Vladimir Putin's Extraordinary Path From Soviet Slums To The World Stage

Vladimir Putin may be the wild card in world affairs right now, but he didn’t gain that influence overnight.

The Russian President’s ascension to power is filled with spies, armed conflicts, oligarchs, oil and (of course) judo.

So here’s how a onetime “nobody” climbed up the ranks to become the “World’s Most Powerful Person.”

Vladimir Putin was born in Leningrad on Oct. 7, 1952.

vladimir putin as a little boy

Putin, Age 4. (Photo: Wikimedia)

Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin is the only child of a decorated war veteran and factory worker in the slums of Leningrad. He grew up in a Soviet Union styled communal apartment with two other families — as was typical at the time.

Source: Encyclopedia, TIME

As a teen Putin worked at his school’s radio station, where he reportedly played music by the Beatles and other Western rock bands.

the beatles

Photo: Wikimedia

The photographer Platon — who took Putin’s infamous Time Magazine cover in 2007 — said that Paul is Putin’s favorite Beatle, and “Yesterday” is his favorite song.

However, “by [Putin’s] own account, his favorite songs are Soviet standards, not Western rock. He has been deeply conservative his whole life,” Karen Dawisha wrote in her new book, “Putin’s Kleptocracy.”

Source: Encyclopedia

Early on in life, Putin got into judo. He was his university’s judo champion in 1974.

vladimir putin judop

Photo: Jedimentat44/Flickr

Former deputy finance minister and first deputy chairman of the Central Bank Sergey Alaksashenko believes that Putin’s love of judo says something about his foreign policy.

“Unlike chess, a judo fighter should not wait for the opponent’s move. His strategy is to wait until he gets a chance to execute a single quick move — and then take a step back. Successful judo fighters must anticipate their opponents’ actions, make a decisive, preemptive move and try to disable them,” he wrote in the Moscow Times.

Source: Encyclopedia

He also really loved spy novels and TV shows — especially one about a Soviet double agent.

Fictional character Stierlitz, the double-spy, portrayed by Vyacheslav Tikhonov.

Fictional character Stierlitz, the double-spy, portrayed by Vyacheslav Tikhonov. (Photo: Wikimedia)

Putin reportedly loved the popular 1960s book series turned TV series “17 Moments of Spring” starring the Soviet double-agent Max Otto von Stierlitz (né Vsevolod Vladimirovich Vladimirov) who rose up the ranks into Nazi elite during World War II.

Putin said about the series: “What amazed me most of all was how one man’s effort could achieve what whole armies could not.”

Source: Putin: Russia’s Choice 

And in a moment of life imitating art, in 1985 the KGB sent Putin to Dresden, East Germany where he lived undercover as a “Mr. Adamov.”

former kgb prison

A former KGB prison in Potsdam. (Photo: Wikimedia)

Reportedly, Putin mastered the German language so well that he could imitate regional dialects. Unlike most KGB agents, Putin liked hanging out with Germans. He was particularly fond of the “German discipline.”

But how exactly Putin spent his time in East Germany is relatively unknown. According to the Kremlin, he was awarded the bronze medal “For Faithful Service to the National People’s Army.”

Source: Newsweek

In 1989 the Berlin wall fell, and within a year Putin was back in Leningrad where he took a job under the first democratic mayor of Leningrad, Anatoly Sobchak (who was Putin’s former law professor.)

The Berlin Wall at the Brandenburg Gate.

The Berlin Wall at the Brandenburg Gate. (Photo: Wikimedia)

By 1991, Putin officially resigned from the KGB’s active reserve.

Sobchak took his former student with him into office, and thus Putin began a life in public government work.

Source: Kremlin

There’s a group of St. Petersburg democrats who believe that Putin was assigned to the mayor’s office by the KGB … but there is no definitive proof.

Anatoly Sobchak, standing.

