The Great Terror: Seventy Years Later, Stalin's Image Softening
MOSCOW, August 13, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Arseny Roginsky is running out of space.
The shelves of his dusty office on a winding alley in central Moscow are crammed with an ever-increasing number of files containing information about the victims of Soviet repression.
This includes the one out of every 10 Russians estimated to have been executed or sent to prison camps under the orders of Josef Stalin in the late 1930s.
Roginsky is the chairman of Memorial, a human rights group dedicated to unearthing the truth about the Stalin-era purges.
He says there is a worrying trend in Russia today toward portraying Stalin as a great leader, while brushing aside his role in what has become known as the Great Terror.
There has been "a reappearance of the personality of Stalin as the wise leader of a great nation," Roginsky said.
"No one is justifying the Great Terror, but the Terror is being brushed into a corner," he continued. "It's said that the Terror was, of course, an unfortunate incident, but the most important thing was that Stalin created a great country. He inherited a country with the plough and bequeathed it the atomic bomb.”
One topic that has triggered debate in recent months is a series of history textbooks for schoolchildren that, some say, gloss over the details of the great purges.
Roginsky spoke to one of the authors of a forthcoming textbook. “He said to me: ‘We should only give one version of history. We shouldn’t give alternative versions. Schoolchildren should get one version, and that should be a happy one,’" Roginsky said.
"But on the other hand, nothing in Russia is forever. This process of interpreting, of understanding the past -- it can, of course, be changed,” Roginsky added.
Evidence of the evolving image of Stalin could be seen on Russian television screens this year, with the presentation of "Stalin Live," a 40-part series depicting the leader's reflections on his past actions.
Despite scenes that show the Soviet leader repenting for many of his actions, critics complained that the program depicted Stalin in a largely sympathetic light.
Grigory Yavlinsky, leader of the opposition Yabloko party, told RFE/RL's Russian Service that the state and educators must take care to avoid a rosy reinterpretation of the Soviet purges.
“There is a need for broad educational work. But besides that, there must be a clear, unequivocal, official recognition of everything that took place at that time as grave crimes against the state," Yavlinsky said. "And that should be the basis for decisions to be made about textbooks, about how history should be taught at schools and universities. There has to be an absolutely coherent assessment, a coherent position of society -- not only the state, but society as a whole. Otherwise this wound cannot be healed.”
The authors of the new history textbooks have defended their work, which has received official approval from the Kremlin.
Earlier this year, President Putin said there was no need for Russians to feel guilty about their past. Without naming countries, he defended Russia’s past by indirectly referring to the U.S. atomic bombing of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II.
“We did not use nuclear weapons against a civilian population," Putin said, adding, "nor did we have other black pages like, for example, Nazism."
A Great Leader?
The reinterpretation of the Stalin era has spread to other former Soviet republics.
Kochkon Saktanov, a Kyrgyz author who has written a novel about Stalin, told RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service that the Soviet leader was a great man. “I appreciate Stalin very much. I consider him to be my idol. Why? Because he appreciated the hard-working man, the man with calluses on his hands," Saktanov said. Stalin's tomb in Moscow's Red Square
"He used to summon a minister and assign him a task. If the minister could not do it, he would be either jailed or shot," Saktanov continued. "They say that he was a dictator. In any case, I hold him in high respect. The Russians are lazy people, like us, but from 1924 to 1953, he brought this nation to a level whereby we went into space before the Americans.”
In Belarus, where President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has maintained a style of autocratic rule reminiscent of the Soviet era, there are signs of a creeping resurrection of Stalin's cult of personality.
In 2006, the country unveiled restored World War II fortifications called the Stalin Line in honor of the man who led the U.S.S.R. through the Great Patriotic War. Stalin's name has been restored to a number of public buildings in the capital, Minsk, and a bust of the leader has been erected in the town of Svislach, on the border with Poland.
Day of Remembrance
But many in Belarus are still working to preserve the truth about the Great Terror and its impact on the country.
The Belarusian Civic Organization, which supports victims of the Stalinist repressions, declared 2007 a year of remembrance. On the 29th of each month, members of the executive committee visit sites across the country where it is believed victims of Stalin's regime were murdered.
On October 29, 1937, government agents from Minsk executed some 100 members of the Belarusian creative and intellectual elite, among them 22 renowned writers.
The organization has appealed to Belarus’s authorities to designate October 29 as a national day of remembrance for victims of the Great Terror. But authorities have not responded to the appeal, and members of the organization are planning to make independent arrangements to mark the occasion.
In Moscow, 74-year-old Suzanna Pechura, who spent nearly six years in camps for political prisoners in a later campaign of repression in the 1950s, said she was greatly saddened by the reinterpretation of Stalin.
“It’s a tragedy. It profanes the memory of all those who died as a result of the repression," Pechura said. "And what sort of textbooks are they giving children in school these days? It’s as if you aren’t allowed to tell them anything that might convince them that our country wasn’t always right and didn’t always achieve victory. And so we are heading backward and rearing a generation of Red Guards."
