MOSCOW – As a kid in a dismal Soviet communal apartment, Vladimir Putin was a scrapper who dreamed of being an operator — diligently training in martial arts and boldly walking into a KGB office to inquire about how to become a spy.
As Russia’s leader in the 21st century, he’s been the epitome of both traits — fighting Chechen rebels, directing the annexation of Crimea and, allegedly, approving an extensive and devious campaign to undermine American democracy.
It’s hardly a surprise that he’s expected to easily win election to a fourth term Sunday. The man and the office are indistinguishable.
As Russia’s leader since New Year’s Eve 1999 (he switched to prime minister from 2008-12 but was still seen as being in command) Putin clearly relishes the spotlight. Now 65, his displays of physical prowess such as bare-chested horseback riding have mostly faded away, but the hours-long annual news conferences and call-in shows testify to vigour and discipline. He still enjoys mixing it up in ice hockey games, though he once likened his skating to “a cow on ice.”
Few, if any, politicians have stepped more quickly from the shadows into rapt attention at home and abroad. Before being named President Boris Yeltsin’s prime minister in August 1999, he had been head of the Federal Security Service, one of the KGB’s successor agencies, which inherently is not a high-visibility position.
Many observers pegged him as a grey mediocrity at the time, laughingly suggesting that his service with the KGB on the friendly turf of East Germany suggested he had not been very adroit as an intelligence agent. Yeltsin shuffled prime ministers at an alarming rate, and Putin might have been just the latest through the revolving door.
But the next month, he showed himself when commenting on the early days of the second war against Chechen rebels, saying “if we capture them in the toilet then we will waste them in the outhouse.” Adamant, macho, and a touch of crude language — the remark seemed to reveal the essence of Putin that was formed in his youth.
When he became acting president upon Yeltsin’s resignation, his language was more refined but his mien just as tough. “I want to warn that any attempts to go beyond Russian law … will be decisively repressed,” he said.
Putin was born Oct. 7, 1952, to factory-worker parents in Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, a city pervaded by memories of the horrific suffering of the nearly 900-day Nazi siege in World War II. One of Putin’s elder brothers died of diphtheria during the siege and the other died a few months after birth. According to “First Person,” interviews published after he became acting president, Putin and his parents lived in a dismal communal apartment with a wretched toilet down the hall.
Putin said he responded to these rough circumstances by becoming a childhood “hooligan,” one of the few in his school not allowed into the Communist Young Pioneers. In his early adolescence, Putin channeled his aggressive tendencies into the martial arts, a sport he practiced avidly into late middle-age.
As a teen, Putin aspired to join the KGB — apparently more for adventure than out of ideology — and succeeded after graduating from Leningrad University’s law faculty in 1975.
Putin worked in counterintelligence, monitored foreigners in Leningrad and in 1985 started his post in Dresden. He returned to Leningrad in 1990 and started work for the city’s reformist mayor. Putin resigned from the KGB a year later, on the second day of the abortive coup attempt against Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, which was backed by the KGB.
In 1983 Putin married Lyudmila Skrebneva, an Aeroflot flight attendant who later became a university lecturer in German. Thirty years later, the couple appeared on state TV in a faux-casual interview to announce their marriage was ending; Putin was reportedly too devoted to his job to be an attentive husband.
Despite rumours of a dalliance with a female gymnastics star, Putin publicly presents himself as upright and abstemious. He is only rarely seen with a glass of vodka and almost never actually drinking.
Although reports have suggested that Putin has accumulated vast wealth, he shows little taste for real ostentation outside the gilded halls of the Kremlin. His public face is an older, better-fed version of the tough teen from a bad part of town, determined to dominate.