Anatoly Sobchak, standing. (Photo: Wikimedia)

For the most part, people didn’t really care either way because they knew that they “were under surveillance” in general at the time, according to Newsweek.

Publically, Putin has never tried to deny his involvement with the KGB.

Source: Newsweek

While working under the Leningrad mayor, Putin earned the nickname “Gray Cardinal” and was “the man to see if things needed to get done.”

cardinal bird

Photo: Wikimedia

Putin was always behind the scenes and kept a low profile. Reportedly, he was “the man to see if things needed to get done” and “Sobchak’s indispensable man.”

Source: Barbarians of Wealth: Protecting Yourself from Today’s Financial Attilas

Additionally, Putin was once investigated for “allegations of favoritism in granting import and export licenses.”

Vladimir Putin Business

Photo: World Economic Forum/Flickr

… but the case was dismissed pretty quickly “due to lack of evidence.”

Back in the early 1990s, Putin was in charge of a deal where $100 million worth of raw materials would be exported in exchange for food for the citizens of St. Petersburg. Although the materials were exported, the St. Petersburg citizens never got the food.

Reportedly, Putin was the one who signed off on the deal — but the Kremlin denies this.

Source: Barbarians of Wealth: Protecting Yourself from Today’s Financial Attilas

When Sobchak lost the re-election for mayor, the victor offered Putin a job. However, Putin turned it down saying: “It’s better to be hanged for loyalty than be rewarded for betrayal.”

Putin and Yakovlev

Putin and Yakovlev meeting again in the future, 2000. (Photo: Wikimedia)

Putin was the campaign manager for Sobchak’s re-election. Vladimir Yakovlev, who had the support of the powerful Moscow mayor, ran against Sobchak and won. He offered Putin a gig in his office, but Putin declined it.

Source: Newsweek

Next up: the big leagues. In 1996 Putin and his family relocated to Moscow, where he quickly climbed up the ladder and became the head of the FSB.

vladimir putin as the fsb director

Putin as the FSB director, dated January 1, 1998. (Photo: Wikimedia)

Putin held a variety jobs in Moscow from 1996 to 1999, eventually ending up as the head of the FSB (aka the KGB’s successor.)

“In July 1998, Yeltsin named Putin head of the FSB, the successor agency to the KGB. It was a job the president would have given only to the most trusted of aides,” according to Newsweek.

Source: Kremlin

Interestingly, Putin isn’t particularly fond of Moscow. He considers it to be “a European city.”

Moscow, Russia

Photo: Wikimedia

utin has said about the Russian capital: “I can’t say that I didn’t love Moscow. I just loved St. Petersburg more. But Moscow, it’s completely obvious — it’s a European city.”

Source: Kremlin

 

And on top of his rapid career growth, Putin allegedly still found time to defend his economics thesis.

St Petersburg Mining Institute.

St Petersburg Mining Institute. (Photo: Wikimedia)

“Despite the workload, in 1997 he defended his Ph.D thesis in economics in the St. Petersburg State Mining Institute,” according to the Kremlin.

However, Putin’s economics expertise has been called into question.

The man who used to be the “Kremlin’s Banker,” Sergei Pugachev, said: “Vladimir Putin does not understand economics. He does not like it. It is dry. It’s boring to hear these reports, to read them.”

Source: Kremlin

In August 1999, President Boris Yeltsin appointed Putin the prime minister. One month later, Putin’s popularity rating was at 2%.

Boris Yeltsin, then-president and Putin, then-prime minister, in December 1999.

Boris Yeltsin, then-president and Putin, then-prime minister, in December 1999. (Photo: Wikimedia)

Putin was the fifth Prime Minister in less than two years, and nobody believed Yeltsin when he declared Putin as his successor.

In fact, everyone was expecting Yevgeny Primakov to be the next president because he had a more impressive career and was a “friend of everyone from Madeleine Albright to Saddam Hussein.”

Source: Newsweek

And then — seemingly out of nowhere — Yelstin stepped down as president and named Putin the acting president on New Year’s in 1999.

