His early life has the ring of legend about it—the legend of a postwar thug. It starts in Leningrad in 1952, just eight years after the end of the Siege of Leningrad. His parents, Maria and Vladimir Putin, had survived the siege in the city. The elder Vladimir Putin had joined the Army in the early days of the Soviet-German war and had been wounded seriously in battle. These were the future president’s parents: a disabled man and a woman who had come very close to dying from starvation and who had lost her children (a second son died in infancy several years before the war). But by the measure of the postwar Soviet Union, the Putins were lucky: they had each other. To have lived not only through the war but through the siege, and to still have your spouse—and your home—was, essentially, a miracle.
Because Vladimir Putin was catapulted to power from obscurity, and because he spent his entire adult life within the confines of a secret and secretive institution, he has been able to exercise greater control over what is known about him than almost any other modern politician—certainly more than any modern Western politician. He has created his own -mythology of a child of post-siege Leningrad, a mean, hungry, impoverished place that bred mean, hungry, ferocious children.
One enters the building in which Putin grew up through the courtyard. Chunks of the handrail were missing, and the rest of the construction wobbled wildly. The Putins lived on the top floor of the five-story building, and the journey up the dark stairs could be risky. Three families shared a single gas stove and a sink stationed in the narrow hallway. The Putins had the largest room in the shared apartment: around 20 square meters, or roughly 12 feet by 15 feet. By the standards of the time, this was an almost palatial abode. More incredibly, the Putins also had a television set, a telephone, and a dacha (a small house outside the city). The elder Vladimir Putin worked as a skilled laborer at a train-car factory; Maria took backbreaking unskilled jobs (night watchman, cleaning woman, loader) that allowed her to spend time with her son. Against the fine shades of postwar Soviet poverty, the Putins emerge as practically rich.
Education was not part of the younger Putin’s idea of success; he has placed a great emphasis on portraying himself as a thug, and in this he has had the cooperation of his childhood friends. By far the largest amount of authorized biographical information available about him concerns the many fistfights of his childhood and youth.
Putin, younger than the thugs he encountered and slight of build, apparently tried to hold his own with them. “If anyone ever insulted him in any way,” a friend recalled, “Volodya would immediately jump on the guy, scratch him, bite him, rip his hair out by the clump—do anything at all never to allow anyone to humiliate him in any way.” Putin’s friends recount a series of fighting stories, the same plot repeating itself year after year. “We were in eighth grade when we were standing at a tram stop, waiting,” recounted another friend. “A tram pulled up, but it was not going where we needed to go. Two huge drunken men got off and started trying to pick a fight with somebody. They were cursing and pushing people around. Vovka calmly handed his bag over to me, and then I saw that he had just sent one of the men flying into a snowbank, face first. The second one turned around and started at Volodya, screaming, ‘What was that?’ A couple of seconds later he knew exactly what it was, because he was lying there next to his buddy. That was just when our tram pulled up. If there is anything I can say about Vovka, it’s that he never let bastards and rascals who insult people and bug them get away with it.”
Masha Gessen discusses her new book, ‘The Man Without a Face,’ which was exclusively excerpted in Newsweek magazine.
At the age of 10 or 11, Putin went looking for a place where he could learn skills to supplement his sheer will to fight. Boxing proved too painful: he had his nose broken during one of his first training sessions. Then he found Sambo. Sambo, an acronym for a Russian phrase that translates as “self-defense without weapons,” is a Soviet martial art, a hodgepodge of judo, karate, and folk wrestling moves. With its discipline, Sambo became part of Putin’s transformation from a grade-school thug into a goal-directed and hardworking adolescent. It was also linked to what had become an overriding ambition: Putin had apparently heard that the KGB expected new recruits to be skilled in hand-to-hand combat.
“Imagine a boy who dreams of being a KGB officer when everyone else wants to be a cosmonaut,” the journalist Natalia Gevorkyan said to me, trying to explain how odd Putin’s passion seemed to her. I did not find it quite so farfetched: in the 1960s, Soviet cultural authorities invested heavily in creating a romantic, even glamorous image of the secret police. When Putin was 12, a novel called The Shield and the Sword became a bestseller. Its protagonist was a Soviet intelligence officer working in Germany. When Putin was 15, the novel was made into a wildly popular miniseries. Forty-three years later, as prime minister, he would meet with 11 Russian spies deported from the United States—and together, in a show of camaraderie and nostalgia, they would sing the theme song from the miniseries.
“When I was in ninth grade, I was influenced by films and books, and I developed a desire to work for the KGB,” Putin told a biographer. “There is nothing special about that.” The protestation raises the question: is there another explanation for Putin’s single-minded passion? It seems there is, and Putin has hidden it in plain sight, as the best spies do.
