Russian President Putin turns 70
From former spy to feared tyrant, 7 key moments in his life
President Vladimir Putin of Russia turns 70 today (° 07-10-1952).
His road to the top was not without controversy: he grew up in a very rough neighbourhood, was an undercover agent in the Russian secret service and was accused of corruption several times. Seven key moments in his life have shaped him into who he is today. A review.
1. Putin’s macho culture
Vladimir Putin was born in Leningrad in 1952, in the midst of the Cold War. He grew up in a grim neighbourhood in central Leningrad. The city was beset by gang violence at the time, which led, among other things, to Putin taking lessons in sambo, a popular Russian martial art. Putin was quite a fighter at school. A close friend of his recalled that “he could argue with anyone because he was not afraid of anyone”. Later, Vladimir Putin also started judo. He was very determined and disciplined, so that by the age of 18 he already possessed a black belt in martial arts.
Putin’s experience in martial arts is part of a carefully crafted macho image that the president maintains of himself. It is an important part of Putin’s vision. According to him, when a fight is inevitable, you should strike first, so hard that your opponent can no longer stand on his feet. The image Putin sends of himself into the world, often carefully staged and captured by photographers, embodies that vision. In 2007, Putin is photographed bare-chested while hunting, in 2009 he shows off atop a horse in the Siberian mountains.
2. Vladimir Putin as a spy in the KGB
At 16, young Vladimir Putin was in need of a new challenge. He hoped to find it in the KGB, Russia’s state security service. However, when he applied to the receptionist, he was told he needed military training or a law degree to do so. From then on, Putin was determined to get a law degree. He succeeded and was recruited into the Russian KGB. Yet his career within the security service did not really take off at first, until he took classes in German. Because he was suddenly fluent in German, he was transferred to Dresden in East Germany in 1985.
As an undercover agent, he had a comfortable life there until 1989, when the East German regime collapsed. That same year, the KGB headquarters in Dresden was surrounded by an angry mob. In vain, Putin asked the nearest Red Army garrison for help, but they were not allowed to take action without Moscow’s permission. That permission never came, something Putin still blames then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev for. He narrowly escaped death that day.
3. Putin’s secret private life
Very little is known about the Russian president’s family life. Putin and his administration are very careful about releasing information about his family. “I have a private life in which I do not allow interference. That has to be respected,” he said about it. In 1983, he married a former flight attendant Lyudmila Shkrebneva. After 30 years of marriage, the couple split in 2013. By his own account, they parted on good terms, although Lyudmila did hint that her husband did not have much time for her. He was very busy with his work as a world leader.
Together they had two daughters: Maria and Katerina. Both daughters’ lives were very secret. They even used fake names to enrol in university and one is not sure which country the daughters currently reside in. Maria is sometimes referred to as Putin’s “surreptitious daughter” because she was not supposed to be photographed during Putin’s entire administration. Yet Putin was described by his ex-wife Lyudmila as a loving father. “Not all fathers treat their children as lovingly as he does,” she wrote in his biography.
However, an investigation by Russian journalistic media outlet Proekt claims that Vladimir Putin is allegedly having a clandestine relationship with Svetlana Krivonogikh. This would have been going on since his time in the KGB. According to Proekt’s investigation, President Putin is said to be the father of her 17-year-old daughter Elizaveta Krivonogikh. The president denies the relationship with the Svetlana. She now lives in a St Petersburg neighbourhood reserved for the Russian president’s close friends.
4. Politics as a lucrative industry
His political career has already done Putin no favours. According to experts, the Russian president is said to be worth 200 billion euros. That would make Putin the richest man in the world. That politics can be very profitable, the Russian president discovered early in his political career, when he worked as an assistant to the mayor of St Petersburg. In 1992, he was appointed to set up the “Oil-for-Food Programme” to support the population after the economy collapsed. The aim of that programme was to exchange $100 million worth of oil and metal for food. In practice, however, no one saw food, as the money disappeared into the pockets of Putin and his comrades.
Still today, the president lives in great luxury. The palace complex, nicknamed “Putin’s Palace” and located on the Black Sea, is said to have cost at least 1.4 billion. Russian opposition leader Aleksey Navalny accused the president of theft and corruption in the construction of the majestic structure in a video. The video was viewed over 100 million times.
