This is Vladimir Putin. He’s Russia’s president.
Since 1999, he has been either Russia’s President or Prime Minister
Many people are familiar with his photo ops
…which sometimes involve animals…
Here, Putin admires a tiger he shot with a tranquilizer gun.
There was even a hit song in Russia called “A Man Like Putin”
Its lyrics include:
I want a man like Putin, who’s full of strength.
I want a man like Putin, who doesn’t drink.
I want a man like Putin, who won’t make me sad.
But he’s more than just a series of staged photos and pop culture tidbits.
He is, in many ways, driving America’s national conversation.
From Snowden’s asylum to the Sochi 2014 Olympics, and from Pussy Riot’s prison sentences to the anti-LGBT crackdown, Russia is front and center in global news in a way it hasn’t really been since the end of the Cold War.
But aside from these US-related issues, how much do you really know about Putin? Here’s a primer:
1. Putin was raised in post-war Leningrad, which some say gave him a “survivalist” mentality
Putin grew up in post-war Leningrad, a city that survived an 872 day siege by Nazi forces that killed more than 1 million Red Army troops and 1 million Russian civilians. According to his official biography, he grew up in humble circumstances, and from an early age, he studied martial arts and aspired to join the KGB.
Some experts believe that these formative years gave Putin a “survivalist” mentality that is shared by many who grew up in post-war Russia.
He worked his way up from his humble origins, graduating from Leningrad State University
He graduated from the law department of Leningrad State in 1975, writing his final thesis on international law.
2. Shortly after graduating, he joined the KGB
While in the KGB, Putin was described as “professionally nondescript,” a useful trait in intelligence work.
Leningrad’s KGB operation wasn’t known as an exciting place
Initially, he worked for the KGB out of Leningrad. In 2000,The Wilson Quarterly noted that the Leningrad outpost wasn’t known as a desirable station:
According to former KGB spy Oleg Kalugin, who was banished to Leningrad in 1980 by disapproving superiors, the local office was a backwater. As he recalled in his 1994 memoir, “Our 3,000-person KGB office in Leningrad continued to harass dissidents and ordinary citizens, as well as to hunt futilely for spies. But I can truly say that nearly all of what we did was useless. … In the twenty years before my arrival in Leningrad, the local KGB hadn’t caught one spy, despite the expenditure of millions of rubles and tens of thousands of man-hours.” As a low-level cog in this machine of repression and deceit, Putin, as Kalugin has since put it, was a “nobody.”
After about five years in Leningrad, Putin attended Yuri Andropov’s intelligence school in Moscow, where he trained for his next assignment: East Germany.
3. Putin was stationed in East Germany from 1985-1990.
He was in East Germany for the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the subsequent collapse of the East German government.
After East Germany fell, Putin returned to Leningrad, where he worked for his alma mater, Leningrad State, and maintained surveillance on the student body.
Which means that Putin wasn’t in Russia for perestroika and the liberalization of the USSR
Perestroika was a restructuring and reformation of the Soviet political system under Mikhail Gorbachev. Putin was a KGB officer stationed in Dresden in East Germany while it was happening.
Putin’s East Germany years are important because they means he watched the liberalization of Russian society and the final days of the Soviet Union from abroad, while at the same time seeing first-hand the disparate economic situations in East and West Germany.
4. After resigning from the KGB, he returned to Leningrad
He worked for a time at St. Petersburg State University, then joined the administration of Anatoly Sobchak, mayor of Leningrad.
His first job was promoting international investments in the city, and Putin was eventually appointed deputy head of the city administration.
And in 1996, he moved to Moscow to work for President Boris Yeltsin
After Mayor Sobchak lost a re-election bid in 1996, Putin moved from Leningrad to Moscow to work for the Yeltsin administration.
It was during this time he completed his doctoral dissertation, promoting the idea of “national champions” as key to Russia’s economic development. Some experts have accused Putin of plagiarism in his dissertation.
It went well, and in 1998, he was appointed to head the FSB, the successor agency to the KGB.
5. By then, Russia’s politics were in turmoil, and in 1999, Putin became Russia’s 5th Prime Minister in 18 months
In 1999, Putin rose from First Deputy Prime Minister to Prime Minister in less than a month.
He was the fifth person to hold the post in less than 18 months.
