Kiwi Polemicist has an excerpt from Cherie Blair’s autobiography Speaking for Myself, where the wife of the former British PM Tony Blair describes her impressions of Vladimir Putin:
[The Blairs visited St Petersburg (Leningrad during the Soviet rampage) in 2000 or 2001. Blair describes it as Putin’s hometown and power base]
It was the three hundreth anniversary of the founding of the city . In the short time since assuming the Presidency, Putin had poured money into St Petersburg and totally transformed it, or so it appeared. Much of it, we later discovered, was no more substantial than a film set: the facades of some of the houses had been painted and others disguised to make them look totally restored. It was the end of May, and the weather was lovely (a few years later they actually sent up airplanes to disperse the clouds so that the sun could shine for the G8).
In those early days Lyudmila Putina [Putin’s wife] was very unsure of herself. Her husband had fairly chauvinistic views about the role of a wife. He had two basic rules, she confided: “A woman must do everything at home” and “Never praise a woman, it will only spoil her”.
We met at Putin’s private dacha [holiday home]. That evening, I remember, he was at pains to point out that far from being a convinced communist, he had always been a man of religious faith with a strong attachment to the Orthodox Church. I was not entirely convinced. I sensed that the former KGB chief was still there under the surface (He has a very powerful presence – he’s broad-shouldered and keeps himself fit with judo. He puts a lot of value on physical strength, his own and Russia’s. This is not a man you would want to cross.)
The invitation to his private cottage was a sign of favour, and that night, apart from the interpreter, there were just the four of us. The dacha was, in fact, a hunting lodge, and Lyudmila had never even been there before, their main dacha being outside St Petersburg. The meal was heavy in the traditional Russian manner: meat and no vegetables, unless you count pickles. When it was over, Putin stood up and stretched. “And now,” he said, “I want to take you wild boar hunting.”
By this time it was about half-past ten. No one had said anything about hunting wild boars or anything else. I was dressed for dinner in high heels and a dress, and the temperature outside was well below freezing. Tony came to help me on with my coat. “Buckle down, girl,” he said, “and stop complaining.”
Lyudmila gave me a look: this wasn’t her idea of fun either. Outside it was pitch-dark, and there was nothing I could do to prevent my high heels from click-clacking on the concrete path while everyone else was creeping along with exaggerated stealth. I was petrified. The machine-gun toting Russian body guards were behind us, while our own protection officers were presumably somewhere behind them – at least I hoped so, in case we were about to be ceremonially assassinated. I didn’t know whether to be more frightened of the guns or the wild boars, which I’d seen pictures of and which I knew to be particularly vicious creatures.
Putin led us down to a hide and was explaining the finer points of boar hunting as he peered down the sights of a night-vision rifle