Boris Yeltsin being awarded the Order of Merit for the Fatherland 1st Class, 2001

Boris Yeltsin being awarded the Order of Merit for the Fatherland 1st Class, 2001. (Photo: Wikimedia)

Many people believed that Yeltsin propelled Putin to presidency in order to protect himself: The war in Chechnya was starting to curdle, and his ratings were starting to drop.

Interestingly, one of Putin’s first moves was to pardon Yeltsin “immunity from criminal or administrative investigations, including protection of his papers, residence and other possessions from search and seizure.”

Source: New York Times

In his first speech as acting president, Putin promised freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, freedom of the press, the right to private property …

vladimir first speech as acting president

Putin’s first public speech as Russia’s Acting President, December 31,1999. (Photo: YouTube)

The exact quote from his speech is:

“I want to warn that by any attempts to go beyond the Russian laws, beyond the Constitution of Russia, will be strongly suppressed. Freedom of speech. Freedom of conscience. Freedom of mass media. Property rights. These basic principles of the civilized society will be safe under the protection of the state.

You can watch the whole speech here on YouTube.

During his first presidential term, Putin focused primarily on domestic affairs. He had two items on the agenda: the war with Chechnya and the Yeltsin-era oligarchs.

Alexei Makhotin and vladimir putin

Alexei Makhotin, an internal service colonel who fought in Chechnya, being given the title the title of Hero of Russia at a state award ceremony. (Photo: Wikimedia)

Putin inherited Russia during a particularly complicated time. The country was in the midst of a conflict with Chechnya — a region that’s officially considered a Russian subject.

Additionally, Yeltsin-era oligarchs were increasingly interested in expanding their political influence.

Source: The Guardian

Putin recognized that the Yeltsin-era oligarchs had the potential to be more powerful than him … so he struck a deal with them.

Boris Berezovsky

Boris Berezovsky. (Photo: AJ Berezovsky/Flickr)

“In July of [2000], Putin told the oligarchs that he would not interfere with their businesses or renationalize state resources as long as they stayed out of politics — that is, as long as they did not challenge or criticize the president,” according to the Council on Foreign Relations.

Source: The Council on Foreign RelationsThe Guardian.

And then Putin established his reputation as a “man of action” with his handling of the Second Chechen War.

A farewell ceremony for the 331st Airborne Regiment of the 98th Airborne Division withdrawn from Chechnya.

A farewell ceremony for the 331st Airborne Regiment of the 98th Airborne Division withdrawn from Chechnya. (Photo: Wikimedia)

In 2002, a Moscow theatre was seized by 40 Chechen militants, who were led by the warlord Movsar Barayev, and 129 out of the 912 hostages died during this three-day ordeal.

This was a critical moment for Putin, and many expected his domestic approval to plummet. But his “ruthless handling of the siege and his refusal to negotiate with the hostage-takers further shored up his reputation as a man of action.”

His approval rating was up at 83% after it was all over.

Source: BBC

In 2004, Putin was re-elected for a second term. He continued to focus on domestic affairs, but drew major criticisms for his crackdowns on the media.

vladimir putin giving speech in russia

Photo: Wikimedia

Journalist Anna Politkovskaya was murdered in her apartment lobby after she wrote about corruption in the Russian army with respect to Chechnya. Many in the Western media criticized Putin for failing to protect the media.

Those accused of the murder “testified that Akhmed Zakayev and Boris Berezovksy (one of the Yeltsin-era oligarchs) could be the clients, who ordered the murder of Anna Politkovskaya,” according to TASS.

Source: Independent

But overall, Putin was well-liked. During his first two terms, the Russian economy grew at an incredible rate.

The Russian economy since the fall of the Soviet Union

The Russian economy since the fall of the Soviet Union. (Photo: Wikimedia)

During Putin’s first two terms, Russia’s GDP went up 70%, and investments went up by 125%.

