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An Inside Track to Putin's Kremlin

Vladimir Yakunin heading to his office at Russian Railways headquarters. He lived his first 14 years in Estonia, where Estonian boys knifed him in a fight. Igor Tabakov
From his ground-floor office, at the end of a marble corridor lined with portraits of his Soviet predecessors Leon Trotsky, Felix Dzerzhinsky and Lazar Kaganovich, Vladimir Yakunin runs a state within a state.

As president of the country's second-largest corporation, Russian Railways, Yakunin controls an empire of steel and movement that spans 11 time zones, employs a work force bigger than the population of Estonia and has a budget larger than those of many developing nations.

Now, Yakunin is being touted as a dark horse contender for the Kremlin thanks to a resume with KGB-like gaps, links to Vladimir Putin's most intimate St. Petersburg circle and a post in an influential Orthodox organization.

Burly, yet avuncular, his hair graying at the temples, Yakunin, 58, leaned forward during a recent interview and rattled off the desired qualities for the country's next president.

Ethnically Russian, well educated, with experience working abroad and in industry, a strong character, dedicated, able to talk to ordinary people and, above all, mature, Yakunin said, counting off the requirements one by one on his fingers.

Despite essentially describing himself, Yakunin demurred when asked whether he fit the bill.

"I consider the work of our president, and from one side it is extremely interesting," he said in slightly accented English. "But when you know the other side of the picture, you should be very, very careful to think that you would want to continue this sort of life. Trust me."

For a man who might be the next president, Yakunin isn't exactly well-known. He doesn't even rank in opinion polls of possible presidential contenders.

On a recent walk around Gorky Park during celebrations for the railroad's 170th anniversary, Yakunin and his entourage inadvertently cornered Tatyana Pogodina, a railway mechanic's wife, and her 6-year-old son, Yegor, outside a play-area.

"He just said hello to us," Pogodina said, as Yegor chewed nonchalantly on a red balloon animal. "His name is on the tip of my tongue, but I know for certain that he's someone from the State Duma."

Other people in the park knew Yakunin and spoke warmly of his leadership.

"He's done a lot for the ordinary people and average workers," said Yelena Fomichyova, a retired railway worker. "I'd definitely vote for him."

"I think that all the people at Russian Railways would vote for him. Everyone thinks that he's a good leader," said Anna Strebylova, 21. A co-worker, Olga Bukova, 25, nodded in agreement.

With nearly 1.5 million workers and a newspaper, Gudok, with a circulation of 250,000, the railway could give Yakunin a solid electoral base to start a presidential campaign.

In a cordoned-off VIP section at the park, Yakunin, his glass filled with whiskey and plate piled with rib-eye steak, hosted a charity lottery for an elite group, including government ministers, Russian Orthodox Church leaders and railroad executives.

Vladimir Ivanovich Yakunin

Born: June 30, 1948

Place of Birth: Melenki, Vladimir region

Education: Leningrad Mechanical Institute, degree in ballistic missile production; Moscow State University, finalizing doctoral thesis titled "The Processes and Mechanisms of State Politics in Modern Russian Society."

Advantages: Close ties to President Vladimir Putin and his St. Petersburg allies; affiliation with the Russian Orthodox Church; wide power base provided by Russian Railways; experience of living abroad; business and industry experience.

Disadvantages: Low public profile; rumored personal conflict with Kremlin deputy chief of staff Igor Sechin; could face backlash if associated by the public with increasing rail prices.

Notable Quotes: "Russians are very open, on the one hand, but they are also very vulnerable." Interview with The Moscow Times, 2007.

"The creation of a strong state is the inviolable priority nowadays ... for the successful development of Russia's economic and social spheres." Excerpt from Yakunin's doctoral thesis, quoted in Nezavisimaya Gazeta.

"I do not do politics." Interview with Vedomosti, 2005.

Later, he joked with pop singer Lolita on a giant stage and handed out awards to railroad workers. Yakunin portrayed himself as a straight-talking everyman and anti-politician, peppering a speech with anecdotes and proverbs and talking, as he said at a recent news conference, "like a real railway worker."

He also had an eye for publicity. As he walked around the park with assistants and guards, he shook hands and paused for photographs with workers. He spent 1,000 rubles on a T-shirt, cap and ribbon at the stand of a railroad-backed charity for orphans. As cameras furiously snapped away, a blushing woman at the stand pinned the light blue ribbon onto his lapel.

Orthodox Chekists

Oxana Onipko / MT
Yakunin, flanked by assistants and guards, waving to railroad workers and their families at a celebration of the railroad's 170th anniversary in Gorky Park.

One image more than any other has illustrated Yakunin's proximity to power and sparked whispers of a potential presidency.

