The Spy Who Came In From The Crowd

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He is so colorless, so ordinary a man you could not pick him out of a crowd. Prying eyes would slide right by the slight, spare figure with the bland, expressionless face. The perfect anonymity of a spy. He built a career on being a nonentity, the man you can't know, operating in the twilight world of cold war espionage, where power lies with the man who is a mystery to all but himself.

Now Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin has been catapulted from the shadows into the most public of positions: President of all Russia. He is about to inherit constitutional powers akin to a Czar's in what is called an election but amounts to a coronation. But make no mistake: this was not a fair fight. Putin was handpicked for this handover by a tiny cabal in the Kremlin, little different from the ways of the old Soviet Central Committee. Boris Yeltsin and his cronies needed a successor loyal enough to give them the guarantee they craved of immunity from prosecution and strong enough to make it stick. It could have been anyone. Putin happened to have the right qualities in the right place at the right time.

Putin was lucky, but he also made his luck. Look at his eyes. Blue as steel. Cold as the Siberian ice. They bore into you, but you cannot penetrate them. Sometimes they're a mirror, reflecting what you want to see. Sometimes they're a mask disguising real intentions. Those eyes are Putin's strongest feature--not counting his unflinching will. He has proved a consummate opportunist, riding into office on loyalty to his bosses and then war fervor. President Putin will succeed where predecessors failed, says Chief of Staff and confidant Dmitri Kozak, "because the will is there. Discipline and will."

Should we be afraid? He has done some things (like fighting a bloodbath war in Chechnya) and said some things (like his talk of a strong state) that give pause. He has said other things, about economic reform and democratic liberties, that encourage. He has deliberately left a great deal ambiguous. He has used the brief official campaign not as an occasion for exposure but as a careful exercise in saying the right things to the right people. Putin, say those who have followed his rise, has always been extremely good at that.

Everyone agrees on some other things about Putin. He is polite, meticulous, efficient. He is focused, intense, decisive. He likes systems; he loves order. The universal applied adjective is pragmatic. He is very smart and very, very disciplined. Russian citizens have embraced him as the anti-Yeltsin: tough, sober, sensible. Being an unknown gave him an advantage; he has tailored his appeal to be all things to all people. The Russian longing for a strong hand is perfectly matched by Putin's willingness to wield one.

The main act of his rule so far, the war in Chechnya, has shown that he is a ruthless practitioner of power. That is the self-evident message of the vicious war. Having put his hand to what he calls "my mission, my historic mission... to sort out the situation in the North Caucasus," Putin has not flinched under mounting casualties or criticism. Says a British Foreign Office analyst: "He's a hard-nosed, unsentimental individual who takes very, very tough decisions and pursues them with complete ruthlessness."

So what will this can-do guy do with the near authoritarian power invested in Russia's President by its constitution? He has always been the competent staff officer, the universal soldier supremely faithful to his bosses at the time--whether they were Soviet hard boys at the KGB, reforming zealots in St. Petersburg or the corrupt and failing Yeltsin regime. Now he will be giving the orders. "We do not know enough of him, and he does not know enough of himself," says Dimitri Simes, president of Washington's Nixon Center, "to know how he will evolve on the job." That's what makes some people so hopeful--and others so nervous.

Vladimir Who? the Rise of a Disciplined Romantic
Many politicians come to high office relatively unknown: look at the long history of surprising American Presidents in this century alone, from Truman to Clinton. And biography is not necessarily destiny. But bits and pieces of biography are almost all we have to assess Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.

Born in 1952, toward the end of the cruel Stalin years, to a lower-class family, Putin was the child of a religious mother who survived the siege of Leningrad and a faithful Communist Party father invalided out of the army with multiple shrapnel wounds. He was a late child, born when his mother was 41 years old. His two brothers died young, one shortly after birth, the other of diphtheria during World War II. Although Vladimir Sr. was party secretary at the train-car factory where he worked, Volodya's mother had him secretly baptized in the Russian Orthodox faith. He grew up in one of the Soviet Union's cramped communal apartments, with no hot water, a frigid common toilet, plenty of kitchen quarrels and the occasional rat.

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