The Rise of Putin, Part 1: From Nothing to Something

Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

Vladimir Putin’s rise to power in Russia is a case of being in the right place at the right time under the right conditions.  Born in 1952 in Leningrad (St. Petersburg), Putin is described as an over-achiever as a child.  After graduation from “high school,” he volunteered himself to the KGB, but was initially rejected.  He then attended Leningrad State University where he studied law, but by 1975 the KGB came knocking and recruited Putin into their ranks.  Concentrating on political intelligence, he was assigned to a KGB field office in Dresden, East Germany- a backwater assignment with little significance since most of the spy action was in Berlin where most agents wanted to be assigned.  Berlin was ground zero in the Cold War.  In Dresden, from most accounts, Putin’s main job was collecting open-source political intelligence and occasionally working with the East German security police, the Stasi, to surveil suspected spies or defectors.  In 1989, as the KGB and others watched protesters taking sledgehammers to the Berlin Wall, Putin and others scrambled to destroy documents in Dresden.  

Back in St. Petersburg, Putin was given the job as Deputy Rector at Leningrad State University for International Studies.  Amid the chaos as the Soviet Union was falling apart around him, friends suggested that he become an assistant to a former University professor who was a rising star in Russian politics- Anatoly Sobchak- who had left the University to become mayor of St. Petersburg.  Putin proved to be an efficient assistant and became Sobchak’s chief-of-staff before being named Deputy Mayor.  According to all reports, Sobchak relied on Putin’s expertise in handling the city’s day-to-day affairs and was especially important in handling foreign investment in the city luring companies like Coca-Cola and Dresdner Bank.  He was also instrumental in rehabilitating the city’s decrepit infrastructure.

Despite his work in St. Petersburg, Putin never left the KGB which by this time transformed into the FSB.  In effect, he had taken two tracks to eventual power in the new Russia- within the ranks of the KGB and as Deputy Mayor of perhaps the most corrupt city in this new Russia.  At the FSB, Putin became deputy to the powerful Pavel Borodin, who managed the Kremlin’s business empire in 1996.  Here, Putin learned the world of international finance.  He specialized in multi-million dollar contracts and controlling and supervising foreign transactions and state holdings abroad.  This led to becoming the deputy chief of administration and head of the control department for executing the decisions of President Yeltsin.  It also placed him in a position of power and influence over federal and regional leaders, many of whom were tainted with corruption.

He was rewarded in 1998 when Yeltsin named him Chief of the FSB.  He first purged the organization of Communists and replaced them with associates from St. Petersburg.  Putin was coldly efficient in carrying out presidential directives.  Yeltsin considered him indispensable and often relied on Putin for his most important and sensitive tasks.  In early 1999, he was rewarded again when Yeltsin named him Secretary of the Security Council.  One of his biggest accomplishments was firing Prosecutor General Yuri Skuratov who had authorized the corruption investigations of key Yeltsin allies.  Throughout 1999, Yeltsin sought a successor.  On August 9, 1999, he fired his Prime Minister- Sergei Stepashin- and replaced him with Vladimir Putin.  When making the announcement, he named Putin his heir-apparent.

At the end of December, Yeltsin resigned and Putin became Acting President until elections could be held in March.  In that capacity, he tried to be everything to all people. He told radio listeners that he shared their fears of a return of communism, but then later forged a Duma coalition that involved the cooperation of the Communist Party in Russia.  He announced support for the idea of private land ownership, but then shied away from it.  He told his surrogates to call him both a statist and a “liberal conservative.”  Without truly revealing a platform to voters, he often communicated the need for a strong state, calling it a “traditional Russian value,” while also advancing Western investment in Russia.  He, however, rejected Western liberal democracy saying it was not for Russia and had no basis in Russian values.  And although he talked about fighting corruption, he allowed those accused by the Prosecutor General he previously fired to walk free, especially Pavel Borodin who was wanted by Swiss authorities in a banking fraud and money laundering investigation.,

As Acting President, Putin expanded his base of power beyond the circle of governors, military officials, and former KGB people.  He managed to forge a coalition of center-right, nationalist and communist elements within the electorate.  Some within the nationalist movement had suspicions about Putin given his KGB credentials and his unwavering support for the bloody conflict in Chechnya.

Next: Putin and Chechnya