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Putin and me

The President of St. Petersburg College offers up an insider's look at the Russian evolution as Yeltsin is mourned and Putin presses on.

Published April 29, 2007


I made my first journey to St. Petersburg, Russia, in October 1990. At that time the city was Leningrad and the country was the Soviet Union. Mikhail Gorbachev was the premier. So much has changed. In late 1990, Vladimir Putin had just returned from 13 years in East Germany, where he had served as part of the KGB. I was one of Putin's first foreign visitors. When I met him he was serving as an assistant vice president for international relations at what was then Leningrad University. For about two weeks, we had nearly every breakfast, lunch and dinner together, went to cultural events and all over the St. Petersburg region. I learned he had an amazing intellect and memory.

Putin, 54, is a muscular man, an expert in martial arts. He is quiet and perceptive - listens and doesn't talk a lot. He is precise and detail-oriented. If he tells you he will meet you at 8:02, he will be there at 8:01 and a half.

On my first trip to the Soviet Union, I flew in from Finland. I recall a chilling effect that brought goose-bumps when the pilot announced: "Ladies and gentlemen, we have now entered Soviet air space." At that time, the country was not open to lots of tourists.

My first impressions of the country included the need for infrastructure repairs. There were food lines. You couldn't buy cigarettes, and there were shortages of gasoline. The country operated on almost a bartering system. Today, the major cities are not like that. The main roads are lined with car dealerships and retail stores of all types from around the globe. Goods are more plentiful. And there is a sense of optimism among the people, especially those who are participating in a global economy for the first time.

My relationship with Russia had started in 1989, when four people from their St. Petersburg came here under the People to People program started by Rosalynn Carter. We spent three or four days showing them around the area. At the end of that visit, we all agreed the two St. Petersburgs should forge a closer relationship - and that St. Petersburg College and St. Petersburg University in Russia should do so as well.

Soon after began the move to change the Russian city's name back to the original St. Petersburg. Then it was suggested that the two colleges exchange presidents, or rectors, as college presidents are known in Russia. So we did, which led to my '90 trip.

Putin asked me to arrange a visit of 15 leaders to Washington, D.C., and St. Petersburg College. I raised $150, 000 for the visit. The Russian delegation included Anatoly Sobchak, the mayor of St. Petersburg and one of Boris Yeltsin's closest friends. They asked us to set up meetings with the president, the vice president and some key members of Congress. We did that, and Sobchak addressed the nation via C-SPAN.

When Sobchak met with the first President Bush in a meeting we set up, I was later told by several Russians that it was most productive. But I was never told what it was all about. All I remember is that I believe there were major understandings between Bush and Sobchak regarding oil. Russia was in the beginning of its oil development industry, and our oil companies became partners - proving that Americans and Russians can team up successfully. Oil is helping change the politics of Russia. Americans and Europeans are investing in Russia's oil resources and the country is exploring untapped sources for oil and gas.

Yeltsin's degree

I have made about a dozen trips to Russia over the past 19 years. More than 200 Russian leaders in fields such as law, government, education, journalism, engineering and the like have visited Pinellas County.

On one of my early trips to Russia, I carried with me an honorary degree from St. Petersburg College for President Yeltsin. The ceremony was planned, we had carried with us the proper regalia, and at the last minute, Yeltsin was called out of town, so I never got to meet him. I wound up presenting the honorary degree to a deputy, but still I am proud that Yeltsin was an honorary graduate of St. Petersburg College for he was a leader in the opening of his country to the world.

New and old

It is my understanding that Yeltsin asked Sobchak to be his vice president but it never occurred. After one term as mayor, Sobchak was defeated. That meant both he and Putin, Sobchak's vice mayor, were out of office.

Many in Russia didn't want Sobchak to succeed. Sobchak had started the movement toward an open Russia and to change the name of the city from Leningrad back to St. Petersburg, and many old-timers didn't like that. It was very hard to tell who represented the old ways and who represented the new ways.

It was rumored that Yeltsin tried to get Sobchak to become a part of his administration - prime minister, United Nations ambassador, or another position at that level. Something happened and Sobchak ended up in exile in Paris. That was hard on Yeltsin and on Putin, too. Rumors were that Yeltsin was asked to take care of Putin, Sobchak's protegee.

Putin re-entered government service at a mid-level executive position for a short time, but he was promoted rapidly and ended up in the Kremlin and close to Yeltsin. I lost track of Putin for a short time but began corresponding with him again when he started working for Yeltsin. By the time Yeltsin retired, Putin was in a position to succeed him.

Feeling a chill

Yuri Ushakov, the Russian ambassador, offered a glimpse of a new relationship between our countries in an opinion piece that appeared in the Washington Post. It said America and Russia can never afford to be enemies again, but they will not always be friends. To Russians and Americans who would like to have the closest relationship, it's possible those words were a bit of a wakeup call.

(More evidence of that came Thursday in Putin's final state of the nation address when he announced he was suspending Russia's obligations under the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty, a pact to limit tanks and heavy weapons dating from the final days of the Cold War. His stance raises the volume of an argument with NATO over U.S. plans to build a missile defense system in Eastern Europe with the cooperation of Poland - where 10 interceptor missiles would be based - and the Czech Republic - where the alliance would build a radar tracking station. The United States sees it more as a defense against North Korea or Iran than a threat to Russia. Putin vehemently disagrees. In that same speech Putin noted Russia's growing economic power, as it has been using petroleum revenues to pay off old debts even as he pointed out that daunting challenges remain: low birth rate, short life expectancy and poor housing.)

Successful educational and entrepreneurial partnerships between our two countries will result in stronger relationships. Last week, St. Petersburg College was host when the rector from Orenburg State University in Russia visited Florida. We signed an "agreement of cooperation" before he left, promising to promote a student and faculty exchange in the fields of education, science and culture.

When Putin visited the United States in May 2002, I arranged for St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker to meet him at a reception in the president's suite at Columbia University. Putin, who is not a tall man, shook Mayor Baker's hand and immediately compared him to Peter the Great, who was 7 feet tall. Friendly exchanges like this also will cement relationships between our countries.

The world's view of the Russians can be a bit unfair. They are some of the most talented, intelligent and energized people in the world. Their definition of "democracy" is different than ours. Putin has said in some very strong words that Russia must be allowed to define its own form of democracy. Some Americans have decided the Russian form of democracy they read about is not the form they wish for the Russian people. But it is doubtful American democracy will be replicated in Russia.

Who's next?

One of the most frequently asked questions in Russia is who will be Putin's successor? It's a legitimate question, but I believe when Putin gives the nod, the Russian establishment, which is showing signs of economic growth, will support his candidate. Presidential elections are scheduled for March 2008, and Putin is barred by the Constitution from running again.

America has enjoyed the services of one of Russia's most competent diplomats in Ambassador Ushakov. He and his wife, Svetlana, understand in great detail the best parts of America's institutions of government. The next president of Russia would be wise to seek their counsel.


Carl Kuttler is president of St. Petersburg College.

St. Petersburg College president Carl M. Kuttler Jr. has enjoyed close personal and professional relationships with a number of high-ranking Russian leaders for nearly 20 years, relationships that have included President Vladimir Putin, former President Boris Yeltsin and former St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak. With Yeltsin's recent passing, Perspective asked Kuttler to write about some of his experiences in Russia and about some of his personal recollections with Russian leaders.

[Last modified April 29, 2007, 20:28:26]

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