Once installed in the presidency, Putin has cultivated two attributes that have given him an aura of outlasting it. This first is the image of firm, where necessary ruthless authority. Historically, the brutal imposition of order has been more often admired than feared in Russia. Rather than his portrait suffering from the shadow of the KGB, Putin has converted it into a halo of austere discipline. In what remains in many ways a macho society, toughness --- prowess in judo and drops into criminal slang are part of Putin's kit --- continues to be valued, and not only by men: polls report that Putin's most enthrusiastic fans are often women. But there is another, less obvious side to his charisma. Part of his chilly magnetism is cultural. He is widely admired for his command of the language.
Here, the contrast is everything. Lenin was the last ruler of the country who could speak an educated Russian. Stalin's Georgian accent was so thick he rarely risked speaking in public. Khrushchev's vocabulary was crude and his grammar barbaric. Brezhnev could scarcely put two sentences together. Gorbachev spoke with a provincial southern accent. The less said of Yeltsin's slurring diction the better. To hear a leader of the country capable once again of expressing himself with clarity, accuracy and fluency, in a more or less correct idiom, comes as music to many Russians.
In a strange way Putin's prestige is thus also intellectual. For all his occasional crudities, at least in his mouth the national tongue is no longer obviously humiliated. This is not just a matter of cases and tenses, or pronunciations. Putin has developed into what by today's undemanding standards is an articulate politician, who can field questions from viewers on television for hours as confidently and lucidly as he lectures journalists in interviews, or addresses partners at summit meetings, where he has excelled at sardonic repartee. The intelligence is limited and cynical, above the level of his Anglo-American counterparts, but without much greater ambition. It has been enough, however, to give Putin half of his brittle lustre in Russia. There, an apparent union of fist and mind has captuired the popular imagination.
--- From "Russia's Managed Democracy"
LRB 25 January 2007