(RFE/RL's Belarusian, Kyrgyz, and Russian services contributed to this report.)
The Great Terror: Victims Of Stalin's Campaigns Remember
MOSCOW, August 13, 2007 -- RFE/RL's Moscow correspondent, Chloe Arnold, spoke to two women who were forever scarred by Stalin's campaigns of repression.
"[I'm] Maya Lazarevna Kofman. I'm 77. When her husband died in 1893, my grandmother took my mother and her two younger brothers abroad to France. Her husband, whose surname was Gerzenstein, was from the same Gerzenstein family that was murdered by the Black Hundred [supporters of the Tsarist regime in the early 20th century], and so life was difficult for them at that time. He had been an engineer, one of the few engineers in Russia.
"My mother lived all her life in France until she was 30 years old. And my father studied in France. First, before World War I, he went to study in Brussels with his brother. But during the war, from 1914 to 1916, they were held as prisoners of war in a German prison camp. After that my father went to France, where he met my mother. At that time in Europe there was high unemployment, and it seems that the Soviet Embassy [in Paris] was keen to recruit specialists to the Soviet Union.
"So while they were still in France, my parents registered as Soviet citizens. Many conversations were had, arms twisted, everything that could have been done to persuade them to go [to the Soviet Union] was done. And so a lot of people from Europe went to the Soviet Union to build a bright future, to build communism. And they truly believed in their cause. When I read books about those times, I find it strange that they only heard one side of the story. Already from the 1920s, the names of people who had fled Soviet hard labor camps, or managed to escape in some way, had been published. This was already known in Europe. But a determined man closes his eyes to all that.
"So my parents returned to the Soviet Union and started work. They returned in 1930. In 1937, they were sentenced to prison. They had summoned my mother's mother, my grandmother, [from France] to help with my birth. I was born two months after my mother returned to the Soviet Union. My parents -- well, we were told nothing about my parents. There was a rule at that time that there was to be no written contact [with prisoners] for 10 years. It felt, practically, as though they had been executed."
"And then, after many years, when I received my parents' documents, it turns out that they had been shot, in June 1938. They spent just half a year in prison. Why were they sent to prison? [laughs] They had come here from abroad, and they were specialists in some field, I suppose. I don't know. They were sentenced under Article 58.6 [of the Soviet Penal Code]: espionage. And worse than that: group espionage. They sent my father, his younger brother, and my mother to prison.
"My brother's father was somehow able.... I'm not sure how he behaved during the interrogations, he was perhaps more tamed, knew how to behave, because in Bessarabia [latter-day Romania] he had come into contact with the Siguranta [the Romanian secret police under communist rule]. And so my uncle [escaped execution and] was instead sent to Kolyma [region, site of numerous labor camps]. He received three sentences there. He was never freed. He spent five years there. Then there was the war. Then another five years. Then endless resettlements. Then, in 1950, when they started sending people to prison again, he committed suicide.
"My mother and father were executed in June 1938, very quickly. They weren't in prison for long. I must have been 6 1/2, seven. I was left with my grandmother. Of course I remember my parents, I remember them to this day. I remember my mother's face, my father's face, and a few, short episodes from my childhood with them. Then, when my grandmother died in 1941, they came for me again to take me to the children's home.
"I have always had problems. When I was going to university I had two negative points on my curriculum vitae: the first was 'point five' [on my passport], that's to say that I am Jewish, and the second was that my parents had been repressed. First, I tried going to university, but it turned into a joke. From the very beginning they said to me: 'Please, don't get involved. There's no point.' I had wanted to study biology.
"The following year, I went to the Timiryazevsky [Agriculture] Academy [in Moscow]. I still wanted to study biology. But because of my history, they wouldn't let me take the exams, even though I was a good student. Eventually, I ended up at the Oil Institute, where they took people like me. And then, a year and a half later, I took all my exams and passed them and ended up as a qualified geologist.
"I was never arrested. Perhaps I was lucky. Because now, when I read people's letters and books, I know that there were many children of those who were shot or arrested who were themselves sent to prison."
"I'm Suzanna Solomonovna Pechura. I'm 74 years old. I was a prisoner from January 18, 1951 to April 25, 1956. I was sentenced to 25 years, and I served five years.
"I was imprisoned because some friends and I -- schoolchildren in our final year at school and students in their first and second years at university -- established an organization that we called 'The Union of the Revolution Against the Current Regime.' We considered that what was going on in the country bore no relation to the ideas of Marxism. We decided that we could not keep silent about this. There were eight of us in the group, but 16 were arrested, because they took in our friends, too.
"We knew what would happen to us. We used to have long conversations late into the evening, when, after school, a few of us would meet and stroll along the Arbat, and we would discuss these themes. We considered this to be our most important responsibility. A few of us were kept for the first two weeks in the Small Lubyanka, and then we were sent to Lefortovo Prison. Then we spent a short time in the Great Lubyanka, Lefortovo again, Butyrka -- we went through a lot of prisons.