One reason he was popular: Putin exuded an aura of calm and control
Putin’s rise to power coincided with a flare-up of conflict in the Caucasus, in Chechnya and Dagestan.
Perhaps his most famous quote from this time period was his promise to follow the terrorists and “whack them, even in the outhouse.” It gave Putin an aura of law and order, and strength.
This was at a time when Russians were increasingly tired of the old, infirm, and frequently intoxicated Boris Yeltsin
6. On the last day of 1999, Yeltsin unexpectedly resigned and Putin became acting President
At noon Moscow time, a taped message from President Yeltsin was aired:
“Today, on the last day of the outgoing century, I am retiring. Many times I have heard it said: Yeltsin will try to hold on to power by any means, he won’t hand it over to anyone. That is all lies. That is not the case. …
A new generation is taking my place, the generation of those who can do more and do it better. In accordance with the constitution, as I go into retirement, I have signed a decree entrusting the duties of the president of Russia to Prime Minister Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.”
When Putin was elected President in 2000, it was the first time he ever held an elected office
After Yeltsin’s resignation, Russia’s presidential elections were moved up from June to March, and Putin won in the first round with 53 percent of the vote.
7. As President, Putin started recentralizing power into the head of state instead of Russia’s wealthy elite
The new Russian “oligarchs,” individuals who amassed great wealth in the 1990s, often through questionable means and state corruption, were told to keep earning money but to stay out of politics.
… including Russia’s richest man at the time, who was arrested and forced into bankruptcy
Russia’s richest man at the time, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was arrested for tax evasion and his company forced into bankruptcy and essentially renationalized when he failed to curtail his political activity.
The remaining oligarchs quickly fell into line.
8. During his first term, the U.S. became concerned by what they saw as Putin’s return to USSR-style governance
In fact, Colin Powell wrote an op-ed for a Russian newspaper in 2004 saying as much. Full op-ed here.
This trend continued in other ways, too:
He brought national media (especially TV) under state control, or the control of political allies
Putin ended the direct election of regional governors in Russia
Putin introducing a system of direct appointment of the governors of Russia’s various regions.
These and other steps are characterized as the construction of a “power vertical,” in which the presidential apparatus increased the scope of its control over political decisions in Russia.
He even changed Russia’s national anthem back to the melody of the USSR’s anthem
Which some saw as a symbol of things to come during his time in office – a return to the old Soviet era.
And in 2005, he called the USSR’s collapse the “greatest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century.”
First and foremost it is worth acknowledging that the demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.
9. When he was running the first time, he said he’d only serve two terms
…which makes sense, because Russia’s Constitution says you can’t serve more than two consecutive terms
But that’s not quite what ended up happening.
As we will explain here.
And supported his protege, Dmitry Medvedev, as his successor
Medvedev then appointed Putin as his Prime Minister
Questions persisted over who had the real power in Russia.
The rules were soon amended so that the President’s term would now be 6 years long
Then, in 2011, Medvedev announced he would step aside so that Putin could run for President in 2012
President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin flipped; Putin became President again, and Medvedev became his Prime Minister.
…triggering a sense of outrage from many Russians, who believed the system was rigged
Russia’s parliamentary elections in December 2011 drew tens of thousands out into the streets of Moscow and other Russian cities, protesting electoral fraud.
Putin and his advisors were alarmed by the protests, fearing the potential for a “color revolution” in Russia similar to ones that had previously overturned other governments in Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan.
Nevertheless, Putin rolled into a 3rd term with a reported 63.6% of the vote
10. Putin’s third term has been more of a balancing act
Recent polls have his approval in the low 60s – which is healthy, but not as good as his once-soaring numbers. Russia expert William Pomeranz suggests that “more disconcerting for Putin is the decreasing amount of people who trust him (48 percent) and the significant number of individuals who do not believe that he will fulfill his election promises (34 percent).”
Putin used to serve as a unifying figure in Russia. That’s not as easy anymore.
“So instead of seeing the nation in idealistic, nationalistic terms, Russians increasingly see the state in its most public form as an inefficient, bloated and corrupt bureaucracy,” writes Pomeranz.
But for those who think Putin can simply be ignored, consider this…
He could run for another term in 2018. Which would mean he’d be in power until 2024.
When he will be 72.
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