As the other students lounged about, laughing and joking, Medvedev picked up a spade and started digging for potatoes, not stopping until there were enough for everyone. “He was good company,” the teacher recalls.
That hard work appears to have paid off. On December 10, Russian President Vladimir Putin endorsed the 42-year-old lawyer as the preferred presidential candidate for four political parties, including his own Unified Russia. Putin’s own enormous popularity means anyone he anoints as his successor is almost guaranteed a win in next year’s election.
Throughout the course of his working relationship with Putin, dating back almost two decades, Medvedev has risen from university lecturer to regional policy adviser to election campaign manager to first deputy prime minister.
Born the only son of university lecturers in St. Petersburg in 1965, Medvedev long intended to follow his parents’ path into academia. He completed his doctorate in 1990 and began teaching law at Leningrad State University.
A year later he was invited to join the St. Petersburg regional administration as an adviser to the foreign relations committee -- then run by a young man named Vladimir Putin. The two men formed a bond that would last through years of close cooperation.
In 1999, Medvedev moved to Moscow, and the following year, he was selected by Putin to run his election campaign. After he was sworn in as president, Putin promoted Medvedev to deputy chief of staff at the Kremlin and soon afterward awarded him the top job in the country’s thriving energy sector -- the chairmanship of Gazprom.
All Thanks To Putin
For Yevgeny Volk, the director of the Moscow office of the Heritage Foundation, Putin’s endorsement of Medvedev makes perfect sense. “This is a man who grew up, entered politics, and rose to the highest echelons of power, all thanks to Putin,” Volk said.
According to Volk, Medvedev sees Putin "as an older brother. That’s very logical. And Putin sees Medvedev as a younger brother, whom he can trust as his successor in running the country. His entire life is indebted to Putin.”
But though Putin appeared to have no doubts about the soft-spoken lawyer, Medvedev wasn’t well-known outside Kremlin circles until recently. In 2005, Putin raised his profile by putting him in charge of the government’s social projects, including health care, education, housing, agriculture, and trying to reverse the slump in Russia’s birthrate.
State-controlled television showed the energetic Medvedev jet-setting around the country, drinking tea with pensioners, and cradling babies in gleaming new birthing centers.
But that role didn’t necessarily help him: birthrates are continuing to fall, property prices have soared, and a recent poll found that the majority of Russians feel that most of the money intended for social projects is being stolen by government officials.
Konstantin Sonin, an economic expert and commentator for the “Vedomosti” and "The Moscow Times" newspapers, says many Russians are cautious about Putin’s heir apparent.
“He’s not naturally likeable; he doesn’t have the natural ability to connect to people as President Putin does," Sonin said. "There is no general admiration. I think he is a person who has yet to be tested. His main test will be the ability to connect to people, which will be absolutely necessary for his new job.”
But others say Medvedev is starting with a clean slate. He is one of the few members of Putin’s inner circle who has no known ties to the KGB or its successor, the Federal Security Service. He calls himself a "European," advocates a free-market economy for Russia, and dislikes political labels -- including the term "sovereign democracy," coined by another Putin adviser to describe Russia’s unique political path.
He also appears to share Putin’s vision of a smooth handover of power next year, at whatever cost. “It is the task of any government to make sure that the handover of power is absolutely painless for the people in the country and for the economy," Medvedev told RFE/RL’s Russian Service at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum earlier this year. "It is perhaps the most important mission of the government to ensure continuity -- continuity in the most traditional, democratic meaning of the word.”
The question for most Kremlin-watchers is not whether Medvedev will become president next year, but what happens next. Putin has hinted that he will remain in power behind the scenes after his two terms as president run out in March. Medvedev appeared to lay the ground for such a move today, saying he would like to see Putin become prime minister in a future government.
But Yevgeny Volk is wary, and warns that Medvedev, as president, "will gain enormous political power." “The Russian president has enormous powers according to the constitution. And Putin, thanks to, let’s call it, a favorable political and economic situation, managed to extend them even further. He canceled elections for regional governors [and] took control of the media," Volk said.
And despite 17 years of friendship, this might mean Medvedev eventually takes a different path from that of his political mentor and "big brother," according to Volk. “Whether he maintains his absolute loyalty to Putin or starts to change, that’s a very serious question. Because in politics, there cannot be absolute loyalty. Situations change, promises are broken. People in power also change,” he said.