exaggerating his influence and just as certainly believing half of what he said or implied as he said or implied it. A couple of consecutive generations of foreign correspondents in Russia believed that Berezovsky was the country’s shadow ruler.

NO ONE IS EASIER to manipulate than a man who exaggerates his own influence. As the Family looked for Russia’s future leader, a series of meetings between Berezovsky and Putin commenced. By this time, Putin was the head of Russia’s secret police. Yeltsin had obliterated the top brass everywhere, repeatedly, and the FSB—the Federal Security Service, as the successor agency to the KGB was now called—was no exception. If Berezovsky is to be believed, he was the one who mentioned Putin to Valentin Yumashev, Yeltsin’s chief of staff. “I said, ‘We’ve got Putin, who used to be in the secret services, didn’t he?’ And Valya said, ‘Yes, he did,’ and I said, ‘Listen, I think it’s an option. Think about it: he is a friend, after all.’ And Valya said, ‘But he’s got pretty low rank.’ And I said, ‘Look, there is a revolution going on, everything is all mixed up, so there…’”

As a description of the decision-making process for appointing the head of the main security agency of a nuclear power, this conversation sounds so absurd, I am actually inclined to believe it. Putin’s rank was indeed low: he had left active duty as a lieutenant colonel and had received an automatic upgrade to colonel while in reserve. He would claim to have been offered a general’s stars when he took over the FSB and to have turned the honor down. “It doesn’t take a general to order colonels around,” was how his wife explained his decision. “It takes someone who is capable of doing it.”

Whether he was capable or not, Putin clearly felt insecure in his job at the FSB. He quickly began appointing people he knew from the Leningrad KGB to top positions in the federal structure. Meanwhile, he did not even feel safe in his own office: whenever he met with Berezovsky, the two would take their conversations to a disused elevator shaft behind Putin’s office; this was the only place in the building Putin believed their discussions would not be recorded. In this desolate and dysfunctional setting, Berezovsky met with Putin almost every day to talk about his battle with former prime minister Primakov—and, eventually, about becoming president of Russia. The potential candidate was skeptical at first, Berezovsky recalled, but he was willing to listen. One time Putin carelessly shut the door that separated the shaft from the hallway in front of his office, and the pair got locked in the elevator shaft. Putin had to pound on the wall for someone to let them out.

In the end, Berezovsky, who fully felt he represented Russia, courted Putin. In July 1999, Berezovsky flew to Biarritz, in southwest France, where Putin was vacationing. “I called him ahead of time,” Berezovsky remembered. “I told him I wanted to come and discuss something serious with him. I got there; he was vacationing with his wife and two daughters, who were still very young at the time, in these very modest condominium-type accommodations. It was like an apartment building slash apartment hotel. A small kitchen, a bedroom or a few bedrooms. Really very modest.” By this time, Russian millionaires, of whom Putin no doubt was one, had become accustomed to taking their vacations in giant villas on the Cote d’Azur: this was why Berezovsky was so impressed with Putin’s unassuming holiday arrangement.

“We spent an entire day in conversation. In the end, he said, ‘All right, let’s give it a shot. But you do understand that Boris Nikolayevich [Yeltsin] has to be the one to say it to me.’”

All of this resembled an old shtetl joke. A matchmaker calls on an aging tailor to discuss the possibility of arranging his middle daughter’s marriage to the heir to the Rothschild empire. The tailor puts up several objections: he has no business marrying off his middle daughter before the older ones have found a match, he does not want his daughter to move far from home, he is not so sure the Rothschilds are as pious as his daughter’s husband ought to be. The matchmaker counters each argument with his own: this is, after all, the heir to the Rothschild fortune. Finally, the old tailor relents. “Excellent,” says the matchmaker. “Now all I have to do is talk to the Rothschilds.”

Berezovsky reassured Putin. “I said, ‘Volodya, what are you talking about? I was sent here by him, just to make sure there was no misunderstanding, so it wouldn’t happen that he would say it to you and you responded, like you have to me on many occasions, by saying you don’t want this.’ So he agreed. I returned to Moscow and told Yumashev about our conversation. And a short time later—I no longer remember exactly how many days later— Putin returned to Moscow and met with Boris Nikolayevich. And Boris Nikolayevich had a complicated reaction. At least, I remember his saying one thing to me: ‘He seems all right, but he is kind of small.’”