"[The day I was arrested], I was at school. I was taking an exam. Afterward, I came home and did my homework. Then I went to the bathroom when suddenly, there was a knock at the bathroom door. It was my mother, saying: 'Come out quickly! Boris's mother is on the telephone, and she wants to speak to you.' Boris Slootsky was the leader of our organization. So I went to the telephone, but I was told: 'She can't speak to you.' It turns out that at that time, their home was being searched.
"After that I went to our room and we all lay down to go to sleep. Then we heard the doorbell ring and someone in the corridor, going into every room. I thought 'Heavens above!' They came to us last. The officer came up to me and handed me a piece of paper. 'Sign here!' he said. On it were written the words 'search and arrest warrant'. I was 17. After that they took me away and it all began.
"Look -- here are the photographs of the boys they shot. Boris was 18, and Zhenya and Vladik were 19. The investigation lasted 13 months. Later, I read the notes. I'm the only one of our organization who is still alive now. In 1993, I fought hard to see the notes on our investigation. Our crime? Four parts of Article 58 [of the Soviet Penal Code]. Point 1A: treason. Point 8: a terrorist act -- that's very interesting, because Point 8 refers to the carrying out of a terrorist act. Who did we kill, and where? Article 58.10: anti-Soviet agitation, and 58.11: [being part of] an anti-Soviet organization.
"You could say that I was lucky, that's what I think. I was always taken from one place to another, from one labor camp to another, from one prison to another. I was never left in one place for long. Because they were always thinking up new accusations against me. And thus I spent time in seven labor camps and 11 prisons. One of those was in the north in the Inta-Abez [mining] labor camp near Vorkuta, and for my last year I was at Pochma in Mordovia. I spent time in various prisons, even in the Vladimir Closed Prison.
"[It] was a special labor camp [in Vorkuta], a particular camp for political prisoners. It was practically a hard labor camp. Living conditions there were very hard. The work was extremely difficult. The mortality rate was very high, there was constant hunger. The head of the camp said: 'I don't need your labor, I need your suffering.' For example, this sort of thing happened: when prisoners died, it was common knowledge that they weren't buried, they were simply stripped naked, they had a label with their name on it tied around their ankle, and they were thrown into a pit, or just a pile of snow, and covered up. No trace of them left was left behind. And the head of our camp shouted: 'Work hard! If you work hard, we will bury you in a grave.' Humor! All the same, I should say that but for a sense of humor, we would not have survived. It helps me even today.
"I was rehabilitated in 1989. After I was rehabilitated I was given compensation, with which I bought myself a raincoat. And my pension went up -- by 70 rubles [just under $3] a month."
The Great Terror: A Fear That Spared No One
August 13, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- No one was spared -- the Great Terror spanned all age groups, genders, professions, and ethnic backgrounds across the Soviet Union.
Vladimir Besleaga, a prominent Moldovan writer, was six years old in 1937. He recalls the climate of fear that hung over his small village in what is now Moldova.
Awaiting The 'Black Crow'
"During this period, people in the village were being arrested on a massive scale," Besleaga tells RFE/RL's Romania-Moldova Service. "Every morning, the neighbors would ask: 'So, who's been taken away last night?' The words 'black crow' were on everyone's lips. That referred to the car that came in the depth of night to arrest people."
This was also the time when reading and writing in Romanian became a crime. Books were confiscated and the Romanian language was banned from schools.
Despite the risk of being denounced, Besleaga's mother secretly taught him to read Romanian with a zoology manual stolen from a government storeroom. Besleaga says he has never completely shed the fear in which he spent his childhood.
"Fear enveloped everyone, no one could say anything openly," Besleaga says. "People were vigilant so that nobody would report on them. The fear was so great that it's still in our blood to this day."
Stalin's regime, wary of the well-educated, cracked down particularly hard on intellectuals.
In 1992, archeologists discovered a mass grave outside the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek. It contained the bodies of 138 intellectuals and high-ranking officials shot and buried in secret.
Mar Baijiev is a famous Kyrgyz playwright and former lawmaker. His father died in prison during the Great Terror.
"Orders were given to arrest, shoot, exterminate all those who were educated and understood what was happening," Baijiev tells RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service. "Just look at the Atabeyit, how many great people are resting there. There are no words to describe it, these were ghastly times. While our fathers were in prison, we were ordered to recite slogans such as 'long live Stalin, hurray!' There was such huge propaganda at that time. But what else could we do? My father's body was buried at [Kazakhstan's] Karaganda [prison camp.] I've visited his grave there."
'Without Right Of Correspondence'
The Belarusian poet Todar Klyashtorny also lost his life during the Great Terror. His daughter, Maya Klyashtornaya, tells her family's story to RFE/RL's Belarus Service.
