The Spy Who Came In From The Crowd

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Putin was always diminutive--today he is only 5 ft. 9 in.--a small, diligent boy who compensated for his size by learning martial arts. He quickly mastered sambo, a Russian style of self-defense, and later switched to judo, which he practices at black-belt status. "It's not just a sport, you know," he told interviewers in the official biography that appeared in Russia last week. "It's a philosophy. It's respect for your elders, for your opponent; there are no weak ones there." And something else: "You must hit first and hit so hard that your opponent will not rise to his feet."

It was the schoolboy Putin too who first conceived of a career in the KGB. Tamara Stelmakova, now 70, still teaches at School 281, the secondary school specializing in chemistry that Volodya attended at 14. She remembers an ordinary boy who stood out mainly for his "beautiful" reports on "political information" in the mandatory Marxist ideology class. Volodya, she recalls, was "always speaking as if he knew what he was talking about," mesmerizing his audience with his smooth delivery. She recalls him as a well-mannered student with poor grades in chemistry, good grades in history and German, and "always an A in discipline."

Putin chose his direction in life, she says, when studying the heroic days of the Leningrad siege. "Intelligence officers were really glorified," says Stelmakova, "in movies, literature, propaganda." Putin fell for the "romance of intelligence service." Putin says he was so keen to join up that he actually went one day--at age 15--to the local KGB headquarters to volunteer. There, a benevolent spook explained that "we don't take people who come to us on their own initiative." His advice: Go to law school.

Putin duly entered Leningrad State University law school in 1970. Classmate Leonid Polokhov, though five years older, befriended Volodya through their shared love of sports. In those days, he says, even though the school was a training ground for apparatchiks, the law faculty had a reputation for mildly progressive thinking. But Putin, he says, "didn't pick up this freethinking spirit."

Throughout his university years, Putin was ever in pursuit of his KGB dream. Judo had made him determined, resolute, hardworking, and he put those talents to work earning solid grades. "If you told him what he had to do, he learned it," says Polokhov. Putin had little time for social life and never joined the sportsmen's friendly drinking. Recalls Polokhov: "I think he was really born to work for the KGB."

In 1975 the coveted invitation came. Alone of his classmates, Putin was recruited to join the Soviet secret police that had marched into Hungary, crushed the Prague Spring, imprisoned dissidents in the Gulag. The service offered a privileged lifestyle and a chance to see the forbidden world of the West. Putin was trained in the ways of the spy and given the perks reserved for the communist elite. He was eventually placed in the First Chief Directorate (foreign intelligence, not dissident surveillance) in Leningrad, and there he seemed stuck for nine years, evidently not the top of his class. Sometime during these years he met his wife Lyudmila--a flight attendant--and they had two daughters, now 14 and 13. He shrouded his work in mystery and loved the secrecy of the job. But finally he complained to Polokhov that his career was going nowhere. "Though I didn't know his exact position," says Polokhov, who was working for the military prosecutor's office, "he let me know he was dissatisfied."

Finally, in 1984, Putin was sent to the KGB Red Banner Academy and Foreign Intelligence School 101 to prepare for service abroad, then posted to East Germany. Few concrete facts have emerged about his career there, and observers disagree about the quality of his service, from brilliant James Bond to third-rate flop. The known outlines--and the way his career ended--suggest something unremarkable. "He was no superspy," admits one of his young Kremlin aides. "His line was political intelligence" aimed at recruiting Western agents. Putin says his work involved ferreting out information on the U.S.S.R.'s political enemies: pressuring East Germans into collecting information in the West, suborning visiting Western scientists and businessmen.

He lived in Dresden, and at least once a camera caught him shopping in West Berlin. But he seems to have spent most of his time as deputy director of the backwater House of German-Soviet Friendship in Leipzig collecting, analyzing and passing on bits of information. He was thought to be close to his counterparts in the East German intelligence service, Stasi, who were notorious for their crude repression, though he claims he "never saw it." He rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel, respectable but hardly stellar.

What may have affected his future most was the spectacle of the Soviet Empire's downfall. In excerpts from his book, he recalls the bunker atmosphere in his offices in East Berlin as the Soviet system came tumbling down. Putin called home to find out what to do. But "Moscow was silent," occupied with its own meltdown. "I felt," he recalls, "that the country no longer existed."

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