The President wakes late and eats shortly after noon. He begins with the simplest of breakfasts. There is always cottage cheese. His cooked portion is always substantial; omelette or occasionally porridge. He likes quails’ eggs. He drinks fruit juice. The food is forever fresh: baskets of his favourites dispatched regularly from the farmland estates of the Patriarch Kirill, Russia’s religious leader.
He is then served coffee. His courtiers have been summoned but these first two hours are taken up with swimming. The President enjoys this solitary time in the water. He wears goggles and throws himself into a vigorous front crawl. This is where the political assistants suggest he gets much of Russia’s thinking done.
The courtiers joke and idle and cross their legs in the lacquered wood waiting rooms. He rarely comes to them quickly. They say three, perhaps four hours is the normal wait for a minister. He likes to spend some time in the gym where Russian rolling news is switched on. There he enjoys the weights much more than the exercise bikes.
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He sometimes reads after the sweat. This is because he likes to work late into the night. He summons his men at the hours that suit his mental clarity – the cold hours where everything is clearer. The books he finds most interesting, are history books. He reads these attentively. Heavy, respectable tomes: about Ivan the Terrible, Catherine II, Peter the Great.
But there sometimes fly rumours: that he has read a novel. In 2006, the President is said to have read a thriller in which working class men beat up Chechens and cops and seize the governor’s office from corrupt thieves with machine guns – Sankya by Zakhar Prilepin.
Now those that claim to know his bedside, say he has much enjoyed The Third Empire, a fantasy about an imaginary Latin American historian from 2054, who recounts the exploits of Tsar Vladimir II, the in-gatherer of all Russian lands. But his courtiers are at pains to make it clear – the President is no reader.
He spends time completing his cleanse. He immerses himself into both hot and cold baths. Then the President dresses. He chooses to wear only tailored, bespoke suits in conservative colours. His choice of ties is usually dour.
And now power begins. The early afternoon is about briefing notes. This mostly takes place at his heavy wooden desk. These are offices without screens. The President uses only the most secure technologies: red folders with paper documents, and fixed-line Soviet Warera telephones.
The master begins his work day by reading three thick leather-bound folders. The first – his report on the home front compiled by the FSB, his domestic intelligence service. The second – his report on international affairs compiled by the SVR, his foreign intelligence. The third – his report on the court complied by the FSO, his army of close protection.
He is obsessed with information. The thickest, fattest folders at his request are not intelligence reports: they are press clippings. His hands first open the Russian press digest. The most important papers come at the front: the obsequious national tabloids – such as Komsomolskaya Pravda and Moskovsky Komsomolets. These matter most, with their millions of readers. Their headlines, their gossip columns, their reactions to the latest Siberian train wreck affect the workers’ mood.
Then he moves onto Russia’s quality press: the lightly censored broadsheets, Vedomosti and Kommersant. These matter in the Kremlin court: this is their gossip, their columnists, their analysis. He pays particular attention to the regular columns about Vladimir Putin written by Andrey Kolesnikov in Kommersant. His courtiers say he enjoys this one greatly and always reads right to the end.
Then the least important folders: his foreign press. These are clippings compiled both in the presidential administration, and his Foreign Ministry. The departments do not hide from him the bad news. They like to make a point: the President must know how far these foreigners demonise him. But to please him, they also dutifully include materials in German in the original, the language in which his long-ago KGB posting in Dresden, left him fluent.
The courtiers wait at the door and by video-link he likes to watch them gossip and writhe in boredom, or play with their electronic gadgets. But he ignores them and works his way through the reports.
The President rarely uses the internet. He finds the screens within screens and the bars building up with messages confusing. However, from time to time, his advisers have shown some satirical online videos: he must know how they mock him. His life has become ceremonial: an endless procession of gilded rooms. His routine is parcelled up into thousands of units of 15 minutes and planned for months, if not years ahead. Following his morning review the schedule folders embossed with the eagle are presented to him. After glancing at them, he follows the plan: without a smile or a joy.
Mostly, these meetings are meaningless. There are those who come to pay homage to him: receiving the crown Prince of Bahrain, awarding bronze medals to Udmurt Heroes of Labour, or reviewing promotions in the management of the federal space industry.
He does not live in Moscow. He dislikes the place: the traffic, the pollution, the human congestion. The President has chosen the palace at Novo-Ogaryovo as his residence. Home is out there, to the west of the city, away from the red walls, the mega-estates, the mega-malls – out in his parkland.
It is 24km from the palace to the castle. The route is closed and cleared of all traffic when the President chooses to commute. He can reach the Kremlin in less than 25 minutes, while Moscow sits in gridlock.
He dislikes coming to the Kremlin. He prefers working on his estate. He has cut down his meetings in Moscow since 2012 to a strict minimum: to meeting dignitaries that need to be impressed, or the formal gatherings that require those extravagant halls, with crystal-cut cut chandeliers and the mirrors as high as birch trees.
He finds the commute irritating.