Vladimir Putin, a former KGB colonel, was Yeltsin’s handpicked successor. He was appointed as prime minister by Yeltsin five months before he retired, and became president after Yeltsin retired in December 1999 and was elected president in subsequent elections in 2000. Regarded initially as tough guy with an eye for reform, he has been given credit for stabilizing Russia, bringing about solid economic growth and opening up Russia further to the West but has been criticized for making Russia more authoritarian and Soviet-like by muzzling the media, reducing democratic freedoms and centralizing power in his hands.
David Remnick described him in the New Yorker as “a bureaucrat thrust forward in history” with “the bearing of the vigilant listeners, of the intelligence agents...Putin is first and foremost a gossudarstvennik— a “statist”—who values the growth of and stability of Russia before all else.” He is also a KGB agent who admires the czars. The once told a biographer, “The monarch doesn’t have to worry about whether or not he will be elected, or about petty political interests, or about how to influence the electorate. He can think about the destiny of people and not have to be distracted by trivialities.” On the Soviet Union he liked to say: “Anyone who does not regret the collapse of the Soviet Union has no heart, but anyone who wants it restored has no brain.”
Putin sought to restore Russia’s regional power while maintaining relations with the West. He was reelected overwhelmingly in 2004. During his presidency, political opposition became extremely fragmented, media independence lessened significantly, and Putin was able to shift the center of economic power from a group of independent entrepreneurs to government-controlled enterprises and cronies. Although repression of the media and nongovernmental organizations increasingly strained relations with the West, in 2006 Putin retained guarded support from Western governments and gained prestige by hosting a meeting of the G–8 nations. [Source: Library of Congress, October 2006 **]
Books: Vladimir Putin: A Life Story by Oleg Blotsky; First Person by Vladimir Putin (Public Affairs, 2000), a 208-page book that is a product of six interviews with a Russian journalist; Putin’s Russia by Lilla Shevtsova, (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace)
Putin's Early Life
Putin (pronounced POO-teen) was born to working class parents in Leningrad (St. Petersburg), Russia ‘s most Westward-looking city, on October 7, 1952 near the end of the Stalin era. His mother was deeply religious and survivor of the Leningrad blockade. His father was a worker at a train car factory, a Communist Party member and a World War II veteran with multiple shrapnel wounds, who survived one battle because a comrade dragged home across the frozen Neva River. His grandfather worked as a cook for Lenin and Stalin.
Putin's mother was 41 years old when he was born. For all intents and purposes he was an only child. His two younger brothers died young: one shortly after birth; the other of diphtheria during World War II. Putin was secretly baptized in the Orthodox faith by his mother, who in turn nearly died in the siege of Leningrad by the Nazis. At one point she passed out from hunger and was tossed on a pile of corpses.
Putin grew up in a cramped communal apartment with a communal toilet, no hot water and rats running around. "There were rats lining up in the front entryway," he wrote in his autobiography. "My friend and I used to chase them with sticks. Once I saw a huge rat and drove it into a corner. Then it turned around and threw itself at me."
Putin’s communal apartment on Baskow Lane was still there in the early 2000s. No plaque identifies it. Describing it in 2003 Ian Frazier wrote in The New Yorker, “ Like virtually all entryways in Russian apartment building, it was steeped in medieval gloom, probably owing to theft or breakage of entryway light bulbs. Faded graffiti and scratches defaced its crumbing two-tone walls. The steps to the first landing were as worn and chipped and old as stone steps in a cave, and were dotted with flattened cigarette butts.”
Putin said he learned to fight and be tough early on in his childhood. In the book Vladimir Putin: A Life Story he told Oleg Blotsky, "I was educated in the street. To live and be educated on street is just like living in the jungles." In one fight in the first grade he said, "I learned that I must be able to respond immediately to any offense. I understood that in order to win, I have to go to the end in any fight, as if in the last decisive combat."
Putin attended a secondary school that specialized in education. One of his teacher told Time he was a well-mannered student who wrote "beautiful" reports on "political information," was "always speaking as if he knew what he was talking about," and got good grades in history, German and discipline.
Putin was small as a boy and is only 5 foot 9 inches today. He was a street punk, he said until found discipline in the martial arts. He first practiced sambo, a Russian-style of self defense, and later switched to judo. In 1976 he was Leningrad's judo champion in the lightweight (135 pound) division. His coach said he was a "smart wrestler" who "always did the unexpected."
Putin graduated from Leningrad State's University with a law degree. Described as a "meticulous" student he got "good but not great grades." Putin received a Ph.D. from St. Petersburg Mining Institute in 1996. He did extensive research on Russia’s natural resources. One conclusion he came to was that for Russia to really develop its resources it needed foreign investment.
