World leaders wait on Vladimir Putin

  • Pope Francis and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands during a meeting at the Vatican, Monday, Nov. 25. (MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV / Associated Press)

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 — 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.

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