Who is Vladimir Putin?

This article comes from my time in International Politics, 2007.

Vladimir Putin: A KGB Man

            If earlier in human history leaders could have been idealized or embellished now this is not that simply achieved because television makes anyone easy to reach and if not decipher than to better understand. However, even today there seems to be world leaders who do not lend themselves to this kind of analysis. One such hard-to-understand, enigmatic, and impenetrable figures is president of Russia, Vladimir Putin. 

There are several reasons why today we should try to better understand personality as well as driving forces behind this man. One important reason is that presently Russia is experiencing a period of domestic stability and strong national consensus, which to a great extent has been influenced by politics and strategy of Mr. Putin, thus understanding him might help a spectator of the global politics to see in which direction Russia is headed. This is more important in the present context of the global oil dependency, since Russia is one of the largest oil producers in the world. One has to keep in mind that even though officially Putin is approaching the end of his last presidential term his successor (in case there will be one) is very likely, at least initially, to follow Putin’s domestic and foreign orientation. Secondly, the fact that Mr. Putin enjoys 80% approval rating of his country’s population[1] indicates the fact that Russians today see in him incarnation of their wishes, hopes, and longings. Thus understanding of Mr. Putin as a personality as well as a leader might tell a lot about what generally Russian masses value and seek in their leaders.

One certainly has to realize that understanding another person is always an ungrateful task and this is even more so when such a person is a world leader and a ‘former’ KGB lieutenant colonel, however, this paper will attempt to pursue this task by using his speeches, interviews and autobiography which includes insightful remarks of his friends and family members. This paper is structured around following questions: How Putin became who he is? What can we say about Putin’s character or in other words who is Putin as a person? What are main elements and forces behind him? What kind of leader is Putin? 

            The first question of these four is about making of Putin and not surprisingly, he as any other human was influenced by his environment as well as by his life experiences. He was born into a working family and grew up in Saint Petersburg. His mother was a factory worker while his father served on a submarine in 1930s as well as in land forces during the World War II and later worked as a toolmaker in a factory. From the very beginning of his conscientious life Putin’s dream has been working for intelligence and this defined his life from the very early on. After school he went on to study in the Law Department of the Leningrad State University, what he knew was necessary for procurement of a future KGB agent job as he found out after visiting the agency headquarters as a teenager. In his own words, Putin has been “a pure and utterly successful product of Soviet patriotic education,”[2] starting with his love of the romantic Soviet spy movies. Eventually, his dream came true and he was recruited by special services in 1975. 

            One should point out that KGB and experiences inside this organization clearly define Putin as a leader and as a person. Even though Putin himself does not always acknowledge how deep he has been influenced by the KGB it seems that principles, rules of the game, values instilled in this institute made Putin who he is today. His autobiography seems to also follow the line of KGB thinking by trying to distance himself from this organization in terms of the present but also attempting to present his 25 year work there as a ‘normal’ working practice, similar to any other type of work such as being a teacher or a doctor. However, it can hardly be the case since this institution exercises a critical influence upon any member individual and as a Russian saying goes, a KGB man always remains one, he does not have any chance to become anyone else. Overall Putin spent 25 years in special services, fifteen of them working for the Soviet intelligence in Dresden, Germany mostly collecting various types of political information about parties, interparty dynamics, and party leaders. By the ‘end’ of his career at KGB Putin reached the position of lieutenant colonel, not a very high rank inside this organization. Putin was even given a bronze medal “For Services to the National People’s Army of the GDR,” which according to his coworker was given to every secretary “without gross violations in her record.”[3] Officially, Putin resigned twice from secret services during August 1991 during a KGB-organized putsch against Mikhail Gorbachev. However, when appointed the head of the Federal Security Bureau (successor of the KGB) in 1998-1999 by Yeltsin Putin was offered status of a KGB general, which was a crowning day of his long career in this organization.

An important part of an answer to the question how Putin became who he is seems to be his experience of living in Germany in 1975-1990, especially being there on the eve of the collapse of the Berlin Wall and personally seeing the strengthening the Western presence. In his own words, Putin was clearly sad when he saw the collapse of the Wall, which also meant the fall of the Soviet Union as he wanted something else to fill the created vacuum and also clearly regretted a very rapid Soviet exit from the Eastern Europe.[4] Another element of Putin’s persona which clearly was created from this German experience is his deep resentment and an open animosity against NATO, continued to this day and most openly expressed in Putin’s Munich speech of February of this year discussed below. 

