Portrait of the Despot as A Young Man

Article excerpt

Byline: Masha Gessen

The story of the once and future ruler of Russia

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."

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. …