An analysis based on past behaviour, his autobiography and selected sources
I usually write about topics like software and IT security in my blog. However given the geopolitical events, I decided to publish this blog which at least fits into the area of international security.
So, who is Vladimir Putin?
Vladimir Putin grew up like any other Soviet citizen after the second world war, in a Kommunalka in St Petersburg where each family regardless of size had one room to themselves. The shared kitchen contained as many stoves and ovens as there were families and the only bathroom consisted of a sink, a toilet accessible from the hallway and a shower, if they were really lucky. These Kommunalkas were dark and grey and overcrowded and left a lot to be desired.
Only members of the ‘Intelligentsia’, aka politicians and highest ranking KGB members had their own apartments or houses.
Everyone was poor, had to stand in long lines for hours on end to be able to purchase the bare necessities for life and was constantly reminded that Soviet reality was completely different from its promised communist salvations. Although the Soviet Union had a number of achievements like first person in space, becoming an atomic power or winning the war, even Germany had a better economy and they had just lost the war.
Due to the ensuing cold war few of the Soviet Union’s achievements have been recognised or publicly praised by other nations.
This miserable life and this lack of recognition instilled in Vladimir Putin a craving for a better life including its riches as well as getting recognised. And how can this be achieved? Through power!
Vladimir Putin described his mother as a kind person, whereas his father often disciplined him harshly. Both parents worked the regular work week of then six days. So children were left to their own devices. In his autobiography he mentions an incident where he poked a rat that he encountered in the hallway and was quite astonished that this much smaller animal suddenly jumped at him in attack mode. Because he was a small and weak boy, he was regularly beaten up by stronger children. This experience turned him into a bitter pessimist with black humour and a cynic outlook on people: “Nobody is honest. People want to be lied to.”
And it made him crave for power even more.
Although Vladimir Putin was bright, he was a mediocre student getting by in school. He was constantly trying to survive street fights. He loved Soviet war and spy movies, which depicted the glories of the Red Army, the enormous sacrifice the Soviet Union made to win the war but also almost deified the great spies as heroes who helped support this endeavour.
To be able to defend himself he started boxing, but had his nose broken in a fight. So he turned to Sambo, the Soviet version of self defence, which helped him tremendously. Firstly, he learned as a weaker fighter to use the strength and speed of a heavier fighter against such a bully. Secondly, Boxing and Sambo were highly valued entry skills to the KGB.
Vladimir Putin claims that he knocked on the doors of the Lubyanka at age 17 inquiring how to become a spy. After having been laughed at he was allegedly told to finish school and study law. However, Vladimir Putin also mentions in his autobiography that both his father and his grandfather were members of the NKVD, the predecessor of the KGB. It is noteworthy, that Putin’s family was the only family who owned a phone in their Kommunalka presumably due to Putin Senior’s connections.
Putin’s grandfather was not only a member of the NKVD, but a chef. And not only a chef, but Josef Stalin’s chef, a prestigious position that was accompanied by an enormous amount of trust. Putin’s grandfather must have been the most trusted person in the inner circle of the hypochondriac Stalin. Doubtless family talk will often have evolved around Stalin.
So basically, Vladimir Putin is a third generation spy with a staunch Stalinist upbringing. It is likely that he was approached by the KGB as the son and grandson of two devout members, rather than him approaching the KGB. But as said above, Putin expects that people want to be lied to and constantly spins his own legends, a craft that he learned well at the KGB.
Putin did study at the judicial faculty of the University of St Petersburg. Albeit not law, but management sciences for the Public Administration (in German Verwaltungswissenschaften). Here he met Anatoly Sobchak, then a professor at the university and later the mayor of St Petersburg whose team Putin would join then.