“Russia’s GDP in 2007 reached the 1990 level, which means that the country has overcome the consequences of the economic crisis that devastated the 1990s,” following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

But Putin’s Russia was really lucky in that the country largely relied on oil. (The recent drop in oil prices reflects how much of a difference it makes.)

Source: Sputnik News

In 2008, Dmitry Medvedev was elected president. One day later, he made Putin the new Prime Minister … And then Russia got clobbered by the financial crisis.

Medvedev and Merkel in 2008

Medvedev and Merkel in 2008. (Photo: Wikimedia)

When the global financial crisis hit, things got really got bad. The Russian economy was slammed particularly hard because it relied heavily on Western investment.

Additionally, the financial crisis really showed just how dependent the Russian economy is on oil and gas, and how intertwined the industry was with the country’s political economy, according to the Brookings Institute.

Source: Brookings Institute

In that same year, Russia got involved in a five-day international conflict — the Russo-Georgian War.

Border between Russia and Georgia

Border between Russia and Georgia. (Photo: Wikimedia)

The Russo-Georgia conflict involving Russia, Georgia, and the two regions South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The two regions have been trying to get formal independence since the 1990s — Russia recognizes the independence, which has been condemned by Western nations.

“After the 2008 conflict, Moscow declared that it would formally recognize the independence of both South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russia’s allies Nicaragua and Venezuela followed suit, as did a number of small Pacific island states,” according to the BBC.

Internationally, South Ossetia is still considered to be “officially part of Georgia.” And Georgia considers Abkhazia to be a “breakaway region.”

Source: BBC

Fast forward to 2012: Putin wins his third presidential election with 63.6% of the vote. (This one’s a six-year term, rather than four.)

Putin's 2012 inauguration

Putin’s 2012 inauguration. (Photo: Wikimedia)

There was some controversy over this election. The constitutionality of his third term was called into question, and critics believed that there was electoral fraud.

However, officially, Putin registered nearly 64% of the vote.

Source: The Guardian

Two years later, in March 2014, Putin annexed Crimea in one of the most complicated and controversial geopolitical moves of the year.

Ceremony signing the laws on admitting Crimea and Sevastopol to Russia, 21 March 2014.

Ceremony signing the laws on admitting Crimea and Sevastopol to Russia, 21 March 2014. (Photo: Wikimedia)

The ousted Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych “sent a letter to” Putin “requesting that he use Russia’s military to restore law and order in Ukraine.”

The Russian Parliament granted Putin “broad authority to use military force in response to the political upheaval in Ukraine that dislodged a Kremlin ally and installed a new, staunchly pro-Western government, the Ukrainian government in Kiev threatened war if Russia sent troops further into Ukraine,” reported The New York Times.

On March 2, Russia took complete control of Crimea, and on March 16, an “overwhelming majority” of Crimeans voted to secede from Ukraine and join Russia.

Source: NBC News

Most recently, Putin has started exploring a relationship with China — mostly because Russia needs other trading partners following the Western sanctions.

vladimir putin in china

Photo: Wikimedia

Russia has a deal to build a $70 billion gas pipeline with China. The two nations are also considering building “a high-speed rail line thousands of kilometers from Moscow to Beijing.”

“Isolated over Ukraine, Russia is relying on China for the investment it needs to avert a recession,” three people involved in policy planning told Bloomberg.

Source: Bloomberg News

No one’s quite sure what Putin’s next move will be, but since he’s considering a fourth term, we may be seeing much more from him until at least 2024 …

vladimir putin

Photo: Wikimedia

Back when Putin was a deputy mayor in St. Petersburg, his inner circle cronies referred to him as “Boss.” Today, they refer to him as “Tsar,” and Forbes just named him the most powerful person in 2014.

And there’s no telling what people will call him next.

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This article originally appeared at Business Insider Defense Copyright 2015. Follow BI Defense on Twitter.

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