            Another element of what made Putin his own self could partly be attributed to his teenage hobby of martial art, namely judo. As it is widely understood any kind of sports strengthens certain traits in a personality, namely competitiveness, resourcefulness, strong will and it might be assumed that judo played the same role for Putin too. In 1967 he became the Leningrad Champion in judo, and even though this seems to have been the end to Putin’s sporting career it certainly brought him some life experience. In his own words judo helped him to learn that “You must hit first, and hit so hard that your opponent will not rise to his feet.”[5] Looking at judo as upon not only sport but as philosophy (as Putin says he does[6]) requires a calculating and quick mind, yet, in the meantime a reflective, passive approach, all three quite necessary for a successful politician.

            In summary answer to the question how Putin became who he is one should conclude that the single defining experience of his life has been work at the KGB. Not only his immediate work and working style there but the atmosphere, system of values, teamwork structure that characterizes this organization as well as cold-hearted and anti-emotional attitude toward everything and everyone. Working in Germany during the Soviet collapse is also likely have contributed to Putin as he is today in terms of his geostrategical thinking and attitudes toward the West. However, one should not forget that the fact that he was born and brought up in the Soviet-Russian culture defines him even more than any of the listed factors. Life in a strict Communist state definitely taught Putin about legitimate boundaries that each person or (less commonly) group of people has without any right to cross them and it seems that this played out in his understanding about function of society and people’s freedoms. 

            The second question posed in this paper is what can we say about Putin’s character or in other words who is Putin as a person? Certainly, it seems hard to get an understanding of a leader in terms of his personality, however, in order to get at least his partial portrait we could use some of his self-descriptions as well as what is hinted by the style of his work. First of all, Putin is a very smart person who easily and skillfully handles a quite large amount of economic and other kind of data (his Press Conference with the Russian and Foreign Media on February 1, 2007 illustrated this quite well). In his own self-descriptions, contained in his autobiography, Putin emphasizes that he was not a dissident when working for the KGB services and even when he did not agree to methods or goals of certain actions he never opposed them. Looking at his day-to-day conduct of affairs Putin seems to value these conformist qualities in his immediate followers and team as well. Additionally, Putin describes himself as self-critical, silent type who can even insult someone who behaves out of line. While his close friend thought Putin to be “tenacious as a bulldog”[7] and possessor of inner strength which tends to attract people to him.[8]

Another feature of Putin that definitely stands out in his self-portrait is the ability to logically think through all possible variations and come up with a plan. The phrase about having a plan ahead of time and ability to calculate certain moves seems to have a central place in the mind of this hardheaded politician. In this regards Putin is the direct opposition of uncontrollable Yeltsin, a muzhik-like figure initially liked by the Russian masses for being in touch with his Russian nature (including drinking) and lacking any kind of sophistication. In contrast Putin projects a much colder, cerebral approach to anyone and anything. 

            One feature that is likely to be inherited by Putin from KGB is his ruthlessness as well as distrust. He generally seems to mistrust people, fearing that they would betray him once they would be able to find his soft spot. In the book he vaguely mentions fear and experiences of being betrayed by his friends, and from his tone as well as from his behavior toward his political adversaries (such as Khodorkovsky or Berezovsky) one can certainly see how dangerous it could be to insult or come cross with this person. As it was the case with Soviet-style leaders Putin most often does not apply any personal critique or comments to his adversaries or political opponents, rather he always attempts to popularize his decisions by providing a broader excuse for them. For example, Putin never publicly criticized neither Khodorkovsky nor Berezovsky for their opposition per se, but he always skillfully invoked with their regards image of a nouveau riche oligarch so hateful for Russian masses thus fully justifying in the public eye decisions of his administration to fight these figures. 

