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Putin in the Making—A Sour First Impression?

Who exactly is Vladimir Putin and how was his experience with U.S. high-level officials as a Russian deputy mayor? To understand Putin today, we must also understand him in the past. The president of Russia was not always the leader of his country. Like many leaders, he was once a government employee, following someone else’s orders, and reporting to a higher ranking official.

Official Portrait of Vladimir Putin (2013) Presidential Press and Information Office www.kremlin.ru | Wikimedia
Official Portrait of Vladimir Putin (2013) Presidential Press and Information Office www.kremlin.ru | Wikimedia

Putin’s current role as president likely overshadows his previous days as a KGB foreign intelligence officer and later as deputy mayor of Moscow. However, this excerpt by Commercial Service Officer Karen Zens shows otherwise, as she recounts one of Deputy Mayor Putin’s first interactions with the United States following the fall of the Soviet Union. This exclusive story gives us some insight on how Putin’s earlier interactions with the United States paved the way for his future foreign relations.

Karen Zens’ interview was conducted by Mark Tauber on February 26, 2018.
Read Karen Zens’ full oral history HERE.

Drafted by Melissa Cooper

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Excerpts:

“Unfortunately, the advance team for Gore were young kids in their early 20s who had worked on the campaign and didn’t seem to know the difference between setting up an event in Iowa or in an foreign country, let alone the former Soviet Union.”

A Disgrace to Russia: It was an amazing experiment which did not turn out as well as we hoped. We all – Russians and Westerners – under-appreciated how difficult it would be to change an economic and political system in such a large and varied country. As a government we made mistakes. I saw one up close when Vice President Gore came to visit St. Petersburg in late 1993. It was the first time a high-level U.S. government official came to the city under the new regime. In previous visits, even though they would have gone to Leningrad, everything would have been orchestrated in Moscow, and the officials in Leningrad would have just carried it out. Now, they were on their own. Mayor Sobchak, who had a reputation as a “democrat,” was looking forward to the visit as were we at the Consulate. Unfortunately, the advance team for Gore were young kids in their early 20s
who had worked on the campaign and didn’t seem to know the difference between setting up an event in Iowa or in an foreign country, let alone the former Soviet Union. They were disrespectful to their hosts, treating their Russian counterparts as hired help, or worse, ignoring them, as they also ignored our advice.

“This was Putin’s first lesson in what it was like to be treated as a second rate country and it made an impression on him.”

           
The Moscow Mayor office at Tverskaya Street in Moscow (2015) A. Savin | Wikimedia
The Moscow Mayor office at Tverskaya Street in Moscow (2015) A. Savin | Wikimedia

Putin’s First Lesson: For a high level visit like this everyone in the Consulate pitches in and is assigned a responsibility. The Mayor had graciously loaned his dacha for the one-on-one meeting with the Vice President and I was the site officer, i.e. Consulate liaison, for that event. At the preparatory visit the advance team was moving the furniture around, rearranging everything without consulting the Russians, in fact rudely ignoring them, acting as though they owned the place. Deputy Mayor Putin was there furiously watching this until he came up to me and literally yelled in my face that I was to tell them they could not touch one more thing without his approval. He was absolutely right and I relayed this to the team. Unfortunately this episode was typical of the entire visit preparation. All of us at the Consulate were appalled. Once Gore arrived he handled things very well but the damage had been done. The Russians had been humiliated and it created ill will at official levels. This was Putin’s first lesson in what it was like to be treated as a second rate country and it made an impression on him.

“So having American officials treat them like they were now a Third World country had a big impact, and especially on Putin.”

How Not to Treat a Former Superpower: All of the Russians we worked with had been raised as citizens of one of the two superpowers. They liked working with us because they saw us as equals even if we had been adversaries. To rudely remind them of their fall in status in the world, was both unnecessary and counterproductive. An incident with my staff brought this home to me. One time when we were relaxing after an event, my staff were bemoaning something that was not working well in Russia. I told them not to be upset as I had seen the same thing when I was working in Spain. They looked at me and said “Spain? You mean we’re at the level of Spain?” I wanted to say to them that they would love to have the standard of living of Spain but of course I did not. However, it showed me that even in these least Soviet of Russians, the amount of pride they had in being one of the two superpowers. So having American officials treat them like they were now a Third World country had a big impact, and especially on Putin. In fact, he mentioned something similar in his later memoir. Our relations might well have soured eventually anyway but this was an unnecessary insult.

“By the end of the three day visit it was practically a love feast.”

           
Coat of Arms of Moscow (2008) Vector-Images.com | Wikipedia
Coat of Arms of Moscow (2008) Vector-Images.com | Wikipedia

Charming Putin: Unfortunately for me, I was the next person to have a high-level visitor after the Gore visit. Commerce Secretary Brown was leading a major trade mission to Russia with stops in Moscow, Yekaterinburg, and St Petersburg. A friend in the consulate political section warned me that I would have a problem with the mayor’s office because of the Gore visit and she gave me some good advice – that I wine and dine the mayor’s assistant to get on his good side. I also explained the problem to Commerce headquarters. Consequently they sent out one of Brown’s assistants, Bill Morton*, a very nice young man who had the same charm as his boss and together we smoothed feathers as the visit was planned. They still weren’t entirely unruffled, as the mayor declined to meet the Secretary at the airport but sent Putin instead. Secretary Brown, however, had charisma; he went out of his way to charm Putin and Sobchak and it worked. By the end of the three day visit it was practically a love feast. For the companies also, this was the last stop, coming after Yekaterinburg, a nondescript industrial city, and St Petersburg shone by comparison. For the final evening one of the companies had underwritten rental of the Yusupov Palace for dinner, with a private ballet and a visit to the room where Rasputin was killed. At our subsequent office opening, which the Secretary had discussed during his visit, Putin even referenced Secretary Brown as someone “who kept his promise.”

*(Sadly, Bill Morton was on the plane with Secretary Brown that crashed in Croatia in 1996.)

TABLE OF CONTENTS HIGHLIGHTS

Education
BA in Russian Studies, Smith College 1967–1971
MA, Columbia School of International Affairs 1971–1973
MBA, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor 1979–1980
Joined the Foreign Commercial Service 1985
Leningrad, Russia—Commercial Service Officer 1992–1995
Washington, DC—Commercial Liaison officer at the World Bank 2000–2002
Mexico City, Mexico—Senior Commercial Service Officer 2005–2009