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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Backroom Operator Loses It in Public

Democratic politicians from Pericles to George W. Bush have always enjoyed getting up on their soapbox. The common folk never heard much from the Chinese emperors, however. They were lucky to catch a glimpse of the ruling family during religious ceremonies at the altars of heaven and earth.

President Vladimir Putin has also held his tongue as a rule. Even in the run-up to the presidential election in 2000, he spent more time in fighter jets than on the stump. His every word, like Charlie Chaplin's lines printed on the screen in black and white, was portentous.

Putin maintained his silence after the election. We saw him frequently on the evening news handing out sage instructions, but the news clips were no different to ceremonies at the altar of heaven. When opinion within his entourage was split on an issue, Putin chose to say nothing in public.

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During the Yukos affair, the president spoke out for the first time. He began by calling for an end to the "hysterics" surrounding the arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

Then the president gave a press conference in Italy and informed the foreign journalists present why they were defending Yukos. Russia's oligarchs are spending "tens or hundreds of millions" to protect their fortunes, Putin said. "We know how this money is spent -- on what lawyers, on what companies and PR firms, on what politicians, in part so these types of questions get asked."

Imagine hearing these words during a one-on-one meeting. An otherwise empty room. A frightened journalist. And the president's calm, quiet words: "We know who's paying you."

But in public? You can't help wanting to find out exactly how the foreign press could have been bought off wholesale. Khodorkovsky was arrested in the middle of the night in Novosibirsk. No one knew about the operation. Yet the morning papers around the world ran the story on the front page.

So when did the "hundreds of millions" change hands? You can just see the early morning Aeroflot flights departing for hundreds of overseas destinations. On board, legions of Yukos officials with bags of money set out for thousands of editorial offices.

My point here is about the difference between private and public speech. A knowing statement that might frighten you to death during a t?te-?-t?te with the president can sound incongruous or just plain absurd when said in public.

Putin nevertheless sounded upbeat after the press conference. "Those who came to listen and to understand listened and understood," he said. "In Europe we have not yet found anyone who doesn't want to understand."

Again, all this would work great in a private conversation. Imagine: The president leads you by the arm into a quiet corner and whispers in your ear, "It's all hot air, just for show. In fact, they're all on our side." But why say this publicly right after Romano Prodi, the head of the European Commission, has expressed his concern about the freezing of Yukos shares?

Unlike demagogues and dictators, backroom politicians should never speak in public. Their strength lies in their ability to deceive. To speak with everyone one-on-one and nod in response to their proposals. And then to act surprised when those proposals are zealously carried out. "I gave no such order. You were the one who suggested it. I said nothing. I nodded, you say? No. A fly was buzzing near my ear and my head twitched."

How we read into the president's silence! Like astrologers hearkening to the music of the spheres. In his silence we heard the wisdom of the chess grandmaster and the knowledge of Lucifer.

The president's word was like a nuclear weapon. It was never used, but we all knew of its existence. But then the weapon was deployed and we learned that it was filled with plain old gunpowder, not uranium-238.

Yulia Latynina is a presenter of "24" on RenTV.