STEVEN Lee Myers begins his book The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin (2015) with a quote by Russian legendary author Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, saying every meek Russian is tired with the hard life they have to endure and to ease their pain, they need something or someone they can rely on as a savior.
This apprently holds true not only for Russians but also for us. Indonesians share the same mindset. The Javanese people, for example, have this “Satrio Piningit”. The Christians have “The Messiah”. Life sucks and we need a power stronger than us to lift us from this miserable existence.
This leads to a question: “Is Vladimir Putin a saint or a devil to Russians?”
To give some context for the entire content, Myers displays a set of maps for the sake of comparison. The first set shows us Russia in the Soviet Union era (before its doom in 1991) and the second one is Russia’s new smaller territory after the 1991 downfall.
Putin to me is the modern Patih Gajahmada. He has the dream of reuniting the already crumbling Russian great empire. Majapahit’s Gajahmada had that reunification dream in the archipelago which had evolved into smaller kingdoms.
All this reunification mission needs sacrifice. Lots of blood to spill, money to fund the warfare, simply every bit of resource of a nation.
The 1st chapter of the book tells us how in 1941 Vladimir Spiridonovich Putin (who was our dear Putin’s father) had to fight a brutal war as a soldier to break the siege of the German Nazi troops over the city of Leningrad which these Germans wanted to ruin completely. He got hurt by a German’s grenade.
Putin’s grandfather, Spiridon Putin, was a pro-Bolshevik chef at a hotel. In 1917 when the city of St. Petersburg was torn by a revolution, Spiridon Putin ran away and went back to his home village, Pominovo, near Moscow.
Spiridon Putin once cooked for Grigory Rasputin at the Astoria Hotel where he worked, also cooked for Lenin’s widow and worked later for Moscow’s Communist Party Committee. So he was deliberately bringing himself closer to the political elite.
Spiridonovich Putin’s son, Vladimir Spiridonovich Putin (our today’s Putin’s biological father), joined NKVD, a secret police agency that later would become the cold and brutal KGB. So now you know why Putin is what he is now.
Putin’s father was a tough soldier, successfully escaping from the Nazis while many other got caught and killed on a life-or-death mission.
To describe the brutality of Stalin regime, every soldier who safely escaped from a mission was interogated. “Are you still alive because you ran for life or betrayed or was being a coward?” interrogated the authorities.
The war against Nazi killed more than 100,000 Russians in Leningrad every month.
Vladimir Putin’s parents, Vladimir and Maria, lost their first son Oleg and then later their second son, Viktor, during the siege.
This great patriotic war is the favorite story Putin’s parents tell their third son with. They were ordinary people with simple ways of thinking, seeing Russia as an unbeatable nation. They didn’t seem to understand politics and complexities around the colossal war that had killed some of the Putins too.
Born in 1952, the little Vladimir Putin grew up listening to this victorious narrative of Russia from his father and mother at home. To him there was no question or a bit of doubt that the Russian State had done its best job to protect its people.
As the third son in the family after a tumultuous time, Vladimir Putin was treated as a miracle. Meanwhile, his parents lived a simple life. His father and mother got no higher education so they were hired as blue collar workers with low wages.
Though Putin’s father was a Communist Party member, his mother was an Orthodox Christian believer and stealthily baptized Putin at a nearby church.
Oddly enough, Communism and Orthodox Christianity coexist in Putin’s life from an early age. Little Putin was also exposed to Judaism through Baba Anya, a Jewish old lady living in the same communal home as the Putins.
Unlike the strong and muscular image Putin shows us now with his shirtless photos, Little Putin was a tiny and weak boy. His size was not special and there was a possibility that Little Putin got bullied in school because of his underaverage physical features.
As the third son born who survived, Little Putin was taken care of by his mother very overprotectively. Though they love each other, the Putins was not an expressive family when it came to love and affection. They kept it private or probably did not even show it to each other.
