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DateLine Sunday, 27 January 2008

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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 Gazprom.

His makeover echoes that of Putin after he was raised from the position of prime minister and annointed to succeed Boris Yeltsin in 1999.

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 progressive 1960s.

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 independent streak.

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 daily.

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 press".

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, wasn't he?"

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 anything."

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