Putin, Vladimir (b. 1952)

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President of Russia.

Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin's rise to power was aided by little except his own talent and abilities, although his assumption of the presidency was facilitated by the attempt by his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, to find a way of ensuring the continuation of reforms and his personal security. Putin was born into a family of workers in Leningrad (renamed St. Petersburg in 1991) and spent his early years in a communal apartment. Brought up as a street urchin, the young Vladimir displayed leadership qualities from an early age. At school he took a particular interest in history and literature. In sixth grade in 1965 Putin entered the Pioneers, quickly becoming leader of the class group, and entered the Komsomol organization two years later. Having unexpectedly chosen to enter a chemistry secondary school, he completed the last two years and left secondary school in 1970.

After an unsuccessful experiment with boxing, when his nose was broken, Putin took up the martial arts in the late 1960s. In 1973 he became a master at sambo and in 1975 in judo, becoming in 1976 the city champion. Putin traveled throughout the country as part of his team. As he has noted, "It was sport that took me off the street." Putin was a typical product of the Soviet Union of that era, no longer inspired by the ideals of communism but deeply patriotic. The Brezhnev era gradually turned into stagnation, and for Putin the idea of joining the security service (the KGB) appeared a way of serving the country while gaining a profession. Putin was never a dissident, although he was well aware of the failings of the system. He recounts how when in ninth grade (age sixteen) in 1968 he turned up at the reception office of the Leningrad KGB and was told that it did not accept volunteers but took only those who had done military service or graduated from college. It was a rather romantic representation of the work of the security organs that led Putin to the KGB, and even his parents had no idea about the visit.

In 1970 at the age of seventeen Putin managed to win a place in the highly competitive Law Faculty of Leningrad State University. In his fourth year at university the KGB invited Putin "to work in the agencies." He joined the KGB in the summer of 1975, training for a year before joining the First Department, monitoring foreigners and consular officials in Leningrad. As a KGB operative he also had to join the Communist Party (CPSU). In 1983 Putin married Lyudmila Shkrebneva, born in Kaliningrad in 1958. The Putins' two daughters, Maria (b. 1985) and Yekaterina (b. 1986), were named after their grandmothers. In August 1985 Putin was posted to the KGB office in Dresden. He had an undistinguished career in East Germany, working in "political intelligence" to recruit agents to be trained in "wireless communications," although Putin has insisted that his post involved political work rather than technical intelligence gathering. Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms in the USSR exposed Erich Honecker's hard-line regime in East Germany and the USSR stood by as Honecker fell in November 1989.

Putin returned to the Soviet Union in February 1990 faced with serious choices about his life path. He planned to study international law at Leningrad State University, but after a brief period there he joined the administration of the Leningrad mayor, Anatoly Sobchak (a former law professor), as head of the city committee for foreign economic relations. Putin resigned from the KGB with the rank of lieutenant colonel on 20 August 1991, the second day of the attempted coup launched against Gorbachev's reform communism by hard-line conservatives. During the coup Putin managed to reach an agreement with the Leningrad KGB that they would maintain their neutrality, and as a reward Sobchak subsequently appointed him one of three mayoral deputies. With the dissolution of the old order Putin's membership in the CPSU simply lapsed. Revealing strong administrative talents and loyalty he rose rapidly, and from March 1994 to 1996 he was first deputy mayor overseeing the law enforcement agencies and the media. Putin loyally stood by Sobchak as the latter revealed an inability to build consensus and was voted out of office in 1996.

Again Putin was faced with a career choice. He resigned from the city administration and entered the St. Petersburg Mining Institute, where he wrote a candidate dissertation. In June 1996 he entered the presidential administration in Moscow, at first as head of the general affairs department but thereafter rising rapidly: on 26 March 1997 he was appointed a deputy to the head of the presidential administration and head of the Main Control Administration (GKU). On 25 May 1998 he was appointed first deputy chief of staff responsible for relations with the regions, where he became acquainted with the situation in the country and headed the presidential commission drafting treaties on the division of responsibilities between the center and the regions. On 25 July 1998 he returned to the FSB (the Federal Security Service, successor to the KGB) as head, a job that he took on reluctantly. On 29 March of the following year he was given the additional post of secretary to the Security Council and thus became one of the most powerful men in Russia.

Meanwhile Yeltsin had been looking for an appropriate successor, and after a number of false starts he decided on Putin, observing his character traits, notably loyalty and single-mindedness. On 9 August 1999 Putin was appointed prime minister, only to be engulfed by a new crisis: the Chechen invasions of Dagestan and the apartment block bombings in Moscow and elsewhere. By the time that he assumed the presidency in late December he had gained considerable administrative, educational, and personal experience. On 26 March 2000 he won the presidency in the first round, and on 14 March 2004 he gained a second term following years of extraordinary popularity.

As leader Putin was a marked contrast to Yeltsin, fit and healthy, with a careful approach to policy making. His leadership was overshadowed by the second Chechen war, launched as a response to the invasions of Dagestan. The occupation of the republic was marked by atrocities on both sides, and Putin's attempt to "Chechenize" the conflict by appointing a former insurgent, Akhmad Kadyrov, as president was derailed by the latter's death in a bomb blast on 9 May 2004. Putin's second term was dominated by the problem of terrorism. He also clipped the wings of the oligarchs, insisting that business leaders should not stray onto the field of politics. As for the regions, Putin sought to reestablish the authority of the federal center through a reform of the Federation Council and ensuring regional compliance with federal laws and norms. In the economy Putin continued Yeltsin's push toward a market economy and international economic integration, above all by joining the World Trade Organization (WTO). However, to achieve this Putin reduced political pluralism and through a variety of administrative measures ensured a State Duma compliant to his will. Too often it appeared that Putin sought to achieve post-Soviet goals through neo-Soviet methods. In foreign policy Putin pursued a strongly pro-Western and Europe-centered policy. Putin was the first world leader to send a message of condolence and support to President George W. Bush following the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States and made Russia part of the "coalition of the willing" in the war against terrorism. Relations with the European Union and individual European states became closer than ever before. Russia under Putin made a decisive civilizational choice in favor of Western-style modernization, but the technocratic-bureaucratic style in which this was achieved undermined the pluralism and democracy that has been characteristic of the West.

See alsoChechnya; Gorbachev, Mikhail; Russia; Soviet Union; Yeltsin, Boris.


Primary Sources

Putin, Vladimir. First Person: An Astonishingly Frank Self-Portrait by Russia's President Vladimir Putin. London, 2000.

Secondary Sources

Black, J. L. Vladimir Putin and the New World Order: Looking East, Looking West? Lanham, Md., 2003.

Herspring, Dale R., ed. Putin's Russia: Past Imperfect, Future Uncertain. Boulder, Colo., 2003.

Jack, Andrew. Inside Putin's Russia. London, 2004.

Kuchins, Andrew, ed. Russia after the Fall. Washington, D.C., 2002.

Lo, Bobo. Vladimir Putin and the Evolution of Russian Foreign Policy. Oxford, U.K., 2003.

Sakwa, Richard. Putin: Russia's Choice. London and New York, 2004.

Shevtsova, Lilia. Putin's Russia. Washington, D.C., 2003.

Truscott, Peter. Putin's Progress. London, 2004.

Richard Sakwa