After 18 years as Russia’s leader – and with another six-year term sure to follow a March election – Putin doesn’t show the appetites or vulnerabilities that can personalize Western politics, even when staged or spun. If he has moments of merriment or melancholy, they happen in private.
His air of shadow, distance and restraint also stands out in Russia’s more rigid political culture.
Never has Putin burst into wild dancing a la Boris Yeltsin or confessed a boyish affection for arena rock like Dmitry Medvedev did as a self-described Deep Purple fan.
Vladimir Putin reacts at a massive rally of his supporters at Manezh square outside Kremlin, in Moscow, Russia
He may be chronically on guard, deliberately not exposing his inner life out of concern that opponents could exploit it.
Or he might be exhibiting his essence: a man so focused on power that other interests blur. When U.S. President George W. Bush met Putin in 2001 and said he’d gotten ‘a sense of his soul,’ some critics snorted that Putin had no soul.
‘He doesn’t like people naturally,’ Mikhail Zygar, a top editor at independent Dozhd TV and the author of ‘All The Kremlin’s Men,’ said.
‘He considers those politicians who talk about values to be cheating him.’
Yet others see a strong strain of warmth in Putin. ‘Easy-going,’ encouraging and even healing is the description offered by Yuri Tolstoy, who was one of Putin’s law professors in Leningrad, now St. Petersburg.
Tolstoy, now 90, says the 65-year-old president visited him this fall after he received Russia’s highest civilian honor.
‘I must say that after the recent meeting with Vladimir Putin, my health has improved. He has filled me with life energy,’ Tolstoy told The Associated Press.
‘He is a charming and witty man. He is sincere and open in communication with anyone,’ another of Putin’s former professors, Dzhenevra Lukovskaya, said.
‘Speaking globally, I’d say President Putin meets the challenges of the national self-identification of Russia.’ ‘
At the same time, ‘Putin is not a strategical player as he is portrayed; he is a very tactical player, he is good at responding’ in Zygar’s view.
He cited Russia’s military offensives in Syria as an example. Putin’s motivation in starting the Syria campaign was exasperation with the international criticism over Russia’s backing for separatist rebels in Ukraine’s war.
What’s known of Putin’s youth suggests that he hungered for two kinds of power – visible and clandestine – in an environment imbued with both Russia’s suffering and its valor.