Eighteen years ago, Mikhail Gorbachev was named TIME Magazine’s Person of the Year for leading the political revolution that tore down the Iron Curtain and broke apart the Soviet Union. This year, Vladimir Putin, the man who restored Russia to a leading role on the world stage, has taken that title.
The highly anticipated announcement was made live on Wednesday on TODAY by TIME managing editor Richard Stengel. He said that TIME’s readers had chosen author J.K. Rowling first in an online poll.
But Putin won the title for taking Russia from chaos to a position of importance in the world today. Being TIME’s Person of the Year is not necessarily an honor, in Putin’s case.
Stengel characterized Putin as dynamic but dangerous. “He doesn’t care about civil liberties, he doesn’t care about free speech. He was very bitter about the way Americans look at him and the way Americans’ treat him. He is an angry, angry man,” Stengel said.
Stengel said one thing that makes Putin extraordinary is that he is not interested in making people like him. “He has no charm,” Stengel said. “He is just pure force and pure force of will.”
TIME’s editors chose the controversial Putin over a list of candidates that included former Vice President Al Gore, who won a Nobel Prize for his battle against global warming; Rowling, who published the seventh and final chapter of her Harry Potter series; Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the confrontational president of Iran; Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice; Apple CEO Steve Jobs; Gen. David Petraeus, leader of the Iraq surge; and Chinese leader Hu Jintao.
Putin is the fourth Russian leader to be chosen Person of the Year. Joseph Stalin was named twice, in 1939 for signing the alliance that opened the doors for Hitler’s war on Europe and in 1942 for joining the Allies in World War II. In 1957, Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet leader at the height of the Cold War, won for leading the effort to put the first satellite in space. And in 1989, Gorbachev was on the cover for ending the Cold War.
Video: Archived Video: Lauer talks to Russia's Putin Last year, the Person of the Year was “You,” the millions of people who have made the Internet a vital force of communication and culture.
Stengel said that Gore finished second in the opinion of the editors, with Rowling third, Hu Jintao fourth and Petraeus fifth. It was the first time the magazine ranked the runners-up.
Voters online chose Rowling first, Gore second, Ahmadinejad third, Rice fourth, Jobs fifth, Petraeus sixth and Putin a distant seventh.
But the Person of the Year isn’t a popularity contest. “We all grew up with Russia as this great superpower and rival to the U.S.,” said Stengel. “But in the ’90s, Russia was a basket case.”
Putin changed that, restoring political order — at the cost of civil liberties, his critics say — and world influence. With vast oil wealth and a 2,000-mile border with China, Stengel said, “Russia is really critical to the future of the 21st century.”
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