The Spy Who Came In From The Crowd

An up-close profile of the former KGB agent who rules the Kremlin and is intent on making the world respect Russia again

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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.


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.

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."

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