This article was originally written in March 2015. Since then, the career of Vladimir Putin–and his importance to Americans–has become even more complex, given his likely involvement with the U.S. Presidential election of 2016 and his business and political ties to President Donald Trump. Nevertheless, it’s still important to understand who Putin is and where he came from, which is why this series, even though it’s now 2 years old, is still very relevant.
This is the beginning of a 3-part series I want to do about the life and career of Russia’s enigmatic and mysterious leader, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. Although of course I’ve been aware of Putin for years I only recently became interested in looking closely at his life and background, and what I found both fascinated and repelled me. More than just a hit list of Putin’s accomplishments and controversies, however, I want this series to place Putin in historical context–which is something I think most analyses of the Russian leader fail to do, or fail to do properly. Russian history is very difficult to understand, but Putin is undoubtedly a product of it and can even be said to be a continuation of many of its important threads.
Putin is the most powerful human being on planet Earth. He has immense military power, including nuclear weapons, and vast personal wealth though no one is sure how much. In exercising this power he answers to almost no one. This is why he stands alone among world leaders. Barack Obama, David Cameron or Xi Jinpeng are powerful too, but their actions are checked and often obstructed by congresses, parliaments, political parties and voters. Putin has no such fetters. If he wants something he just takes it. He needs to explain his rationales to no one. In this he’s very similar to the old tsars of Russia before the 1917 Revolution. Thus, the most important piece of historical context is continuity with Russia’s autocratic past. Far from being a person who “came out of nowhere,” as Putin’s life story is usually told, he definitely came from somewhere: a long tradition of ruthless autocratic rule, in which the Communist era of the 20th century was only a brief pause and not much of one at that.
This is the street on which the most powerful man in the world grew up. I can’t be sure but the building on the right may have been where the Putin family lived in the 1950s.
Vladimir Putin was born in Leningrad (St. Petersburg) in the fall of 1952 just after the Great Patriotic War, which is what Russians call World War II. His father was a machine tool operator. Voya, as he was known among his friends, was raised as an only child, having two brothers who died before he was born. Life in Communist-era Russia was one of poverty and squalor for the most part, and the Putins were no exception. Putin grew up amidst personal conflict especially among his friends and peers. Partially for this reason, he learned to fight at an early age and was said to be fearless even against older children. In his early teens Voya took up judo, a discipline that he’s maintained for most of his life. His martial arts training, and the fact that he was so good at it, probably accounts for how Putin learned to be such a ruthless political operator, always searching for weakness and waiting to strike when an opponent’s guard is down.
In this regard, growing up a poor kid on the streets, Putin’s past differs from that of many Russian tsars, most of whom were born into pampered royalty. Certainly he was different than the last tsar, Nicholas II, who was brought up in a strict family but in the highest luxury late 19th century Russia could offer. Putin has more in common with some of the usurpers of the Russian throne throughout its past who had to prove themselves in a brutal medieval world before rising to power. I’m taken by the photo of the 14-year-old Voya, which appears at the top of this article and occasionally makes the rounds on Twitter. He has a surly look in his eyes but he still looks quite innocent. I suspect even then Putin was a master at inviting others to underestimate him. This is a kid who lives and dies by “the benefit of the doubt.”
Putin’s wedding photo, July 1983. Not much is known about their married or personal life.
Putin’s official legend–which he advances assiduously–is that as a teenager he was captivated by spy films that depicted heroic Soviet agents fighting fascism. Johann Weiss, basically the Soviet James Bond of the 1960s, is said to have been a particular hero of young Vladimir. This may be true or partially true; I’ve learned not to accept anything Putin himself says about his past at face value. He may also have been recruited by the KGB while still in high school. Nevertheless, by 1975, when he graduated from Leningrad State University he was a member of the Communist Party and soon went into the KGB. He worked at the First Chief Directorate in Leningrad, where part of his job was to spy on foreigners in the city. This isn’t romantic James Bond stuff, but Putin seems to have had a talent for biding his time and waiting for opportunities.
In the early 1980s Vladimir met Lyudmila Shkrebneva, a linguist who also studied at Leningrad State University. She also worked as a flight attendant for Aeroflot, which marks her lucky to be alive; during the Soviet era Aeroflot was the most dangerous airline in the world. Little is known about the Putins’ romantic relationship. We know they were married in July 1983, not long before Vladimir was sent to a KGB post in Dresden, East Germany. They had two daughters, Maria, born in 1985 and Yekaterina the following year. Documents from the German spy agency surfaced in 2011 alleging secret meetings between Lyudmila Putina and a German agent, to whom she reportedly confessed that Vladimir beat her frequently and had extramarital affairs. Knowing his personality this wouldn’t be surprising.
Putin’s job in East Germany was to recruit spies for the KGB. This he did by targeting people whose occupations could take them to the West where they could collect information for him. What he really wanted evidently were trade and computer secrets, and the KGB tried hard to infiltrate Western computer firms. At this time the KGB and the Stasi, the East German secret police who spied on nearly everyone in the country, worked hand-in-hand. Putin obviously reveled in spy work, and certainly he gained from it an appreciation of how power and politics really function.
Vladimir Putin in KGB uniform, late 1980s.
Two narratives exist about Putin’s loyalty to the Communist regime and ideology. One is that he knew early on it was collapsing and just did his job as best he could, and that he was never really committed to the ideal of socialism. Another is that Putin has always been a secret Communist and longed for the iron-fisted order of the USSR and East Germany. I think the truth lies somewhere in between. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 Putin is believed to have been horrified at how the Moscow KGB left the East German Stasi to wither on the vine. This may have been less about ideology and more about job security, though. But someone as intelligent as Putin couldn’t have failed to see after 1989 that the Communist order in Europe was collapsing. Putin returned to Leningrad in 1990, the last full year of the Soviet regime; the documents on his marriage allege that he left a love child behind by a German mistress. His job with the KGB was evidently to spy on Leningrad State University students and faculty–rather low-level work for a man of his talents.
In August 1991, a group of Soviet hard-liners tried to depose Gorbachev, but their efforts had the opposite effect that was intended: they hoped to save the Soviet Union, but after they were defeated, the country quickly began to break up. Just as the coup was happening Putin abruptly resigned from the KGB. He claims it was for ideological reasons, but we’ll never know for sure. What is certain is that by the end of 1991 he was working as an aide to Anatoly Sobchak, the first post-Soviet mayor of Leningrad, who also happened to be one of Putin’s old law professors. Putin’s sudden turn away from the KGB may have had something to do with the fact that during the coup Sobchak supported Russian Federation President Boris Yeltsin against the Communist hard-liners. Putin had hitched his wagon to Sobchak’s star. It turned out to be a good move, because it was in the dirty city politics of Leningrad–which Sobchak renamed back to St. Petersburg–that Putin’s ascent to power really began.
In Part II of this series, I’ll trace Putin’s rise during the turbulent 1990s, culminating in his achieving national power at the end of the decade. Stay tuned!