In the late 1960s, Mina Moiseevna Yuditskaya was working at a secondary school in Leningrad, now St Petersburg, where she taught a “sporty”, soft-spoken teenage boy “with a shy smile” and tousled blond hair. Four decades later, the then 84-year-old resident of central Tel Aviv met her former pupil again, this time in Jerusalem: she a retired employee of the Israeli air force, he the most powerful man in Russia.
It was at the end of the 1990s, watching TV in her living room, that Yuditskaya first caught a glimpse of a boy she once knew. “I saw [President] Yeltsin,” she told me recently, speaking in her native Russian, “and to the side of him was Putin. I ran up to the television to get a closer look.”
Yuditskaya began following the progress of her former student, to whom she had taught German, as he rose through the ranks, becoming prime minister and president of Russia twice over. One morning, she noticed an article in the newspaper about a forthcoming visit to Israel.
“I took the newspaper and went to the [Russian] embassy. The consul asked me: ‘What do you want?’ I said, ‘I want to see him, from a distance. Only from a distance.’”
Instead, a car whisked her to the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. There, amid a crowd of Soviet war heroes, the Russian president approached Yuditskaya and invited her to tea. “He told me: ‘Mina Moiseevna, I’m now bald,’” she recalls. “And I said, ‘Yes, I see that.’ I started asking him about the past. He asked me about the future.
“‘How do you remember me?’ I said, expecting him to say fifochka, the Russian word for a young woman who takes great care of her appearance and clothes. Instead, after a pause, he replied: ‘Honest, fair, kind.’ He said those three words. I was very moved.”
Putin introduced his former teacher to the then Israeli president, Moshe Katsav. “Katsav asked me what Putin was like in school,” Yuditskaya told me. “I gave him a thumbs-up to say that he was excellent.”
Some weeks after their encounter, a representative from the Russian embassy visited Yuditskaya, announcing that the president had decided to buy her a flat. “‘Why?’ I asked. ‘I already have one.’” She was shown two properties in Tel Aviv, and chose the smaller of the two, where our interview took place. It’s a cosy, one-bedroom apartment, with pink and orange walls, decorated with souvenirs from her extensive travels. There are glamorous black-and-white portraits of Yuditskaya, now 93, as a young woman.
“I told him that all I need is to be close to the bus stop, the doctor and the market,” she explained in an interview with the Israeli news website Ynet.
She said she no longer misses St Petersburg. “At first, I felt a great nostalgia. I would stand on my balcony and look in the direction of Leningrad. But now, all I feel is sadness.”
Yuditskaya, who was born in Ukraine and left the USSR for Israel in the 1970s, insisted that she does not follow Russian politics but said she listens to all of Putin’s speeches on TV. “Molodets, molodets!” she said, praising him, noting that he has an excellent memory. “He doesn’t read his speeches like Medvedev,” she joked.
And yet, for all her gains, she said that ultimately the meeting provoked a feeling of melancholy in her. “It was so sad to look at him,” she said. “I thought, ‘He was just a boy . . . and I was a young woman. And now the boy is grown up and I’m so old.’ I didn’t feel happiness or pride. I drifted back into the past.”