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15 Years Later, Questions Remain About Death Of The Man Who Made Putin

Anatoly Sobchak (left) was a mentor to Russian President Vladimir Putin (right), pictured here in May, 1994.
Anatoly Sobchak (left) was a mentor to Russian President Vladimir Putin (right), pictured here in May, 1994.

ST. PETERSBURG -- Few municipal leaders are credited with changing the path of history. Anatoly Sobchak, the late reformist mayor of Russia's northern capital and political mentor to a young Vladimir Putin, is different.

Sobchak rose to prominence as a charismatic voice for perestroika, a mayor who dumped his city's Soviet-era moniker of Leningrad and pushed for democratic reforms. But 15 years after his death, he's best remembered as the earliest champion of Putin, his onetime deputy, whom Sobchak once praised as "a man who really thinks about the state... not about his own interests and needs."

Sobchak's widow, Lyudmila Narusova, has had plenty of time and cause to reflect on her husband's upbeat assessment of Putin, who as president has reversed democratic reforms in favor of sweeping autocracy. Still, despite her own misgivings about Putin's presidency, she says Sobchak's characterization remains essentially correct.

"It's definitely true, in the sense that Putin is a person who believes he's been given a special mission, that he's a statesman," says Narusova, 63, speaking at the Museum of Democratic Development she founded in her late husband’s name. "He really thinks that he understands the interests of the state and implements them accordingly."

She pauses, then adds: "But...'power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.' Fifteen years is a long time."

'In A Safe Place'

The circumstances surrounding Sobchak's death remain murky at best. After narrowly losing his bid to serve a second term as St. Petersburg’s mayor, he fled Russia in 1997 amid rising corruption allegations.

After two years in France, he returned home to drum up support for Putin, who had stepped in as president for an ailing Boris Yeltsin and was running for official election in March 2000.

During a February 19, 2000, campaign trip to Russia's western exclave of Kaliningrad, the 62-year-old Sobchak died in a hotel room, apparently of a heart attack. But media reports later suggested he had been poisoned. Suspicions were further raised when the two former KGB agents traveling with Sobchak were later shot dead in what appeared to be professional hits.

Lyudmila Narusova
Lyudmila Narusova

Narusova, who was photographed at her husband's funeral sitting between Putin and her then-teenage daughter, Ksenia, was quoted shortly afterward as saying it was "not yet time" to tell the truth about Sobchak's death.

Fifteen years later, she is still reluctant to discuss her husband's death, saying only that a true account of his demise is being kept "in a safe place."

Narusova, a historian and former Federation Council deputy, acknowledges that her husband -- a lawyer and avid proponent of post-Soviet lustration -- presented a threat to other Putin allies, particularly those who had come up with Putin through the KGB ranks.

"They realized his influence over the future president was very high, not because of money or business interests, but because of his interest in rule of law," she says.

"Do you remember how in the first years of his presidency, Putin always talked about the 'dictatorship of law' and a 'country ruled by law'?" she adds. "But what do we see today? Criminal cases are being opened against the political opposition. My daughter" -- now a TV presenter and a vocal Putin critic -- "was served with a search warrant in a completely illegal fashion. Everything that Sobchak warned against back then is now cynically happening for real."

Warning From The Grave?

Narusova remains on speaking terms with Putin -- she praised him in a recent documentary for U.S. public television, and greeted him last week at a commemorative service on the anniversary of Sobchak's death.

But she says the changing political climate in Russia also persuaded her and her daughter to publish an unfinished work by Sobchak on Josef Stalin and the role of Soviet society in allowing totalitarianism to flourish.

The book is the product of Sobchak's self-imposed exile in 1998-99, when he scoured Paris archives and libraries for personal manuscripts of Soviet purge survivors and other historical documents. Narusova says the book moves beyond a simple indictment of the Soviet dictator himself. "As harsh as it may seem," she says, "he delivers a verdict against all of us -- the people who created the cult of personality by praising Stalin."

Sobchak (right) with actor Oleg Basilashvili in February, 1994.
Sobchak (right) with actor Oleg Basilashvili in February, 1994.

Aleksandr Vinnikov, a human rights activist and a former city lawmaker who worked closely with Sobchak, says the timing of the publication is certain to unnerve people alarmed by what they see as growing synchronicity between the Putin and Stalin regimes. He says it may also help answer the question of what changed Putin's thinking since his days as Sobchak's sidekick.

"For me there's no doubt that Sobchak's views on Stalinism will be seen through the prism of the fact that his aide was the current President Putin, who before our very eyes is now introducing a number of Stalinist elements in how he governs the country," says Vinnikov. "It's a very interesting question, how the aide of someone as anti-Stalinist and anticommunist as Sobchak could turn into a president like Putin."

Other St. Petersburg politicians are more skeptical of the value of Sobchak's posthumous tome.

"What he was doing in Paris I can't say," says Sergei Yegorov, a former city deputy and head of the city's Popular Front party. "But there's nothing that leads me to suspect he has any knowledge of history. I don't think he's capable of dispelling the myth of Stalin -- it's the myth of Sobchak we need to dispel somehow."

Narusova dismisses such criticism of her late husband -- whom she typically refers to by last name or first name and patronymic -- saying his book is not only well-researched but also timely, coming at a time of "Soviet renaissance."

"Anatoly Aleksandrovich believed that the crime of destroying millions of innocent people in the gulag was comparable to Hitler's crimes," she says. "Sobchak understood that the roots of totalitarianism lie within our own people. This slavish obedience -- voting for the person you're told to vote for, incomprehensible fear -- all this remains. And this book is a warning."

Written in Prague by Daisy Sindelar, based on reporting from St. Petersburg by RFE/RL's Russian Service correspondents Viktor Rezunkov and Tatyana Voltskaya

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