Russia's Mighty Mouse

In a high-ceilinged room at the St. Petersburg mayor's office in 1992, overlooking St. Isaac's Square and its fine equestrian statue of Tsar Nicholas I, two small men shared one big desk. The older man was a tough ex-KGB lieutenant colonel named Vladimir Putin. He ran the mayor's commercial dealings and was always "very business-like and serious," says Dmitry Lenkov, a member of the city council who was a frequent visitor. Putin's deputy, a quiet young lawyer, was named Dmitry Medvedev. He was a "hardly noticeable gray mouse— nobody really paid attention much to him," says Lenkov. "Putin made all the decisions, Medvedev did the legwork."

Sixteen years later, Putin has decided that his former subordinate will succeed him as president of Russia. There will be an election, of course, on March 2. But in the "sovereign democracy" Putin has created—largely by stifling independent media and cracking down on dissidents—Medvedev faces no real opposition. Most observers expect the mouse to do his master's bidding: he's already promised to appoint Putin as prime minister, and to keep in place "the efficient team that the incumbent president has assembled." (Even though they've been friends for nearly two decades, Medvedev still addresses his boss by the formal "vy"—the equivalent of calling him "Mr. Putin" in English.) One former top Kremlin official, who has worked with both men but did not want to offend either, says the power dynamic between them has not changed since St. Petersburg: "Putin will stay on as long as he needs to in order to make sure that his boy isn't eaten alive."

Does that mean Russia is headed for an unofficial third term for Putin? Russians don't seem to mind—Putin's approval ratings top 76 percent—and Medvedev is unlikely to make any dramatic changes at first. But while much in their shared history has pushed the two men together, a closer look at the origins of their friendship also reveals much that could one day drive them apart.

Some of their differences are superficial. Putin, 55, is the quintessential Russian tough guy: he loves the martial arts and swears like a trooper; last week he referred to press allegations of his private fortune as "muck picked out of someone's nose and smeared on paper." He watches war movies and listens to patriotic Russian rock. Medvedev, 42, is a slightly built, soft-spoken corporate lawyer. He's written a slew of respected legal textbooks; his favorite sport is swimming. The toughest thing about him seems to be that he's a fan of Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin.

Other distinctions are more telling. Putin grew up in a tough working-class suburb of St. Petersburg, then known as Leningrad, in a prefabricated apartment block without hot water. In his 2000 autobiography, "First Person," he recalls leading gangs of kids to chase and kill rats in the stairwells. Yet at the same time, the Soviet Union, under Leonid Brezhnev, was at the peak of its influence. Putin was brought up as one of the last believers in communism; he dreamed of joining the KGB after watching Soviet spy films. As president, he's called the collapse of the Soviet Union the "greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century." Medvedev, on the other hand, was born into a world of Leningrad intellectuals. His mother, Yulia, taught Russian language and literature, and his father, Anatoly, was a physicist. "I wanted to persuade him that he should become a [scientist] like his father," says Irina Grigorovskaya, who taught Medvedev math at School No. 305. "But already by the age of 14 he firmly said no; he insisted that he would go into the law."

Leningrad in the late 1980s was the Soviet Union's most liberal city. Communism was beginning to unravel, and amid the excitement of glasnost, students would pack auditoriums to listen to lectures on Stalinism by revisionist historians. They'd queue for the latest releases of poetry records by once banned authors. After graduating with a law degree from Leningrad State University, Medvedev went to work for one of his professors, Anatoly Sobchak, who was running for Parliament. It was a risky move: Sobchak's ideas about free markets and political pluralism were still fairly heretical. But when a set of campaign leaflets was deemed too politically racy by the KGB and confiscated, Medvedev was one of a group of supporters who stayed up to print another set by hand, on an old rotary copy machine. "Dima [Medvedev] told me afterwards that he felt like Lenin after printing [the communist underground newspaper] Iskra all night," says Sobchak's widow, Larisa Narusova. Sobchak was elected in a landslide.

Putin spent most of those heady years in East Germany, watching the Iron Curtain crumble. Sobchak, who years before had also taught Putin, brought the former KGB agent back to St. Petersburg in 1992 after becoming mayor. He needed "someone who could bridge the gap between the former dissidents who were now in office and their old persecutors [in the KGB]," says the former senior Kremlin aide. Medvedev worked diligently for Putin, dispensing legal advice as his boss oversaw the sell-off of city-owned property and businesses. But the younger man also dove into the capitalist scrum himself, joining Ilim Pulp, a paper-processing company he helped turn into a multimillion-dollar market leader. He also taught law at his alma mater. Pavel Timofeyev, a former student, says Medvedev would show up to class wearing a Versace blazer with gorgons on the buttons, a Parker pen in hand. "He glowed with luxury, success and professionalism," Timofeyev says. "We dreamt of becoming rich and successful lawyers like him."

Years later, as he rose in the Kremlin, Putin tapped Medvedev in part for his corporate savvy. Soon Medvedev was heading Gazprom, the state-owned energy giant, where he eased out old management and plugged the company's leaky finances. But the deciding factor—then, as now—was loyalty. "It's extremely important for Putin to have subordinates who cannot challenge or threaten him," says Kremlin-connected analyst Stanislav Belkovsky. Medvedev shares with Putin a certain distrust of unbridled capitalism: at Ilim Pulp, he once had to call upon former KGB and military intelligence officers to help fight off a hostile takeover attempt. He also approves of the new, bold role that Putin has carved out for Russia through a mixture of diplomacy, bullying and military swagger. "Russia has reclaimed her proper place in the world community," Medvedev said approvingly last month.

Yet at the same time, the loyal lieutenant has carefully avoided the kind of strutting nationalism that Putin favors. (Putin recently threatened to target Russian missiles at Ukraine if the country agreed to host a U.S. anti-missile defense system, a statement that U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice condemned as "reprehensible rhetoric.") In a recent speech Medvedev promised to push Russia's energy interests in Europe "calmly, without hysterics." And last month a NEWSWEEK correspondent viewed a hand-edited copy of a speech Medvedev gave to an audience of civic and cultural leaders in Moscow. Medvedev had crossed out two passages: a reference to how Putin's projected new role in Parliament was a sign that the "party system is growing stronger" in Russia, and a claim that the West is trying to foment a revolt akin to Ukraine's 2004 Orange Revolution there. Instead Medvedev admitted, "Russia is a country of legal nihilism. No European country can boast such a universal disregard for the rule of law."

Even if he's so inclined, Medvedev will have a tough time reforming the Russian political system. During Putin's tenure a formidable and murky network of St. Petersburg cronies has spread throughout the Kremlin. "Medvedev will have to fight [this] clan of former KGB men," says Kirill Kobanov, head of Russia's National Anti-Corruption Committee. "Otherwise the entire state political structure will collapse under the weight of graft." Yet Putin is not likely to condone a wholesale purge of his former mates. And at a press conference last week he clearly indicated that he expected to continue to wield influence: "The highest executive power in the country is ... the prime minister," he said ominously.

Still, over the long run, the former top Kremlin aide thinks there's reason to hope. "Remember, we all said that Putin would be the puppet of the Yeltsin clan who put him in power—but he very quickly set his own course," he says. "There has always been a magic to the office of tsar in Russia … Medvedev will surprise us all." Perhaps his mentor most of all.