MOSCOW (Reuters) - Few people would recognize Vyacheslav Volodin on the streets of Moscow but the man who is the brains behind Vladimir Putin’s presidential election campaign would have it no other way.
The square-faced, 48-year-old bureaucrat has quietly risen through the ranks to become the grey cardinal plotting the prime minister’s return to the presidency in an election on March 4.
Brought into the Kremlin on December 27 in response to the biggest opposition protests of Putin’s 12-year rule, he is behind a campaign that portrays the former KGB spy as a man of the people and a guarantor of stability.
At first meeting, Volodin gives the impression of being a straightforward man from the provinces with simple tastes and manners. He likes to crack jokes with reporters and sometimes has a mischievous glint in his eye.
But colleagues say the casual camaraderie hides a driving ambition and ruthless streak that has helped him see off rivals on his way to the top. Those who work or have worked with him seemed scared of saying too much for fear of retribution.
“I cannot say what I would like to say about him. What I can say is of no use to you,” said a senior official in United Russia with good knowledge of Volodin.
Volodin did not respond to a request for an interview and most colleagues or former colleagues who agreed to discuss his career did so on the condition they were not identified.
Volodin has worked his way up from a political aide in the Saratov region in southern Russia in the 1990s, through the ranks of Putin’s United Russia party to roles in the government and now the Kremlin.
He has mostly kept in the shadows, especially since he became first deputy chief of staff in the presidential administration in a reshuffle following the start of mass protests over alleged fraud in a December 4 parliamentary election.
Volodin’s challenge is to ensure Putin wins 50 percent of the votes on March 4 to avoid a second-round runoff, which could undermine his authority.
Some political experts say he is a good choice because he is the only person in Putin’s inner circle with deep experience of the election battles of the 1990s, when competition was fierce and campaigning was dominated by mudslinging and muck-raking.
“Volodin went through the rough school of alternative elections in the 1990s. This experience has enabled him to push Putin’s campaign in a more aggressive direction,” wrote Alexei Venediktov, editor-in-chief of Ekho Moskvy, a liberal radio station.
Others say Volodin - whose personal fortune was estimated at $95 million by a Russian magazine after he made money on shares in margarine factories - may not have what it takes.
“Volodin is a clever executor, but he cannot come up with a political project of his own. It is not his strength. He can only manage somebody else’s project,” said Gleb Pavlovsky, a former Kremlin adviser who fell out of favor last year.
What is not in doubt is that Volodin has assumed the mantle of “eminence grise” as first deputy chief of staff in the Kremlin since replacing Vladislav Surkov, the architect of the closely managed political system forged in Putin’s presidency.
Volodin has relied little so far on modern tools such as videoclips and the Internet in a campaign which mostly features Putin holding televised meetings with core supporters such as factory workers, football fans and sportsmen.
Putin, seeking a six-year term as president, has also set out his policy plans in a series of newspaper articles and focused his travel on provincial towns where support for him is stronger than in the big cities.
“Volodin exerts a big influence on Putin. These articles and meetings with ordinary people look like his typical tricks. It’s as clear as day. The rest of Putin’s election campaign will be the same,” said a political source who has worked with Volodin.
Putin, 59, has gradually softened his tone towards the street protesters. Some opposition leaders have been granted a little more access to Russia’s state-dominated media.
But opposition leaders also see Volodin’s influence at work in the release of taped telephone conversations in which one protest leader, Boris Nemtsov, used derisory language to describe another, Yevgenia Chirikova.
He is also widely seen as behind the organization of pro-Putin rallies intended to counter the opposition protests, which look increasingly likely to pose a sustained challenge to Putin.
Sources in United Russia say Volodin won Putin’s ear with an idea to create the All-Russian People’s Front, an umbrella organization designed to woo unaffiliated candidates to run on the party’s ticket in last December’s parliamentary election.
The Front has become a vehicle for Putin’s campaign and the prime minister has distanced himself from United Russia since its parliamentary majority was reduced in the December vote.
