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The Mood Shifts For Russia's Putin In His Hometown

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Even in the dead of winter, the Russian city of St. Petersburg, with its church spires, palaces and waterways, is one of the world's truly beautiful cities. It was here that the Russian revolution began, and it's here where Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev cut their teeth politically.

The political careers of both men began in a stately yellow government building, set back from a busy street. They worked together in the mayor's office in the 1990s. But Putin's career shot forward. Within a decade, he went from being a deputy in that office to being the president of Russia.

Vladimir Gelman, a professor of political science at the European University, says Putin always seemed to be in the right place at the right time.

"Putin was a lucky guy when he went to the top under very peculiar circumstances," Gelman said. "And he was pretty much successful in maximizing these benefits once he got to the top. But, you know, you can't be lucky forever."

The political winds have shifted for Putin. Since December, protesters have taken to the streets of Moscow and St. Petersburg, angry over both alleged vote rigging during parliamentary elections and Putin's maneuvering to become president again.

Yelena Kiselyova, director of the ruling pro-Putin United Russia party headquarters in St. Petersburg, says her office has subsequently been reaching out to the public.

"We are initiating a whole number of roundtables, public discussions, where we discuss what Putin says," she said. "We don't want him to be praised only. We want to talk about how to implement his plans for the country."

Kiselyova says they are initiating roundtables to promote Putin's plans for the country. She says that same effort doesn't extend to Medvedev because he's not running for president. In fact, Medvedev's name barely raises a flicker of interest in his hometown. He's seen as weak, especially after he allowed Putin to run for president again, says Gelman.

"Who cares about Medvedev? After September, when he announced that he will leave his post and Putin will be back, nobody took him seriously," he said.

Another analyst, historian Lev Luria, says it's unlikely Medvedev will be tossed aside by Putin after the March presidential election. He says Putin will probably keep Medvedev on as prime minister for a year or so and then shift him to another position.

Luria says Putin has kept and been loyal to friends going back to his childhood and his days in the KGB. He moved many of them from St. Petersburg to Moscow and gave them good positions. Luria calls it "capitalism of friends."

"That's why [the] country is corrupted," he said. "Putin and his friends, especially from St. Petersburg, are dividing our billions of rubles between themselves."

But Luria acknowledges that Putin has also helped St. Petersburg, moving offices of state-owned Gazprom, Russia's enormous oil and gas company, to the city.

Gazprom is providing tax revenue for St. Petersburg and providing jobs for many jobs "for our bright, young people," he said.

The irony is that bright, young people are exactly the kind of Russians who have been turning up at the protests.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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