During one of the summer holidays while a student he worked in construction and made so much money that he could have helped his parents buy a separate apartment and get them out of the Kommunalka. Putin instead chose to invest all his money into a vacation on the Crimean peninsula. During the second summer holiday Putin claims to have become wiser. This time he did not spend his money on beer or fun, but bought a classy coat for himself and a cake for his mother. Compare Putin’s behaviour to what most of the younger generations in Slavic countries will do like for example happily vacating their seat for older people in public transport. Soviet citizens back then, as well as Russians today revere their parents and go above and beyond themselves to help their elders with money and aid. Putin could have bought his parents an apartment, but all he did was buy them a cake…
During his studies at university he fell in love with a medical doctor. Two days prior to their wedding he ran away and did not marry her. He mentions this only very briefly in his autobiography commenting that it was better to leave before tying the knot, when it became clear to him that the two of them would not be a fit, rather than when it was too late. Maybe in hindsight this medical doctor is happy that the marriage did not go through, but she must have been devastated at the time. In speculation maybe Putin felt inferior because she had successfully studied medicine and might have been smarter.
Vladimir Putin joined the KGB right after he graduated as a very young and unmarried man, which is unique and highly likely owing to his family connections. According to a small publication by Wolfgang Leonhard from 2000, Putin was sent to West Germany’s then capital, Bonn, as a spy posing as an ITAR TASS correspondent at the beginning of the 70ies. He had studied German at the KGB’s language school. However, Putin was exposed after the first two months and had to leave the country within 48 hours. This is the first of a pattern, you will see again. Putin fails tremendously, removes himself or is removed from visibility, but comes back later.
This must have been a significant blow to Vladimir Putin. The discovery of a spy renders their entire career null and void. As an exposed spy, he never again had a chance nor could have been given a chance to spy on Western soil for the Soviet Union. What happened in the next 10 to 12 years is unknown, but the KGB will have used him for internal operations in the Soviet Union against its own citizens, which is neither reputable nor what Putin aspired for. He always wanted to become the great foreign spy.
At the KGB, Vladimir Putin, met Andropov, the then head of the KGB who later became the Soviet Union’s leader. Andropov had a lifelong fear of civil revolts, because Andropov had been the Soviet Ambassador to Hungary during the civil uprising of 1956 when Andropov could see from the embassy’s windows how Hungarian citizens publicly hanged members of the hated Hungarian secret service. Andropov convinced Khrushchev to use military force to intervene and got the nickname the “Butcher of Hungary”. This constituted a doctrine repeatedly followed thereafter for example in Prague in 1968, in Kabul in 1979 and in Warsaw in 1981. Intervene with the military at the slightest chance of civil disobedience! Andropov instilled his learnings in KGB recruits, especially in Vladimir Putin.
In 1985 Vladimir Putin got another chance and was sent to East Germany, the only country where he could work as a formerly exposed spy and where he could understand the language. However, he was not sent to prestigious East Berlin or to the trade fair city of Leipzig, where one could meet foreigners, but he was relegated to the very beautiful, but far removed city of Dresden. That must have been a disappointment to him, but as the dutiful KGB servant that he was, he went to Dresden.
According to his former wife, Ljudmila Putina, the time in Dresden constituted the best years of their marriage. Vladimir Putin would bring his daughters himself to the nearby school and kindergarten in the mornings and then walk across the street to the KGB’s office in Dresden. East Germany lacked a lot of goods, but everyday items like butter, milk or meat were available without queueing. And East Germans were able organisers, a capability that many Soviets seemed to lack.
Does this mean he is a family man or cares about family members? When asked in an interview at the beginning of the 2000s what he wished for his daughters, he was not prepared to answer. After a long pause showing that he never pondered this question before, he stated: “Maybe courage.” You hardly ever see or hear anything about his family members. It is unclear whether they decide to stay out of the limelight themselves or if it’s Putin who makes them.
Vladimir Putin’s claim that he spied on the Americans stationed in the nearby West German town Bad Tölz in Bavaria from Dresden is fabricated. First of all, the Americans had a hotel in Dresden. But how could Vladimir Putin every hope to spy on them at this hotel, when he did not understand English at the time. Secondly, Dresden was called in German jargon “the valley of the clueless” (in German “Das Tal der Ahnungslosen). Dresden lies in a valley and thus radio waves could not be received from nearby West German TV or radio towers. Thus Dresden was the only region in East Germany where inhabitants could not watch West German TV nor listen to West German radio. So his claim is just another lie.