At 8, Little Putin was sent to a kindergarten just because his mother was too cautious. A little bit too old. So no wonder Little Putin lacked social skills. He had very few friends because of his mom’s overprotectiveness.
At school, Little Putin was just an indifferent and spoiled kid but befriended two kids from the Kovshovs. They were bad influence to Little Putin who got caught later carrying a knife inside the school area. Little Putin slowly became a juvenile with delinquent issues, which made him difficult to join the Pioneers, the Communist Party youth organization. His father was furious of course because he was a loyal member of the Communist Party himself. To have a son who wasn’t qualified to join the youth organization of the party was such a shame.
According to his teacher Vera Gurevich, Little Putin was intelligent but cold, awful, disorganized and uninterested in school. The teacher believed Little Putin could have done better at school but with such a bad attitude, Little Putin was not going too far in life.
Pissed off, his father said to the teacher: “Well, what can I do? Kill him or what?”
Oh, had he killed Little Putin, the world may not have had to be this chaotic.
His father made him take a boxing course to channel his overflowing energy and anger but Little Putin left it too soon just because someone punched and broke his nose. So Little Putin decided to take a Russian martial arts (sambo) class unbeknownst to his parents. Sambo is a Soviet style martial art which combines judo and wrestling. Little Putin’s love of sambo and judo continued as he grew older. Putin used to be a judo and taekwondo blackbelt holder but ever since the Ukraine invasion, the respective organizations have denied his title.
Martial arts is his strategy to gain respect and position in the social circles. He might be smaller as a fighter but if he had to fight with larger and taller boys, Little Putin would win because he knew techniques to choke and kick these boys’ groin, making them unconscious or cry for their future fertility.
In martial arts, Little Putin made new friends Arkady and Boris Rotenberg, two of his lifetime loyal buddies. Martial arts also gave him a bunch of philosophy lessons of life. It saved him from street life and he was thankful for that to his encounter with sambo and judo in his tender years. In short, martial arts is Putin’s lifelong passion which is why he can stay fit even in his 70s.
Little Putin finally got his membership of the Pioneers. But amazingly in a short time, Putin became the leader of his school Pioneer branch. This title earned him the first leadership that showed his talent as a head in a crowd. Few years later, Young Putin officially joined the Communist Party’s youth organization Komsomol before his peers at school.
At 16, Vladimir Putin loved an espionage story adapted into a 5-hour movie, The Shield and the Sword, written by war journalist Vadim Kozhevnikov. He always remembers the movie as something heroic and patriotic because it glorifies the Soviet Secret Service (KGB) and its dedication to the State (Stalin) as Russia fought against Schutzstaffel (SS/ Hitler’s defenders).
The protagonist of the movie, Johann Weiss a.k.a. Major Aleksandr Belov, was clearly Putin’s idol. He is good looking, physically robust, agile, and incredibly smart. As a Soviet spy in Germany, Weiss succeeded in “deciding the fate of thousands of people”, admired Putin. Later Putin was inspired by the character and decided to set his own dream to become a spy for Russia. He naively went to a KGB local branch office and said, “I want to be a KGB volunteer, sir.” But KGB was never such an open organization. Obviously Putin was rejected.
Young Putin was not aware of the State’s campaign behind the movie. The movie was part of a public image revamp of KGB. Its new director Yuri Andropov wanted the organization to be more acknowledged as people’s protector instead of oppressors and terrorists to Russians.
After rejection of his request to become a KGB volunteer, Young Putin didn’t stop there. He went to Big House (KGB headquarters in Leningrad) and asked a KGB officer what it took to become an agent. He was really ambitious about this KGB thing and espionage world. Putin asked what study would make him qualify as a KGB agent and the agent jokingly answered: “Law”. Putin took this seriously.
Putin went to college to study law as advised despite his parents’ disagreement. His father and mother thought Vladimir Putin was more suitable for a technical school because of his uncontrollable temperament. A skillful spy must be able to hide emotions and even act and think and split his personality.
