Moscow's Man to Watch: Vladimir Putin Insists He's a Democrat. but His KGB Past Is Raising Questions Inside Russia and around the World

Newsweek, January 10, 2000 | Go to article overview

Moscow's Man to Watch: Vladimir Putin Insists He's a Democrat. but His KGB Past Is Raising Questions Inside Russia and around the World


Two weeks ago, on the night before Russia's parliamentary elections, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin visited the headquarters of the FSB, one of the successor agencies to the KGB, at its building on what used to be called Dzerzhinsky Square. Feliks Dzerzhinsky founded the secret police in 1917, and Putin, a longtime member of the security apparat, was there to celebrate the anniversary with his former colleagues. FSB officers were more than glad to have him. "Finally," a partygoer said, "one of us is going to be president."

The central question about Boris Yeltsin's chosen successor is straightforward: Is Vladimir Putin at heart a democrat, a trustworthy custodian of Russia's newly won civil liberties? Or is he what Russians call a "Chekist," a true believer in the ways of the secret police? His first test comes right away: running for the presidency while acting as interim president. "He will be responsible for preserving the constitutional system, as well as being a candidate within it," says Sandy Berger, President Clinton's national-security adviser. "How he handles those two roles will tell us a great deal about who he is."

Putin's biography is sufficiently sinister to ensure that the scrutiny will be intense. Born in St. Petersburg in 1952, he graduated from a law academy there and signed on immediately with the KGB. He spent years in East Berlin, engaged mostly in political espionage. Smart and hardworking, he made lieutenant colonel in the KGB and retired with that rank in the late 1980s. In 1990, he joined the staff of St. Petersburg's first democratically elected mayor.

It was common practice back then for KGB helpers to infiltrate new civic bodies in order to glean information and influence events. Whether that was Putin's role is not clear. …

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