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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By 1998 he was elevated to head of the FSB, the Yeltsin-era successor to the KGB. On the day he walked into the headquarters on Dzerzinsky Square, he said, "I'm home at last." But Moscow's top boys regarded the mere lieutenant colonel with disdain, says a former agent: "We considered Putin a little bit too short in stature." He went to work replacing top echelons with St. Petersburg friends and launching an unpopular campaign to cut jobs. Meantime, citizens were troubled by the way Putin's FSB continued to persecute environmental activists and initiated official monitoring of the Internet.

More important to his rise, though, was Putin's unprecedented display of support for his Kremlin boss. When Prosecutor General Yuri Skuratov began investigating alleged Yeltsin-administration corruption, a videotape showing the investigator cavorting in bed with two prostitutes aired on TV. FSB Director Putin declared it to be authentic. Skuratov was suspended and his investigation shelved. Later on, when Yeltsin was facing impeachment, Putin issued an FSB warning that the articles of impeachment contained "significant mistakes of a legal nature."

The world was astonished last Aug. 9 when Yeltsin abruptly fired his fourth Prime Minister in 17 months and named Putin to the job. And, Yeltsin added, Putin was his chosen successor as the man best equipped "to renew the great country, Russia, in the 21st century." Vladimir who? the public laughed.


Russians initially regarded the heir apparent with a mixture of derision and dismay, rating his popularity at a measly 2%. Most considered Yeltsin's blessing the kiss of death for any would-be President. But Putin coolly exploited the greatest opportunity he was ever handed. He says he expected his decision to go to war in Chechnya, made virtually that August day, would ruin his political career. But his cold-blooded prosecution of the war to stamp out Chechen "terrorism" and bring the recalcitrant republic back under Russian control struck a chord among the country's dispirited electorate.

Chechnya had come to symbolize all that troubled the nation--all the failures and humiliations, real and imagined, of the past decade. "A leader must feel the pain of the country," says Sergei Stepashin, the Prime Minister dismissed in Putin's favor when he looked too soft to satisfy Yeltsin's demands. "Putin knew we had no alternative. Otherwise we'd have lost all authority in the country." Suddenly the gray-suited bureaucrat wore tough-guy garb, displaying the iron hand that Russians craved. When Putin coarsely proclaimed that his army would "wipe the terrorists out wherever we find them, even if they are sitting on the toilet," Russians loved it, and his popularity shot up to 60%.

As Acting President since New Year's Eve, when Yeltsin's resignation effectively handed him election victory, Putin has not quailed or faltered in pursuit of victory in Chechnya. When Western officials complain about human-rights abuses, he politely but firmly explains that they do not understand the problem. "Chechnya," says Robert Service, a lecturer at Oxford University and author of an upcoming biography of Lenin, "is the military tip of a general political campaign against the license enjoyed by non-Russian republics to produce a firmly unified political system again."

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