Putin’s teenage years were full of freedom compared to other teenagers in the country. He liked listening to the Beatles’ music, likening their songs to a window on the outside world and a breath of fresh air. He played the accordion and learned Russian folk songs in the era. The Putins were not a wealthy family but their living standard improved as the economy grew.
As a high school student, Putin was known to be a modest, studious, serious, brash, and athletic student. With his ordinary looks, he was not as popular as other jocks but definitely not the worst and least popular student there was.
Putin religiously studied German (probably to become as close as possible to his dream as the real Johann Weiss), humanities, literary works, and history.
Putin’s high school teacher was Mina Yuditskaya who later influenced the young man significantly. Putin also enjoyed this influence she had on him.
Putin devoted his time to sports and academic pursuits throughout his high school years. A girl named Vera Brileva had a crush on Putin but he had his focus set on many things, and love wasn’t one of them.
Putin excelled at History and German lessons but sucked at Math and Science, giving hopes to all of you who are not fans of both subjects at school. You can still have an outstanding future!
In his final year, Putin set his focus on the Law Department at Leningrad State University, a prestigious institution with a really high passing grade. Only one in 40 applicants could be the student. But somehow, he finally made it! As to how he could, it could be his family background as part of the working class or unknown intervention from the KGB internal staff. No one knew for sure. But it didn’t matter anymore because now Putin lived the path as suggested by a KGB officer 2 years before. Was it a pure coincidence?
Putin fully committed himself to studying law and judo. He never smoked. He didn’t drink liquor at all. Healthy lifestyle was his way to stay fit as a spy. No KGB spy was obese, weak, and slow. So it made sense that he adopted this lifestyle.
He won judo championships in various cities and regions. He traveled a lot just for these judo competitions. Putin explored Moldova, Abkhazia, the northern part of Russia, Black Sea, Odessa, and many other parts of Russia outside Leningrad. He turned very adventurous.
As a momma’s boy, Putin was gifted a brand new car after his mother won a lottery. A 3,500 rubles-worth car was a luxurious commodity in the Soviet Union in the 1970s so we can imagine Putin went to college by car, admired by the entire neighborhood and classmates. Such a badass!
But Putin still couldn’t manage his bad temper. He was still as wild and careless as before. He hit a man with his car but denied that he hit this man deliberately. “He tried to commit suicide. I’m no beast,” Putin defended himself.
At this point, Putin had gradually given up his previous dream of becoming a KGB agent. He worked as an intern at the local Transportation Ministry and he thought he would be just an officer at the institution.
He would have been one if an unknown man hadn’t approached him in 1974. The man, apparently a KGB recruiter overseeing universities, recruited Young Putin to be a real KGB agent.
But before that, a background check was run and it was brutally thorough because you know, it’s KGB. Not an amateurish, small, carelessly-operated organization.
His father was interviewed by a KGB agent, saying, “Volodya (Putin’s nickname at home) is everything for us.” He had high hopes for his son’s future as a KGB agent. His father was of course very proud of this.
Putin had learned the consequences of working as a KGB agent, also knew very well what KGB did in the past and all of its ruthless policies in Russia and outside Russia. But he was as determined as he was years before. Now he’d be the real Johann Weiss! A real hero that can save Russia and bring national stability and security to Russians.
At the onset of recruitment, Putin was aware of the fact that Stalin, their leader, was not as perfect and heroic as the Russian public knew. Stalin killed millions of people in his country, too.
But Putin felt okay about this. These dark stories of Russia would remain untold and ignored. Putin chose to focus more on the glory and pride as “an utterly successful product of the patriotic education of a Soviet man.” He knew well a Soviet man could and was allowed to do literally anything, even that is cruel and inhumane, for the sake of Russia. He agreed with this idea and completely believed the “right or wrong it’s my country” dogma.
PUTIN’S LIFE INSIDE KGB
Putin by this time had lived the life of a KGB agent but he was a ‘victim’ of the secret agent movie. Working as a KGB agent isn’t always as romantic and suspenseful as Johann Weiss’ path. Putin’s work was boring and not special at all at first. It was a period of peace, so he worked at the Secretariat of the Directorate, the personnel office of the KGB’s Leningrad headquarters.
