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Friday, 9 February, 2001, 13:20 GMT
Who is Putin?
The BBC's former Moscow correspondent Bridget Kendall asks how Vladimir Putin - a former KGB spy - emerged from nowhere and became the leader of the world's largest country.
He was born in St Petersburg, the cradle of the Bolshevik revolution, but also a city of imperial echoes.
He lived in a typically cramped communal flat with shared kitchen and bathroom, teeming with rats and cockroaches. He knows how grim life is for most ordinary Russians.
But Leningrad, as St Petersburg was called when he grew up there, was always Russia's most Western city, literally and politically.
The inner man
When he first emerged 18 months ago some of his colleagues excitedly declared that this reserved, efficient ex KGB bureaucrat was at heart a reformer.
He was the man, they said, to pursue Boris Yeltsin's legacy, and turn 10 years of chaotic reforms into something more manageable, something more in accordance with orderly, civilised Western democratic government.
His burning ambition was always to be a Soviet secret agent. It is perhaps typical of this determined figure that he never veered from that ambition.
Loyalty and discipline seem to be the qualities that attracted him to the KGB. And that is the sort of man he apparently sees himself as: a dedicated fighter, a loyal patriot. It explains why he is so intolerant of criticism.
It also explains why he is untroubled by suspicions that the KGB's main role has always been to repress dissent. "I worked as a foreign agent," a former city counsellor recalls him as saying, "I had nothing to do with internal Soviet repression."
He had not seen it coming. When the Berlin Wall fell, he was burning secret papers and hurriedly dismantling his East German spy network.
"He always likes to win," says his Judo coach, Anatoly Rakhlin, a sprightly 62 year old who is still training youngsters 30 years after he taught the young Putin.
Mr Putin, he said, was a star pupil who might have made the Olympic team.
"His opponents never knew which side he would come at them from," he continued, "It was always difficult to second guess him."
Into the limelight
He was facing mounting corruption charges, and a new election was looming. A loyal heir was urgently needed.
The Kremlin spin doctor, Gleb Pavlovsky, said that in the search for a successor public opinion had never been monitored so closely.
Mr Putin was unexpectedly appointed prime minister.
"For the first time in Russian and Soviet history the leader was raised to power on the wave of war," said Lilia Shevtsova of the Moscow Carnegie Centre.
Mr Putin's first act after Yeltsin's shock resignation on New Year's Eve was to sign a decree giving the former president immunity from prosecution.
Restoring Russian prestige
Today Mr Putin's message to the Russian people is that he wants to restore their country's prestige, and give them the decent life and prosperity that for so long has been denied them.
But meanwhile, the independent television channel NTV was questioning the war in Chechnya. For Mr Putin this amounted to betrayal.
Before long, his office had been raided by armed tax police, his journalists interrogated, and he had fled into exile where he was arrested on a Russian extradition warrant.
Mr Putin claimed this was just the Prosecutor's office doing its job. But many worried it could be the first step in a crackdown on free speech and democratic freedoms.
"People are more afraid now," said one journalist we talked to. "Only influence from international leaders on Putin can protect Russia's democracy," said another.
KGB in heart of government
The KGB, or FSB as it is now called, is back at the heart of government. A plaque commemorating Russia's first KGB president, the Soviet leader Yuri Andropov, has been installed on Putin's orders to pride of place at the security service's headquarters in Moscow.
He too is now in exile abroad, under threat of possible corruption charges, and thinks Mr Putin is making a big mistake.
"He has lost the support of the intellectual part of society," he said.
But many ordinary people - more concerned about surviving Russia's economic upheavals with some national pride in tact - welcome their leader's scapegoating of oligarchs.
The Kursk: Turning point
But last August he lost popular support for the first time. When the Kursk nuclear submarine sunk to the bottom of the Barents Sea with 118 submariners trapped inside, Mr Putin came across as aloof and indifferent.
It was a turning point for Russia, and a sign that Mr Putin cannot take the support of the Russian people for granted.
Mr Putin shot to prominence from nowhere, and his ratings are still high.
But his support could evaporate just as quickly. And if his critics are sidelined or exiled - who will advise him?
The danger then is that Russia's autocratic past could once again reassert itself.
Who is Putin? 1855 GMT, Saturday 10th February on BBC 2.
Reporter: Bridget Kendall
Producer: Ewa Ewart
Series Producer: Farah Durrani
Editor: Fiona Murch
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