Vladimir Putin has a repertoire of stories he likes to tell about his life. There is the one about his days as a young tearaway growing up in a rough neighbourhood of postwar Leningrad (now St Petersburg), where he chased rats and got into fights. “I was a hooligan,” he has said. “I really was a bad boy.” Then there are the tales of how his mother had him secretly baptised against the wishes of his father, a devout Communist Party member, and how he turned himself around after discovering judo. But the most revealing is the story he tells about why he joined the KGB.
As a teenager, Putin wanted to be an airline pilot. He subscribed to an aviation journal and set his sights on a place at the Civil Aviation Institute in Leningrad. “I was hell-bent on getting in,” he later said. It is tempting to imagine how different Russia, and international politics, would be if Putin was now retiring from a long career with Aeroflot rather than waging war in Ukraine. But instead, after coming across a Soviet spy series on television called The Shield and the Sword, Putin’s focus shifted to the security services. “What amazed me most of all was how one man’s effort could achieve what whole armies could not,” he explained in an interview ahead of his first presidential election in March 2000. “One spy could decide the fate of thousands of people.” He was attracted to the KGB, in other words, by the lure of raw power.
There is no shortage of books retracing the details of what happened next: Putin’s extraordinary rise from the abject poverty of his childhood to his years in the intelligence service and then a political career that would take him all the way to the Kremlin, from where he has ruled Russia (both as president and prime minister) for the last 22 years. But understanding what drives the Russian president and how he views the world has come to seem increasingly urgent since his invasion of Ukraine; Philip Short’s timely new biography Putin: His Life and Times will find an eager audience.
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Although furnishing few revelations, Short provides a comprehensive, extensively researched account of Putin’s life to date, in the process debunking some of the more tenacious clichés about the Russian leader. Among the most popular is that he is a strategic visionary who plans his moves decades in advance – playing chess while his opponents are playing checkers – with his service in the KGB cited as evidence of his ruthless cunning. By contrast, the man that emerges from Short’s nearly 700-page work is ruthlessly focused on his immediate goals, good at making the most of his opportunities, and skilled at cultivating allegiances and the raw, thuggish exercise of power in a huge bureaucracy.
In fact, it was the future president’s distinctly unremarkable qualities that made him a good fit for the KGB, Short explains, which was engaged in much more monotonous work than was depicted in The Shield and the Sword. “He liked to stay in the background and observe others, rather than to be the centre of attention himself,” writes Short. “He was disciplined and pragmatic and able to concentrate his energies on the priority of the moment.” It also helped, he adds, that Putin had been raised to conceal his emotions (although there were notable exceptions, such as the time he collapsed, weeping uncontrollably, at the funeral of a friend who was killed in a judo accident aged 20.)
While Putin’s time in the KGB has been much mythologised, the reality was less than stellar. His highest rank was that of colonel and his only foreign posting was to Dresden in Soviet-allied East Germany, which was not a coveted assignment. Still, it unlocked the door to his next role, and the foundation of his subsequent political career, as he returned to the USSR and began working under the soon-to-be mayor of Leningrad, Anatoly Sobchak (it has been suggested that this was on the orders of the KGB).
As Sobchak’s deputy, Putin earned a reputation for discipline, loyalty and refusing to take bribes, which would serve him well in the years to come. Just as importantly, he began building up a network of trusted associates, such as the future prime minister and one-term president Dmitry Medvedev, who first worked with Putin as a young legal adviser in Leningrad. Igor Sechin, a former GRU (military intelligence) officer, who served as his private secretary, went on to become chairman of the Russian oil company Rosneft. Not coincidentally, both men, along with others in Putin’s inner circle, built up huge personal fortunes during his rule.
