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Correspondent Friday, 9 February, 2001, 13:20 GMT
Who is Putin?
Vladimir Putin: the future of Russia lies in his hands
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.

St Petersburg
St Petersburg in Russia, Putin's birth place
Vladimir Putin has been president of Russia for nearly a year, but still remains an enigma. Mr Putin's past suggests that he is a mixture of contradictory influences and instincts.

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.

Putin learned how to outwit his opponents in Judo
But there's a darker side to Vladimir Putin, one that has become increasingly evident as he has asserted himself as president.

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 always likes to win!

Putin's Judo Coach, Anatoly Rakhlin
No wonder he was devastated at the sudden and humiliating Soviet retreat from Eastern Europe and subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union.

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

For the first time in Russian and Soviet history the leader was raised to power on the wave of war

Lilia Shevtsova
In 1999 Boris Yeltsin's Presidency was in trouble.

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.

President Putin was chosen by Boris Yeltsin
In August of that year, he waged a brutal war against the Chechens after a series of explosions had ripped through tower blocks in Moscow and other cities. Thousands were killed, and Chechnya was all but obliterated. But Mr Putin became a national hero: he was in tune with a humiliated nation.

"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.

The "Spitting Image" style Putin puppet used on NTV
As part of his crackdown on corruption, he set about pursuing the channel's owner, Vladimir Gusinsky, one of the so-called Russian oligarchs who had allegedly exploited Russia's chaotic privatisation reforms to amass a personal fortune.

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.

The Kremlin, Russia
Five of the seven supergovernors who oversee Russia's unruly regional leaders are military or security men, and the security service even runs Chechnya. Russia's most notorious oligarch, Boris Berezovsky, was a year ago one of Mr Putin's most enthusiastic supporters.

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.


Click here for transcripts

Who is Putin? 1855 GMT, Saturday 10th February on BBC 2.

Reporter: Bridget Kendall

Producer: Ewa Ewart

Series Producer: Farah Durrani

Editor: Fiona Murch

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
President Putin
"Where is this man taking Russia?"
James Bond
"The film which inspired Putin to become the Soviet equivalent of James Bond."
NTV
"Everyone was a potential target of Putin's dictatorship of law...NTV more than most."
Kursk
"Faced with a national crisis he seemed aloof and indifferent"

Historic webcast

AUDIO VIDEO

TALKING POINT

Putin in power

IN DEPTH
See also:

05 Feb 01 | Europe
25 Aug 00 | Media reports
24 Aug 00 | Media reports
27 Mar 00 | Media reports
07 May 00 | Europe
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