Cliff May

Vladimir Putin and I are about the same age and we went to college at about the same time. As a matter of fact, we went to college together. No, really.

Putin attended Leningrad State University, graduating in 1975. I was there for a semester in 1972, one of a small number of American undergraduate exchange students living in the “international dormitory,” six to a room, across the Neva River from the Hermitage Museum, once the residence of czars.

I can’t say Vlady and I were great buddies. Okay, I can’t say we actually knew each other. Leningrad State (Rah, rah, rah!) was a big school. He was in the law department, studying who knows what, heading for an illustrious career as a KGB spook. I was in the philology department, studying language and literature, heading for I knew not what. But Russian literature is splendid, and we read a lot of it. Soviet literature was abominable, and we read a lot of that, too. Anti-Soviet literature was riveting — we were not even to discuss that.

Our free time was spent in more-informal educational pursuits, by which I mean talking until the wee hours, over warm vodka and strong coffee, with whichever Russians were willing to put up with our bad grammar and vulgar accents — in other words, dissidents and KGB agents posing as dissidents. (So maybe I did meet Putin after all?)

In those days, there was still talk of the “New Soviet Man.” Spawned by Communist culture and consciousness, he was to be, as the Communist Party phrased it, “a harmonic combination,” a superior creature, fit and healthy, unsentimental and street-savvy, a proud proletarian, loyal only to the ideology of Marxism-Leninism.

Back in the day, Putin surely thought of himself as a New Soviet Man. Today, I see him as a Neo-Soviet Man, by which I mean possessing all of the above attributes except for the Marxism-Leninism, which has been replaced by réchauffé Russian nationalism, crony capitalism, authoritarianism, and Machtpolitik.

Cliff May

Clifford D. May is the President of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.