"I was born in 1937. My father was already in prison, my mother was in detention," Klyashtornaya recalls. "Once, through the intervention of an acquaintance who was a lawyer, my parents were granted a meeting. Both were so shocked at each other's disheveled appearance that my father lost consciousness."
Klyashtornaya's father was executed a few month after this reunion. But only much later did her mother learn of his fate.
"She hoped that he would be released since she'd just had a baby," Klyashtornaya says. "She hoped up to the very end, until they told her that he was sentenced to 10 years in jail without right of correspondence. This essentially meant that the person was no longer alive. This verdict was used when people were to be executed: sent away for 10 years, to some unspecified destination, without right of correspondence."
Like many relatives of so-called "enemies of the state," Klyashtornaya and her mother served time in a prison camp.
Klyashtornaya's tragic childhood has shaped her whole life.
After the Soviet collapse, she became the president of an organization formed to protect the memory of the repressions. Today, she takes care of a memorial built on the site of a mass grave outside Minsk.
Ethnic minorities suffered heavily as a result of the repressions and other Stalin-era policies. While Chechens were deported to Central Asia in 1944, ethnic Koreans were forcibly displaced as early as 1937. Many community leaders were executed.
Between September and October, 1937, approximately 170,000 ethnic Koreans living in the Soviet Union's Far East were rounded up and herded onto cattle trains bound for the bare steppes of Central Asia. The official motive: "Suppress the penetration of Japanese espionage."
The parents of Roman Shin, a lawmaker in Kyrgyzstan, were among the deported Koreans.
"They were deported without being asked anything, in cattle trains," Shin tells RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service. "My parents were also deported. People were sent to Kazakhstan, to the steppe, or to Uzbekistan. We can praise our government for having already rehabilitated a great number of Koreans, although many died without having been rehabilitated."
The rehabilitation process is slowly moving forward as former Soviet countries gradually unlock their archives.
But millions of people scarred by their childhood under the Great Terror are still hoping to obtained redress for their jailed, tortured, or murdered families.
The Great Terror: In Stalin's Birthplace, Forgiving And Forgetting
GORI, Georgia; August 14, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- An elderly man, wearing a shabby, old-fashioned suit and a friendly smile, plays "Gaprindi Shavo Mertskhalo," a sad Georgian folk song about a small black swallow.
Josef Stalin is said to have loved this tune, and the man is happy to play it. "I know other tunes that Stalin liked," he says. "But this one was his absolute favorite."
The man is sitting in the courtyard of the Josef Stalin Museum in Gori, a small industrial town in central Georgia best known for being the birthplace of the man who ruled the USSR with an iron fist for three decades until his death in 1953.
Like many other provincial towns in Georgia, Gori bears signs of widespread unemployment and poverty. Gone are the days when Communist Party officials, schoolchildren, and tourists flowed into the city to visit the birthplace of the Soviet leader -- a small cottage, now covered with a large, pantheon-like structure, that is an integral part of the Stalin museum's attractions.
"Stalin was born in this little house, and lived here for four years," tour guide Mzia Nauchashvili tells a Ukrainian tourist as they stand inside the modest home. "The Jughashvili family never owned a house. They rented this one as well. The house has a basement, where Stalin's father worked as a shoemaker."
The visitor stops her, puzzled. "So all three of them lived in here? Where did they sleep? This place is so tiny."
"Do you think they lived better than poor people?" asks Nauchashvili, before moving on to other displays featuring documents, photographs and personal belongings of the Soviet leader.
Other museum highlights include a round room where Stalin's death mask lies on red velvet, and an opulent train carriage that belonged to the Romanov royal family before Stalin adopted it for his personal use.
The museum today has an outdated and somewhat deserted appeal. But museum managers claim the number of visitors is once again on the rise after a long decline, and that some 15,000 people visited the museum in 2006, more than double the previous year's figure.
The tone of the museum tours remain largely unchanged since Soviet times. People in the former Soviet Union now speak openly about the tens of millions of Soviet citizens who were killed, imprisoned, or forcibly displaced under Stalin's rule. At the Gori museum, however, this part of the Soviet leader's legacy remains expunged from the record.
"These aspects are not reflected in our lectures -- except for a few phrases, perhaps," says Nauchashvili, who has worked at the Stalin museum for 31 years and says she regards Stalin as a "genius" -- albeit one who may have made "mistakes."
"I've been working here for many years, and I'm from a family that was directly affected by the purges," she adds. "My great-grandmother's brother and husband were both persecuted. But she still respected Stalin. When I asked her why, she would say, 'My child, such things did take place. It was inevitable in those times; [Stalin] had both friends and enemies.'"
"We Can't Deny The Good Things He Did"
Judgment is also suspended elsewhere in Gori, including the city's Orthodox Christian high school, located at the site where Stalin attended a seminary as a young boy. On the freshly painted walls of the newly restored school, Stalin's photograph is featured among pictures of the former seminary's spiritual and cultural leaders.
