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Face to face with Putin: my brief encounter with Russia’s 21st century dictator

The meeting revealed a man more confident than autocratic, not the brittle and paranoid aggressor the world sees today

“So, Mr O’Reilly, do you like Rachmaninoff?”

It was not a question I had prepared for, coming as it did from the thin lips of the man seated next to me on the dais of the State Kremlin Palace; Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.

Moments earlier, at this 2006 gathering in Moscow of the World Association of Newspapers, I had done my level best, as WAN President, to give Putin a very public dressing down over his attitudes to press freedom.

Outside this enormous temple to Soviet power, the black cobbles of Red Square were baking beneath a stultifying summer heatwave. Inside, the intermittent air conditioning made temperatures just about bearable as Putin made the entire gathering wait for more that two hours for his appearance.

This was, we had been warned, classic behaviour. President Putin operates according to his own schedule. All the same, it felt lonely, both literally and figuratively, waiting, waiting and waiting for his arrival on this same stage graced by Khrushchev, Brezhnev and, last of the Soviet giants, Gorbachev.

The editors-in-chief, media CEOs, diplomats and politicians staring back at me were not men and women accustomed to waiting. But this was different; whatever one’s opinion of Putin the prospect then of an in-the-flesh appearance by the KGB colonel turned Premier had star quality.

Of the 4,000-plus dignitaries in the auditorium, only I and WAN Director General Timothy Balding, seated alongside me and next to the still empty chair reserved for Putin, had any real idea that the star turn might turn out to be a no-show over a small act of defiance committed by yours truly.

Days earlier, upon arrival at the Kempinski Hotel on the Moskva River – right opposite Red Square and the Kremlin complex, Timothy and I had been greeted by the local organizers (mostly independent media outlets) who briefed us on the following days activities; an extraordinary programme offering the very best of Russian hospitality to their international guests. But from the outset, our talks were tainted by a pervasive sense of menace. Old Soviet habits were dying hard in Putin’s new Russia.

We were told, apologetically but firmly, that “the Kremlin” needed to see an advance copy of my speech. We balked at the notion. For 60 years, WAN had been (and continues to be) a very vocal and necessary buttress against systematic press freedom violations across the globe. We weren’t about to be pressurized by the Kremlin.

But the Kremlin was not taking nyet for an answer. The demands for full visibility of my speech became more insistent, until it was intimated – not so subtly – that any presidential appearance was contingent upon our succumbing.

I’m proud to report that neither Timothy nor I wavered for a moment; there was no way we were going to accede to pressure like this, especially since this was the very theme of the speech itself.

All the same, I am grateful for the whispered advice from one of our independent hosts not to leave my laptop, or a copy of the speech, anywhere Putin’s secret service might be able to get hold of it.

“Even here, in the Kempinski, they come and go like chamber maids,” the Russian journalist said, his hand instinctively covering his mouth as he talked. The laptop never left my side for the rest of the trip.

Looking back at my speech, although it was direct and strident in making the case for Putin to abandon his determination to impose strict controls on freedom of speech and the press, I can see it made not one jot of difference.

When eventually the lights were turned up full and Vladimir Putin and his (very large) entourage arrived, he strode up to the stage and was introduced to the panel of speakers – and then took his seat next to me.

For the next hour and half, we sat together in silence listening to welcome speeches and various musical interludes; witnessing the award of the Golden Pen of Freedom (given annually to journalists who literally battle against the odds – and too often, with their lives.)

Then came my turn. After a rather rousing performance (I thought), I sat down feeling rather chuffed with my efforts. More so, the crowd in front of me seemed pleased. I couldn’t bring myself to turn to Putin to gauge his reaction.

Putin then rose and approached his own special lectern, emblazoned proudly with the emblem of the Russian Federation. He paused for what seemed like ages… I fumbled around with my headset to get the simultaneous translation, but then couldn’t find the English Channel.

Putin’s voice boomed in Russian across the hall. Every several minutes, his increasingly emphatic comments were interspersed repeatedly with “Mr O’Reilly” in what felt like a rather menacing tone.

Later I learned that his argument had, in essence, suggested that the fact I had just dared to publicly criticize him and his administration, and that this impudence had not resulted in my being handcuffed to a radiator in the deepest bowels of the Kremlin, was a perfect demonstration of just how far freedom of speech had evolved under his leadership. Perhaps it’s just as well I hadn’t managed to get the real-time translation working.

Then followed some more musical interludes, including a wondrous pianist playing Rachmaninoff.

It was at that point Putin turned to me and asked me if I liked Rachmaninov. (So that answers the question that most people ask. Does he speak English? Yes – and rather well.)

I blurted out, rather randomly, that he was my mother’s favourite composer. That was rewarded with a barely discernible expression of approval. He then asked if this was my first visit to Russia and what had I planned. Naturally, I blurted out the entire agenda of the week – as if he didn’t already know. He seemed polite and courteous; dare I say it … bordering on charming.

Afterwards, Putin introduced me to Dmitry Medvedev – who I was to have lunch with – and introduced him, I assumed jokingly, as “Russia’s next President”. I didn’t think much of it at the time, given that Presidential elections were a full two years away. How ironic that subsequent events unfolded as they did with Putin and Medvedev playing musical chairs with the Presidency and Prime Ministership.

My brief encounter with Putin revealed a man, in those days, more confident than autocratic. Not the brittle, paranoid aggressor we see today, but rather a powerful leader giving every impression of a desire to return Russia to the dignity and influence its people deserved after decades of Soviet repression. We were all fooled.

I had ended my speech with a quote from Marx. Groucho, not Karl. Looking back, it seems it was much more apposite than I had intended at the time.

“The secret of success is honesty and integrity – and if you can fake that you’ve really got it made.”

Back in 2006 in the Kremlin State Palace, it got a good laugh. Nobody’s laughing now.

Gavin O’Reilly is the Executive Chairman of The New European

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