            Another feature of Putin that is immediately noticeable is his consistency with his goals, projects, positions, and tasks. When reading his First Annual Address to the Federal Assembly of April 2001 one can hear not only main priorities of his two presidential terms (such as strengthening of state integrity, judicial reform, Chechnya, returning to Russia her global power status and regional influence), but also his main approach, namely being a stabilizer, not a revolutionary, an approach he followed through these past seven years. Suggestively, Putin declares in this Address: “[the] period [of instability] is over [for Russia] and there will be neither revolution nor counter-revolution.”[9] Another example of Putin’s consistency is his already mentioned anti-NATO sentiment so deeply rooted into his mentality, starting from his being in Germany during the fall of the Berlin Wall and carried throughout his presidential terms to this day.

            Even though all characteristic traits included in this list certainly represent only a small part of Putin’s personality the one that seems most defining for Putin is his need or willingness to control all and everything around him. It might suggest some sort of fear or paranoia of control loss (a characteristic very similar to Soviet leaders, including Stalin). Putin mentions this need of control several times in his book, referring to it as love of order, however, it seems that this order should always correspondent to his mental representation of it. Willingness to control is central for understanding Putin’s policies as well. This is expressed in his overemphasized need of a strong state and also of a ‘supercentralized state’ due to the reason that such a state is inherent for Russian “genetic code, its traditions, and the mentality of its people.”[10] Not surprisingly, what makes Putin extremely angry is Western (quite legitimate) attempts to interpret his strategy of strengthening Russia as a turn toward authoritarian rule.[11]

In summary of the question, as a person Putin seems to exhibit at least some features that were characteristic of the Soviet leaders, but in the meantime were also inherent in strong Russian monarchs and thus are very favorably viewed by Russian masses. A strong will to control his immediate and not-so-immediate environment, ruthlessness, general mistrust of people, together with anti-emotional and calculating disposition paints a portrait of a nearly Stalin- or Beria-like figure, however, his smartness and sophistication brings him a more modern coloring. Once again it seems quite hard to produce a personality portrait of a public figure who more often than not displays this very particular image for a public. Yet, looking at Putin’s even projected image one is likely to see an authoritarian ruler rather than a democratic president. 

            The third important question with regards to Vladimir Putin is what are main elements and forces behind him? Without a doubt one can say that this figure was put into his position not only by his initiative as it would have been simply unreal for the man of his standing to achieve the highest office of the country. His surprising career after the fall of the Berlin Wall and return from Germany clearly indicates that he appeared at the very top because he suited somebody else’s plans. Following the Soviet collapse Putin worked closely with Anatoly Sobchak, the mayor of Saint Petersburg but after a failed election campaign of 1998 became virtually unemployed before he was invited to Kremlin by an official from Saint Petersburg, Pavel Borodin to become a Deputy Chief of the Presidential Property Management Department in 1996. His career proceeded at a lightening speed from here onward most importantly marked by becoming the head of the Federal Security Bureau (successor of the KGB) in 1998-1999, Prime Minister in August 1999 and President of Russia in March 2000. 

From an outsider’s point of view Putin seems to be a pawn in somebody else’s chess combination, at least in the very start of his career. Of course we probably will never see the faces of those who put Putin where he is and who stand behind him even today, however, we can assume that it is the same power that benefited most from his becoming the president of Russia, namely security apparatus and so called ‘siloviki,’ powerful representatives of military and defense. As soon as Putin was strong enough to nominate governors and other high level officials most of them appeared to come from the same KGB background as he does. Putting aside issue of trust according to which Putin is likely to have confidence only in his long-term friends and associates one could argue that this organization exerts its pressure upon president today as it always did. 

Additional force behind Putin in the very beginning was president Yeltsin himself who called Putin “a prime minister with a future”[12] and than made him an heir apparent in return for a full immunity from a prosecution with regards to Yeltsin’s family murky business dealings. Another source of support to put Putin in power and for the last seven years him to remain there has been large Russian business. Yet, some of those initial oligarchs who thought that Putin was more of a puppet figure were largely disappointed and paid dearly for their mistakes. Besides Khodorkovsky, Berezovsky, and Gusinsky who do not represent a threat today big business feels quite comfortable with Putin and even though he attempts to control them they tend to share profits of high oil prices and auspicious foreign investment climate, which he puts high on his list of priorities.[13]  

