Being 50 minutes late for his first meeting with Pope Francis was nothing unusual for Russian President Vladimir Putin. That’s just the way he is — it’s a character trait that provides some insight into his attitude toward power.
When Putin arrived on time to an audience with Pope John Paul II in 2003, the punctuality was considered a newsworthy aberration: “The President Was Not Even a Second Late,” read the headline in the newspaper Izvestia. He had been 15 minutes late for a similar audience in 2000.
The waits other leaders have had to endure in order to see Putin range from 14 minutes for the Queen of England to three hours for Yulia Tymoshenko, the former Ukrainian prime minister. Few people are as important in terms of protocol as the queen or the pope, and there is no country Putin likes to humiliate as much as Ukraine.
The typical delay seems to be about 30 minutes. Half an hour is enough in some cultures to make people mad. Koreans saw Putin’s 30-minute lateness for a meeting with their President Park Geun-hye as a sign of disrespect.
Everybody endures the wait, though. No foreign dignitary has ever canceled a meeting with Putin because of his lateness. Indeed, it seems that people have been waiting for Putin for most of his life.
In an interview with the writers of In the First Person, a book published just before Putin won the presidency for the first time in 2000, he admitted to being chronically tardy even as a child. “I was always late for the first class, so even in winter I did not have the time to dress properly,” he said. “Or, rather, putting on my coat, running to school, taking it off — it all took too long. And to save time, I did not put on the coat and just dashed to school like a bullet.”
Later, when Putin took up wrestling, he was regularly late for practice. Putin’s judo coach, Anatoly Rakhlin, remembered devising a punishment for tardiness: The latecomer had to pass through the ranks of his fellow athletes as they whipped him with their sashes. No one, however, wanted to lash Putin.
As a young man, Putin was invariably late for dates with his wife-to-be, Lyudmila. “I was never late, but Vladimir Vladimirovich was, all the time. An hour and a half was nothing out of the ordinary. But knowing this, I still could not be late. I thought, what if he shows up on time today?” she recalled in Putin: The Path to Power, a book by Oleg Blotsky. “I remember standing in the subway. The first 15 minutes is OK, 30 is still fine. But when an hour goes by and he is still not there, you just cry from the hurt. And after an hour and a half you have no emotions left.”
Blotsky, whose two books about Putin are generally very positive, lost his unprecedented access to the presidential family after Lyudmila’s reminiscences came out, so he never finished the planned trilogy. Putin, for his part, kept arriving late for working meetings, ceremonies, photo opportunities and official audiences. “We have noticed you are still not always punctual,” the interviewer says in In the First Person. “But I try!” Putin rejoined.
A psychologist would tell him he was not trying hard enough.
“What is your payoff for the behavior? You wouldn’t continue unless you were getting some reward for it,” the celebrity psychologist Dr. Phil McGraw wrote in a column meant for habitually tardy people. “Understand that procrastination or being late is a way of manipulating and controlling a situation at the expense of others. When everything is about you because everyone has to wait on you, you are unfairly controlling the situation while assuming that others should and will wait on you. It’s an arrogant behavior.”
Clearly, no one has sent Putin the link (or, rather, a printout: The Russian president is not an Internet user). Lyudmila has divorced him, and who else would dare bring it up? Certainly not the pope. The meeting went on for 35 minutes, long for a papal audience. The two discussed a peaceful solution for Syria, not Putin’s lateness.
Just like in that Leningrad gym, no one wants to lash Putin for disrespecting rules. And that, of course, is the payoff.
Leonid Bershidsky, an editor and novelist, is a Bloomberg View contributor.