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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

An Ideal Soviet Man Has Putin's Trust

ria-novostiZubkov visiting a kindergarten during a September trip to the Penza region.
PRIOZERSK, Leningrad Region - When duty called, a young Viktor Zubkov donned his old pants and black rubber boots to clean stables and check heating pipes.

He developed a reputation for barking orders and expecting quick results. Women fawned over him, but he only had eyes for his wife.

This is the person - the ideal Soviet man - whom President Vladimir Putin has selected to lead the government in the crucial months before next year's presidential election, said people who know him.

"Alexeich was a very energetic young man, and he would help us every time we needed it," said Konstantin Mikhailov, a former farmhand who worked under Zubkov for a decade at the Razdolye collective farm. "He wasn't even afraid of going into a stable and walking in manure when needed."

Mikhailov, 75, referred to Zubkov as "Alexeich," a short form of Zubkov's patronymic and a folksy way of showing respect. Zubkov took over the farm in Priozersk, a district in the Leningrad region, in 1970 at the age of 29.

"Alexeich was a really good man," Mikhailov said, nodding his head and smiling with evident affection for his former boss.

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Kuzmenkova, left, Zubkov and Kedrova posing for a photograph circa 1985.
The old farmhand's enthusiasm is shared by others. "He was always sent where there were problems to solve," said Raisa Kuzmenkova, who served as his deputy director at Pervomaiskoye, an association of seven collective farms in the Priozersk district. Zubkov was made general director of Pervomaiskoye in 1982, after 12 years at Razdolye.

"He sorted things out at Razdolye and was sent to Pervomaiskoye, where he had to begin from scratch again," Kuzmenkova said.

"Now he has to sort things out for the whole country," she said. "At first I thought that becoming prime minister was the wrong career move for him, but after I saw how confident he was, I became convinced that Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin] had made the right decision."

francesca mereu / mt
Lyudmila Kedrova
Putin named Zubkov as prime minister in September, just as the country entered a critical election season that will end with Putin's expected departure from the Kremlin in May. Putin's surprise decision came days before news broke of a fierce power struggle among the Kremlin's siloviki clan. At this crucial moment for Putin's Kremlin, the president turned to Zubkov, an old ally and former subordinate from St. Petersburg City Hall.

"Viktor Zubkov is a professional, honest, judicious, responsible and wise man. He is a man with character and with great experience," Putin said shortly after the appointment.

Putin touted Zubkov's experience at Razdolye. "He was once thrown into the worst collective farm, it was dying, and he transformed it into the best enterprise in the Soviet Union," he said, adding that he had to speak out because the prime minister was too modest to mention his own accomplishments.

Zubkov's office declined repeated requests over six weeks for an interview. Requests to accompany him on one of his trips to the regions were also rejected.

Zubkov appears to be serving a transitional role, and he might give up his office in May to none other than Putin himself. Dmitry Medvedev, the first deputy prime minister named by Putin as his preferred successor, said this week that Putin would be his ideal candidate for prime minister.

Humble Beginnings

Zubkov's career started far away from the seat of government in the White House. He was born on Sept. 15, 1941, in the village of Arbat in the Sverdlovsk region, where his parents moved from Monchegorsk, in the Murmansk region, during World War II. Arbat - also called Kaban, or Wild Boar, for the high population of wild pigs in the area - no longer exists.

francesca mereu / mt
Raisa Kuzmenkova
After the war, Zubkov's family returned to Monchegorsk, and the young Viktor attended school there. He landed his first job at 17 at the local Severonikel mining plant, where he worked as an apprentice for two years. In 1960, he left for Pushkino, in the Leningrad region, where he graduated with a degree in economics from the Agriculture Institute.

After two years of military service, he worked as a collective farm manager in the Leningrad region from 1967 to 1985. Friends said it was at the farms that Zubkov learned how to bark orders.

"When I saw him on television rebuking the poor ministers, I felt like I was going back in time to one of his meetings, and I thought that my turn to be rebuked was next," Kuzmenkova said.

Zubkov took ministers to task during televised Cabinet meetings in October for not acting quickly enough. The meetings have since been closed to outside eyes, apparently after several ministers complained about being dressed down in public.

francesca mereu / mt
A view of the town administration building in Priozersk where Zubkov worked.
Zubkov, a member of the Communist Party from 1967 to 1991, entered politics in 1985, when he was appointed the head of Priozersk, the commercial center of the district where his farms were located. The town of 20,000 people, located in the Karelian Isthmus, where the Vuoksa River runs into the scenic Ladozhskoye Lake, is a tourist magnet in summer, but the streets were empty on a recent cold and gloomy winter afternoon.

"His style was brusque and tough, but he was always fair with the people who worked with him," said Lyudmila Kedrova, who worked as a secretary of the Priozersk executive committee. Zubkov was the committee's head.

"He would rebuke people and punish them, but he would never raise his voice or fire anyone," she said.

Kedrova recalled that the temperature reached minus 40 degrees Celsius in the winter of 1986, and the town faced the threat of being left without heat as water froze and heating pipes burst. Zubkov put on his rubber boots, an old jacket and a hat and visited the basements of Priozersk's apartment buildings to make sure the pipes were in order, she said.

