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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Intellectual Russians, among the few citizens who oppose the war, see it as the ominous sign of an authoritarian temperament prepared to enforce "order" at the expense of "law." Some even charge him with completely inhumane cynicism, allegedly plotting the bombings that provided the outraged casus belli. No one so far has been able to prove it.


What does a man embrace from so varied a set of masters? In the KGB, says Stepashin, who also served a stint running its successor agency, you learn some useful presidential habits. Speak less, listen more. Don't form hasty conclusions. If you decide, decide. Calculate your responses. Don't betray your own. Putin, he says, "applies these principles to life in general." But a dedicated ex-agent admits that the system drills in some less positive unwritten rules. Don't say anything you don't need to say. Be underestimated. Putin, says this former spy, "will apply the same code of behavior to representing his country."

Those 15 years in the KGB did give Putin rare exposure to the outside world. "Compared to the boneheads in internal repression, he had to be relatively open minded," says a British diplomat. But many Russians still fear the way such a sinister organization twists minds. Putin rehung the plaque of Yuri Andropov at KGB headquarters, and always stoutly defends the organization and his service in it. "Their system of education is so strong that there is no such thing as a former KGB agent," says former army Colonel Viktor Baranets. Today, Putin has surrounded himself with many old spy mates. Says a senior U.S. diplomat who has met Putin: "There is a real danger his software is heavily programmed with a reliance on power. He may be deep rooted in traditions that represent the worst of the Russian past."

Optimists pin their hopes on Putin's experiences in St. Petersburg. He became intimate with Russia's leading reformers and has also gathered many of them around him in Moscow. He learned the rudiments of free-market economics. He witnessed the dimensions of Russia's failure, understanding that the country needed a strong economy if it hoped to be a strong nation again--and that joining global capitalism would be the only solution. "I know," emphasizes First Deputy Finance Minister Kudrin, "that he is a proponent of continued reform."

Putin has made no secret that while Russia needs a functioning market economy, the state must play a role in initiating the reforms that will make that happen. His is a very paternalistic brand of capitalism. "He knows he needs Western mechanisms," says Keith Bush, director of the Russia and Eurasia program at CSIS in Washington. "But he wants to make sure these mechanisms are thoroughly supervised."

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