Putin knows some English. Sometimes he will answer questions in English without waiting for an interpreter and even correct his translator. Putin speaks fluent German. Many Russians admired Putin for his "Germaness"—his strong work ethic, his discipline—a notable observation when you look back on Russian and German history. To many Russians he even looks German.
Putin has worked hard to project an image of being a steely, decisive leader. Slight and only 5 feet 9 inches in height, with a receding hairline. He liked to show off his clean living style, and offer it as an alternative to the stereotypical vodka-guzzling Russian. Putin character is so out of character for Russians that Russians call him “our German.”
Putin has been described by some as enigmatic. He has poker face and piercing blue eyes, talks like a bureaucrat, and comes across as a stern and colorless police man. When he smiles it either comes across as strained or sarcastic. Some say he looks like Kronsteen the evil chess grandmaster in the James Bond film From Russia With Love. Russians like his enigmatic persona and found it funny when U.S. President George W. Bush declared in 2001 that he “looked the man in the eye” and got a “a sense of his soul.”
Words used to describe Putin have included disciplined, precise, reserved, smart, pragmatic, brave, loyal, shrewd, modest, careful, businesslike, tough, and tight-lipped. He reportedly is always late, has a “brilliant memory” and “a great eye for detail,” listens carefully and responds to questions with “lengthy, constructed answers.” He has the habit of rolling his eyes when he is confronted with something he considers stupid or below him.
Putin can be quite articulate and reportedly has a good but sardonic sense of humor. He sometimes speaks in rough language and occasionally lets an obscenity slip out when he is speaking with the press. H can come across as affable and witty if he wants to. He can also launch into Khrushchev-like tirades if he feels he or Russia has been unfairly slighted or scolded. He is very good at answering questions about alleged misdeed from American reporters with worse things done by the Americans.
Putin is a very private man. He says he likes beer but is often spotted with a Diet Coke in his hand. He works out every day and claims to be a true believer in the Orthodox religion. He wears a cross given to him by his mother. He is said to have become a religious man after he rescued one of his daughters from a burning dacha in 1997.
Putin likes skiing and the outdoors. For a while his greatest passion seemed to be judo. Putin is a black belt in judo and wrote a book on judo techniques. He once said, "When I am on a judo mat I feel at home." One a visit to Japan he was thrown to the mat by a 10-year-old girl.
Putin reportedly is great admirer of Gen. Augusto Pinochet and Yuri Andropov. Perhaps the quality that allowed him to advance as quickly as he did despite an undistinguished career was a fierce loyalty to the people he served.
Putin likes movies and music. He personally gave Francis Ford Coppola an award when the the American director was invited to Russia. When Paul McCartney performed in Red Square in May 2003 Putin made time to meet with him. During his vacations as President he went trout fishing in Karelia, jet skiing on the Black Sea, and relaxed in Sardinia with Italian leader Silvio Berlusconi.
Putin and his wife Lyudmilla have two girls: Marsha, born in 1985, and Katya, born in 1986. They attended a German school. Putin rescued one of them from a burning dacha a in 1996 and himself was forced to make his escape by climbing down a sheet without any clothes on.
Putin married his wife Lyudmilla in 1985. She is from Kaliningrad, the small Russian enclave on the Baltic Sea, and was trained in linguistics. She worked as a flight attendant and a teacher. She and Putin dated for three years before they got married. For the first 18 months they dated he told her he was a police investigator not a KGB agent. Lyudmilla said she fell in love with him “gradually.”
Lyudmilla once said, “Unfortunately my husband is a vampire. But he’s just the right man for me—he doesn’t drink and he doesn’t beat me.” In an article about Putin she said Putin criticizes her cooking and is reliable but emotionally cold. She also said he was as sloppy in his personal life as he was orderly in his work life and said he sometimes he used the tactics he learned as a KGB agent on her. “I’ve always had the feeling that he’s watching me. It was like he was waiting to see if I would make the right decision whether I would pass the next test.”
Lyudmilla has said that when she and Putin were dating it was not unusual for him to leave waiting 90 minutes in a subway station When he proposed she was so put off by his bluntness and seeming diffidence she thought at first he wanted to break up. When their first child was born he was away on a business trip and she to hail a cab to get to the hospital by herself.
Yelena Khanga, a popular woman television talk show host told the Los Angeles Times: Putin is popular among women who see him as “typical European man.” “A lot of women see him as the perfect man. He doesn’t smoke. He doesn’t drink. He’s in good physical condition,” she said. “Russian women like him because they want someone reliable and strong. We’re sick and tired of guys who have to be taken care of as if they were another baby.”
Putin and the KGB
Putin ambition to join the KGB, he said, was sparked by the 1968 film The Sword and the Shield, a romanticized view of Soviet intelligence agents in World War II. In his mind, it has been said, the KGB were patriots protecting the interests of the state. He also liked to read thrillers about the adventures of KGB agents.