Gela Mchedlishvili, an administrator at the school, sees no apparent conflict in honoring a political leader responsible for the death of millions alongside religious leaders whose faith was often the target of Stalin's repressions.
"God's will, and this school, teach us forgiveness," Mchedlishvili says. "This man might have done a few bad things, but some say he may also have done thousands of good things. The destruction was a result of the era. We can't blame it on individuals. Maybe there was oppression, the destruction of churches, the persecution of priests... and of course, in 1937 people were being executed. But we can't deny the good things he did as well."
Not all Gori residents see Stalin as a hero, however. David and Zurab, two men in their late 30s, spent the early years of Georgian independence as members of the country's national liberation movement.
For them, Stalin is nothing short of a traitor. Sitting in a popular coffeehouse that faces a statue of the Soviet leader in Gori's central square, they recall his famous quote dismissing Georgia as "that small area of Russia," and say he brought nothing but suffering and destruction to his homeland.
"I always regarded Stalin as Georgia's enemy. History demonstrates it very well, if you look at it in depth," says David.
"It's a kind of idol-worship that we can't seem to get rid of," Zurab adds. "It's fashionable to like Stalin because he was from Gori. But if he was from somewhere else, perhaps people in Gori wouldn't even like him."
Other Gori residents manage a paradoxical embrace of both nationalist sentiment and a positive view of Stalin.
For people like Temuri, a 30-year-old man sitting with his girlfriend in the garden surrounding the Stalin museum, living in the place where the notorious Soviet leader was born is a point of pride.
"I am very proud of it. I lived in Germany for two years, and I was proud that I was from the town where Stalin was born," he says."You know why? Because such personalities are rare. The come once in a thousand years."
A pensioner enjoying a balmy summer evening in the museum garden is even more unrestrained in his admiration for the man many in Gori call the "great son of a small nation."
"My father was persecuted, but I still love Stalin, he says. "Stalin didn't have anything to do with my father's arrest. People were informing on each other at that time. Stalin was a genius, and we live in a genius's town. A man from such a small republic created a huge empire -- the Soviet Union!"
Some observers say such sentiments reflect the reluctance on the part of some Georgians to acknowledge the grimmer aspects of the Soviet legacy -- particularly the complicity and participation of Georgians in Soviet rule. For many, it is preferable to look back on the Soviet period as one of "occupation," and that Stalin's atrocities were directed not at Georgia, but at the "occupying" nation -- the USSR.
Such revisions have not been necessary in Gori, where unwavering faith in Stalin appears to have frozen the city in time.
Historian Eldar Mamistvalishvili, who has written a two-volume book on Gori, says overwhelming nostalgia has rendered Stalin as a legend, rather than a figure of history who can be analyzed and judged.
"We should say that this was just one stage in our society's development, and now it's in the past. Now it's just a museum. It is not right to continue living like this," Mamistvalishvili says.
"To dream about having him back -- 'if only [Stalin] could take a look at what's happening! What a pity he's not here!' Until this is over, and we start to perceive this building as a museum rather than a shrine, things won't be right."
(RFE/RL correspondents Goga Aptsiauri and Natalia Tchourikova contributed to this story.)
Dark Horses Emerge In Presidential Transition
For more than a year, the conventional wisdom had been that two candidates -- First Deputy Prime Ministers Sergei Ivanov and Dmitry Medvedev -- were vying to be Vladimir Putin's anointed successor as president.
But speaking at a briefing on Russian-U.S. relations earlier this summer, Shuvalov suggested that Putin might have a surprise in the works.
"People talk about these two candidates, possible candidates," Shuvalov said. "But you know my president could create another surprise and, you know, maybe even later during this year you will know about another possible figure."
Shuvalov's comments set off a wave of speculation in Moscow and elsewhere about the identity of the mysterious figure who could become Russia's next leader.
It was eight years ago this week that Vladimir Putin burst out of obscurity on to the Russian political scene. Putin was the ultimate dark horse candidate when then President Boris Yeltsin anointed the dour former KGB officer as his chosen successor on August 9, 1999.
And many in Moscow are beginning to wonder if a surprise candidate might emerge this time as well.
'The Third Man'
So who is this "third man," as some media have come to call the mystery candidate? Some of the early chatter has focused on a woman: St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matviyenko.
Analysts say that Matviyenko, who is fiercely loyal to Putin, is the ideal candidate for the so-called "caretaker president" scenario. According to this scenario, a weak president would be put in office and Putin would continue to de facto rule Russia from behind the scenes after leaving the Kremlin.
"For such a plan she [Matviyenko] is an ideal figure. She doesn't have her own ambitions and is 100 percent oriented to Vladimir Putin," Andrei Ryabov, a political analyst with the Moscow Carnegie Center, says.