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When the then-president Boris Yeltsin summoned Putin to Moscow and ultimately chose him as his successor in 1999, it was not because of his dazzling intellect or charisma or any sense that he was a rising star. On the contrary, Yeltsin and his advisers viewed Putin as a dependable mediocrity who could be relied upon not to betray the ageing president or go after his family’s wealth. In this, at least, they were correct. Putin’s first act in office was to sign a decree granting Yeltsin immunity from prosecution.
Beyond his skill in building networks and accruing power, one of Putin’s greatest talents during his long career has been his ability to allow others to see in him what they choose. To his superiors in Leningrad and Moscow, he appeared diligent and loyal, even though, during the early years at least, he was likely still reporting back to the intelligence services. When he met George W Bush in June 2001, he charmed him with a story about how his baptismal cross had been “miraculously saved from the flames” during a fire, undoubtedly contributing to the US president’s conviction that he had looked into the Russian leader’s eyes and got a “sense of his soul”. As Putin once boasted, he is an “expert in human relations”.
This knack for shape-shifting applied to his domestic political messaging too. He held up his childhood misdemeanours to connect with voters beyond the major urban centres and to show that he understood what it meant to live a tough life. He posed for bare-chested photos on horseback and plunged into icy rivers in Siberia to demonstrate that he was a vigorous man of action who was finally standing up for Russia after the humiliation of the 1990s under the visibly ailing Yeltsin. Had Putin stepped down after his first two terms in 2008, when oil prices were booming, the Russian economy was growing, and the country was regaining its stature in the world, he would have been remembered as one of Russia’s greatest modern leaders. Instead, he temporarily traded places with Medvedev before embarking, in 2012, on a third and then a fourth term as president and changing the constitution to allow him to stay in power until 2036. Then, he launched his war of conquest in Ukraine.
What is missing from Short’s biography, through no fault of his own, is any real sense of Putin the man. Beyond his exercise habits (we’re told he likes to swim and lift weights), the Russian president’s personal life is carefully guarded. We know that he and his wife Lyudmila divorced in 2013 after a long and reportedly unhappy marriage, and that they have two adult daughters who have opted to stay out of the spotlight. Short touches on the rumours about Putin’s relationship with the former Olympic gymnast Alina Kabayeva, but he delves no further into the president’s romantic life, if, indeed, he has one.
The strength of Short’s account – its commitment to presenting a nuanced, balanced portrait – can also be a weakness at times. The bulk of the book was written before Putin’s latest invasion of Ukraine, and while Short attempts to grapple with the conflict in the closing pages, it is here that his analysis breaks down. He finds much to blame in the actions of Western leaders and the decision to expand Nato membership in particular, and he gives considerable weight to Putin’s festering resentment at being treated as a “loser” in the Cold War. He also points to the decisions that were taken before Putin came to power, such as the fire sale of state-owned assets in the 1990s that paved the way to oligarchy, the decision to establish a presidential republic, and the failure to embed liberal democracy after the collapse of the USSR.
This lets Putin off the hook. The Russian president’s grievances and the wider historical context are an important part of the picture, but the decision to launch his barbarous assault on Ukraine, and to send young Russians to their deaths and mortgage the country’s future, was his alone. In fact, although he does not dwell on this himself, according to Short’s own sources this was not out of character. As a former economic adviser to Putin told Short in 2019, over time, he has been “behaving more like a tsar”. In recent weeks, he has made that comparison explicitly himself, openly invoking the example of the 18th-century imperialist Peter the Great.
Short is no stranger to profiling notoriously brutal leaders, having previously written biographies of Pol Pot and Mao Zedong. Our interest in these exceptionally violent figures is often driven by a desire to understand them as aberrations. But what links these tyrants with Putin is that they understood human nature and how to exploit it all too well – how to bully, cajole, threaten, and inspire. They recognised that one man – even an ostensibly unremarkable one – can decide the fate of thousands, even millions of people, if only he is ruthlessly focused on retaining control.
Putin: His Life and Times
Bodley Head, 864pp, £30
This article appears in the 06 Jul 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Last Days of Boris Johnson