At the 2005 Easter service in the cavernous Christ the Savior Cathedral, Putin stood, head bowed and occasionally crossing himself. Directly behind him, his face half-obscured in the gloom and a candle flickering in his hands, loomed Yakunin.

For Kremlinologists used to judging the rise and demise of political careers from the standing arrangements at official events, it meant only one thing.

Yakunin has a simple explanation for his appearance next to Putin. He leads the prominent Orthodox organizations Fund of Andrei Pervozvanny and the Center for National Glory.

With close links to the hierarchy at the Russian Orthodox Church, the organizations place Yakunin at the heart of the so-called Orthodox chekists around the president. They played a leading role in the recent reunification of the church with the Orthodox Church Abroad and are responsible for bringing the holy flame to Russia from Jerusalem every year.

When asked at a recent news conference about claims that the church was becoming too influential in society, Yakunin became impassioned. "There is nothing wrong with trying to strengthen the spiritual core of our society, and I will never say there is," he said, striking a microphone with his flailing arm.

Clergy have voiced support for a Yakunin presidency. "As an organization, the Orthodox church would never dream of interfering directly in the elections, but we would lend our support to Yakunin," Leonid Kalinin, a priest from St. Clement Cathedral, said at the Gorky Park festivities.

Where and when Yakunin's personal faith originated is unclear. A university friend who attended his wedding said Yakunin had showed no sign of being religious then.

Yakunin's convictions have led him to establish and fund the annual World Public Forum on the Greek island of Rhodes, two of the forum's co-founders said. Billed as a Davos for the spiritually enlightened, the forum attracts statesmen from around the world. Yakunin has personally handed out awards to Putin and former Iranian President Mohammed Khatami, among others, at the forum.

Knifed by Estonians

Yakunin was born near Melenki in the Vladimir region after his father, who was serving as a border guard pilot in Estonia, ordered his pregnant wife back to his native village to give birth. Yakunin spent the first 14 years of his life in the picturesque coastal Estonian town of Parnu, today a vacation resort of just over 40,000 people.

The young Volodya Yakunin was an average, if studious, boy from a typical Soviet family, said Jevgeni Tomberg, a childhood friend and classmate in Parnu.

Despite this, Yakunin's most vivid memory from the time was how he got his first, and only, "battle scar," as he called it.

As a fifth grader, Yakunin was attacked by a group of six Estonian boys who singled him out because he was Russian. As he fought them off single-handedly, they cut him with a knife. Later that day, with his bloodied hand bandaged, he returned home a hero, Yakunin said.

Tomberg confirmed the account. "There were some fights and once they cut him up a bit with knives. But he wasn't a hooligan," he said by telephone from Tallinn.

When Yakunin was 14, his father relocated to Leningrad, where the family, including Yakunin's mother, Valentina, and younger sister, Yelena, lived in a five-story apartment building on Blagodatnaya Ulitsa in the city's Moskovsky district.

In 1966, Yakunin entered the Leningrad Mechanical Institute to study ballistic missile production for the next 5 1/2 years. He graduated third in his class, classmates said.

While still a student, Yakunin married Natalya, a brunette he had known since high school. Their first son, Andrei, was born two years after Yakunin's graduation, and a second son, Viktor, followed several years later.

Yakunina often appears prominently with her husband at official events. Yakunin sat with his arm draped affectionately around her shoulder during most of a recent charity concert for Russian Railways.

KGB Mystery

After working two years as a laboratory assistant at a chemistry institute producing rocket fuel, Yakunin's resume becomes more difficult to follow. From 1975 to 1977 he fulfilled his obligatory two years of military service. He refuses to say where he was stationed, fueling speculation that he joined the KGB while in the army. Friends from the period said they knew where he was but refused to elaborate.

In the interview, Yakunin said only that he had served in the army. He also said that while his public profile might be low, his resume was known by those who needed to know. "Among those who are making decisions, governmental bodies, the president, agencies, journalists, people who are interested, they all know who I am," he said.

After the military, Yakunin worked for two years as an engineer at the State Committee for International Trade of the Soviet Council of Ministers before being made head of the international relations committee for the Ioffe Institute in Leningrad. It was there that he met a group of physicists -- Yury Kovalchuk, Andrei Fursenko and Viktor Myachin -- who would later become key figures in his rise to power.

But first he was dispatched to New York to serve for five years in the Soviet mission to the United Nations -- a posting that has raised further questions about his possible KGB connections. Partially explaining his radical career shift was a massive bout of expulsions in mid-1985, when the UN sent home dozens of Russians accused of spying under diplomatic cover.

