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Russia: From Humble Beginnings, Medvedev Rises To Presidency

  • Chloe Arnold

(ITAR-TASS) ST. PETERSBURG -- It isn't easy to find Dmitry Medvedev's old school.

Emerging from Kupchino metro station -- the end of the line in southern St. Petersburg -- you are confronted with mile upon mile of depressing gray housing blocks. You must then climb onto a trolleybus and go another 15 stops before you reach Budapest Street, No. 8, apartment block 3.

At School No. 305, an angry woman at the door says all enquiries must go through the head teacher, Nina Muzikantova, who turns out not to be in that day. The door slams and two heavy bolts are drawn across on the inside.

It's easy to see why Dmitry Medvedev strove to leave the gray drabness of Kupchino behind. While much has changed for Medvedev since the years he trudged to and from his lessons at 305, Kupchino appears locked in a state of permanent dreariness and neglect.

A pensioner standing at a bus stop with her daughter says she's given up waiting for the improvements that residents have been promised in recent years -- more playgrounds for local children, an extended transport system, and better housing facilities.

"As an area, Kupchino's not a nice one. I'll tell you that right off," she says. "It's full of drug addicts. There's no development here, although they've said they'll build a new metro station."

Nevertheless, the pensioner says she'll vote on March 2 for Medvedev, the man tapped by current President Vladimir Putin to pick up where he left off.

"I don't really know Medvedev -- it's not like I was at school with him or anything," she says. "But I see how he travels about all over the place, getting to know people, finding out what their problems are. That's a good way to go about it. Only time will tell, of course. But we'll definitely be voting for Medvedev."

Around the back of his old school, Oksana and Nastya, aged 15 and 16, are sharing a cigarette in between classes. On the question of Kupchino, they're blase. "It's not that great," says Oksana. "There's nothing much to do here. It's probably always been like that."

But when the conversation turns to their hometown hero, their enthusiasm grows. Both are too young to vote, but say they're proud to be studying at Medvedev's alma mater, and that they'd vote for him if they could.

A Quick Study

From Kupchino, Medvedev moved on to the law faculty of what is now St. Petersburg State University. The faculty, which occupies an imposing building on Vasiliyevsky Island, looks across the wide expanse of the Neva River to the majestic dome of St. Isaac's Cathedral and the green and gold facade of the Hermitage museum. It must have seemed a world away from Kupchino.

Medvedev studied hard, and once he'd completed his doctorate in 1990, went on to teach at the university. Sergei Belov, a former student who now teaches administrative law there, remembers well Medvedev's lectures on Roman law.

"He was very good at making a subject sound interesting, because you could see he found it interesting himself," says Belov. "It was rather a difficult subject, which required a knowledge of Latin. Students often have less respect for some teachers than others. We respected Medvedev a lot. They were evening sessions, and by the end of the day it's generally quite difficult to concentrate. But his lectures went down well."

A year after he began lecturing Sergei Belov and his contemporaries, Medvedev was invited to join St. Petersburg's regional administration, then run by a young man named Vladimir Putin. Putin, too, had studied law at St. Petersburg State University. In the years that followed, the two became firm friends, Medvedev following Putin to Moscow to become his chief of staff when he became prime minister in 1999.

When Putin ran for president, he asked Medvedev to run his campaign. The hard work paid off -- Putin won the election in 2000, and three years later, Medvedev was promoted to presidential chief of staff. Soon afterward he was rewarded with the most coveted job in the country's booming energy sector -- the chairmanship of the board of the state-run gas giant Gazprom.

Putin and Medvedev aren't the only members of Russia's reigning circle to come from St. Petersburg. First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov, Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov, and Federal Security Service (FSB) Director Nikolai Patrushev -- to name just a few -- all hail from Russia's second city.

"Petersburgers come across as more reserved; they have milder tempers," says Vladimir Vassiliyev of St. Petersburg University, explaining the city's uncanny political success. "Unlike any other big city, in St. Petersburg you'll never hear anyone talking loudly on the public transport system. There's something elevated in the characters of people from St. Petersburg, and I should say that when the Petersburgers came to power in [contemporary] Russia, these characteristics certainly played a role. The contrast between President Putin and President [Boris] Yeltsin" -- who hailed from Yekaterinburg -- "is enormous."

Rising Son?

But Vassiliyev sounds a cautious note about the likely Medvedev presidency. Medvedev's rise to power has been choreographed by Putin, who has hinted he intends to play a key role in the next government -- most likely as prime minister.

Relations between the 55-year-old Putin and the 42-year-old Medvedev have until now been warm and almost paternalistic. But that, Vassiliyev says, may change once the balance of power has shifted.

"By all accounts, there shouldn't be any conflict between the two men. Those are the indications," Vassiliyev says. "But power is a strange thing, and it can change a person considerably, especially if that power has come unexpectedly. The step up from first deputy prime minister to president is a great deal bigger than, say, an ordinary person stepping up to become first deputy prime minister."

Few Russians believe anyone but Medvedev will win the March 2 election. But some in St. Petersburg, where opposition parties have had an active following in recent years, intend to boycott the vote.

"It seems to me that we've returned to the situation we had in my youth," says Mikhail Amosov, a member of the Yabloko party, which was barred from running in last year's regional elections. "After all, there were elections even in the Soviet Union, but as we used to say: 'It might be an election, but there isn't any choice.'"

"Our recommendation is this," Amosov continues. "Either don't vote at all, or spoil your ballot paper by, say, voting for all the candidates. Simply put, you should demonstrate your opinion of the candidates on offer in this way, so that they know that none of them is worthy of your vote."
Cracks In The Facade

High energy prices have filled Russia's coffers with $150 billion in oil and gas profits. But this vast wealth has yet to trickle down to many aspects of the lives of ordinary citizens. As Russia's presidential election looms, the thoughts occupying many voters are not about politics, but safety, dignity, and long-term stability. In a special series, RFE/RL looks at Russia's deep social problems, which could prove to be a political liability for the Kremlin.

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