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The Sunday Times (UK)
June 22, 2003
Profile: Vladimir Putin
Juvenile delinquent with a will to power

As a teenager, Vladimir Putin once impressed his friends by hanging upside-down from the balcony railings of his parents rat-infested flat in Leningrad. The flat was on the fourth floor, but the dare-devil climbed out on the ledge and dangled there to win a bet.

Whatever the temptation, the made-over Russian president can be counted on to avoid the Buckingham Palace balconies when he meets the Queen this week. There was no such confidence in his predecessor, the perpendicularly challenged Boris Yeltsin, which is probably why the royal carpet always passed him by.

Is Putin an old-style autocrat in sheeps clothing or a good democrat? It is hard to credit that the enigmatic president, the first Russian leader to pay an official state visit to Britain since 1874, was barely four years ago serving as Yeltsins fifth prime minister, with a derisory approval rating of 2%.

The former KGB apparatchik now basks in popularity rates that seldom dip below 70%, thanks in part to a team of spin doctors and his grip on the media. His 50th birthday in October was celebrated with apparent mass hysteria, accompanied by such memorabilia as Putin vodka, Putin carpets, Putin watches and even a frost-resistant Putin tomato.

Abroad, too, he is a respected figure, having emerged from the Iraq crisis with none of the scorn meted out by America to his French and German counterparts, despite having sided with them in opposing the invasion. (Putin also nearly scuppered a fence-mending exercise with Tony Blair at a press conference on April 29, when he mocked the coalitions failure to find Saddam Hussein or any weapons of mass destruction.) Yet when Putin dines at a banquet in Londons Guidhall, where Tsar Alexander II was similarly honoured 129 years ago, it will effectively crown the Russian leaders efforts at self-rehabilitation that began last month when he hosted world leaders in his native St Petersburg.

The once maladroit politician now revels in such opulent occasions. His flinty grey-blue eyes show warmth; his diminutive frame, bulked up through judo and swimming, displays relaxed confidence; his sharp suits and leather jackets have been replaced by a more casual style.

The visit also seals his bond with Blair, to whom the Russian owes a debt of gratitude. In a remarkable endorsement of the almost unknown politician, Blair visited Putin two weeks before the presidential election in 2000 at the height of the bombing campaign in Moscow by supposed Chechen separatists.

Within three months Putins ruthless handling of the Chechnya conflict transformed him into Russias most popular politician. However, his springboard has proved to be a millstone. The prolonged fighting in Chechnya has drawn accusations of human rights violations and left thousands dead. Yet western leaders chide Putin mildly. Blair told the Commons last week: Yes, of course its important that human rights is raised but its also important that we support Russia in her action against terrorism.

Life is sweet at Putins enormous private residence on the outskirts of Moscow, where he lives with his wife Lyudmila, their daughters Masha, 17, and Katya, 16, their labrador Connie, their white poodle Tosca and five horses that he has learnt to ride.

It is a world away from his childhood in Leningrad, now St Petersburg. His mother Maria Ivanovna, a janitor and cook, was in her forties and had already lost two sons when Putin was born on October 7, 1952.

His father Vladimir Spiridonovich, a machine tool operator who remained a partial invalid after a grenade attack in the German siege of the city, was not given to hugs or sentimentality. But Volodya, as the infant Putin was known, was much loved. His parents were very protective of him, said Alexander Nikolaiev, a school friend.

In his zeal to show off to his peers, the boy carried a hunting knife which one day slipped out of a rolled-up newspaper to fall at the feet of some militiamen. As a result he was listed as a juvenile who needed watching. I was a hooligan. Seriously, I was a real ruffian, he confessed later.

According to his school reports which surfaced in 2001, Putin was a mediocre student who, at the age of 11, threw blackboard rubbers around the classroom, failed to do his maths homework and got into a fight serious enough for his father to be summoned to the school.

Teachers remember him showing a particular interest in espionage. He came and asked for a book about spying, said one. We gave him one but he never returned it.

Accepted into one of Leningrads most prestigious schools, Technological Institute No 281, he became more serious, patriotic and assiduous, while excelling at judo and sambo, a Russian form of wrestling.

When a visiting gymnastic team failed to turn up at the school, Putin astonished everyone by putting on a one-man judo display.

We were amazed by all the moves he knew, recalled Raisa Polunina, a classmate who remembered him as a sweet boy with lovely eyes.

Learning that a law degree would best further his spying ambitions, he applied to the Leningrad state university to study international law and German. After an undistinguished year at the KGB school in Moscow, he returned to his birthplace to work as a intelligence agent, recruiting informers among visiting foreigners. Contemporaries noted his expertise in detecting others weaknesses.

In 1983 he married Lyudmila, whom he met when she was an air hostess for Kaliningrad Airlines. (He told her he worked for the police.) A linguist who went on to become a teacher, she is said to be determined, forceful and to wear the trousers in the marriage.Posted by the KGB to Dresden in East Germany, the couple lived in a grim row of flats, but they had a car and food was abundant. As deputy director of the Society of German-Soviet Friendship, Putins official job was to foster good relations between the KGB and its East German counterpart, the Stasi.

Secretly he was running agents, one of whom, agent M, has revealed that initially Putin was so slipshod that he was a liability: He was a typical Russian in that he had a problem with punctuality. That changed. He had great admiration for the German work ethic. He was a fast learner and became very sharp.

Early in 1990, soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall, he returned to Leningrad uncertain about the future and eager to shake off his KGB image. Living with his family at his parents cramped flat, he seemed to spend hours tinkering with his Volga car, according to neighbours.

His political career began on the staff of Anatoly Sobchak, the newly elected reformist mayor of Leningrad. Charged with granting licences to foreign countries, he failed to impress and was often mistaken for a bodyguard or interpreter. He was totally colourless, said a colleague.

However, his skill at manipulating people assisted his rise to the position of deputy mayor. He took a particular interest in peoples sexual orientation, said Marina Sallier, a former city councillor. When the mayors office eventually came under investigation for corruption, I believe this information was used to stop some inquiries going further.

In 1996 Putin came to the attention of Yeltsin, who adopted him on his staff. Impressed by his discipline, in 1998 Yeltsin made him head of the FSB, successor to the KGB. Putin proved his loyalty by releasing a videotape showing the prosecutor-general, then investigating Kremlin corruption, cavorting naked with three teenage prostitutes.

Designated Yeltsins prime minister in 1999 the fifth in 17 months Putin was not expected to last long. However, Yeltsin was casting around for a successor who would not knife him when he left power and Putin fitted the bill.

On December 31 that year, Yeltsin appointed Putin as acting president and was rewarded with a decree granting him immunity from prosecution. Putin claimed he agonised over taking the job: I wasnt sure I wanted such a destiny. But it would have been silly to say, No, Ill go and sell sunflower seeds instead.

His presidency has not been a bed of roses, although luck has shone on him. As a non-drinking, non-smoking man of action, he is the antithesis of the shambolic Yeltsin. He has mastered the trick of sounding like a reformer to the West and acting with Stalin-like firmness in Russia.

However, critics point to his indecisiveness, his worrying personality cult, the countrys shrinking press freedoms and future strains with the West over Iran and Syria, where Russia has commercial interests.

But then, the Russian president has been flying by the seat of his pants from an early age.

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