            The same forces that put Putin in president’s position arranged and probably benefited from the first Chechen campaign, which was clearly used to popularize him and attach something to his name, still fresh for the Russian public. In the meantime military forces should have benefited from this campaign, which later in the context of 9/11 conveniently turned out to be the part of Bush’s global war on terror. It is important to also keep in mind that Putin never forgets either Russian army or the Russian Orthodox Church, whose patriarch has been continuously close to all post-Soviet leaders of the Kremlin, trying to follow official line of the Russian state most of the time. In response Putin tends to always assist both of these institutions publicly appreciating their role in the military and spiritual stability of the nation. Putin’s recent dedication to the Russian Orthodox Church of a hectare of territory given to him by the King of Jordanian in order to build a guest house for Russian pilgrims and promise to assist with this project[14] can serve as an example of Putin-church partnership.

            One of the most important forces which clearly is behind Putin’s popularity but that could be hardly directly credited to him personally is the high oil price. Notwithstanding 7 percent GDP growth[15] Putin cannot attribute economic success only to his administration as notwithstanding his initial plans[16] he did not create serious incentives for a strong industrial growth within the country and only due to a high cost of energy resources he was able to relatively increase pensions and salaries which made him extremely popular across Russia.

            To summarize what forces are behind Putin one should definitely look at state structures that nearly always were building blocks of the Russian state and which greatly benefited from Putin’s counter-revolutionary, stabilizing domestic policies. Security services, military and defense complex of the country, big business, Russian army and Orthodox Church all together represent nearly all sectors of the country’s socio-economic, political and military structure. This seems to suggest that all these centers of power tend to agree and support Putin because he represents a strong leader, yet, the figure unwilling to come cross any of these structures and follows his own policy of state strengthening that in the end suits each of these separate powers.  

            The final question of this paper is what kind of leader is Putin? In answering this question one needs to keep in mind the very different style of leadership Putin has as compared to his successors Stalin-Khrushchev-Gorbachev-Yeltsin. Besides being different in terms of personality (looking radically stronger than Gorbachev and Yeltsin, more rational than Khrushchev and much more sociable than Stalin) Putin exemplifies a strong governmental hand together with a more socially oriented approach. Importantly, his leadership style certainly encompasses positive image management though virtual teleconferences and interviews, never before was the tsar-like figure of the Russian leader as close to the people as today. This favorably influences public opinion, as president is available to discuss any question on open air and even seems to show reasons behind his logic when talking to his citizens. This is one point where Putin brought a more democratic, participatory tendency into the Russian government, at least he seems to be accountable to his people.

Another major goal of Putin’s leadership in the domestic scope is his strive toward national popularity as well as national unity through various means, but most importantly through his speeches. When he pronounces his speech it seems that it is directed not as much toward his immediate audience (if this speech is made abroad) but also toward citizens of his own country. He often uses several themes that always seem to ring a bell with his supporters and Russians in general. Among such themes are special nature of Russia and Russian democracy, Russia versus Europe as possessing a totally distinct civilization, and Russian ability to stand up to the West against its expansionist impulses.[17] All of these is also expressed in his Munich speech of February 10 which supposedly had four goals. Firstly, to consolidate Russia against an adversary (always needed approach in Russia). Secondly, to let the West know that Russia is strong enough once again to stand up for its place in the global geostrategic game and is not going to back down. Thirdly, to show the West that Russia is irritated with its ‘insincere’ teachings of democracy and civil society and finally, to demonstrate that Russia feels hurt and resentful because the West still does not take it seriously and looks down on it. All four of these brought quite negative or rather critical reaction in the West, yet, was very favorably viewed in Russia where people felt that by delivering his harsh statements Putin showed the West that Russia is back to regain its global power status and is not afraid of publicly criticizing the United States.

 One might add that critique of United States is another popular recurring theme in the Russian public debate as some people exhibit sentiments similar to the times of the Cold War. After the optimism and enchantment with the Western way of life in 1990s which brought collapse to the Russian economy and impoverishment to many people a large segment of the population turned back toward the Russian way of life and thinking which exemplifies that Russia represents a civilization of its own based upon very rich cultural and Christian traditions. Putin also uses this sentiment and even though he does not openly contrast his country to the West, he nevertheless suggests that Russia was and is the part of Europe, while the latter is distinct from the rest of it.[18] But still he always emphasizes importance of the United Nations which “will truly unite forces of the international community”[19] bringing legitimacy to its joint decisions, while NATO serves only ‘narrow’ interests of its member countries justifying his long-lasting suspicion toward this organization.

