The state whose prospective rulers come to their duties with least enthusiasm is bound to have the best and most tranquil government, and the state whose rulers are eager to rule the worst.
Putin's rise to power reflected one of the most unusual political biographies in recent years. Brought up in a communal apartment in Leningrad (from 1991 once again St Petersburg) and an enthusiastic participant in the rough and tumble of childhood play in the city's streets, only slowly did his leadership qualities emerge. Attracted to work in the Soviet Union's secret service, then known as the Committee for State Security (KGB), he went on to win a place to study law at Leningrad State University (1970-75), followed by a career in the KGB (1975-90), the last five years of which he served in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), the communist half of Germany until the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989. The following year entering the service of the former law professor, Anatoly Sobchak, Putin rose swiftly to become his right arm as Sobchak became mayor of the city (1991-96). Sobchak's failure to win a second term in 1996 left Putin at a loose end, until he was offered a job in the Kremlin. Once in Moscow Putin's rise was meteoric, from an official in the presidential administration, up through minister of the service in which he had once worked, now renamed the Federal Security Service (FSB), and then as prime minister from 9 August 1999. On 31 December 1999, by some reckonings the last day of the century and of the millennium, president Boris Yeltsin unexpectedly resigned and Putin took over as acting president until elections on 26 March 2000 confirmed him as president for a four-year term. How did Putin manage to achieve such an astonishing rise to become president of the world's largest country? In this chapter we will examine his background and the decisive moments that led to the presidency, and in the next we will discuss the situation that he faced and the ideas that shaped his politics. By the end of these two chapters we should be able to sketch an answer to the question that greeted his emergence as the leader of Russia: 'Who is mister Putin?'