"It was an extremely complicated period in the relationship between the two countries," Yakunin said in a 2005 interview with Itogi magazine.

Yakunin served as second and then first secretary at the mission and headed the Soviet representation on the Committee for the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space.

Two-thirds of the staff at the mission worked for the KGB or military intelligence in the 1980s, former KGB General Oleg Kalugin said.

Few details can be verified about Yakunin's time at the UN. Two ambassadors stationed there at the time, Sir Crispin Tickell of Britain and Thomas Pickering of the United States, said they could not remember the midranking Soviet diplomat. During the period, attitudes among Soviet diplomats relaxed dramatically, Tickell said.

Another strong indication of Yakunin's KGB service is a medal that he later received for no apparent reason, Kalugin said. The medal "For Military Service" is given only to military or KGB personnel, he said.

Back in Russia, Yakunin went into the export business with his physicist friends in early 1991 -- a time when licenses for export businesses were usually only granted to former KGB officials.

To finance a series of short-lived firms that they set up, Yakunin's group reanimated Bank Rossiya in December 1991, with Yakunin joining the board and becoming a shareholder. The bank was linked to Putin's re-election campaign in 2004, with Ivan Rybkin, a Boris Berezovsky-backed candidate, identifying Kovalchuk and his brother Mikhail as Putin's "cashiers."

A business center that the group wanted to build in St. Petersburg led Yakunin to his first meeting with Putin, who had to approve the project as the head of the city's foreign relations committee.

Yakunin's friendship with Putin appears to have flourished. Yakunin was a well-known figure in the circle around Putin and Mayor Anatoly Sobchak, said Yagya Vatanyar, then a city lawmaker and adviser to Sobchak. Yakunin was close to both men, Vatanyar said.

In interviews, Yakunin has described his relationship with Putin as first "businesslike" and then "neighborly."

In late 1996, Putin and Yakunin were among a group of eight partners who set up Ozero, a gated dacha community on the banks of Lake Komsomolskoye, 130 kilometers north of St. Petersburg.

The Ozero group got together after a visit by Yakunin and his business partners to a dacha owned by Putin in the area, Yakunin has said. Putin is believed to have secured the dacha several years earlier through Viktor Zubkov, then a St. Petersburg official and now Putin's new prime minister. Putin's original dacha burned down in 1995, leading the future president to have, as he told Larry King in a 2000 interview, a profound religious experience. The dacha was rebuilt, and Putin sold it several years ago, Yakunin has said.

Yakunin's former business partners and dacha neighbors have risen with him to the very pinnacle of power.

Andrei Fursenko, still a close friend, is now education and science minister, while his brother Sergei heads Gazprom subsidiary Lentransgaz. Yury Kovalchuk remains the largest shareholder in Bank Rossiya. A Bank Rossiya spokeswoman said Yakunin was no longer linked to the bank.

Following Putin's Tracks

When Putin moved to Moscow to work in Yeltsin's presidential administration as head of the property department, Yakunin left the private sector to head the property department's northwestern branch. After Putin was moved in mid-1998 to the Federal Security Service, Yakunin continued serving under his successor, current FSB chief Nikolai Patrushev.

Yakunin only moved to Moscow when Putin became president in 2000, accepting the post of deputy transportation minister in charge of the country's seaports

Former Transportation Minister Sergei Frank said Yakunin got the job after impressing him while auditing St. Petersburg's ports. Frank said he had been particularly taken with Yakunin's openness to new ideas, willingness to accept responsibility and obvious patriotism.

"He likes to listen rather than to speak," Frank said in an interview. "He is very patriotic. He is really fond of his country and city, St. Petersburg ... but simultaneously he is a liberal-minded man and open to Western culture."

Yakunin moved to the railways in February 2002.

In interviews over the past year, Yakunin has been increasingly keen to comment on subjects beyond the railways, and now he is laying out his vision for the country. Next week, he is to defend his doctoral thesis at Moscow State University -- a plan for the strengthening of the state and resuscitation of the elusive "Russian idea," which he argues is to create a bond between the leadership and the population.

Yakunin appears entirely at ease with top government officials. At a recent Russian Railways event with First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov and Transportation Minister Igor Levitin, he interrupted Ivanov's speech to crack jokes. When a journalist shouted a question to Ivanov about the latest high-speed rail links, Yakunin bent his head down and whispered the answer into Ivanov's ear.

Away from the cameras, Yakunin warmly shook Ivanov's hand, laughing as he saw him to his car. Once Ivanov's Mercedes had roared away, Yakunin turned to the diminutive transportation minister and, wagging his finger, appeared to lecture him.

Editor's note: This is the third in a series of profiles of possible presidential candidates.

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