            Putin’s leadership style is not doing-it-alone but governing with and through a team –Ivanov, Medvedev, Narishkin and some others. Interestingly, mostly all members of his team are old friends from the past (KGB and Leningrad State University) who now with Putin’s direct assistance have been placed on key governmental positions. However, presently Putin uses both Ivanov and Medvedev to play out in the game of presidential succession. By promoting both of men to positions First Deputy Prime Minister Putin made them equal in their power status but also showed once again that everything is under his personal control and he makes the final decision. This again illustrates that while being a strong leader Putin always tries to maximize his hold on the situation and does not let trust of people stand in his way. 

            Summarizing Putin’s leadership abilities one could say that he does not have a long-term strategy or vision in mind for Russia focusing instead on the country immediate needs. Yet, he seems to be a very good organizer (also mentioned during his KGB training during the evaluation process) as well as a good politician who plays well on his citizens’ favorite sentiments. Teamwork, image management, good planning as well as brave rhetoric in the international arena taken together creates a portrait of a leader who knows where he is going while coupling this with his personal features discussed above (such as foresight, ruthlessness, controlling attitude) certainly show that he knows how he can get there. Taking into account his cooperation and permanent interaction with the forces behind him (KGB, big business, defense and military complex) one could see why he has been so successful as the leader of Russia. 

            In conclusion of this paper, it seems necessary to point out that one cannot avoid noticing that even though Putin’s strong governance achieved very important results in such a big country as Russia (including restoration of the country’s integrity and its strengthening socially and psychologically) simultaneously Putin was able to attain concentration of enormous power in his hands. Even though he definitely achieved strengthening of the state Putin certainly did not help to facilitate any democratic developments in Russia but rather brought it back to its authoritarian past, which on the other hand is viewed favorably by the common people so it might be that this kind of strong authority is the best possible for a country of such size and population. Looking back at the period of rampant inflation and instability brought in by democracy of Boris Yeltsin one could argue that Vladimir Putin’s strong hand (or a hand of somebody similar to him) is the best possible solution to the country and this is why he is so popular even by the end of his second presidential term.                      


[1] Levada Center, Putin’s rating of popularity for January 2007

[2] Vladimir Putin, “First Person: An Astonishingly Frank Self-Portrait by Russia’s President Vladimir Putin,” p.42.

[3] Ibid., p.74.

[4] Ibid., p.80-81.

[5] Vladimir Putin, “First Person: An Astonishingly Frank Self-Portrait by Russia’s President Vladimir Putin,” p.168.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., p.51.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Annual Address to the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation, April 3, 2001.

[10] Vladimir Putin, “First Person: An Astonishingly Frank Self-Portrait by Russia’s President Vladimir Putin,” p.186.

[11] Annual Address to the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation, May 26, 2004.

[12] Vladimir Putin, “First Person: An Astonishingly Frank Self-Portrait by Russia’s President Vladimir Putin,” p.137.

[13] Annual Address to the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation, July 8, 2000.

[14] Answers to Questions from the Russian Media following a Visit to the Middle East, February 13, 2007.

[15] The World Bank, Russian Federation: Country Brief 2006.

[16] Annual Address to the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation, July 8, 2000.

[17] Annual Address to the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation, July 8, 2000, Annual Address to the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation, May 26, 2004, Interview with Arab Satellite Channel Al-Jazeera, February 10, 2007, Answers to Questions from the Russian Media following a Visit to the Middle East, February 13, 2007, Eastern Institute, “Aims, Priorities and Tasks: Attempt at a Systematic Analysis of the Presidential Speeches in Russia (2000-2005).”

[18] Written Interview for Russkaya Mysl Newspaper, November 23, 2006, Eastern Institute, “Aims, Priorities and Tasks: Attempt at a Systematic Analysis of the Presidential Speeches in Russia (2000-2005).”

[19] Speech and the Following Discussion at the Munich Conference on Security Policy, February 10, 2007, Munich, p.3.