If you think Russian President Vladimir Putin is nothing more than a ruthless thug who relishes political power and personal preening on the world’s stage — he’s got you right where he wants you.
“The ruthless part is quite real, but there is so much more to the truth,” said Marin Katusa, author of the new book The Colder War: How the Energy Trade Slipped from America’s Grasp.
“Putin is not a regular politician like we are used to in the West,” said Katusa, who has long studied Russian politics and Putin. “The narrative of, ‘Make change, try your best, leave office, write a memoir, get paid for speeches’ is of no interest to Putin. He believes his mission is to steer Russia toward its past glory as a global superpower.”
It’s why Americans who view this complicated world leader through a simplified lens do so at their peril, said Katusa. “Putin is less of an ogre [than we think] but far more dangerous than politicians and the media would lead you to believe.”
Here are some other things most people don’t know about Putin:
1. Putin, 62, is divorced from his wife, Lyudmila Putin, 57, a linguist and former flight attendant whom he married in July 1983. “We practically never saw each other. To each his own life,” Putin said when the couple announced their split in 2014.
2. Putin has two daughters, Maria (born in 1985) and Katerina (born in 1986), both rarely seen in public. They reportedly attended German-language secondary schools and St. Petersburg State University. Maria studied biology; Katerina, Asian studies. No official family portrait has ever been published. Putin’s personal life gets almost no attention in Russia. “Average Russians believe in the privacy of their leader,” said Katusa.
3. Then again, many journalists in Putin’s Russia have died horrible, excruciating deaths. “A free press seems to mean pitifully little to [Putin]. You investigate? You report? You die, unavenged,” wrote Peter Preston in The Guardian.
4. Putin was born October 7, 1952, in St. Petersburg, or Leningrad as it was then known. “I come from an ordinary family,” Putin himself has written. “I lived as an average, normal person.” Putin’s mother, Maria, was a factory worker and his father, Vladimir, wounded in World War II, worked as a laborer on train cars. Putin’s older brother died as a child.
5. In the years following the Siege of Leningrad, which nearly killed his mother, the family was forced to move to a vermin-infested communal building. Putin spent hours chasing rats with a stick in the stairwell. Four adults and two children squeezed into a single 200-square-foot room on the fifth floor with no hot water, bathtub or toilet.
6. In the 1930s Putin’s father was drafted into the Soviet Navy, serving on a submarine fleet and later, the front lines against Germany in World War II. Putin has said, “My father had been assigned to a demolitions battalion [and was] engaged in sabotage behind German lines.” In one operation, Putin’s father blew up a munitions depot before the group ran out of food. The Germans ultimately cornered them.
7. “They had almost no chance of surviving,” said Putin. “Only a few people, including my father, managed to break out. Then the chase was on.” Putin said his father jumped into a swamp and “breathed through a hollow reed until the dogs passed by. Only four of 28 men survived.” Returning to combat, Putin’s father nearly had his legs blown off by a German grenade and was disabled the rest of his life.
8. Putin was greatly influenced by his paternal grandfather, Spiridon Ivanovich Putin, a skilled cook who worked for Lenin, then Stalin. “[Putin’s grandfather] managed to outlive the tyrants he fed so well,” writes Katusa in The Colder War. “It required sensitive political instincts and nimble balancing… He passed what he learned to a grandson eager to hear such things.” Spiridon, reportedly trained by the NKVD (the KGB’s predecessor), died when Putin was 13.
9. Putin grew up a troublemaker. “He was a schoolyard punk prone to violence,” says Katusa. A poor student, Putin was even hauled before a neighborhood “comrades’ court” for acts of petty delinquency.
10. At age 12 he started boxing and moved on to judo, karate and sambo, a Soviet martial art. Sports gave Putin a focus and helped him compensate for his slight 5’7” frame.
11. But “even that was not enough for maintaining my status, so to speak, for very long,” Putin has said. “I realized I also needed to study well.” When he – interested by now in the spying life – learned law school was a key entry path for the KGB, his life took a decisive turn.
12. Putin enrolled at Leningrad State University in 1970, earning his law degree five years later. At age 22 he was recruited into the KGB – and for the next 16 years worked as a self-described “specialist in human relations.”
13. Fluent in German and able to pass for Nordic, Putin was posted to Dresden in the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) in 1985 and spent five years undercover. He was promoted several times. “He was expert at reading and manipulating people and was unfazed by violence,” writes Katusa. “These were indispensable qualities for anyone out to make his way to the top of the Russian political pile.”
14. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Putin’s undercover days were over and he returned to university. In his doctoral thesis he argued that Russia’s economic success would ultimately depend on exploiting its energy resources. He entered politics and rose meteorically.
15. In 1999 Boris Yeltsin selected Putin to be prime minister “with prospects.” Putin himself has said, “I thought, If I can do something to help save Russia from falling apart, this would be something to be proud of.” He served two terms as president, returned to the prime minister role but still pulled the levers of power — and is now serving a third term as president despite protests in Moscow. He has said he might want a fourth term.
16. Putin almost always acts militarily from calculation, not reaction. “He carefully weighs the costs and risks of acting against the likely benefit to the homeland… Nevertheless,” warns Katusa ominously, “it is best not to poke him in the eye.”
17. Putin reportedly likes The Beatles. His favorite Beatle is Paul McCartney – and his favorite Beatles tune is “Yesterday.”
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