Ryabov and other analysts say that as governor of St. Petersburg, Matviyenko also has demonstrated one of the key qualities Putin is looking for in a successor: the ability to balance the interests of the various clans that make up Russia's ruling elite.
"We know that the current elite is from St. Petersburg, they all had some kind of interests there. Valentina Matviyenko was the kind of politician who was able to balance their interests on their home turf [in St. Petersburg]. She has wide contacts with very different [political and commercial] circles," Ryabov says.
The Russian Constitution forbids Putin from serving two consecutive terms -- but it does not forbid him from returning to power after another president has been in office.
Many analysts say Matviyenko is the perfect candidate to hold the Kremlin until Putin returns.
"If they make her president temporarily, under the condition that she must resign in a year or two, she will most likely not betray them if they want to make Putin president again. In this way, Matviyenko is comfortable," says Vladimir Pribyulovsky of the Moscow-based Panorama think tank.
Matviyenko has repeatedly said she will not run. In a July 23 interview with the "Izvestia" daily, she said she does not "suffer from megalomania or presidential ambitions."
Strong Chief Executives
Moreover, analysts point out that the caretaker president model is unlikely to work in Russia, with its tradition of strong overbearing chief executives.
"I hardly think this is a realistic scenario because a technical president for a country that is not accustomed to strong parliamentary institutions is strictly hypothetical," Ryabov says.
If Matvienko fits the scenario in which Putin will try to install a weak president, Vladimir Yakunin, head of the state-run Russian Railways company, represents the opposite -- a potentially strong president in the Putin mold who would continue the current Kremlin leader's policies.
"First of all [Yakunin] is a well-connected person. Second, he has serious money, not only from railways but from many other businesses," Ryabov says. "He has contacts with different parts of [Putin's] Petersburg team, including the so-called Chekist businesspeople," Ryabov adds, using the Russian slang expression for security officials who are engaged in business.
But Yakunin's strengths are also his main weaknesses.
"He is able to find agreement among various interests but, unlike Matviyenko, he will not be a puppet," Pribylovsky says.
Yakunin's business interests, as Russian Railways chief, clash with those of Putin's powerful deputy chief of staff, Igor Sechin, who is on the board of directors of the oil giant Rosneft.
"He is without a doubt serious and tough, but he is unacceptable to many from the Petersburg team. And because of this his chances are very small," Ryabov says. "Putin's task is to find the person who is acceptable, if not for everybody [in the St. Petersburg elite], at least for the majority."
The true dark horse, the rising star that many Kremlin watchers have theirs eyes on right now is Sergei Naryshkin, who Putin named deputy prime minister responsible for foreign economic relations in February.
Ryabov says Naryshkin's star is clearly rising.
"On the one hand, he has earned a lot of trust," Ryabov says. "He has worked on gas transport from Turkmenistan, which is very important. It wasn't in the public eye, but it was very important. He has worked on economic ties with the countries of the CIS, which is also very important but doesn't get much publicity. Obviously being assigned such tasks speaks to the large degree of trust he enjoys at the top."
Other dark-horse candidates mentioned by analysts and in media reports include Sergei Chemezov, head of the Russian arms export company Rosoboroneksport; Krasnodar Governor Aleksandr Tkachev; Krasnoyarsk Governor Aleksandr Kholoponin; and Putin's envoy to the North Caucasus, Dmitry Kozak.
Kremlin watchers say Putin's goal is to keep the current elite -- the so-called "St. Petersburg team -- in place after he departs the Kremlin.
In addition to loyalty to Putin and his political line, any candidate must therefore also be acceptable to the various clans that make up Putin's inner circle.
"There are two factors: the collective Putin and the individual Putin," Pribylovsky says. "They are more or less equal [in strength]. I don't think Putin can name someone that his circle is suspicious of. Moreover, he wants to maintain the status quo. But they [the inner circle] also cannot force anyone on him."
Pribylovsky, Ryabov and other analysts say the key differences among the clans are not ideological, but rather a desire to protect their commercial interests and political positions.
"You can think of it like a closed corporation in which Putin has 50 percent of the shares and the remaining 50 percent of the shares are distributed among about 10 or 15 people [who make up Putin's inner circle]," Pribylovsky says.
Despite the so-called "third man" scenario and the emergence of so many dark horse candidates, many analysts say they still see Ivanov and Medvedev as the frontrunners. That impression was strengthened when both made high-profile appearances at the Kremlin-backed youth group Nashi's summer camp in July.
Most Kremlin watchers expect Putin to announce his chosen successor soon, probably sometime in the fall. After all, it was eight years ago this week when Yeltsin shocked Russia -- and the world -- by naming the then-obscure Putin as his chosen heir.
Ghosts Of 1999 Haunt Presidential Succession
Prosecutors were investigating Yeltsin's cronies -- and even members of his immediate family -- for graft. Russia was reeling from an economic crisis. Voters were in an angry and surly mood.
And elections were looming.