Yeltsin’s daughter, Tatyana Yumasheva, remembers the story differently. She recalls Yeltsin’s then chief of staff, Voloshin, locked in an argument with a former chief of staff, Chubais: both agreed Putin was a good choice for successor, but Chubais did not believe the Russian parliament would confirm Putin as prime minister. While both were presenting their cases to Yeltsin, Berezovsky flew to Biarritz to pop the question—because he wanted Putin and the rest of the country to believe he was the kingmaker.

Like the other participants in the presidential selection process, however, Tatyana Yumasheva remembers the panic with which they viewed the political situation and the country’s future. “Chubais believed that the Duma would not confirm Putin. There would be three votes and then the dissolution of parliament.[2] Communists, united with [former premier] Primakov and [Moscow mayor Yuri] Luzhkov would garner a firm majority in the next election, possibly even a constitutional majority. After that, the country would be on a slippery slope to catastrophe, and it could go as far as civil war. The best possible scenario was a neo- Communist regime, slightly adapted to more modern conditions; but business would be nationalized again, borders would be closed, and many media outlets would be shut down.”

“The situation was bordering on catastrophe,” was how Berezovsky described it. “We had lost time, and we had lost our positional advantage. Primakov and Luzhkov were organizing countrywide. Around fifty governors [out of eighty-nine] had already signed on to their political movement. And Primakov was a monster who wanted to reverse everything that had been accomplished in those years.”

Why, if the Family saw the situation as desperate, did they see Putin as their savior? Chubais said he was an ideal candidate. Berezovsky clearly thought he was a brilliant choice. Who did they think Putin was, and why did they think he was qualified to run the country?

POSSIBLY THE MOST BIZARRE FACT about Putin’s ascent to power is that the people who lifted him to the throne knew little more about him than you do. Berezovsky told me he never considered Putin a friend and never found him interesting as a person—a strong statement from a man so ebullient that he tends to draw anyone with intellectual ambition firmly and enthusiastically into his orbit and hold him there by sheer magnetism. The fact that Berezovsky never found Putin attractive enough to try to pull him close suggests he never perceived a spark of curiosity in the other man. But when he considered Putin as a successor to Yeltsin, he seemed to assume that the very qualities that had kept them at arm’s length would make Putin an ideal candidate: Putin, being apparently devoid of personality and personal interest, would be both malleable and disciplined. Berezovsky could not have been more wrong.

As for Chubais, he had known Putin briefly when he served as an economic adviser to Mayor Sobchak in St. Petersburg and Putin had just been appointed deputy. He remembered Putin as he had been during his first year of working for the mayor: it had been a uniquely charged year, and Putin had been uncharacteristically energetic and curious, always asking questions. Chubais had left St. Petersburg in November 1991 to join the government in Moscow, and his initial impressions had remained untempered.

And what did Boris Yeltsin himself know about his soon-to-be-anointed successor? He knew this was one of the few men who had remained loyal to him. He knew he was of a different generation: unlike Yeltsin, his enemy Primakov, and his army of governors, Putin had not come up through the ranks of the Communist Party and had not, therefore, had to publicly switch allegiances when the Soviet Union collapsed. He looked different: all those men, without exception, were heavyset and, it seemed, permanently wrinkled; Putin—slim, small, and by now in the habit of wearing well-cut European suits—looked much more like the new Russia Yeltsin had promised his people ten years earlier. Yeltsin also knew, or thought he knew, that Putin would not allow the prosecution or persecution of Yeltsin himself once he retired. And if Yeltsin still possessed even a fraction of his once outstanding feel for politics, he knew that Russians would like this man they would be inheriting, and who would be inheriting them.

Everyone could invest this gray, ordinary man with what they wanted to see in him.

On August 9, 1999, Boris Yeltsin named Vladimir Putin prime minister of Russia. A week later he was confirmed in that position by a wide majority of the Duma: he proved just as likable, or at least unobjectionable, as Yeltsin had intuited.

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