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    A pardoned man's paean

    By MARGO HAMMOND

    © St. Petersburg Times, published October 15, 2000


    On Dec. 31, 1999, Boris Yeltsin, the first freely elected president in Russia's history, voluntarily left office, naming Vladimir Putin as his successor. Yeltsin was no fool. He was facing the possibility of criminal prosecution on corruption charges by angry opponents in the Russian Parliament and Putin was his best chance for a pardon, if it came to that. Yeltsin had been impressed when Putin performed basically that service for his previous mentor, the beleaguered one-time reform mayor of St. Petersburg, Anatoly Sobchak, helping him to escape to Finland. In MIDNIGHT DIARIES (Public Affairs, $26), the final volume of Yeltsin's memoirs out this week, here is the valentine the former Russian president sends to the man whom one insider calls "the Russian Gerald Ford":

    "Putin . . . did not allow himself to be manipulated in political games. Even I was amazed by his solid moral code. In the insidious rumor mill of the government at that time, it was wise for even a seasoned person to avoid entanglements. But for Putin, the single criterion was the morality of a given action or the decency of a given person. He would not do anything that conflicted with his understanding of honor. He was always prepared to part with his high post if his sense of integrity would require it. Putin did not hasten into big politics, but he sensed danger more quickly and acutely than others and always tried to warn me of trouble. When I learned that Putin had helped send Sobchak abroad, I had mixed feelings. Putin had taken a great risk. Yet I profoundly admired his actions."

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