Putin said he decided to pursue law because he visited a KGB office when he was in the 9th grade and was told the KGB liked recruits with legal training. He later said, “When I accepted the proposition from the Directorate’s personnel department, I didn’t think about the [Stalin-era] purges. My notion of the KGB came from romantic spy stories. I was a pure and utterly successful product of the Soviet patriotic education.”
Describing what he had been taught in the KGB about violence, Putin said, "There is no need to meddle into anything without extreme necessity, but as it happens, you must proceed from the assumption that there is no way back, and one must fight until the end...Another simple rule they taught me in the KGB was that you don't pull your weapon unless you are ready to use it. Don't try to scare anyone."
Putin never resigned from the Communist Party. When he was prime minister Putin kept a bust of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the KGB, in his office. As president he had a picture of Peter the Great on the wall of his office.
Putin's KGB Career
Putin rose to the level of colonel in the KGB. His KGB background is regarded by Russians as a plus rather than a minus. Immediately after graduating Putin began working for the KGB, joining the foreign intelligence arm. He began his career as a cadre in the KGB internal affairs department in St. Petersburg from 1975 to 1984.
Putin worked for the KGB in East Germany from 1984 to 1990. His duties included recruiting Western agents, seeking information on political enemies of the Soviet Union and coercing East Germans into collecting information on the West. His career was mediocre according to U.S. intelligence agencies. He was based in Dresden, regarded as a backwater compared to Berlin. Of his time in Dresden, Putin said he drank a gallon of beer a week and gained 12 kilograms. He was in Dresden at the time Berlin Wall came down. During that he time said he and his coworkers worked hard to burn documents before their office was overrun by a mob.
In 1990, Putin returned to St. Petersburg in 1990 and earned an advanced degree and was a deputy director, supervising foreign students, at Leningrad State University, a lowly position for a KGB man. At that juncture in his life he was ill prepared for the imminent collapse of the Soviet Union
Putin's Early Political Career
In August 1991, Putin resigned from the KGB in the midst of the hardline putsch against Gorbachev but retained his membership in the Communist Party. He joined the office of the new democratically- elected, reform-minded mayor of St. Petersburg, Anatoli Sobchak, Putin's former law professor. Under Sobchak, Putin developed a reputation as man who got things done. He was regarded as a shadow mayor who signed documents when Sobchak was out of town.
In 1994, Putin became a deputy mayor of the St. Petersburg city administration in charge of the department that handled lucrative export licenses. The program became embroiled in controversy but charges of "mismanagement" were not rigorously pursued. Through his early career he remained loyal to Sobchack, once even arranging for a KGB plane to take him to Paris for heart surgery. His loyalty to Sobchak was one of the things that caught the eye of Yeltsin’s inner circle.
In St. Petersburg, Putin came in contact with reformers such as Anatoli Chubais, a close aide of Yeltsin. In August 1996, after Sobchack's defeat, Putin was moved to Moscow to work in the president' s property office. He worked for one of Yeltsin's closest aides. In March 1997, he was named head of high-power department in charge of making sure that Yeltsin's decrees and resolutions were enforced.
In July 1998, in a big career jump, Putin was made head of the FSB, the successor the KGB. The promotion was attributed his tough stance against regional leaders and the suppression of a criminal investigation of Yeltsin and his family. In the position Putin helped Yeltsin by firing people who were loyal to Yeltsin's main rival at the time, Vevgeny Primakov, who concurrently was moving in on Yeltsin, his family and supporters.
In March 29, Putin was appointed as head of the presidential Security Council, the powerful advisory body that coordinated the activities of Russia's armed forces, security agencies and police. But at time he had never run for a public office.
Putin Named Prime Minister and Then President
On August 9, 1999, Putin was appointed prime minister by Yeltsin after the sacking his predecessor Sergei Stepashin. Some say Putin was selected by Yeltsin because of his connections to the FSB (KGB) and ability to protect Yeltsin after he left office (Putin’s first decree was to grant Yeltsin and his family immunity from any future prosecution).
Yeltsin insiders described Putin as “shy and withdrawn” but “loyal and faithful.” Yeltsin’s people admired how he stood beside Sobchak. He won a seat in the Duma as a member of Yeltsin's Unity Party in the elections in December 1999. His popularity rating was only 2 percent.
Putin was put in charge of the war of the Chechnya. After the bombing of apartments on Moscow, he authorized a major offensive. "We will pursue them everywhere. If, pardon me, we catch them in the toilet, we'll rub them out right there." Russians like that kind of talk.
Backed by the oligarch (tycoon) Boris Berezovsky, the Yeltsin team set about making Putin into a credible successor in an exercise referred by some as “Project Putin.” Putin was taught to dress and talk like a president and carry himself in a dignified way in public. “He was a fast learner,” one of Yeltsin’s aides told the Washington Post. Berezvosky’s television station showered Putin with praise while it ripped apart his rivals.
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated May 2016