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Tough-Talking Putin Crafted Image His Way

Few people had heard of Vladimir Putin when Russia's then-President Boris Yeltsin appointed him prime minister in 1999. But the stern-faced former KGB officer triggered a love affair with the Russian population — by starting a popular second war in Chechnya later that year.

Soon after hostilities began, the man who later became president surprised the country with the first of what became known as "Putinisms." He issued a threat to Chechen rebels using slang terms usually heard only in Russia's notoriously tough prisons.

"If they're in the airport," Putin said, "we'll kill them there ... and excuse me, but if we find them in the toilet, we'll exterminate them in their outhouses."

When Putin steps down as Russia's president next week, he will leave with approval ratings most leaders can only dream about. More than 80 percent of Russians say he has done a good job in office. His famous tough talk and outbursts might appear crude to foreigners — and even to many Russians — but they're essential to his carefully controlled public image, projected by a highly talented performer.

A Way With Words

Since he was first elected president, in 2000, Putin has systematically rolled back media freedom in Russia. Yet he's also forged a love-hate relationship with journalists.

When Putin appears in front of more than 1,000 reporters during his annual news conferences, he owns the room, keeping reporters fascinated for hours by alternating between threats, jokes and flirtation.

One journalist said in 2006 that she was speaking for all blond women when she asked why Putin looked so fit and attractive. His answer was that he doesn't drink and plays plenty of sports. He then asked her to convey his greetings to all blond women.

Putin has often lost his temper in public. During a 2002 news conference in Brussels, Belgium, the president responded to a question that angered him by inviting a reporter to come to Moscow to be circumcised.

"We have specialists in this question, as well," Putin said. "I'll recommend that he carry out the operation in such a way that nothing will grow back."

Crafting His Image

Even some of Putin's biggest critics say he knows how to work an audience. Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister of Russia, says Putin learned how to craft his image in a special educational program at a school for KGB officers.

"He studied at KGB school ... how to attract people, how to be comfortable. ... And I believe that he studied well," Nemtsov says.

Natalia Muravieva, rector of Moscow's Academy of Communications and Information, says Putin is a highly dynamic politician whose speeches are intricately crafted.

"Putin uses a lot of repetition that builds to a crescendo," Muravieva says. "And his widely reported aphorisms are like gems. They're few and far between, and everyone remembers them."

Russians won't necessarily be deprived of such gems just because Putin's term as president is expiring. He's used his tremendous popularity to retain much of his power.

His self-appointed successor, Dimitri Medvedev, who was recently elected president and takes office May 7, has said Putin will be prime minister and head of the country's biggest political party.

Both platforms will give Putin plenty of opportunity to create new Putinisms.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Gregory Feifer
Gregory Feifer reports for NPR from Moscow, covering Russia's resurgence under President Vladimir Putin and the country's transition to the post-Putin era. He files from other former Soviet republics and across Russia, where he's observed the effects of the country's vast new oil wealth on an increasingly nationalistic society as well as Moscow's rekindling of a new Cold War-style opposition to the West.