Such was the atmosphere when Yeltsin went on television eight years ago this week, on the morning of August 9, 1999, to tell the country that he was firing his government -- for the third time in less than a year.
Yeltsin replaced his prime minister, Sergei Stepashin, with Federal Security Service (FSB) head Vladimir Putin. The president then shocked Russians -- and much of the world -- by anointing the dour and obscure former KGB officer Putin as his chosen heir.
Putin's unlikely ascent followed months of chaos, turmoil, and uncertainty as rival clans ruthlessly battled to control Russia's first post-Soviet transition of power. And the events surrounding his meteoric rise in 1999 proved decisive. It was at this time when Russia's clumsy, fleeting, halting, and tentative experiment with Western-style liberal democracy ended.
New Game, New Rules
It was also when the new rules of the game -- the ones Russia's political elite plays by today -- were established: outgoing presidents name their successors, the bureaucracy is expected to march in lockstep to support the heir to the throne, and the Kremlin will use any and all means necessary, no matter how brutal, to get its way.
The Yeltsin-Putin succession and its aftermath also provides a lesson that is haunting Russia's current political elite. Once they are embedded in the Kremlin, Russian presidents become virtually all powerful and are impossible to control -- even by the patrons who orchestrated their rise to power.
"The Russian presidency is so strong according to our archaic constitution that it is impossible to trust anybody with it," says Moscow-based political analyst Vladimir Pribylovsky. "It is dangerous. It turns a person practically into a Tsar. This is dangerous even for a short term."
Putin said at the time that he hadn't planned to run for president, but added that he was accustomed to following the president's orders -- and would obey this one as well.
"Sergei Vadimovich [Stepashin] and I are military men. The president has made a decision, and we will carry it out," Putin said.
Months later, on March 26, 2000, Russian voters would make Putin their president in an election that looked more like a coronation.
Putin is widely expected to be able to anoint any successor he so chooses. According to recent polls, a startling 40 percent of Russian voters are prepared to cast ballots for Putin's chosen candidate in next March's election -- regardless of who that person is.
A More Popular Spymaster
When the deeply unpopular Yeltsin anointed Putin his heir eight years ago, however, it looked like the longest of long shots.
In August 1999, the most popular Russian politician was a steely former spymaster who talked about cleaning up graft, punishing the corrupt, and restoring Russia's lost pride. That savior's name, however, wasn't Putin. It was Yevgeny Primakov, who served as Yeltsin's prime minister from September 1998 until he was fired in May 1999.
Primakov had teamed up with Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov and other regional leaders under the banner of the newly formed political party Fatherland-All Russia. The alliance appeared to have all the elements for political success -- a popular leader and a nationwide political machine that could deliver votes on election day.
The thought of a Primakov presidency terrified Yeltsin's inner circle.
"Yeltsin, Berezovsky, Chubais, didn't want to lose power -- and maybe not just power but possibly their lives or freedom -- when Primakov and Luzhkov came to power," Pribylovsky says.
In order to stop the Primakov juggernaut, Yeltsin's team frantically searched for a marketable candidate.
Several names were floated, including retired General Aleksandr Lebed, then the governor of Krasnoyarsk Krai, and Stepashin, a former interior minister who preceded Putin as prime minister.
According to media reports at the time, Yeltsin removed Stepashin in favor of Putin because Kremlin insiders didn't think he was tough -- or unscrupulous -- enough to take the extreme measures that many felt might be necessary to win and hold power.
When Yeltsin and his inner circle settled on Putin, very few political observers gave the stern former spymaster much of a chance. Pribylovsky says Yeltsin's endorsement looked like "a brick tied to Putin's legs," adding that the president's endorsement "was a minus and not a plus."
Apartment Block Attacks
But the game was about to change dramatically.
Days before Putin's appointment, Chechen rebel commander Shamil Basayev invaded Daghestan. Weeks later, a series of mysterious bombings of apartment blocks in Moscow and other cities terrified the country and killed more than 300 people.
Without presenting any evidence, Russian authorities immediately blamed the bombings on Basayev's rebels and a wave of anti-Chechen hysteria gripped the country.
Putin spoke like a gangster, vowing to hunt down and kill what he called "terrorists," memorably saying, "if we catch them in the toilet, we will wipe them out in the outhouse too."
Russian forces then bombed and invaded Chechnya, which had enjoyed de facto autonomy.
Putin's tough-guy stance touched a nerve among Russians. His popularity soared.
Andrei Ryabov, a political analyst with the Moscow Carnegie Center, says he began to take Putin seriously as a candidate in mid-October 1999, when his popularity surpassed Primakov's.
"He adequately met society's demands and aspirations. He rode the wave. And therefore part of the elite was prepared to support him seriously," Ryabov says.
There is no doubt that Putin benefited from the wave of terror that swept Russia following the apartment bombings. But many analysts say that autumn's dramatic events were no coincidence.