Volodin benefited by having access to Putin in his previous role as government chief of staff and first deputy premier.
Surkov, alienated by not being consulted, was seen laughing, yawning and casting scornful looks as Volodin introduced new Front members to Putin, Kremlin insiders said.
Volodin also impressed Putin by helping United Russia win 65 percent of the votes cast in Saratov, his home region, in the December election. In the end, Surkov is - at least for now - the loser in the rivalry with Volodin.
Volodin is sometimes mentioned in the same breath as Vyacheslav Molotov, one of late Soviet dictator Josef Stalin’s foreign ministers. Like Molotov, he is often called “Iron Arse” for spending long hours at his desk.
Volodin and Molotov were both born in remote villages and each was seen as a provincial mediocrity before gradually rising through party ranks and sidelining more outspoken colleagues.
Volodin was born in 1964 in the village of Alexeyevka on the Volga river and got his first job as a tractor mechanic at the age of 15. He then moved to the regional centre Saratov where at the age of 26 he joined the city’s administration.
The investigative newspaper Novaya Gazeta reported in 2006 that Volodin hunted rabbits as a child with his grandfather’s double-barreled gun and prefers now to hunt foxes and wolves.
But asked about his pastimes in a rare interview with a regional Russian newspaper, he said only that his favorite hobby was visiting rare villages where he could help people out.
His first big electoral success was in helping his boss, deputy mayor Dmitry Ayatskov, win a seat in Russia’s upper house of parliament in 1994. One of Ayatskov’s rivals, Yuri Kitov, committed suicide after the bitter campaign.
Volodin soon climbed to the rank of a deputy to the regional governor, Ayatskov, but made enemies along the way.
“Volodin was very well known in Saratov as a person always engaged in intrigues,” Pavlovsky said.
Local businessman Leonid Feitlikher wrote in an open letter to Volodin: “Why do you have conflicts with everyone in Saratov? The city has become a testing ground for your political experiments.”
Feitlikher later faced a criminal investigation on fraud charges and emigrated to Israel.
In 1999 Volodin joined the Otechestvo (Fatherland) party created to take on President Boris Yeltsin and his inner circle of family members and rich businessmen, and won a seat in the lower house of parliament where he headed its deputies group.
Volodin went on to become a leader of United Russia, which was formed after Otechestvo merged with another party, Unity.
Some former colleagues say Volodin’s personal ambition could eventually put him on a collision course with Putin.
“Volodin? I think he is the future president of Russia,” said a source in the leadership of United Russia who used to work with Volodin. “He likes to fly high. In six years he will be a real candidate.”
Another person who was close to Volodin when he worked in Saratov said that by 1992 he was telling his friends half jokingly that he would one day be president. Others say he lacks the qualities needed to be a public politician or leader.
“He is a careful, rather clever bureaucrat, capable of intrigue but he is not a politician and even less of a strategist,” said one Kremlin insider.
In 2006, Russia’s Finans magazine listed Volodin as the 351st richest Russian with a fortune of $95 million, mainly in the form of stakes in various margarine factories. The publication triggered complaints from the opposition.
Volodin said he bought the stakes in the 1990s when they cost $190,000. Volodin’s spokeswoman said he sold the stakes in 2009 for $7 million which was reflected in his declaration.
If Putin wins the March election as expected, Volodin is likely to retain his Kremlin job and will then face the task of handling the growing protest movement, demanding free and fair elections and calling increasingly for Putin to go.
He has not discussed his ambitions in public but success in his influential role could eventually lead to higher things.
“If Putin has no energy to run again in 2018, Volodin will be among those who could bid for his seat,” said Saratov journalist Dmitry Kozenko who has reported on Volodin.
Additional reporting by Vladimir Soldatkin, Melissa Akin and Polina Devitt; Writing by Gleb Bryanski, Editing by Timothy Heritage and Elizabeth Piper