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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 was a loner, never excelling at academics or joining in the Communist Party youth programs that were all but mandatory.

Unlike many struggling Soviets, though, the Putins had a dacha, telephone and car that they won in a lottery. In a new biography, The Man Without a Face, Russian journalist Masha Gessen says the elder Vladimir was likely a KGB informant, which added to their income and perks.

The younger Vladimir was also obsessed with espionage and landed in the security services after graduating from Leningrad State University – just as the KGB was settling into a funk that would presage the collapse of communism. The spy service had become a leviathan of paperwork. Moreover, the state was so paranoid that the KGB had become Orwellian, focusing largely on domestic affairs, turning Russians against Russians.

No matter. As Mr. Putin remarked much later, he had found his calling, the ideal role for a loner with a desire to influence. “I was most amazed by how a small force, a single person, really, can accomplish something an entire army cannot,” he told his official biographers when he became president in 2000.

The stories of his bare-knuckle youth serve the grown Mr. Putin well on a campaign trail, where he is projected as the tough nationalist who will protect Mother Russia and win back her glory.

Such was the mission of the KGB, but there is no evidence of Mr. Putin excelling in his early years. He held a series of desk jobs, having to wait until 1984 – at the age of 32 – for his first big assignment abroad. Unfortunately, it was to Dresden, a backwater of espionage.

Newly married, he got to East Germany just in time to watch the final chapter of an empire play out as Mikhail Gorbachev entered the Kremlin and put glasnost on everyone's mind.

Ms. Gessen describes a period of frustration and decline in which Mr. Putin – the martial-arts master – drank beer and put on 20 pounds, while dipping into third-rate espionage cases and collecting consumer products – a car radio and washing machine – to take home.

He later referred to the collapse of the Soviet Union as “the biggest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”

With the Soviet Union in free fall, Mr. Putin retreated to Leningrad (St. Petersburg today) where he assumed a post at his alma mater, overseeing foreign students, a handy position if one were trying to recruit spies.

A former campus colleague remembers something clearly about Mr. Putin: “He was paranoid of the United States. ...

“Putin is first and foremost obsessed with the West and particularly the U.S."

Back then, he had good reason – the nation was collapsing, and America was cheering. Today, the insecurity remains. “If you listen to him, the unity and integrity of the federation is constantly under threat,” the former colleague says.

The man saw something else in the Putin of St. Petersburg – a classic KGB agent who spotted problems, analyzed them and searched for solutions that others could execute. “Never leave fingerprints” seemed to be his modus operandi.

Mr. Putin quickly moved to the city administration, where as vice-mayor he became the city's main fixer. As crime and corruption erupted in post-communist Russia, he also became known as Mr. Clean.

Jeremy Kinsman, who was Canada's ambassador at the time, met Mr. Putin while trying to open a consulate in St Petersburg, and was impressed with how he stood out from the emerging kleptocrats of Boris Yeltsin's Russia.

“He built his reputation up by sheer competence,” Mr. Kinsman remembers. “He worked hard. He cut to the chase. He made people he worked for look good.”

Perhaps it was hard not to look good as this was the Russia that Agent Putin had returned home to: A president who was mocked globally as a drunken buffoon. A liberalized economy that was looted by a gang of instant billionaires, known as the oligarchs. Elections that were rigged. An economy on a downward spiral. A nuclear arsenal up for grabs.

History would, at last, favour Mr. Putin.

When Russia defaulted on its debt, and the ruble collapsed, Mr. Yeltsin had to find a fresh face as prime minister – someone who would both fend off his rivals and give the Kremlin a new look. He reached into shadows for a regional bureaucrat he'd heard might make him look good.

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