5. An unpredictable warlord…
When President Putin came to power in 2000, he initially hoped for a positive relationship with the West. Today, not much remains of that positive relationship. After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, relations between Russia and the West soured. Yet diplomatic relations suffered before.
In 2008, Georgia’s president Mikhael Saakashvili announced that the country wanted to join NATO, the Western military alliance. Putin was absolutely opposed to this. Russia used an attempt by Georgia to regain control of South Ossetia, a breakaway region of the country supported by Russia, as a fallacy to invade the country. It took the Russian army just five days to defeat the Georgian army. The invasion ended in a humiliating peace treaty. The West reacted furiously to the invasion. For Putin, however, it was clear that despite the harsh words, the West would always bow under if only he persevered.
6. Like death to COVID-19
The Russian president was very afraid of becoming infected with COVID-19. Putin isolated himself from just about everyone. Only a handful of advisers had access to the president. Anyone who met the president was placed under surveillance for a fortnight. Then they had to pass through a special hall that completely disinfected the president’s guests with ultraviolet light and disinfectants. Even important guests, such as French President Emmanuel Macron, had to be seated at a long table to avoid contaminating the president.
Because only the most loyal advisers had access to the president, Putin had virtually no ear for (even fewer) alternative opinions. During this period, he probably came to the conclusion that all his prejudices about the West were correct. The seed that would later lead to the invasion of Ukraine was planted. There was little that could change Vladimir Putin’s mind.
7. “Missing journalists”
During his reign, Putin (and his administration) were accused many times of corruption, theft and even murder. In particular, Aleksey Navalny, the opposition leader who has since spent over a year in jail, reached millions of viewers with his videos on corruption within the Russian elite. Later, Navalny was poisoned with novichok by Russia’s KGB security service and had to go to Germany for treatment. On his return to Russia in 2021, he was imprisoned.
It is also often not safe in Russia for journalists with different views. Over the years, hundreds of journalists are said to have been murdered or mysteriously disappeared. The death of Anna Politkovskaya, a Russian journalist, publicist and human rights activist, caused quite a stir worldwide. At the age of 48, she was shot dead in the lift of the flat block where she was staying. The culprit turned out to be a former police officer Dmitri Pavilychenkov. He was sentenced to 11 years in a penal camp. Still, Russian authorities are suspected to be responsible for the murder, although this has not been confirmed so far.
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Featuring Bill Browder, CEO of Hermitage Capital Management, discussing his new book Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man’s Fight for Justice.
About the Book:
A real-life political thriller about an American financier in the Wild East of Russia, the murder of his principled young tax attorney, and his dangerous mission to expose the Kremlin’s corruption.
Bill Browder’s journey started on the South Side of Chicago and moved through Stanford Business School to the dog-eat-dog world of hedge fund investing in the 1990s. It continued in Moscow, where Browder made his fortune heading the largest investment fund in Russia after the Soviet Union’s collapse. But when he exposed the corrupt oligarchs who were robbing the companies in which he was investing, Vladimir Putin turned on him and, in 2005, had him expelled from Russia.
In 2007, a group of law enforcement officers raided Browder’s offices in Moscow and stole $230 million of taxes that his fund’s companies had paid to the Russian government. Browder’s attorney Sergei Magnitsky investigated the incident and uncovered a sprawling criminal enterprise. A month after Sergei testified against the officials involved, he was arrested and thrown into pre-trial detention, where he was tortured for a year. On November 16, 2009, he was led to an isolation chamber, handcuffed to a bedrail, and beaten to death by eight guards in full riot gear.
Browder glimpsed the heart of darkness, and it transformed his life: he embarked on an unrelenting quest for justice in Sergei’s name, exposing the towering cover-up that leads right up to Putin. A financial caper, a crime thriller, and a political crusade, Red Notice is the story of one man taking on overpowering odds to change the world.
About the Author:
Bill Browder, founder and CEO of Hermitage Capital Management, was the largest foreign investor in Russia until November 2005. Browder has been leading a worldwide campaign using media, political, and legislative tools to expose the corruption, rule of law, and human rights abuses committed by Russian government officials. Browder is a 2001 Henry Crown Fellow of The Aspen Institute and a member of the Aspen Global Leadership Network.
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Vladimir Putin is the President of Russia, and has been the country’s leader for more than 22 years.
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