David Satter, author of "Darkness at Dawn: The Rise of the Russian Criminal State," is one of those who believes that Russian authorities orchestrated the apartment bombings.
"I think that the evidence is sufficient to conclude that the FSB blew up the apartment buildings and organized a pretext for the beginning of the second Chechen war in order to create that miracle of electing somebody chosen by Yeltsin," Satter says.
With Putin wildly popular, such extreme measures will probably not be needed this time around. But nevertheless, Satter says the precedent has been set and such options are now on the table.
"We have a terrible precedent, because in the minds of everyone is the idea that power changes hands with the help of such methods," Satter says. "So it is not excluded that there could be further provocations, maybe not on that scale, in the run-up to the 2008 elections."
Putin also benefited from a barrage of nonstop propaganda promoting him on media controlled by the Kremlin and its allies.
Satter says the bureaucracy, got the message loud and clear that it was time to march in lockstep behind the new leader.
"And as soon as they saw power moving in the other direction as a result of the apartment bombings and the second Chechen war...of course their loyalty to Luzhkov and Primakov evaporated," Satter adds.
Yeltsin sealed the deal by resigning on New Year's Eve and abdicating power to Putin.
The main legacy of 1999 is a pliant electorate and a unified obedient bureaucracy -- both of whom are waiting for Putin to give the order about whom to support.
The problem this time is that there is no potential successor that everybody in Putin's inner circle trusts -- including the two purported front-runners, First Deputy Prime Ministers Sergei Ivanov and Dmitry Medvedev.
"They [Putin's team] have problems among themselves," Pribylovsky says. "They are afraid of each other. They are seeking somebody they can trust with the throne. Everybody trusts Putin. They don't know what will happen with his successor."
They may have cause to worry. Putin kept the promise he allegedly made to Yeltsin to make sure him and his family were spared prosecution.
But soon after coming to power, Putin did turn on some of those who put him in power -- most notably Boris Berezovsky, who fled to London where he now lives in exile.
And that inherent mistrust that is now built into the system may be the most enduring and consequential legacy from that fateful year of 1999.
Skepticism Surrounds Reunited Orthodox Church
Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, who oversees external relations for the Russian Orthodox Church, has spoken warmly of ties between his church and the Russian Church Abroad since their historic reunion.
"It turned out that what we were suspecting was right -- since neither part of the Russian Orthodox Church has ever given up its faith or the Orthodox view of life and thinking, we have been able to sit together, in a friendly atmosphere, and discuss all the topics that have divided us. And it seems that we are actually like-minded," Kirill says.
Mending Historic Split
The two churches split following the 1917 revolution, when the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Sergei, declared his church's loyalty to the communist government.
To begin with, the breakaway Orthodox Church was based in Stavropol, a southern Russian city then controlled by the White Army.
With the Red Army advancing, the church moved to Ottoman Turkey and then to Serbia, before severing all ties with the Orthodox Church in Russia and officially setting itself up as the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, headquartered in New York.
The reconciliation was celebrated in May at a lavish ceremony at the Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow. The capital's largest cathedral was blown up by Soviet leader Josef Stalin and only rebuilt after the collapse of the Soviet regime.
Observers say the reunion is an important step for Russia in coming to terms with its communist past. But Yakov Krotov, a church historian, says he is skeptical about what the reunification can achieve.
"The speech of Kirill, it seems to me, is made to justify the politics of the Kremlin, because now this is four [sic, it has been about three] months of the unification, and these months have shown that the unification is not going as well as they declared in the spring," Krotov says.
In Krotov's view, the reconciliation is based less on religious values than politics. President Vladimir Putin has strongly supported the reunion, and played a prominent role in May's ceremony. Some have welcomed his efforts, while others have accused him of stoking nationalist feelings.
"This unification is more a secular act than a religious act, in the strict sense of the word, because on the side of the Kremlin -- and Kirill represents President Putin on his political line -- this unification is one more attempt to create the Great Russia, Russia as an international empire that unites Russians everywhere," Krotov says.
Nevertheless, church leaders appear to be keen to patch up their long-term differences.
"From a psychological point of view, it won't be easy for people to change the habits they have grown accustomed to, it won't be easy to accept changes in structures that have been built up over a long period of time and that have proven efficient," Kirill says.
"The question arises about whether it is necessary for all this to be changed," he continues. "But there are things that need to be unified and that's why we have picked a five-year period, which can be called a period of transformation."
One contentious issue that will test their new relationship is the growing influence of the church on state institutions. Last month, 20 prominent academicians wrote an open letter to the national newspapers, calling for a reinforcement of the separation of church and state.
In their letter, they lamented the "growing role of clerics in Russian society" and "the church's penetration into all facets of social life." They warned of the dangers of introducing Orthodoxy classes in schools in a country that has as many as 20 million Muslims.
Metropolitan Kirill has called for a "serious dialogue" on the role of the Orthodox Church in society, and invited the authors of the letter to take part in a "private, unpoliticized debate."