Photo from Putin's family album
on the official Kremlin website; www.kremlin.ru/articles/bookphoto24.shtml
Well, as I write these notes in early 2009, Vladimir Putin has been a major player on the world stage for about ten years now, and there is still relatively little known about him, his early life, his KGB career, his specific goals and objectives, the extent of his personal wealth, etc--we do know about his judo background (he was the St. Petersburg city champion and is in great shape) and that he had a long and probably successful career as a spy.
After his schooling in St. Petersburg and then at St Petersburg University, he eventually joined the KGB in the mid-1970s. Legend has it that when he was seventeen, he walked into KGB headquarters and asked what he should do to "join up." They told him to go to the university first. When he finally entered the KGB, he served outside of the Soviet Union, mainly in East Germany, then again back in the Soviet Union investigating students at St. Petersburg University.
In 1991, he formally left the KGB to work with Anatolii Sobchak, one of his former professors. Sobchak had become mayor of St. Petersburg, and Putin became one of his close advisers. Five years later, Putin left to work with Paul Borodin, who ran the Boris Eltsyn's presidential staff in the Kremlin. Eltsyn took a liking to Putin's efficiency, low-key manner and apparent lack of desire for elective office, and he soon selected Putin as his chief of staff.
In the meantime, Putin completed a dissertation in economics, a dissertation what was largely plagiarized:
According to Clifford G. Gaddy, a senior fellow at Brookings, 16 of the 20 pages that open a key section of Putin’s work were copied either word for word or with minute alterations from a management study, Strategic Planning and Policy, written by US professors William King and David Cleland. The study was translated into Russian by a KGB-related institute in the early 1990s. (Putin accused of plagiarising his PhD thesis)
Putin's climb into a position of unchallenged power in Russia was quick, completely legal and entirely democratic. On 25 July 1998, Eltsyn appointed Putin as head of the FSB (the successor to the KGB). Then, the following year, Eltsyn designated Putin as his eventual successor and made him prime minister--actually it was a bit more complicated than that. As Putin jockeyed with his political opposition, his appeal to a restoration of order in Russia and his intention to crush the uprising in Chechnya brought him growing popularity. When Eltsyn resigned on 31 December 1999, Putin became acting president. He was subsequently formally elected president in the elections of March 2000.
As president, Putin has aimed to make Russia powerful again. He carried out his promise to end the war in Chechnya, with Russia "victorious." By 2003, a new constitutional arrangement had been "approved" in which Chechnya was confirmed as part of Russia, and a "rebuilding" of that shattered region begun. Putin also undertook a campaign to restore Russia's image as that of a great power, and part of that involved a renewed appeal to great Russian nationalism (sometimes called great Russian chauvinism by critics). For example, in late 2000, the old Soviet national anthem was brought back into use, but with new words. Putin has also appeared as a player on the world diplomatic stage, as in his forceful opposition to the independence of Kossovo. But his attempt to make Russian great has come at the expense of Russia's relationship with some of its neighbors such as Georgia and Ukraine.
While Russia remains nominally democratic, there is no doubt that Putin has created an authoritarian regime in the country. In The Economist Intelligence Unit’s index of democracy (*.pdf file) by Laza Kekic, Russia, termed a "hybrid regime," is listed in position of 102 out of 167 countries (1 is most democratic; 167 is least democratic). Putin has reasserted control over regions and the regional governors, quelling any instances of autonomy (and also, I should point out, cleaning up corrupt little fiefdoms--and over Russia's parliament by means of his personal political party known as United Russia. Putin's control has included quelling any semblance of an independent media, and most of those who have dared to voice criticism of Kremlin politics have died in mysterious (or not-so-mysterious) circumstances.
In 2008 when Putin's second term as president ended, he left the post, as the Russian constitution required, and he became prime minister with his hand-picked deputy Dmitrii Medvedev--even more of an unknown that Putin was ten years ago--taking over as president. There is little doubt as to where the real power still lies in Russia.
Just recently, Russia, at the urging of both Putin and Medvedev, has moved to expand the definition of "treason" and extend the ability of the government to prosecute citizens both in Russia and abroad for unpatriotic activities. Russia has also passed a new law, expanding the length of presidential terms from 4 years to 6--though some politicians have challenged it as an illegal amendment to the constitution. The rumor was that the new law will allow Putin to return as president again.
There is really not that much information available about Putin online, although there are a lot of blog comments and news items.
The wikipedia entries for him in Russian and English diverge on details of his early life and family background slightly. Both are very good, detailed and long entries. (See the section on Putin's personal wealth in the English version. There has been an ongoing discussion about just how rich he has and the source of that money if he really is wealthy ). The Russian entry has links to very, very long and detailed aspects of Putin's career, such as a very long account of "Putin's Presidency." While it is clear from official economic statistics that Russia has experienced rather substantial economic growth in the last ten years under Putin, it is less clear who in Russia ha actually prospered from that growth, and the demographic crisis continues there (See my remarks on The End of the Soviet Union).
Putin was Time Magazine's Person of the Year for 2007, with Time headlining the article, A Tsar Is Born. There was some criticism of the choice by Time readers, and by Gary Kasparov, the former world chess champion and pretty much lone Russian opposition leader these days, who, in an editorial in the Wall Street Journal, reminded Time that it had chosen Adolf Hitler as Man of the Year in 1938. Kasparov also detailed a quite extensive list of some of the accidental deaths of political critics that have occurred in the Russia in recent years.
Putin's official biography is at www.kremlin.ru/eng/articles/presidents_eng.shtml, and his official website, as head of the Russian government is also available, premier.gov.ru/. But both tend to be a bit sparse.
His autobiography, Ot Pervogo Litsa, a question-and-answer collection, has been translated into English as First Person (translated by Catherine Fitzpatrick, 2000)--must say that I haven't gotten around to reading it yet.
You can also read the article on the "Woman who claims to be Vladimir Putin's real mother." (Log into Blackboard and look for the article under "Course Documents.")
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