“I have been told that when I am nervous or I am tense, my lips begin to twitch” says Vladimir Yakunin. “I have started to make some effort to eliminate these movements. In my life, it is not useful to show your weakness in this way”.
This is a peculiarly Russian kind of understatement. Vladimir Yakunin has lived several lives, often at the same time — the KGB intelligence officer at the height of the Cold War; the Soviet diplomat on a covert mission to the USA; the contemporary and advisor to President Vladimir Putin; the CEO of Russia’s biggest company. And each life has required him to dismiss and suppress weakness at every twist and turn.
But half an hour later, as our photographer leans in for a close-quarters portrait, Yakunin’s bottom lip begins almost imperceptibly to ripple and fidget. “I find it an odd thing having my photo taken” he says. “Forgive me.”
This is the remarkable candour of the man who has broken rank with the established omerta of the Putin regime to tell his story in an astonishing new memoir. It’s a story that has been pegged neatly to the fortunes of modern Russia over the past half century — the childhood in Leningrad (now St Petersburg); the technical, pragmatic education at the city’s Mechanical Institute; the years of compulsory service in the Soviet Army; the recruitment by the KGB and the induction into the inner circles of the Russian high command; the wealth, power and access after the national service; the second act and second life in the West.
It is deeply unusual for those that have walked the corridors of the Kremlin to open up in this manner (to say nothing of revealing their lip-quivering micro-tells); much less when their contemporaries remain at the very height of their far-reaching power. In fact, Yakunin is the first from Putin’s inner circle to break rank in this way. There is very little to gain and everything to lose. Why, I ask, him, has he decided to commit this world to paper?
“There is so much misunderstanding between Russia and the West.” Yakunin tells me “Perhaps if I could tell my own personal observations from an autobiographical point of view I might clarify some of this misinformation.” Again, a levelled understatement. On the eve of World War Two, Winston Churchill described Russia as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”.
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