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Review: Biography: Putin by Chris Hutchins and Alexander Korobko

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Action man: Putin has
denied rumours of an affair
with Alina Kabayeva

Action man: Putin has denied rumours of an affair with Alina Kabayeva

Action man: Putin has denied rumours of an affair with Alina Kabayeva

Vladimir Putin once said the only difference between a hamster and a rat was the "the hamster has better PR than the rat". When a Moscow tabloid published a story in 2008 portraying Putin as a love rat, he acted swiftly to restore his hamster status.

The Moscow Korrespondent article, headlined 'The Sarkozy Syndrome', claimed Putin was about to leave his wife Lyudmila for the 24-year-old Olympic gold medal-winning gymnast Alina Kabayeva, described by a photographer who had photographed her naked as "full of sex".

Speaking from his friend Silvio Berlusconi's Sardinian villa, a furious Putin rubbished the story. A week later the newspaper closed down and ever since the Kabayeva story has been off-limits for the Russian media. But Moscow has been buzzing with the rumour that Putin is the father of Kabayeva's son, born in 2009.

The authors of this biography cannot make up their minds about whether Russia's action man -- and soon-to-be president for a third term -- is truly a babe magnet.

They quote one ex who said "girls just threw themselves" at the young Vladimir, whose "short, strong fingers" -- those of a future judo black belt -- were what she fondly recalled.

For the wife of a former Swiss ambassador, however, Putin was "cold" and "without charisma", though she noted "Russian women fancy him, probably because of the power".

This is a very personal biography of Russia's leader which goes some way towards ending the enigma that is Vladimir Putin -- or Vlad to his friends.

The author, Chris Hutchins, a well-known British journalist and author of biographies of the rich and famous, has already done a book on Roman Abramovich. His associate on this one, Alexander Korobko, is a London-based Russian journalist.

They've spent six years working on Putin and although it's an easy, sometimes racy read rather than an academic study, it's revealing in places.

Putin is often portrayed in the West as mean-spirited and petty, yet here he is shown to be the opposite. Hutchins and Korobko tell how Putin gave away his $60,000 Patek Philippe watch to the son of a shepherd on a one-day visit to the remote republic of Tuva in Southern Siberia.

Then, when a worker at a weapons factory in the city of Tula, 200km south of Moscow, shouted at Putin during a visit: "Vladimir Vladimirovich, give me something to remember you by!", Putin took off his replacement watch, a $6,000 Blancpain, and gave it to him.

Money figures large in this entertaining, if not too critical, biography of the person Moscow's leading tabloid has dubbed "our past, our present and our foreseeable future".

Putin's reputation was made and rests on his cleaning up of the awful mess left behind by his predecessor Boris Yeltsin.

Yeltsin's notorious loans-for-shares scheme -- the Biggest Heist in History the authors call it -- "handed over the commanding heights of the economy to a handful of speculators at bargain basement prices".

As a result, a good deal of the national wealth in everything from natural resources to manufacturing and banking came under the control of a new elite.

Putin's mission on gaining the presidency in 2000 was to recover the country's wealth and wrest political power from the oligarchs. This can largely be called accomplished, though at a cost to political and media freedom, a price most Russians have been willing to pay in exchange for the stability and prosperity the Putin era has brought.

For how much longer is another question. Putin's approval rating, which peaked in 2003 at 73pc, was 37pc last month. That he remains Russia's favourite politician says a lot about the opposition, though the opposition might say it says something about Putin not allowing them access to the public.

Hutchins and Korobko are inconclusive on the awkward bits in the Putin story. They fail to dispel, for example, the whiff of corruption that hangs over his time as Leningrad city official in 1991, when he allegedly issued licences to Soviet firms to export oil, timber and rare metals in return for food. The raw materials were exported, but the food never arrived.

The city council concluded that $92m had been stolen in the transaction and called for the mayor to sack Putin and for the public prosecutor to initiate an investigation, neither of which happened.

Accusations and counter-accusations, more threats and deaths in mysterious circumstances followed; the only way to clear up the mess would be an independent inquiry or, God forbid, a tribunal.

John Murray lectures in the Russian Department at TCD.

Indo Review