Putin’s spy activities concentrated probably on East German regime critics as well as outliers amongst the locally stationed Soviet troops again. Or maybe he was sent to Dresden, because he could cause the least amount of damage considering what happened at his first foreign posting…
Vladimir Putin’s next failure was not caused by himself, but by historic events. At the end of the eighties East German citizens protested every Monday for their freedom chanting: “We are the people!” (in German “Wir sind das Volk!”). The East German regime collapsed. Putin lived through the downfall and end of East German socialism with horror like Andropov. Unlike his KGB mentor however Putin was left completely alone by his superiors or the leadership from Moscow. At one point he managed to restrain a rallying group of German citizens to enter the KGB premises with a revolver claiming that he would use force. Putin later stated that he was very disillusioned and desperate. When he asked for help, “Moscow remained silent”. The lesson that he had already learned as a kid repeated itself. Putin has to rely on his own strength and power to survive.
Thus, Vladimir Putin returned to the Soviet Union. When he and his family left Dresden, they took their washing machine and car with them. Items that were not available in the Soviet Union, not even to KGB members, because the Soviet Union was on its own economic down spiral. Disillusioned Putin left the KGB and was not heard of for a while.
At the beginning of the nineties another disaster struck. The sauna in his St Petersburg dacha began to burn, but he was able clad only in a bath towel to lift his children over the balcony into safety. Everybody made it out alive and unharmed but the whole house burned down including his last remaining money, 5,000 US Dollars. That must have been an absolute low point in his life. In a rare honest interview statement he opined that his only hope at the time was to work as a taxi driver.
After a few years, Vladimir Putin, approached his old university mentor, Anatoly Sobchak, who was the mayor of St Petersburg and Putin became his right hand man. This opened up a whole new area for activity for Vladimir Putin. He was able to build relationships with powerful businessmen by granting them positions in return for bribes. And he was and is to this day very good at forging such relationships. Putin was known for his ruthlessness and greed. He even made a movie about himself during said time, which was named “Power” (in Russian: “Vlast”). Alas, this high-time came to another abrupt end, when Sobchak lost the reelection, which was partially Putin’s failure. Putin again was out of a job and support system and vanished from visibility.
He reemerged only a few years later as an aid to the Yeltsin family and became the head of the FSB, Russia’s internal intelligence agency spying on its own citizens. He used his old KGB connections to receive that post. When Yeltsin searched for a successor who would grant him pardon for life, Putin initially did not want to become the Russian president. He wanted to be the CEO of Gazprom.
Whether or not Putin plagiarised parts of his final thesis (in Russian dissertation) is debatable, but he sure follows its results. His dissertation concluded that the Soviet Union should follow its strengths and grow by selling its natural resources, gas and oil. Putin could have become the greatest Russian leader in history by developing his own country. Russia has such a huge domestic market and has so many opportunities for development. But Vladimir Putin chose to enrich himself and select few others by selling away oil and gas. Any oil that is sold by Russia abroad, cannot be used by Russia’s internal economy to create value add for its citizens like building houses, plastics, textiles, packaging, other innovations or for its own transport industry. Vladimir Putin still could have become immensely rich and yet developed his motherland. Although he is highly intelligent and very analytical, he never saw this opportunity. He followed his old thinking!
After he became president of Russia at midnight January 1st, 2000, the first presidential order he signed was the guarantee for Yeltsin’s pardon for life. The second presidential order is more interesting though. 5 minutes into his presidency Putin reinstated military boarding schools so that school children get trained in target shooting or assembling a Kalashnikov. With hindsight we know whatever for…
At the beginning of his presidency Putin seemed to be the accidental president, an introvert who came across as shy, but nice. And he brought change for the better to Russia and prosperity at least for the major cities. He allowed citizens to travel. The big cities got developed. There is a free and fast WLAN in the deepest underground of Moscow or St Petersburg. Regular goods, brand shops and elite stores came to Russia. Anything could be had and bought if one had the money. Russia abides by the pension duties of the Soviet Union and pays the highest pension of any country of the former Soviet Union. If you wanted to visit as a tourist, it was very easy to get a visa.
But very slowly over the course of more than 20 years, Putin solidified his status as dictator for life and took away civil rights like freedom of speech. Many journalists and opposition politicians were murdered. There is not a single free TV, or radio station, nor paper or magazine left that is allowed to report objectively. Any oligarch who became either a threat by talking or by wanting to sell his business to the Americans was ousted, killed or incarcerated. The new round of Siloviki is bound to Putin by their businesses. He receives half of everything they make, after he gives them a leadership position in a state-owned company of the energy sector. Putin enlarged his power by taking away power from others. All major elected offices like provincial governors were turned into presidential nominations. Putin can no longer be voted out of office other than by public elections which he knows how to rig.
Creating threats and scaring his citizens is another one of his favoured stratagems. Apartment buildings were bombed. Putin blamed Chechen terrorists to evoke the ask for a strong leader and start a war in Chechnya. A war in Georgia was conducted. Laws were inaugurated which basically allow anybody to be sentenced to prison who speaks badly about Russia. All political posts have been given to former KGB members and trustees of Putin.
Russian sociologists discovered that there exists a Home Sovieticus in Russia to this day, which remembers and fears Stalinist terror and will rather helplessly arrange themselves with the political power than revolting. Putin scares and threatens his own people into obedience by ordering the old Soviet Hymn to be reinstated, albeit with a new text. Putin had the schoolbooks changed to trivialise Stalin’s atrocities and glorify his leadership. Putin throws in Stalinist language into his public speeches every so often, like the 5th column etc. Everybody knows what this means. If you speak up, if you try to revolt, you’re either sent to a gulag or killed. And this threat is not only a threat, but has been executed multiple times in the past!
Putin hates traitors and is vindictive. Anybody who runs over to the West or starts talking has to fear for their lives. To keep the troops in line, Putin chooses poison as the lethal agent, as press pictures and public stories of languishing former agents in emergency rooms, serve as a mighty visual to what one’s fate will be. He also does not care about innocent bystanders as collateral.
Putin has been said to have no manners by abruptly and impolitely ending meetings with foreign journalists without prior incident. His black humour is completely inappropriate at times and his use of colloquial language leaves the impression of a boorish individual. He lacks empathy. He follows Lenin’s guidance: “Trust but verify.” Thus he once sent a KGB colleague after his then fiancée, Ljudmila, to make a romantic advance to her, which she rebuffed and passed Putin’s test of trustworthiness. Ljudmila had no intentions to betray Putin, but she also saw through this clumsy set up. Ljudmila made another interesting remark about her former husband. She commented: “He is a vampire.” If we interpret this remark, this depicts Putin as a bloodsucker who sucks the blood, energy and fun of life out of his victims and pulls them down on his miserable and depressed position.
After he castled with Medvedev for the first time in 2008 when he was only prime minister, he staged an incredible flurry of press including but not limited to
- Flying home endangered cranes in a motor glider with Putin at the controls
- Swimming diligently in his own pool
- Petting and feeding the various animals including dogs, horses and geese at his private villa in a secured compound on the outskirts of Moscow
- Riding bare chested on horses in Siberia
- Spearfishing in a cold Russian Lake
- Hunting and shooting wolves in Siberia
- Driving a Russian snow vehicle through Siberia
- Ice bathing in a cold Russian Lake
- Motorcycling into parts of Ukraine with the Night Wolves (the Russian equivalent of the Hell’s Angels)
- Anaesthetising an endangered Siberian tiger with a blowdart so that it can get treated for diseases and properly registered
- Appearing as a singer as well as playing the piano on his own birthday party broadcast via live state TV accompanied by stars well over the hill then and definitely by now like Gerard Depardieu (French actor and tax evader who received Russian citizenship from Putin), Steven Seagal (former American actor and now Russian special envoy to the US), or Sharon Stone and many more
- Playing ice hockey with his associates (Putin repeated this by opening the Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, a subtropic city, by playing ice hockey albeit with the pros this time!)
- and on and on…
By the way, Putin looked the part for every occasion. If I was a movie maker, I would love to be able to raid the seemingly endless props department of the Kremlin. Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy argue in a book from 2015 that by staging all these events Putin tries to reassure his various citizens that they get acknowledged by their leader and their state, e.g. by accompanying endangered cranes Putin reassures the ecologists and conservationists of Russia that they are heard. That might be true, but I venture to argue that Vladimir Putin also has an enormous craving for recognition.
When he was reelected as president in 2012 after the second castling with Medvedev, he did not come on stage smiling in his victory speech. Instead he spoke aggressively with tears in his eyes that “they want to destroy Russia” praising his citizens’ choice of him since he would prevent that. He never explained who “they” were and what exactly he would prevent. On many more occasions thereafter Putin saw conspiracies to bring down Russia.
Putin has a sadistic streak. There have been a number of recorded meetings with politicians, administrators or managers, whom he publicly belittled yelling at them how incompetent they were and forcing them to take actions he dictated. A very public and recent display just occured when Putin had all his security council members swear their allegiance. Putin made his own Chief of Intelligence, Sergey Naryshkin, stutter, while Putin interrupted him and smiled malignantly. Compare this public staging of humiliation of others by Putin with German propaganda master mind Goebbels and his ability to make citizens yell their support for war with joy. The latter incident did not bode well and we should hope neither will the former.
Even before Covid, Putin was hardly ever in the Kremlin anymore. He resided in a secure compound outside of Moscow surrounded by his political nominees, all white former KGB males in their 50ies and 60ies. Although Russia is the biggest country on the planet, it has a Gross Domestic Product less than Italy’s. Putin cannot use a computer, does not use a cell phone for fear of wiretapping and does not understand the internet. Like former Soviet leaders, his entourage does not dare tell him the truth for fear of repercussions of a vengeful Putin.
Distance can be used to show authority. We can all watch this constantly when we see Putin sitting 10 meters away from visitors. However such displays also show an angry, embittered and lonely man who is getting old. A man who not only lives in the past, but wishes to reestablish the past by making ominous remarks about the Soviet Union. Putin stated that he considers the collapse of the Soviet Union as the biggest tragedy of the 20th century.
Putin stands in one line with Ivan the Terrible and Stalin. What happened to them? They both became incredibly powerful. They both scented conspiracies everywhere. Both ended isolated, terribly alone, and distrustful to everyone. Both killed those close to them. Both created tragedies for their countries. Putin due to his isolated loneliness and his Stalinist and KGB driven world view consistently misjudged and misjudges situations. Putin scented, scents and will continue to scent conspiracies against Russia and against himself. One wonders who would be able to get close to Putin, to get through to him and be able to communicate with him…
So what do we have to expect from Putin?
Behaviour shows character and character shows destiny.
- Putin is a third generation spy who has internalised all the KGB’s methods and who has and will use them, but who unfortunately sees the world full of conspiracies and machinations. He trusted a select group of old friends and former KGB members whom he put into powerful positions allowing them to enrich themselves as well as him. But he no longer listens to his allies, but scents conspiracies to bring down Russia anywhere thus making bad decisions for his country. He consistently lies and has no empathy. He may very well be a psychopath. Any defector will be met by Putin’s revenge via poisoning as the preferred method. Some were and will be shot dead. Very few were will be incarcerated. He considers himself the only saviour of his country and ultimately believes only in himself. He believes he is the chosen one for Russia and that only he can help ensure the greatness and future of his home country. Naturally this entitles him to his riches amassed through bribes.
- Putin cannot abide it, if he gets ignored and if he or his country do not receive the recognition they deserve according to his world view. Putin certainly managed to get the world’s attention now and is on the centerstage!
- Putin has no exit strategy and made remarkable comebacks after disastrous failures. He craved and craves power, which he now has after an assembly for more than 20 years. He is in it for the long whole and can wait for years to get to his goals. He is definitely not at the end of his road. All his major enemies and opponents are either dead or in a gulag. Free speech and press do no longer exist in Russia. Putin himself dictates the narrative. His tactics are threaten first by speech. If this does not do the trick then use brute force by killing and conducting wars.
For Putin peace is a state always desired, but never achieved. War is the main state of order!
“Between equal rights, force decides.”
(In German “Bei gleichen Rechten entscheidet die Gewalt”. From communism’s founding philosopher Karl Marx in Das Kapital)
Putin, V; First Person (2000)
Leonhard, W., Anmerkungen zu Stalin [trsl: Remarks on Stalin], (2009)
Leonhard, W., Was haben wir von Putin zu erwarten [trsl: What do we have to expect from Putin], (2001)
Browder, B., Red Notice (2016)
Hill, F., Gaddy, C., Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin (2015)
Marx, K., Das Kapital (1867)