We all want our children to grow up to be more successful versions of ourselves. Vladimir Putin was born to be a Soviet spy. During World War II, the elder Putin had been assigned to troops who worked with the NKVD, as the Soviet secret police was then called. The legend of his father’s daring escape from behind German lines with which the younger Putin grew up is as likely to have been true as any other tale of miraculous survival and spontaneous heroism.
It is not clear whether the elder Putin had worked for the secret police before the war or continued to work for the NKVD afterward. It seems likely that he remained part of the so-called active reserve, a giant group of secret-police officers who held regular jobs while also informing for—and drawing a salary from—the KGB. This may explain why the Putins lived so comparatively well: the dacha, the television set, and the telephone—especially the telephone.
At the suggestion of a KGB recruiter, Putin went to university, where he seems to have chiefly kept to himself. He kept his grades up and spent his free time training in judo (his coach and teammates had traded in Sambo for an Olympic martial art) and driving around in his car. Putin was, more than likely, the only student at Leningrad University who owned his own car. In the early 1970s a car in the Soviet Union was a rarity: it cost roughly as much as a dacha. The Putins won the car, a late-model two-door with a motorcycle engine, in a lottery, and rather than take the money—which would have been enough to get them out of the communal apartment and into a separate flat in a newly constructed building—gave the car to their son. That they gave the younger Putin this lavish gift, and that he accepted it, are further examples of the Putins’ extraordinarily doting relationship with their son, and perhaps of their incongruous riches. Whatever the reason, Putin’s relationship to money—extravagant and strikingly selfish for his social-context—-appears to have taken shape during his university years.
Soon after university Putin achieved his dream of entering the KGB, and he seems to have made no secret of his work for it. He told the cellist Sergei Roldugin, who would become his best friend, almost as soon as the two met. Roldugin, who had traveled abroad with his orchestra and had seen KGB handlers at work, says he was apprehensive and curious at once. “Once, I tried to get him to talk about some operation that had gone down, and I failed,” he told Putin’s official biographers. “Another time I said to him, ‘I am a cellist, and that means I play the cello. I’ll never be a surgeon. What’s your job? I mean, I know you are an intelligence officer. But what does that mean? Who are you? What can you do?’ And he said, ‘I am an expert in human relations.’ That was the end of the conversation. He really thought he knew something about people ...”
Putin’s own descriptions of his romances paint him as a strikingly inept communicator. He had one significant relationship with a woman before meeting his future wife; he left her at the altar. “That’s how it happened,” he told his biographers, explaining nothing. “It was really hard.” He was no more articulate on the subject of the woman he actually married—nor, it seems, was he successful at communicating his feelings to her during their courtship. They dated for more than three years—an extraordinarily long time by Soviet or Russian standards, and at a very advanced age: Putin was almost 31 when they married. Mrs. Putin has gone on record saying it was by no means love at first sight, for at first sight Putin seemed unremarkable and poorly dressed; he has never said anything publicly about his love for her. Her description of the day he finally proposed paints a picture of a profound failure to communicate.
“One evening we were sitting in his apartment, and he says, ‘Little friend, by now you know what I’m like. I am basically not a very convenient person.’ And then he went on to describe himself: not a talker, can be pretty harsh, can hurt your feelings, and so on. Not a good person to spend your life with. And he goes on. ‘Over the course of three and a half years you’ve probably made up your mind.’ I realized we were probably breaking up. So I said, ‘Well, yes, I’ve made up my mind.’ And he said, with doubt in his voice, ‘Really?’ That’s when I knew we were definitely breaking up. ‘In that case,’ he said, ‘I love you and I propose we get married on such and such a day.’ And that was completely unexpected.” They were married three months later. Ludmila moved to Leningrad to live with Putin in the two rooms he shared with his parents.
In the middle to late 1970s, when Putin joined the KGB, it, like all Soviet institutions, was undergoing a phase of extreme bloating. Its growing number of directorates and departments were producing mountains of information that had no clear purpose, application, or meaning. An entire army of men and a few women spent their lives com-piling newspaper clippings, transcripts of tapped telephone conversations, reports of people followed and trivia learned.
The internal ideology of the KGB, as of any police organization, rested on a clear concept of the enemy. But Putin entered the service not only in the post-Stalin era but also during one of the few brief periods of peace in Soviet history. The only active enemies were the dissidents, a handful of brave souls who drew a disproportionate amount of KGB force. Putin claims not to have taken part in anti-dissident work but has shown in interviews that he was thoroughly familiar with the way it was organized, probably because he was part of the group fighting the dissidents, as a former comrade’s memoir claimed.
His break came in 1984, when he was sent to spy school in Moscow. Barring an unexpected disaster, Putin knew that afterward he would be assigned to work in Germany, but he was disappointed that it was to Dresden. At the age of 33, Putin, with Ludmila—who was pregnant—and their 1-year-old daughter, Maria, traveled to his backwater assignment. This was the job for which he had worked and waited for 20 years, and he would not even be undercover.
