In home town, Russia's next leader gets a makeover
The deputy head of School Number 305 gets misty eyed as she describes
the day Dmitry Medvedev, the man tipped to be Russia's next president,
came back to his old school.
"I was trembling because such a great leader of our country was about
to come," said Nadezhda Zepfert of the visit last September. "I was so
nervous, but when he came and looked at me I understood: he is our
pupil, he's like our own child, so pleasant, so handsome."
Tucked in a dreary Saint Petersburg suburb, Medvedev's former school
has been enlisted in a campaign by Kremlin-controlled media to
familiarise Russians with the man set to succeed President Vladimir
Putin at a March 2 poll.
The media have seized on Medvedev's humble roots and common touch,
evident, according to Zepfert, from his willingness to speak in the rain
during his visit and his enthusiasm for the school canteen's buns.
The Kremlin promises a fair fight, but critics say Medvedev is bound
to win as he has overwhelming backing from the media and Putin, while
opposition candidates are marginalised.
In the absence of a serious election campaign to test his mettle a
media blitz is underway to promote this formerly obscure bureaucrat.
Medvedev, a 42-year-old former law professor, currently holds the
post of first deputy prime minister and is chairman of energy giant
His makeover echoes that of Putin after he was raised from the
position of prime minister and annointed to succeed Boris Yeltsin in
While Putin gave a raw account of growing up in the aftermath of
World War II, Medvedev's "back story" is of a child of the more
Born to humble but educated parents in the sprawling housing projects
of the era, his liking for British heavy metal band Deep Purple and
familiarity with Russian Internet slang is seen as suggestive of an
In a profile last month the magazine Russky Reportyor stressed his
down-to-earth qualities -- at university he dug potatoes with fellow
students when sent to the fields by the Soviet authorities.
It also dismissed detractors who view Medvedev as putty in the hands
of Putin, who is widely expected to retain power when he shifts to the
post of prime minister after leaving the Kremlin.
Medvedev had squarely won a "very tough" succession struggle within
the Kremlin, the magazine said, adding that a conformist "simply
wouldn't survive" the Kremlin's internal politics.
"The presidential administration has always been a place of severe
skirmishes and Medvedev had his own important role in this theatre of
action," it said.
-- "My Dima" had a "chivalrous heart", remembers one teacher --
At his old school, which itself has had something of a makeover,
teachers have been busy fielding reporters' questions.
The racy tabloid Tvoi Den has quoted one retired teacher as saying
that "my Dima" had a "chivalrous heart" and that she prayed for him
During a visit by AFP the school's director, Nina Muzikantova, was
similarly gushing, praising Medvedev and his ex-classmates for raising
money to help needy retired teachers and a disabled child.
Battling the occasional blot on the school's image -- teenagers could
be seen smoking on the front steps before class -- Muzikantova exhorted
her charges to be on best behaviour amid the media interest.
"We're nervous for him and waiting for March 2 and hoping it goes as
we want," she said in an office adorned with photos of Medvedev.
"I can't say he was an unusual boy but he was persistent and keen,"
recalled maths teacher Irina Grigorovskaya. "I like everything about his
approach, his democratic character."
It is not a view shared by everyone in Russia's second city.
Olga Kurnosova, who was a city council deputy in the early 1990s when
Medvedev worked in the city administration, describes his role then as
"microscopic" and says he long ago lost sight of his roots.
"When they get up to that level they become zombies," said Kurnosova,
who leads a branch of the Other Russia opposition movement of former
chess champion Garry Kasparov.
Journalists seeking more of Medvedev's background can venture a short
distance from the school to his childhood home, although the head
teacher warns against this and said such things were for "the gutter
Nonetheless among dilapidated housing and abandoned cars littering
the streets, the stairwell leading to Medvedev's childhood flat has also
had a makeover and smells of fresh paint.
One neighbour, Lyudmila Sokolova, 66, said she was unsurprised a
person of Medvedev's background had got so far.
Calling Medvedev a "clever fellow," she said: "Anything can happen.
Stalin's father was a cobbler and Hitler was completely uneducated,
But in the next stairwell the outlook was less sunny, with no sign of
repairs, the rubbish chute stinking, the walls plastered with graffiti
and the lift broken.
One resident, a 78-year-old former factory worker who remembered
Medvedev as a child, gave a cautious assessment.
"He was like any other boy," she said, declining to give her name.
"He should be positive, but they say power corrupts.
"Everything will stay the same. We've lived here 40 years and they've
never repaired the entrance hall so there's no point expecting