It Takes a Woman to Face Down Putin

MOSCOW, Feb. 14, 2004 : BORING! More questions about her personal life. More questions about this unusual creature, a glamorous, sharp-tongued half-Japanese woman who is making a lot of noise about being president.

She dropped her chin emphatically onto her hand with a look of mock exasperation. There was a challenge in her eyes and a bit of fun too. There is no shilly-shallying around Irina M. Khakamada. This is a 48-year-old woman who tried three husbands before she found the one she liked.

Now she is taking on President Vladimir V. Putin in an election next month that everybody knows he is going to win. She is the only voice for liberal democracy in the campaign, and she is the only one of his six opponents who is giving him a real piece of her mind. Already she has accused him of hiding some dark truth about past terrorist attacks.

But the question was about her personal life. She straightened and got on with it. Actually, she has a lot to say about this.

”Endless insults,” she said in the interview the other day. ”Endless people and mass media talking about whether I’m a Jew or a Japanese. Right to my face, voters say, ‘Don’t we have enough Russian politicians?’ For them, a person born in Russia with great roots in Russia who speaks Russian, whose grandfather died in Stalin’s prisons is not considered Russian.”

The same thing with gender.


Photo by Sergei Kivrin

” ‘What kind of a president can a woman be? A woman has to take care of the home.’ In America, I think things have moved ahead a lot. Hillary is a very strong politician. She was not born in New York, but she was able to be elected senator there. I am certain she can become president in 2008. She gave me her book with an autograph.”

It is on her bookshelf with its cover facing outwards, like a portrait. Hillary Rodham Clinton has her chin in her hand.

”It is certainly harder for me to become a leader than for a blue-eyed man,” Ms. Khakamada said.

NO ONE else around here looks anything like Ms. Khakamada, a tall, impatient cigarette smoker with wire-rim glasses, cropped hair and an impish, Twiggy sexiness. Assistants trot behind her as she strides down the hall in boots, black jacket and tight blue jeans. ”I only wear black, yeah,” she said. ”I like it so much. It’s so comfortable for me to be in black.”

Not only that. ”Black is a symbol that I’m a samurai fighter.”

Some people say she is too dashing in a nation where the stereotypical 48-year-old woman is a plump babushka with a scarf on her head and strong opinions on how to dress warmly for winter.

She concedes the point. ”I’m successful,” she said. ”I won’t hide that. I don’t want to play at poverty. But I consider that in history, there must always be politicians who pull people ahead, pull them into the future.”

Ms. Khakamada has politics going against her as well. She is the only liberal politician in Russia with the gumption to lead a hopeless charge against the dour and tightly wound president who seems to have all of Russia bent over his knee.

An economist who opened Russia’s first securities exchange board, ran a presidential commission on small and medium businesses and served two terms in Parliament, Ms. Khakamada is one of the liberal democrats whose two parties were annihilated in a parliamentary election in December.

The other leaders, still feuding with each other as they did throughout that campaign, have thrown up their hands and walked off the field. Neither of the parties is taking part.

That is shameful, Ms. Khakamada said. ”Liberal parties need a living voice, not a dead voice, and for this you need to use the platform of an election.”

This is the real difference between women and men, she said. ”The main message of the democratic men is that it’s all bad, the election is unfair, the president’s administrative resources are huge,” she said. ” ‘We don’t want to take part.’ They’ll participate when everything is fine. But it won’t be fine if you don’t start washing the dirty dishes. So someone has to clean the dishes.”

Mr. Putin’s kitchen is a mess, she said.

”First, this is a society based on lies,” she said when she announced her candidacy last month. ”Second, it is a society in which democracy is no more than a formal procedure. Third, it is a society that is based on total secrecy. And most importantly — and something that everyone is already aware of — it is a society based on fear.”

Mr. Putin has made lap dogs out of the courts, the Parliament and the broadcast media, she said in the interview. In Russia today, ”Everything depends on his mood.”

ALL this from the proud daughter of a Japanese Communist who fled to Russia during World War II and died disappointed in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed, still embracing his Stalinist ideals of strong government and social equality.

He was born an aristocrat, she said, the bearer of an 11th-century samurai name who became a Communist when the family lost its land in what she called Japan’s bourgeois revolution.

Ms. Khakamada has a Russian mother, was born in Moscow and speaks no Japanese; a half-brother lives in Japan. She has a 25-year-old son from her first marriage and a 5-year-old daughter from her fourth, her bull’s-eye.

Her first husband was a kind man, but not her intellectual equal. Her second was an economic genius but a failure in business, and ”I don’t like a man who is weaker than me.”

Her third was forceful and respected her career. ”But he didn’t see me as a woman who needs warmth and tenderness, who needs to be courted, who needs flowers, who needs romantic love and many children.”

Ms. Khakamada is not a quitter. She tried again and found her prince, and they have been married for seven years.

THE quest to have it all has not been part of Russian culture as it has among women in the West. As in her politics and her style, Ms. Khakamada is a bit ahead of the pack.

She sees her daughter, Masha, on weekends. ”We do everything,” she said. ”We play, we draw, we go to movies, we kiss and hug and we constantly tell each other that we love each other very much. Constantly she is asking me, ‘Do you really love me?’ ”

Ms. Khakamada broke into a sweet smile as she described her response, and for some reason, the language she chose was English, in a small, sing-song voice: ”Yes, my dear, I love you. You are really great. I love you so much!”

An aide cleared his throat and Ms. Khakamada stood up abruptly behind her desk. Interview over. Smile gone. More work to be done. She folded up a newspaper and walked quickly from the room

Copyright The New York Times