The Putins, like five other Russian families, were given an apartment in a large apartment block in a little Stasi world: secret-police staff lived here, worked in a building a five-minute walk away, and sent their children to nursery school in the same compound. Their job was to collect information about “the enemy,” which was the West, meaning West Germany and, especially, United States military bases in West Germany, which were hardly more accessible from Dresden than they would have been from Leningrad. Putin and his colleagues were reduced mainly to collecting press clippings, thus contributing to the growing mountains of useless information produced by the KGB.
The Putins had a second daughter and named her Ekaterina. Putin drank beer and got fat. He stopped training, or exercising at all, and he gained more than 20 pounds—a disastrous addition to his short and fairly narrow frame. From all appearances, he was seriously depressed. His wife, who has described their early years together as harmonious and joyful, has pointedly refrained from saying anything about their family life after spy school. She has said only that her husband never talked to her about work.
Not that there was much to tell. The job Putin had once coveted, working to draft future undercover agents, turned out to be not only tedious but fruitless. He and his two colleagues from the illegal-intelligence unit tracked down foreign students enrolled at the Dresden University of Technology and spent months gaining their confidence, often only to find that they did not have enough money to entice the young people to work for them.
Still, it was in the West—so close and so unreachable for someone like Putin (some other Soviet citizens posted in Germany had the right to go to West Berlin)—that people had the things he really coveted. He made his wishes known to the very few Westerners with whom he came in contact—members of the radical group Red Army Faction, who took some of their orders from the KGB and occasionally came to Dresden for training sessions. “He always wanted to have things,” a former RAF member told me of Putin. “He mentioned to several people wishes that he wanted from the West.” This source claims to have personally presented Putin with a Grundig Satellit, a state-of-the-art shortwave radio, and a Blaupunkt stereo for his car; he bought the former and pilfered the latter from one of the many cars the RAF had stolen for its purposes.
Just as the Putins left the Soviet Union, that country began to change drastically and irrevocably. Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in March 1985. Two years later, he had released all Soviet dissidents from prison and was beginning to loosen the reins on Soviet-bloc countries. Over the next few years, a chasm would open up between the party and the KGB, culminating with the failed coup in August 1991.
Watching the changes from afar, surrounded by other secret-police officers—and no one else—Putin must have felt a hopeless, helpless fury. In East Germany, as in the Soviet Union, people were beginning to come out into the streets to protest, and the unthinkable was quickly beginning to look probable: the two Germanys might be reunited—the land Putin had been sent here to guard would just be handed over to the enemy. Everything he had worked for was now in doubt; everything he had believed was being mocked. This is the sort of insult that would have prompted the agile young man that Putin had been to pound the offender until his fury had subsided. Middle-aged, out-of-shape Putin sat silent and helpless as his dreams and hopes for the future were destroyed.
On Oct. 7, 1989, Vladimir Putin’s 37th birthday, East Germany celebrated its 40th anniversary, and riots broke out in Berlin. A month later the Berlin Wall fell, but demonstrations in East Germany continued until the first free-elections in March. Even before the protesters had chased the Stasi out of its buildings, East Germany began the grueling and painful process of purging the Stasi from its society. All of the Putins’ neighbors not only lost their jobs but also were banned from working in law enforcement, the government, or teaching.
The Putins returned to Leningrad. They carried a 20-year-old washing machine given to them by their former neighbors and a sum of money in U.S. dollars, sufficient to buy the best Soviet-made car available. This was all they had to show for four and a half years of living abroad—and for Vladimir Putin’s unconsummated spy career. The four of them would be returning to the smaller of the two rooms in the elder Putins’ apartment.
In the years that followed, Putin did all he could to bring back the life he had loved: the closed world of the Soviet Union and, even more important, the KGB. Not only did he become head of the Russian state a mere dozen years after returning from Germany, but he also succeeded in transforming the country, turning back democratic reforms and ultimately establishing a thoroughly corrupt and inefficient authoritarian regime in the image of the U.S.S.R.
While his political inspiration has come from the KGB, his personal style goes back to the St. Petersburg courtyards, where he picked up the wit and social-graces of a street thug. He scored his first major surge in popularity in 1999, when he vowed to hunt down Chechen terrorists. Since then he has continued to employ a rhetoric based on homegrown vulgarisms even when many Russians seem to have had enough of his ways. What used to look like macho decisiveness and directness now looks unenlightened. Putin’s thug myth may ultimately contribute more to his demise than it did to his rise to power.
From The Man Without a Face by Masha Gessen. Reprinted by arrangement with Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. and Granta Books (UK). © 2012 by Masha Gessen.