"He went into apartments to tell people to move their stoves close to the radiators so the pipes wouldn't burst," she said.

Zubkov dispatched municipal workers to the heating stations to make sure each was working properly and had enough coal to keep the boilers hot, said Yevgeny Krasov, a member of the Priozersk executive committee at the time.

"He knew every single worker by name and patronymic," he said.

Krasov described Zubkov as a fair, but "very challenging and overly meticulous boss."

"He demanded a lot from us, but he also taught us a lot," he said. "We would bring documents to him, and he would read them carefully and correct mistakes. After that we had to rewrite them, and only then would he sign them."

The Road to Moscow

francesca mereu / mt
Yevgeny Krasov
Zubkov was promoted to the post of first deputy head of the Leningrad region's executive committee in 1989, but he lost the job two years later with the Soviet collapse. He served under Putin in St. Petersburg's foreign relations committee for 10 months, from 1992 to 1993.

Speaking with Zubkov, Putin used the formal "vy" form of address, while Zubkov used the more familiar "ty," said Stanislav Belkovsky, a former Kremlin spin doctor.

During his stint in City Hall, Zubkov is thought to have helped Putin, Federal Drug Control Service head Viktor Cherkesov, Federal Security Service chief Nikolai Patrushev and other current state officials get land for dachas in his old Priozersk district.

Zubkov was later made deputy chief and then chief of the St. Petersburg Tax Service. In 1998, he unsuccessfully tried to run for Leningrad governor, and Boris Gryzlov, now the head of United Russia, was his campaign manager.

During the presidential election in 2000, Zubkov headed a St. Petersburg initiative group that supported Putin's bid, and the next year he was offered a job in Moscow as the head of the Federal Financial Monitoring Service, which fights money laundering.

Zubkov joined the agency as the Kremlin began a campaign against the wealthy businessmen who had made fortunes through controversial privatization deals in the 1990s. A highlight of Zubkov's career was Russia's removal from a blacklist drawn up by the Financial Action Task Force, an international body that combats money laundering.

Zubkov's televised visits to the regions as prime minister are reminiscent of his outings as a farm director, Kuzmenkova said.

"This is the old Zubkov," she said. "I saw him on television, and he hasn't changed. He loved to meet with people, to rebuke some, to talk to others, to hug people and listen to their problems."

In his first trip as prime minister in late September, Zubkov visited a farm in the Penza region and told the farm director to provide free dental care to combine drivers right at the farm. In making the order, he said he had noticed that many drivers had steel crowns.

An Ideal Soviet Man


Viktor Alexeyevich Zubkov

Born: Sept. 15, 1941

Place of Birth: Arbat, Sverdlovsk region

Education: Agriculture Institute in Pushkino, Leningrad region, degree in economics, 1965; St. Petersburg Mining Institute, doctorate, 2000.

Notable Quotes: "He loved to travel in it, but without his van he will sit down, work and maybe pay his taxes better." Zubkov, then-head of the St. Petersburg Tax Service, suggesting that the privately owned van of Alexander Kuznetsov, head of the rail link between St. Petersburg and Moscow, be seized as a way to collect taxes from the railroad, 1999.

"The country cannot develop properly without a full multiparty orchestra where an influential group off limits to the government plays solo." Quoted by Moskovsky Komsomolets in 2000, when he headed the St. Petersburg branch of the Unity party during Putin's presidential campaign.

"In Putin's work, the crowd sees the incarnation of their concealed hopes." Quoted by Izvestia in 2000.

"I get irritated by cell phones when sometimes even people who are not linked to work know my number and keep on calling about other matters. But I don't turn off my phone." Quoted by Moskovsky Komsomolets in 2000.

Friends and former colleagues described Zubkov as the ideal Soviet man. He would get up early in the morning to go jogging. He loved skiing. On weekends, he went fishing in one of the numerous lakes in the Priozersk district.

Zubkov enjoyed bathing in a hot banya, but he refused to drink vodka there, as many Russians traditionally do, former colleagues said.

He also went shopping for his wife, which was unusual for men at the time.

"We once were walking together home after work and he told me that he needed to go to the shop to buy some window cleaner. His wife had asked him," Kedrova said.

"But the shopkeeper told him that they had run out of window cleaner because alcoholics had bought it," she said.

Kedrova said Zubkov was shocked to learn that people would drink window cleaner and even perfume, and he raised the issue at the next meeting of the town's executive committee.

She said Zubkov never used his status to seek perks. "He would stand in line like everybody else at the time," she said.

The Zubkovs lived in an ordinary three-room apartment decorated with standard Soviet wallpaper and furniture, Kuzmenkova said.

Krasov said the executive committee had only one car at its disposal and that Zubkov would walk if anyone else needed it.

Zubkov loved to dress well and was quite dashing as a young man, Kuzmenkova said. When he was farm director, women would think up all kind of problems just to talk to him in his office, but Zubkov paid no attention to their advances, she said.

"He was very elegant, and women loved it. They would make sheep eyes at him, but he always built a wall between himself and them. He was faithful to his wife, Zoya," she said.

To help keep his distance, Zubkov addressed the women with the respectful "vy" pronoun.

Zubkov and his wife have one daughter, Yulia, who is married to Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov.