What does Russia really think about Vladimir Putin?

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The shy ex-KGB man has transformed himself into a political superhero. Can Vladimir Putin remain invincible? Shaun Walker reports from Moscow

He was a mousy-haired, somewhat balding bureaucrat with a sinister but uninspiring KGB past, a reticence in public that made him appear slightly uncomfortable in his own skin, and an immediately forgettable face.

The fifth man in quick succession to be shoehorned into the job by an ageing, drunk president with a single-figure approval rating, there seemed every reason to dismiss Russia's newly appointed prime minister as another stop-gap measure. But the grey blur that Russians saw being interviewed on television in August 1999, most of them for the first time, would become one of the most important statesmen in their country's history. His demeanour would transition from awkward catatonia to the man who always has a wisecrack ready; from a greyish technocrat to a charismatic superman. It's a truism of modern politics that "you either have it or you don't". Vladimir Putin is the man who somehow managed to grow into it.

"The main problem we have is an absence of political stability," said Putin on arrival in office, a sentiment that would remain a leitmotif running through his decade in charge, even as the man himself changed beyond recognition. After a four-year interlude as prime minister, during which he was essentially still running the country, elections next March are almost certain to return Putin to the Kremlin.

It is hard to say how Putin will be viewed half a century from now. Will he be remembered as the tough-talking leader who cared little for democracy or human rights, but restored order to a chaotic country that had lost its way and its self-esteem? Or will he be seen as a man who was unable to step away from power, gradually becoming more vain and detached from reality? A lot will depend on the price of oil and other commodities, but much will also depend on whether the Russian youth return to their previous apathetic state. The response to this month's parliamentary elections – a significant reduction in support for Putin's United Russian party followed by protests on a scale not seen in Moscow in recent years – suggests that, for some, the apathy is subsiding. Among the population at large, it is true that for a long time, 59-year-old Putin enjoyed popularity ratings that would be the envy of most Western European leaders. But a more nuanced reading of the polls shows a rather different picture. An October opinion poll that asked Russians what they feel about Putin showed 3 per cent expressing "awe" and 3 per cent expressing "disgust" for the prime minister. The proportion who said they "liked" Putin stood at 24 per cent, down from 40 per cent just three years ago. All the other responses fell in various categories of ambivalence or mild dislike. Despite his small, vocal fanbase, and complete control of the airwaves, the majority of Russians remain floating voters and, during a sustained period of economic decline, the apathy could quickly become discontent. As Putin addressed a big crowd of Russians after a martial arts fight at Moscow's Olympic Stadium in November, the unthinkable happened – the crowd started booing and jeering. Putin, who had never before received such a reception, looked flustered, and left the stage quickly. The protests in the aftermath of the election, when suddenly nearly 10,000 people came out to shout for Putin's removal instead of the usual couple of hundred that the opposition attracts, suggests his bid for another 12 years of power is no done deal.

"Of course I don't like Putin much," a 26-year-old Muscovite friend of mine, with a degree in foreign languages and a well-paid job in the media told me before the recent elections. "I'm definitely not going to bother voting. The system is ridiculous. But what can I do to change it? Nothing."

This sentiment is representative of the Putin generation but there is no doubt that, since the "national leader" announced his planned return to the Kremlin, there has been a subtle, but perceptible change of mood. Several thousand people chanting "Putin is a thief" in central Moscow is not going to bring down the regime tomorrow, but it was utterly unthinkable just a few months ago. "I never thought I'd come to something like this and, to be honest, I'm not sure I trust the opposition either," said 21-year-old Dmitry, a history student at the protest rally on 5 December, the day after the parliamentary elections. "But enough is enough! Putin first came on the scene when I was nine years old, and now he wants to stay until I'm in my thirties? It's time for something new."

Putin is long used to a small, vocal minority declaring him the devil incarnate; indeed he thrives on it. But widespread cynicism and irritation are new symptoms, declaring themselves slowly but surely. Dealing with that will be a very different challenge indeed.

Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin was born in St Petersburg – then called Leningrad – in 1952, and grew up in a kommunalka, the miserably cramped communal flats that housed millions of urban Soviet families. Two brothers died young and Vladimir lived with his parents in one room of the apartment. The sink and gas stove in the corridor were shared with two other families, as was a grim toilet. Large rats lurked in the stairwell, Putin would later claim, and he admitted that, as a young boy, he frequently got into fights in the courtyard outside. He was a fairly sharp student, gaining entry to the Law Faculty of Leningrad State University. At the same time, he was a keen athlete, opting not for a team game but for the individual pursuit of judo. While some of Putin's later televised "achievements" as president appear staged, in judo at least he was genuinely talented, rising to become Leningrad city champion in 1976. He had joined the KGB in 1975 and worked mainly in counter-intelligence, monitoring foreign tourists and diplomats in the city before he was dispatched to Dresden in 1985, where he served until the Soviet collapse. Putin occasionally makes reference to the harsh conditions of his youth, but his formative years have not been subjected to the hagiography that some dictatorial leaders impose on their childhood. Very few people who knew Putin well as a child or a young man talk openly, and it is hard to know exactly what he did in his early years, including during his time in the KGB and during his posting to Dresden.

As the Soviet Union disintegrated, Putin returned to his home city, which would soon readopt its historical name, St Petersburg, and began working for Anatoly Sobchak, a former law professor at his university who was now the first democratically elected mayor of the city. Putin managed the city council's international relations, where he gained a reputation as an energetic and reliable operator. A report that suggested he had been involved in corrupt dealings, which he denied, was hushed up. When Sobchak failed in his bid for re-election in 1996, Putin refused a job on the team of the new administration, reportedly stating he would rather be hanged for loyalty than rewarded for treason. This fierce, almost mafia-like obsession with loyalty can be seen in later years in both the punishments for those who crossed him and the rewards for those who remained true.

In 1997, Putin was called to Moscow to work in the presidential administration, and by 1998 he was heading up his old organisation, now renamed the FSB. In the 1990s, most of the old KGB generals, shorn of their ideological mission, had instead gone into business, and the institution was seen as corrupt, inefficient and irrelevant. A decade later, Putin had ensured that, while there would still be accusations of corruption, nobody could now suggest that the FSB was irrelevant. Andrei Soldatov, the leading chronicler of the FSB, has called them a "New Nobility", an elite that amassed huge political power and financial wealth in the decade since Putin came to power, yet were ultimately doomed.

But in the late 1990s, that was all in the future. The country had gone through a painful financial collapse, the president, Boris Yeltsin, could hardly string a sentence together and a gruesome war in Chechnya had ended with thousands of Russian soldiers dead and a humiliating pullout. After he was made prime minister in 1999, Putin staked his reputation on hard rhetoric over Chechnya, and on the eve of the millennium, a slurring Yeltsin stepped aside and Putin became acting president. Almost without anyone noticing, Putin had become Russia's second leader since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Despite his tough talk over Chechnya, Putin in 2000 was a very different kind of politician to the one we know today. One high-ranking Western politician, who has met Putin on more than a dozen occasions over the past decade, recalls an extraordinary transformation during the first couple of years. "The first time we met, he was meek, avoided eye contact and seemed unsure of himself," the politician, who asked not to be identified, told me on the sidelines of an international conference recently. "He would say things like, 'The army generals want this but I am inclined to disagree. I hope we can come to an agreement'. It was almost like he was looking for allies abroad against his opponents within Russia. He came across as a very insecure leader."

On the home front, too, things started off shakily. The tough talk on Chechnya went down well with an electorate that was tired of bad news from the Caucasus on their television screens, but when the Kursk submarine sank in August 2000, Putin did not bother to cut short his holiday in Sochi, causing a wave of criticism in the Russian media, which was still relatively boisterous. Over 100 sailors died in the accident and Putin was criticised for waiting five days before returning to Moscow. In an infamous interview on American television, Larry King asked him what had happened with the submarine. A faint smirk and a glimmer of disgust flashed across Putin's face. "It sank," he said. Putin's mixture of insecurity and callousness was a textbook display of the worst response a politician could make to a crisis.

Soon, however, Putin began to feel at home in the role and set about creating the rigid "power vertical", as his system has become known. First to be reined in were the oligarchs, the coterie of rich men who towards the end of the Yeltsin era were far more powerful than the president himself. Boris Berezovsky, the kingmaker who had nudged Yeltsin to put the apparently pliable Putin into the Kremlin, was to realise the spectacular misjudgement he had made and fled to London, from where he has been carping at the Putin regime ever since. Another oligarch, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the richest man in Russia, did not flee but attempted to defy Putin within Russia, funding opposition political parties and continuing to believe that the 1990s scenario whereby rich men could dictate to the state and subvert its demands was still applicable. He was arrested in 2003 and sent to prison, where he remains. "I have eaten more dirt than I need to from that man," Putin would later say privately.

Oligarchs such as Roman Abramovich, who agreed to play by Putin's rules, were allowed to spend their cash as lavishly as they wished, as long as they also contributed to state projects. In the ensuing decade, many of those close to Putin in the early years also accumulated huge fortunes and political power, whether they were his former KGB comrades, his judo teachers, or people who lived in the same dacha compound outside St Petersburg in the 1990s. Many top government officials are either old contacts of Putin's from the KGB, or from St Petersburg, and many of them are believed to have amassed illicit fortunes. Putin himself has been referred to as "the richest man in Europe" with claims that he has built up a multi-billion-dollar fortune through secretly holding stakes in major Russian companies. He called the allegations "complete rubbish, pulled out of somebody's nose and smeared on bits of paper".

Such a retort is characteristic of Putin's idiosyncratic, sarcastic, vernacular lexicon. Whenever confronted with criticism, he seems to have an earthy idiom at the ready. "Let them teach their wives to make cabbage soup," he once said, in response to a question about European leaders lecturing Russia on democracy. On another occasion, irked by a Western reporter's aggressive question on human rights in Chechnya during a trip to Europe, Putin snapped: "If you seriously want to become a radical Islamist and undergo circumcision, I invite you to come to Moscow... We have a specialist on this matter and I will advise him to have the operation done in such a way that nothing will ever grow back."

As his time in office went on, Putin became notorious for his televised stunts, which seemed to occur with increasing frequency – flying planes, riding Harley Davidsons, catching tigers, shooting a tracking device at a whale with a crossbow, and topless horse-riding in Siberia, to name just a few. The stunts have become more surreal as the years have gone by, culminating recently in Putin "discovering" two ancient urns when he went diving at the site of a seabed archaeological expedition. That set-piece caused so many sniggers that his spokesman eventually had to admit that the urns had been specially placed there before the dive for Putin to "find".

Given all of this, Putin should be a satirist's dream. Imagine the fun that Rory Bremner or Private Eye would have if David Cameron had a penchant for getting his kit off or donning a wetsuit. But in Russia, a country that has a long history of exquisitely penetrating political satire, such criticism is impossible, at least through mainstream channels. Kukly, Russia's version of Spitting Image, was ruthless in its satire of the new president during his first months in office. Putin, in one sketch, was portrayed as a foul-mouthed baby in a crib, repeatedly shrieking "Waste them in the outhouse", his famous phrase about eliminating Chechen terrorists, with his mentor and kingmaker Boris Berezovsky buzzing around him like an evil fairy godmother.

The show pulled few punches, and was soon taken off the air, with Putin acutely aware of the damage that the oligarch-controlled television channels had done to the image of his predecessor. NTV, the channel that showed Kukly, was shortly after taken over by the energy giant Gazprom in what spelled the end for free television in Russia.

Putin's personal life is a closed book, existing only in the world of rumour, and mainly online, as the Russian press shies away from the topic. The most persistent whisper, backed up by many sources in Moscow but vigorously denied by Putin himself, is that the Russian leader has had a relationship, and a child, with former Olympic gymnast Alina Kabaeva.

Certainly all is not right in his marriage, and a rare joint television appearance by Putin and his wife Ludmila last year was so bizarre and stilted that it only reinforced rumours that the couple are separated. The latest obsession of the Russian blogosphere is the prime minister's alleged Botox injections. Looking at pictures of Putin now compared with a few years ago, the facial contours are indeed strikingly different, though his spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, has insisted that his boss has had no "surgical interventions".

In foreign policy, the Russian leader reached out to George W Bush in the aftermath of the 11 September attacks in New York and said Moscow would not resist the US using bases in the former Soviet Central Asian countries to launch their war against Afghanistan. But when the US moved into Iraq as well, and backed (or, as the more conspiratorial minds in the Kremlin were sure, organised) the Orange Revolution in Ukraine and Rose Revolution in Georgia, there was a feeling of betrayal. Youth movements such as Nashi were set up to idealise Putin and fight against unwanted "Orange Fever" in Russia. Relations with the West became openly hostile, culminating in a 2007 speech in Munich where Putin angrily laid into US influence in the world, prompting many to muse that a "New Cold War" was on the cards.

Foreign leaders were now dealing with a very different leader to the uncertain man whom the Western politician remembered from the early days. "Very soon he changed completely, and would stride into meetings with a list of demands and a confident demeanour," the politician recalled. There were some topics that "you learnt not to raise" with the Russian president, he remembered, including Estonia and Georgia, sore topics that Putin believed the West didn't understand properly. "Mention Georgia and he's off for 20 minutes. He'd bang his fists on the table and, one time, he even drew me a map."

Indeed, Georgia would become one of the defining foreign policy issues of the Putin era. Although when the decisive moment came, he had already moved over to the prime ministerial role, there was no doubting that he called the shots during Moscow's brief but vicious war with Georgia in August 2008. Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgia's charismatic but impulsive president, infuriated Putin with his pro-Western rhetoric and his desire to bring Georgia into the EU and Nato. He promised to end Russian influence in Georgia, and even named a street in Tbilisi after George W Bush, as relations with Russia continued to spiral downwards. When I interviewed him in May 2008, just after Dmitry Medvedev's accession, he said he hoped he might have more in common with the new, younger president than with Putin, and that relations, which had already become fraught, would improve. But every time Saakashvili tried to put a call in to Medvedev, he claimed, the Kremlin would put him through to Putin instead. The Georgian president describes talking to Putin as "somebody standing with an axe at your head and saying 'Don't worry, everything's OK, just close your eyes and relax'." Putin later told Nicolas Sarkozy that he wanted to hang Saakashvili "by the balls".

Throughout 2007, there had been intense speculation about whether or not Putin would defy the constitution and run for a third presidential term. As ever in the opaque system that Putin himself had built, the president kept all the cards close to his chest. Journalists, analysts, and even most Kremlin officials themselves could do little more than guess at what the president was planning. For months, the guessing game went on, until a carefully choreographed set piece when Medvedev, the softly-spoken and ostensibly liberal lawyer was nominated for president, and Putin "agreed" to become prime minister, previously a formal role with little real power, but now set to become a very different position. The constitution had been adhered to in letter, if not in spirit.

Medvedev, though theoretically in charge, was always second in command to Putin. "Personally, I always knew that we only have one commander-in-chief, and it wasn't [Medvedev]," a lieutenant-general in the Russian army told The New Times, a Russian magazine, earlier this year. "In the midst of the Georgia events, I tried to report to the president on the situation in South Ossetia. He interrupted me, said it was not information for him, and told me to report to the chief." The "chief" was Putin, of course. The guessing game was repeated this year, with months of speculation as to whether Medvedev would be allowed a second term, or whether Putin would reassume the top job on paper as well as in practice. When the announcement came, there was a sense of the inevitable about it. Putin was back for more, although he had never really gone away.

The worry, of course, is what might happen in the next 12 years. If Putin is already ripping his clothes off on an alarmingly regular basis and having ancient urns placed for himself to find heroically, just what heights might be reached by 2024? In March 2006, just 10 per cent of Russians thought there was a Putin personality cult; by October this year, it was 25 per cent, with another 30 per cent agreeing that there are "more and more signs of one appearing". Recently, I asked Alexander Voloshin, formerly Putin's chief of staff, and still one of his most influential advisers, whether he thought that the "action man" stunts had gone a little over-the-top of late. "Putin has a team of people working on his image, and they are very professional," he answered. "But to a great degree, Putin is his own director." The image this creates of the Great Leader scripting ever more absurd scenarios for himself is rather disturbing.

In the run-up to this month's parliamentary elections, state television rehearsed a familiar "Good Tsar, bad nobles" routine, with Putin reprimanding regional leaders for the poor conditions in which many Russians still live. On a visit in November to a dental clinic in a provincial city, Putin expressed disgust at how old the equipment was, and demanded that the local governor sit in the dentist's chair. "This all needs to be replaced, or I'll come back and 'fix' everything myself, using this," Putin told the governor, wielding a scary, antiquated piece of equipment. The governor laughed uneasily. There is no doubt that Putin personally is still much more popular than his United Russia party, which has been dubbed "the party of crooks and thieves", but his own approval ratings are also sliding, gradually but palpably.

During the early years of Putin's rule, he gained popularity from the contrast he presented with Yeltsin. It is hard to overestimate just how disgusted the majority of Russians were with the 1990s. From afar it is easy to paint them as a time of new freedoms, but in reality, a few people walked off with all the cash, while the majority lived in poverty and chaos. "Life is still hard, but at least we have a real man in power now," I was told by residents of a remote village in the far Eastern region of Sakhalin three years ago.

"Putin isn't like the oligarchs, who just want to steal cash. He is working hard to make Russia great again." But while a contrast with the Yeltsin era was a powerful catalyst for support in the early years, 12 years later the argument is wearing thin. Corruption has become institutionalised, freedoms have been curtailed and the war that Putin promised to win in the Caucasus still brings terror to the streets of Moscow. It is no longer sufficient to parade the "stability" of today as an achievement, and increasing access to the internet among Russians means that it is harder to control information about corruption and discontent. The reactions to this month's elections suggest that more and more Russians have had enough. But is this dissatisfaction enough to stop Putin's return to the top job?

"Look at the price of oil, at the money that has come into the country, at all the opportunities Putin had to really make this place great," a 38-year-old Moscow-based lawyer told me recently, shaking his head sadly. "And instead we've got corruption and lawlessness. What a mess. I used to think that anyone who criticised the government was a traitor, but the longer this goes on, the more I feel that the opposite is true."

Shaun Walker is the Moscow correspondent for The Independent

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