In Russia in the early 2000s, things improved somewhat. In comparison with the 1990s, women became more prevalent in Russian politics, especially in technocratic roles in the Central Bank, financial sector, and research institutes. These were women of my generation who had done advanced economics studies in the West or in new post-Soviet economic institutions. I knew several personally, like Ksenia Yudaeva, the first deputy governor of the Bank of Russia, who received her PhD from MIT. Ksenia crossed over with me while I was in graduate school and was then a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment, next door to Brookings.
Despite their prominence, however, Ksenia and her colleagues at the Central Bank were essentially still in traditional Russian “women’s professions.” They were taking charge of the “national household” and its resources and budget, carefully holding the purse strings in case the men went on an ill-advised spending spree and upended Russia’s hard-fought economic recovery since its col- lapse in the 1990s. There were frequent stories in the press about Ksenia’s boss, the Central Bank head, Elvira Nabiullina, taking a firm stand against cabinet members and prominent business figures who were trying to push the bank into lending more money or bailing out key industrial sectors during economic downturns.
Beyond the financial sector, women were prominent in the Russian media and in the government’s press departments, including Maria Zakharova, the Foreign Ministry press spokeswoman, and several deputy press spokeswomen for Kremlin officials. One of my contemporaries, Svetlana Mironyuk, was in charge of RIA Novosti, Russia’s leading international press agency, for several years, until its abolition in 2013. I had plenty of firsthand interactions with these women in Moscow and considerable opportunity to reach judgments about how they were regarded and treated. Like me, they were appreciated for their technical skills and their ability to interact with global counterparts, but they were also “the staff ” and not part of the boys’ club.
On a couple of occasions, at meetings of Russia’s premier international affairs discussion forum, the Valdai Discussion Club, I sat next to Vladimir Putin—including when I was the national intelligence officer at the Na- tional Intelligence Council. Beginning in September 2004, the Valdai meetings were part of an overt Kremlin effort to influence the opinions of Western academics and commentators about Putin’s Russia.
The Kremlin’s press office worked closely with the organizers to shape the meetings and ensure that a set of key messages were transmitted by all the Russian participants to their Western counterparts. They hoped that those of us who attended to be wined and dined and offered access to Russia’s top political figures would feel obliged (if not naturally moved) to write positive articles about Russian developments. At one point during a meeting in 2007, Putin himself explicitly stated that he wanted the Western participants to pass on the information and views from the meeting to “combat the strong stereotypes [of Russia] that exist in the West.”
My experiences at those meetings highlighted the prevailing attitudes toward all women in Russia, even the most prominent at the top of their game. The last time I sat next to Putin was in November 2011, when I was back at Brookings as director of the Center on the U.S. and Europe. I of course took full advantage of the opportunity to observe Putin at very close quarters. I made careful notes on every aspect of the context and situation to analyze and write up later—what he was wearing, how he conducted himself, what he ate and drank, what was on his notecards, what the key messages they wanted us to take away were and why.
Thanks to being right there beside him, I was able to see, for example, that like the rest of us, President Putin suffered from some of the minor ag- gravations of older age, like presbyopia. He never wore reading glasses — a sign of weakness. I was so close to him that I could see he was not wearing contact lenses, but the super-large font on his notecards was a clear indication.
All of this was useful for my subsequent work on the book I wrote about Putin in 2013, but of course I wondered why I was sitting next to him, in a spot that would normally seem significant. Was it, I mused, a Kremlin effort to make a political point, or compromise me in some way because I was or had been the U.S. national intelligence officer covering Russia? Could it be because the Russian security forces had profiled me and decided I was the least likely person to attack Putin with a fork or knife during din- ner? All kinds of ideas popped into my head. Naturally, it turned out that it was nothing of the sort.
I was one of the few women in the group, but the Russians did not see me as a real-life version of the celebrated British actress Judi Dench playing the part of M, the first top female spy chief in a James Bond movie. No, I had been selected because of something far more prosaic. Who I was professionally was immaterial. I was a mere decorative prop for the great man. I was a woman who was neither too ugly nor too attractive, neither too young nor too old. I had the elusive Goldilocks factor. No one, apart from the very few people in Russian foreign policy circles who might know who I was, would pay any attention to me. All eyes would be on him.
Svetlana Mironyuk from RIA Novosti was sitting on Putin’s other side. She enlightened me after the fact, stripping away my fantasies. If a man from the for- eign delegation had been sitting there, TV audiences would wonder who this man was. Why was he sitting next to Putin? The man would be a diversion. Similarly, if I was a beautiful or glamorous woman with a plunging neckline, or “too old and overdressed,” Svetlana noted, I would draw unwanted attention.
So there I was, a nondescript woman, as innocuous as a flower arrangement or potted plant, some tableware framing Mr. Putin. Nothing to look at here.