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A seller demonstrates a traditional Matryoshka doll, or Russian nesting dolls, bearing the faces of presidential candidate and current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev in St. Petersburg March 3, 2012. Russians will go to the polls for their presidential election on Sunday. (ALEXANDER DEMIANCHUK)
A seller demonstrates a traditional Matryoshka doll, or Russian nesting dolls, bearing the faces of presidential candidate and current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev in St. Petersburg March 3, 2012. Russians will go to the polls for their presidential election on Sunday. (ALEXANDER DEMIANCHUK)

Vladimir Putin: A 21st-century czar Add to ...

He entered the room at a brisk clip, masking any physical impairment he may have. After shaking hands, he is in full monologue even before settling into his seat. He does not do small talk.

He also comes prepared, fiercely so.

Before any meeting, Mr. Putin demands a written briefing on every person he will encounter, including personal interests, as well as any topics of conversation. When he travels, as he did this week on the campaign trail, his aides tote up to six suitcases of documents for him to read.

If the KGB failed him in any way, it may have been on technology. Mr. Putin declines the use of a computer and does not carry one of the smartphones that pretty much every urban Russian now owns.

He prefers personal interaction. As he once told a biographer, his specialty in the KGB was “human relations.”

Trained as a lawyer and economist as well as a spy, Mr. Putin exhibits a nimble and analytical mind, jumping from one subject to the next, from macroeconomics to the Middle East, speaking in paragraphs on each and then listening to questions as if nothing else in the world is on his mind.

He does not challenge the premise or motive of a question so much as he searches for inconsistencies in logic. Same facts. Different conclusions.

Asked why he won't join in TV debates, he says he knows his opponents' positions and the country knows his record.

Asked why his United Russia is called “the party of crooks and thieves,” he says most of his opponents have been in power or close to it, and therefore also must be crooks and thieves.

For a man prone to analysis, he can move in a flash. When I push him on Arctic borders, he begins to explain the history of Norwegian-Russian relations, and then suddenly declares that Canada and Russia need a scientific commission. He announces Moscow's commitment on the spot, turning to an aide to ensure his view is noted.

For a man from the shadows, he can also be quick to show irritation. His ice-blue eyes – the ones that George W. Bush infamously said were a window on his soul – are more like lasers aimed at the questioner's soul.

Late in the evening, after Mr. Putin raises a topic I was about to get to, I suggest that he must have the ability to read minds. “It's something I can do,” he says firmly, glaring at me. “Be careful.”

He appears most defensive about his secret pact with the current President, Dmitri Medvedev, to essentially swap jobs, an agreement that sparked mass protests.

Mr. Medvedev, an unassuming one-time law professor from St. Petersburg, became President when Mr. Putin was required to step down at the end of his second term in 2008. They appeared to have agreed all along that Mr. Putin would sit out a term and return to the Kremlin – and, thanks to a constitutional change, for six years instead of four. Mr. Medvedev is then likely to slide back into the Prime Minister's seat.

Mr. Putin's explanation: The people want me, so I will return.

“Would I do something differently if I had the chance?” he says toward the end of the evening, when challenged to name a regret. “Not on serious things.”

The enormous wealth and power are a long journey from the drab apartment blocks of Leningrad where Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin was raised.

His was a classic Cold War story. His father, Vladimir, a disabled war veteran, worked at a factory that produced rail cars while his mother, Maria, juggled a series of menial jobs to make ends meet. The Putins had lost two boys already, one infant to disease, the other to the privations suffered during the 900-day siege of Leningrad, when Maria was among the masses trapped in the city and starved by Nazi forces.

They did not have Vladimir until they were both 41, and Maria was in poor health, having never recovered from the war.

The three of them struggled in a rat-infested, state-issued apartment, 12 feet by 15 feet., with no heat and a stove shared by three families. Left alone for long stretches while his parents worked, the young Putin became a street fighter, first taking up boxing (until his nose was broken) and then a Russian form of martial arts known as “sambo” that earned him a black-belt and city title.

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