MOSCOW — Prime Minister Vladimir Putin lauded himself Monday as Russia's hardest-working leader since World War II, putting himself above Communist-era titans like Stalin and Khrushchev in his first lengthy interview since announcing that he will return to the presidency next year.
The nationally televised display of bravado was remarkable even for a man known for his extreme self-confidence, obsession with his public image and virtually unquestioned control over Russia's most important institutions.
Putin announced last month that he will run for a third term as president in March elections, and his victory is seen as a certainty. He told the heads of Russia's three national television channels that the Soviet Union's Communist-era leaders were not physically capable and willing to run the country the way he does.
"I can't recall Soviet leadership after World War II who worked as hard," the former KGB colonel said. "They did not know what to do because of their physical capabilities or misunderstandings."
The channel heads took turns asking Putin a series of polite questions that ranged from deferential to obsequious. One of them compared Putin to a hawk – to which the prime minister replied with a condescending smile.
"A hawk is a good birdie," he said. "But I am against any cliches."
None of the interviews questioned Putin's favorable comparison of himself to the Soviet Union's post-WWII leaders.
Those leaders include Joseph Stalin, who turned most of Eastern Europe into a Communist bloc; Nikita Khrushchev, who provoked the Caribbean missile crisis, sent the first man in space and banged his shoe on the table in the United Nations promising to "bury" the Western world; and Mikhail Gorbachev, who started perestroika and the democratic changes that led – against his will – to the 1991 Soviet collapse.
Putin accused his Communist-era predecessors of making people feel unsafe and monopolizing ideological and economic power in ways that led to the collapse.
"This political force led the country to collapse and disintegration," he said. "People lost the sense of being protected."
During his two terms in 2000-2008, Putin put national television under Kremlin control and used it project the portrait of himself as a wise and robust leader who personally manages crises and keeps his fellow Russians safe. He also cultivated the image of a macho leader who can pilot fighter jets, ride a horse bare-chested and pet Siberian tigers.
Putin looked especially hawkish in comparison with his successor, the bookish Dmitry Medvedev, who appointed his mentor prime minister and was widely seen as a No. 2 leader during his four years in the Kremlin.
Medvedev said last month that he would not seek a second term. Putin is all but certain to serve a third presidential term that has been extended to six years from four, and he could stay in power until 2024.
Putin compared himself to Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was elected U.S. president four times in the times of the Great Depression and World War II.
Roosevelt "acted effectively, and the number of terms or the years he spent in power did not matter," Putin said. "What does it mean? It means that when a country is in complicated, difficult conditions, on its way from a crisis, back to its feet, stability in politics is of extreme importance."
Putin's return to the presidency is likely to strengthen the "managed democracy" system he installed in his first stint as president. Under it, opposition parties face high obstacles to winning seats in parliament; of the four parties currently in parliament only the Communists, whose support is dwindling, act as a genuine opposition force.
Opposition groups' attempts to hold rallies are rarely approved by authorities and unsanctioned gatherings are quickly broken up by police. All major television channels are under state control and rarely present opposition views.