Hoping for a Better August This Year

President Dmitry Medvedev's first August in office is approaching. Ever since the putsch attempt against Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in August 1991, Russians have awaited this month with anxiety. For some reason, the worst catastrophes seem to occur in August.

The Kursk submarine sank during Vladimir Putin's first August as president in 2000. In my opinion, that tragedy defined Putin's leadership style for the next eight years.

Few today appreciate the unprecedented openness that the Russian authorities showed during the Kursk crisis. Official sources were the first to report the disappearance of the submarine. And when Norway, a NATO country, offered to help rescue the sailors trapped in the super-secret military vessel on the bottom of the Barents Sea, Russia's leaders hesitated at first, but then accepted the offer. This stood in sharp contrast to our pathological obsession with secrecy about everything connected with the military -- especially its failures.

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How did the Russian and international media react? For the most part, the media coverage suggested Putin's personal responsibility for the tragedy, which was absurd, of course. This was particularly emphasized in the Western media for the simple reason that he was a former KGB operative. It seems to me that it was during these fateful days of August that the Western media developed their bias against the new Russian president. Thereafter, most of Putin's decisions and statements were not interpreted or judged on the basis of their own merits, but were written off as being "a typical KGB approach." This stigma would trail Putin for both of his presidential terms. Moreover, it seemed that this firm dislike for Putin gradually escalated into dislike for Russia itself, which Russians diagnosed as Russophobia.

There was a fairly simple reason why the Russian media at the time -- specifically, television stations ORT and NTV, which were owned by billionaires Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky, respectively -- shared the views of their Western media colleagues. Attacking Putin was the oligarchs' last chance to "break" the new, inexperienced president, who had made it clear from the beginning that he wanted to be independent from the country's oligarchs.

But I think the Kursk trauma affected Putin in some of the same ways that childhood fears affected Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great, both of whom took the throne when they were young. Their rule was marked by excessive suspicion and cruelty, even in mundane situations.

Remember the battle for control over the country's main television stations at the beginning of Putin's first term. Admittedly, any president in Putin's place would have tried to re-establish basic control over the state's affairs and deprived the Yeltsin-era oligarchs of the ability to use their television stations to blackmail Russia's leaders. But this could have been accomplished without sending masked men into the NTV's offices in what was effectively Gazprom's takeover of the station. Even Gusinsky's Media-Most, which owned NTV, would have come within Gazprom's hold anyway -- and just as quickly -- because of its outstanding debts.

The result is that Putin's entirely rational actions were portrayed as acts of personal revenge. The West's stereotypes and Putin's insecurities fed off each other and strengthened during Putin's two presidential terms; by 2008, they had both become ingrained positions on both sides.

August is such a symbolic month for Russia that it will inevitably influence Medvedev's style of leadership as well. Of course, I hope nothing terrible will happen this August. The Summer Olympics will start in a few weeks in Beijing, and what a treat it would be if Russia were to continue its string of athletic victories during the games. This way, we can have a festive month by continuing the national euphoria that started in May, when Russia beat the Canadians in the World Hockey Championship.

Alexei Pankin is the editor of IFRA-GIPP Magazine for publishing business professionals.