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Wednesday, 7 March, 2001, 14:42 GMT
Kremlin webcast: Behind the scenes
Vladimir Putin during webcast with BBC's Bridget Kendall
Bridget Kendall questioned Mr Putin in Russian
By Bridget Kendall in Moscow

No 19-year-old British language student spending a year at a Soviet provincial university to learn Russian, as I once did, ever dreams they will one day be next to the Russian president in the Kremlin asking him controversial political questions during a live webcast watched all over the world.

As I sat there in the specially built Kremlin web studio, waiting for Vladimir Putin to arrive, I could see my two Russian colleagues were nervous too. This was their president.

They were not used to cameras. Any gesture or word out of place would be nerve-wrackingly embarrassing.

I found it amazing there was no rehearsal and little discussion of what visual impact Mr Putin would make

But what about my worries? Would I remember to get the stress right - you never can tell where it comes in Russian words - and how would I manage to jump in with follow-up questions and without making a grammatical error?

Just as bad as school exams.

Well worse, really. It was the president of the world's largest country I was interviewing on behalf of thousands of BBC News Online users.

I kept thinking of Ivan, our translator in the office, tactfully altering my translation of the e-mail questions we at the BBC had already selected - swapping one word for another to make it simpler for my English tongue to twist round.

Putin's motive

Behind the studio glass in the control panel, the Kremlin aides were also on tenterhooks. As usual on occasions like these, there were conflicting agendas at work.

Vladimir Putin
Mr Putin wants to encourage Russians online
There was the press aide who was also a computer whiz kid whose idea I suspect this was - his worry was technical. Would the stream of live questions from BBC News Online really come in from London to join those from the Russian webcasts? Would the outgoing signal work? Would the laptops in the studio work?

During rehearsal, two computers mysteriously and alarmingly crashed. It was not a promising sign.

Then there were the other flashier press aides, more concerned with Mr Putin's image. They were happy to admit that this whole experiment was to make him look good as well as to promote the internet in Russia of course.

You could sense a man with two sides to him

Only a fraction of the nation is online, despite Russia's impressive levels of literacy and world class reputation for science.

A cause for some concern in the Kremlin is a frustration that a country like India has a better international reputation for high skilled computer technicians. So this webcast was clearly, in part, a top-level effort to try to encourage Russians to log on.

But back to Mr Putin's image. I was intrigued to find how reminiscent of the Blair spin machine some of the press aides were - young, dynamic, approachable, utterly focused on making their leader look good, and completely obsessed with television. A live webcast across the world was something they were relatively relaxed about.

But when we suggested broadcasting the event live on BBC World television they were not having it: What if Mr Putin spilled his water or made a slip of the tongue?

Puzzled, I pointed out that you would be able to watch it live on the internet. "That's different," said Dmitry, grinning broadly. "The internet is still experimental, and the picture on screen is small.

"Television is what counts. Replay an image over and over on TV and its the political equivalent of a nuclear explosion."

Image conscious

Spilling water seemed to be something they particularly feared. The young man who brought us bottles of sparkling Russian mineral water was smartly ordered to take them away again - for fear we'd fizz all over the president's lap. Within two minutes he was back again, to change the water glasses.

Putin during webcast
Mr Putin: Sharp responses on Chechnya
"These ones are too small," said the chief press aide, "It looks as though you're all drinking vodka."

It was not the right touch for a Russian president who has worked hard to show he is nothing like his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin.

For all that, I found it amazing there was no rehearsal and little discussion of what visual impact Mr Putin would make.

When he walked on to the set, we barely registered him. He came across as a small man, with a rather shy manner, and none of the busy aura of importance that so many world leaders like to embrace.

Politics and personality

Once we got to the questions though, Mr Putin showed he was well prepared.

Putin during webcast
The president showed a lighter side too
The Kremlin had not asked to see questions in advance, though out of courtesy we did indicate question areas - that there was a lot of interest in Chechnya, in worries about democracy, and that people did want to know about him personally, his schedule and his tastes.

Once engaged in discussion, he was fluent and relatively relaxed. Not a slick charmer, like some politicians. Not a rough and ready bear like some others. But - most interesting of all, in my opinion - you could sense a man with two sides to him.

Ask about Chechnya, and two steely blue eyes pierced you as he almost thumped out his impassioned answer, jutting his chin out, and turning down the corners of his mouth as though in exasperation at the West's inability to understand.

But ask about his favourite films, or what his wife thinks of her position as first lady, and you get a different Mr Putin - a reserved, rather ordinary man, uncomfortable with talking about his private life.

He is no egoist this Mr Putin - he seems almost proud of revealing that at home it is his wife who wears the trousers, ticks off their two daughters for spending too much time online, and decides for herself what her public role as Kremlin wife will be.

And it rings true when those who know him say he never sought to be president.

The tough aggressive Mr Putin is all about policy and not about personality. Though the nostalgia for Russia's past glories that seems to underpin so much of his approach to politics really does seem to come from the heart.

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