries. The army didn't understand what the Interior Ministry was doing, and the FSB was criticizing everyone and not taking responsibility for anything. We had to become one team, one single organism. Only then would we be successful.
You talked about the price that you personally were prepared to pay for the campaign in the Northern Caucasus: your career. But in fact, the price of any military campaign is measured in human lives and in units of currency.
I was convinced that if we didn't stop the extremists right away, we'd be facing a second Yugoslavia on the entire territory of the Russian Federation,  the
Yugoslavization of Russia.
But you could have knocked the rebels out of Dagestan, and surrounded Chechnya with a cordon sanitaire . . .
That would have been pointless and also technically impossible.
Tell us, does the fact that Lenin gave Finland away many decades ago bother you? Is the secession of Chechnya impossible in principle?
No, it isn't. But secession isn't the issue. It seemed to me that it was all absolutely clear. I'll tell you what guided me and why I was so convinced of the threat that hung over our country. Everyone says I'm harsh, even brutal. These are unpleasant epithets. But I have never for a second believed and people with even an elementary level of political knowledge understand this that Chechnya would limit itself to its own independence. It would become a beachhead for further attacks on Russia.
After all, the aggression began there. They built up their forces and then attacked a neighboring territory. Why? In order to defend the independence of Chechnya? Of course not. In order to seize additional territories. They would have swallowed up Dagestan, and that would have been the beginning of the end. The entire Caucasus would have followed Dagestan, Ingushetia, and then up along the Volga River to Bashkortostan and Tatarstan, reaching deep into the country.
You know, I was frightened when I imagined the real consequences. I started wondering how many refugees Europe and America could absorb. Because the disintegration of such an enormous country would have been a global catastrophe. And when I compare the scale of the possible tragedy to what we have there now, I do not have a second of doubt that we are doing the right thing. Maybe we should be even tougher. The problem is, if the conflict goes further, no amount of armed forces will be enough. We would be forced to draft people in the reserves and send them into combat. A large-scale war would begin.
Another option: We could agree to a division of the country. Immediately, dissatisfied leaders from different regions and territories would turn up: ''We don't want to live in a Russia like that. We want to be independent." And off they'd go.
Now, let's return to the question of the independence of Chechnya. Today, everyone recognizes that it is necessary to preserve the territorial integrity of Russia and not to support terrorists and separatists. But let's say we agreed to the independence of the republic and allowed Chechnya to succeed.
The situation would be completely different. If we agreed to Chechnya's independence, then quite a few countries would immediately grant official recognition to Chechnya, and that very same day, would begin to provide large-scale official support to the Chechens. Our current actions would be viewed as aggression, and not the resolution of internal problems. This would radically change the situation and make it far, far worse for Russia.
Last summer, we began a battle not against the independence of Chechnya but against the aggressive aspirations that had begun to flourish on that territory. We are not attacking. We are defending ourselves. We knocked the rebels out of Dagestan, and they came back. We knocked them out again, and they came back again. We knocked them out a third time. And then, when we gave them a serious kick in the teeth, they blew up apartment houses in Moscow, Buinaksk, and Volgodonsk.
Did you make the decision to continue the operation in Chechnya before the apartment house explosions or after?
You know that there is a version of the story that says the apartment houses were deliberately blown up, in order to justify the beginning of military actions in
Chechnya? That is, the explosions were supposedly the work of the Russian special services?
What?! Blowing up our own apartment buildings? You know, that is really . . . utter nonsense! It's totally insane. No one in the Russian special services would be capable of such a crime against his own people. The very supposition is amoral. It's nothing but part of the information war against Russia.

Lyudmila Putina:
About three weeks before New Year's Eve, Volodya said, "I'm flying to Chechnya for New Year's. Are you coming with me?" At first I was surprised. How could I leave the children alone? And what if something happened to both of us: What would happen to them? I decided I wouldn't go. A few days later I flew to Peter, thought calmly for a while, returned to Moscow, and told Volodya that I would go to Chechnya after all. I don't know why.... I think I was terrified of staying behind without him. No one could guarantee that something wouldn't happen. Things were unpredictable.
The wife of Patrushev, director of the FSB, also came along. The rest were all men. We flew to Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan, then transferred to three helicopters and flew to Gudermes, the second largest city of Chechnya. But the pilot decided not to risk landing the helicopter in Gudermes, the visibility was poor. I think he needed to see ahead at least 150 meters, but he could only see 100. Twenty minutes before the New Year, we turned around and flew back. At midnight we opened champagne in the helicopter. We had no glasses, so we drank right out of the bottles. There were two bottles of champagne for the entire group.
When we turned back, the people in Gudermes figured that we weren't going to make it. But you have to know Volodya. I didn't have a minute's doubt that we would somehow reach that military unit. It wasn't important when or how, but we would get there. When we got back to Makhachkala, Volodya said to me, "You stay behind. We'll go in cars." No way! Was it worth flying such a long way to sit and wait for who knows how long? We piled into some cars. It was already 2:30 A.M. Two and a half hours later, we arrived at the unit. I slept the whole way.
You should have seen the surprise and amazement in the eyes of our boys when we arrived. They looked tired and a little disoriented as though they wanted to pinch themselves: Was this really Putin who had come to see them and celebrate New Year's Eve with them? Were they dreaming?
We spent an hour in the unit and then drove back. Several hours later, the road on which we had just been traveling was bombed. That was it. Then we flew back to Moscow. On January 1, we were invited to the home of Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin. It was only the second time in my life that I saw him.
We kept asking our parents, "Where will we spend New Year's Eve?" And about a week before the holiday, Mama said that she and Papa would be away for New Year's.
But she didn't say where they were going. My sister and I didn't think about it much. We weren't hurt that they were going away. Our aunt and cousin were visiting, and we had invited a girlfriend over. We had already received our presents. We had asked for a computer, and they had given us two, so that we each had our own. Our parents came back the next evening and went out again right away. It was only later, watching television, that we realized they had been in Chechnya.

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