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TIME: I'm curious what you think are the American misconceptions about Russia, about the Russian people, about you, about the Russian government. If you were speaking directly to the American people, what misconceptions would you try to clear up?
PUTIN: Well, you know, I don't believe these are misconceptions. I think this is a purposeful attempt by some to create an image of Russia based on which one could influence our internal and foreign policies. Russia has demonstrated that we don't want simply to be a partner, we want to be a friend of America. Sometimes one gets the impression that America does not need friends. Sometimes we get the impression that you need some kind of auxiliary subjects to take command of. We cannot build our relations on such grounds and this creates frictions now and then, and this is precisely the reason why they always seek to find some problems inside our country. This is the reason why everybody is made to believe like it's O.K. to pinch the Russians somewhat. They are a little bit savage still or they just climbed down from the trees, you know, and probably need to have their hair brushed and their beards trimmed. And have the dirt washed out of their beards and hair. That's the civilizing mission to be accomplished out there. But I believe this is a tool to affect others, which is a wrong way to go. The right way would be to find common ground and take account of each other's interests in the first place.
TIME: When you were growing up, and even as a mid-career intelligence officer, did it ever occur to you that you could end up running this country and taking it through such a period of tumult and change?
PUTIN: It never occurred to me, no. It never struck me. Never.
TIME: Does it still surprise you?
PUTIN: Yes, it still surprises me. I came to Moscow from St. Petersburg in 1996. I was chairman of the government three years later, of the government of Russia. And half a year after that I became the President. When I came to Moscow I didn't have any connections or friends to rely on in the right places. I came because the person I worked with in St. Petersburg, Mayor Anatoly Sobchak, lost an election, and they had difficulty finding me a job there. Nobody would hire me there, in fact. I'm surprised myself. Well, this happened because people close to the first President of Russia, Mr. Yeltsin, realized, should I say, that I would be totally sincere and would spare no effort to fulfill my duties and be honest with the President, and I would do whatever it takes to see to it that the interest of the country be secured. I would think this was what really mattered. This was the motivation of Yeltsin himself and the people around him.
TIME: Yeltsin saw something in you, that you could do the jobit's that simple an explanation?
PUTIN: Yes, I would think so. We talked with him several times on this score. First time when he offered this to me, I gave him a negative answer. I realized what was the state of the country at the time. It was quite a surprise to me, too, and I told him I really don't know. Well, of course, it happened after the 1998 financial meltdown, and I told him, I really don't know. This is a difficult challenge, and I'm not sure I am ready for it. But President Yeltsin was insistent. He said, O.K., we'll revisit this matter later on. He said, don't tell me no.
TIME: Can you tell us more about Mr. Yeltsin and Mr. Gorbachev?
PUTIN: I was never a major Soviet leader. I was not a party functionary. I was not a member of the Politburo. I didn't work in the regional party committees. Even though I worked in intelligence, I was an ordinary citizen of the Soviet Union, as much as a secret-service officer can be an ordinary man. Mr. Yeltsin belonged to the top level of the Russia "nomenclature." Nevertheless, I believe that both Yeltsin and Gorbachev did something that I probably would not be in a position to do. They moved toward destruction of the system that no longer could sustain the Soviet people. I'm not sure I could have had the guts to do that myself. Gorbachev made the first step in that direction. Yeltsin completed the job. This is a very important change in the history of the Russian people, and it gave Russia her freedom. This is an important and very clear achievement particularly of the Yeltsin presidency.
TIME: You speak confidently about world affairs, but people say it took you some time to find your feet when you first became President. When did you become a national leader? What was the defining moment of your presidency?
PUTIN: Well, you know, I never gave it a thought frankly. I never thought, like I said, that I would be a President and even now, I try not to reflect on that too much. When one starts to think of himself as a national leader, he loses connection with the real world. I have never referred to myself as national leader. Other people invented this notion. I didn't prompt anybody to do so. But the truth of the matter is, when I became a President, the country at the time, whether we liked it or not, was involved in the mayhem of civil war in the Caucasus, faced immense economic difficulties, destruction of the social sphere, large numbers of people who found themselvesover 30%below the poverty line. I decided for myself, yes, I am ready to do whatever it takes, whatever sacrifices I need to bear, to restore the country. I define that as the main point of my whole life. I decided that life gave me a chance to play some sort of a positive role in the history of my people. And it seems to me that, to a large extent, these objectives have been realized and now we have new tasks and objectives of a larger scalebut these are entirely new challenges and we have a chance to move forward. I have never felt myself as a leader. I feel like a workhorse pulling a very heavy cargo, and I measure my success depending on how fast and well I move with it.
TIME: How would a national leader fall within the context of Russia's government structure? In the 16th century, there was a precedent, when the Czar Ivan Vasilyevich, Ivan the Terrible, for a whole variety of reasons retreated to the village of Alexandrov, and decreed that Prince Simeon Bekbulatovich would function as the Czar. All the boyars, officials and the commoners had to defer to the Prince, even if they all knew who and where the real Czar was. When it suited him, the Czar Ivan came back to resume the throne. However, the episode brought a certain discord in the system of government and weakened the country. Is anything of the kind possible now?
PUTIN: No, because we're no monarchy. We live within the context of the standing constitution. Everyone including the high executives should understand this. They must live by the basic law. The Constitution. That's all.
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