In the 1700-s British King George III called George Washington "The greatest man in the world." American history is taught well in Russian public schools, but probably wasn't delivered as well during the Soviet times when Vladimir Putin was a boy. Had Putin looked into the history books, he would've found out that he had given up the opportunity to become the Greatest Man in Russia's history. In fact, he lined himself up to become one of the less impressive men in history, one whose personal hobbies and views, combined with age and historically long terms at the steering wheel (surpassing even Stalin) may lead to some results other than a free market economy...
What is the secret sauce for being the "Greatest Man in the World?" It is simple: be humble. Or as Bob Lefsets, an LA-based music producer says about the record industry and technology at large, "It's all about the timing." Putin failed at both. Unfortunately, his failures are much more than just his personal business. What really hurts is the fact that Putin built a strong, wealthy country and the momentum of that could have made Russia a role model to all, including the United States - responsible spending, non-involvement in foreign affairs, strong financial system, and... That's where the list ends. When talking to a Moscow friend, I mentioned Putin's accomplishments, to which he responded, "What do all of them mean if he failed at the most important thing -- grooming the leadership among the future generations."
In 1775, when George Washington accepted command of the Continental Army, he promised Congress he would resign his commission when the war was over. Once the British withdrew, he was true to his word. Just before then, Washington had been approached by the officers who pledged their support if he decided to seize civilian power. In response, General Washington scolded the conspiring officer.
In 1783, Washington learned that officers planned to stage a coup against Congress. The so-called Newburgh Conspirators were frustrated that Congress was not paying them what had been promised during the war. Washington addressed the officers and asked them if they would like to take his personal money, since there was none in the country's coffers. In that moment he had to put on his glasses, which had never been seen in public. When asked why he was putting them on, he said he needed them to see well, since he had lost his eyesight while serving his country. Humbled, the officers went home. And finally, when King George III heard Washington would resign his commission to a powerless Congress, he told the painter Benjamin West: "If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world." The King thought Washington, in the end, would not resign. But Washington did resign. Like Cincinnatus in the Roman Republic, "returned to the plow" at his estate. So doing, he set an example for his and future times. That helped make him, in many minds, the greatest man in the world.
Now, if only Putin and his distinguished advisors had studied history, maybe they would've known better than to publicly state that President Medvedev's presidential pledge to the Constitution was pre-planned, manipulating the highest law and the nation. Medvedev, a law professor by education, especially should've known better. Putin's circle loves the Swiss Alps, hotels in Dubai, boutiques in Paris and London, and heli-skiing in Canada. Why return to the plow, if "bidlo" (third-class citizens) will do the plowing for you?
Putin himself could've had a wonderful and constructive retirement, filled with fishing, diving, flying, horseback-riding, and whatever else he loves to do in front of Japanese-made Canons and Nikons. He could've expanded his "Save the Tiger" foundation to "Save the Whales and Other Animals" venture and collected hefty royalties for public speaking. He could have been the man who established a new tradition of private philanthropy in Russia. Russians would've remember the Great Putin for generations, and the world elites would've applauded and sought to emulate his successes.
However, mere money or mere legacy is not enough for "true Russian" greatness, in Putin's mind. Humility supposedly is not worthy of a real macho. Putin believes he is both. Combined with the crazy luck of increasing oil prices throughout his presidency and total misunderstanding of what leadership is about, in one day Putin erased his place in history as a great man, and took Russia back to where it was a century ago.