At 23, Putin worked as a junior bureaucrat at KGB, inundated with papers at office and living with his parents at home without a separate bedroom. You can imagine how much a young man that age demanded some privacy. So if you already have your own bedroom since elementary school or high school, consider yourself lucky and privileged.
Putin worked with old people. Everyone around him at work was KGB officers who had worked since Stalin era.
For the first time in his adult life, Putin drank liquor at the celebration of his being appointed KGB agent. He invited some close friends only.
Yuri Andropov, KGB’s director at that time, was obsessed with modernizing the country to keep up with the West. Russia was a country with an obsolete system and he wanted to bring more power and stability into all of its sectors, especially ideology. To Putin, Andropov was a little god to worship.
Like all young employees in their honeymoon phase at work, Putin also enjoyed romanticizing his work as a KGB agent. He believed that he was an important defender of law and order in Russia, a big nation in the world. He felt he belonged and became part of something colossal.
A year later, Putin left the personnel department and entered the counterintelligence department where he was trained to find spies and betrayers inside the organization and bureaucracy. In this department, Putin learned how to apply cruel tactics that KGB usually used to torture the enemies of State (Soviet authority).
Putin claimed most informants were derived from Soviet citizens. He interrogated people who were suspected of spreading information to foreign parties (the West). They could be journalists, entrepreneurs, and even gymnasts who just met foreigners.
As a spy, no one knew exactly what he did in the KGB but he certainly lived a double or maybe triple life. But certainly Putin’s work was not as heroic as Johann Weiss in the movie he watched many years ago in his teenage years. He was a victim of KGB romanticization.
Life as a spy is lonely so it makes sense inside the KGB Putin made friends who also worked as agents. Among his friends in the KGB was Viktor Cherkesov, a staffer in the Fifth Chief Directorate that later worked against dissidents including religious believers (remember that Soviet was a communist state at the time).
After 6 months in counterintelligence, Putin moved to the KGB’s elite branch: First Chief Directorate. He was taking care of intelligence operations beyond Soviet territory. Only a few staffers were assigned in this branch. His excellent mastery of German back in college helped him secure this position. His tasks were – simply put – following wherever foreigners and diplomats go in Leningrad consulates. In short, it was a boring job. LOL. No KGB agent could manage to save Russia alone like Johann Weiss.
Putin at this stage was just a young man who just worked like others. He showed no big ambition to be a key officer in the KGB at all. And he didn’t seem disappointed with the boring nature of his job as an ordinary KGB agent. He worked just like one of the corporate slaves these days. No promotion, no cry. Just getting by day by day is enough.
At 25, as a KGB officer, Putin finally could live on his own after his father retired and was gifted a tiny apartment by the State. So by this time, Putin had already had two properties: an apartment and a car. He spent his free time exploring the entire city and still enjoyed fighting on streets just like he did in his childhood and teenage years. Putin clearly was not afraid of risks and dangers from his bad habit. He felt he was entitled to protection from the State because he was a KGB agent. No ordinary citizen could harm a KGB agent. He knew this and he abused his power. Putin never changed. He was still as reckless and temperamental as before. Only now he got a badge to justify his actions.
To many of his friends, Putin said he was a police officer in the Interior Ministry and never mentioned KGB because well, he was a spy. Even to Sergei Roldugin (a friend who was a classical cellist) he admitted he was a specialist in human relations. He refused to talk even further about his occupation.
From the first lieutenant, in 1979 Putin was promoted to the rank of captain in KGB. He was then sent to attend KGB’s Higher School, only to come back to Leningrad and spying on foreigners just like what he did before. But unfortunately, he caught no spies. Strangely enough, a senior said his work was “productive” despite this record. No wonder because Soviet was in a state of peace and stability.
Before 1980 Putin was still single and the conservative Soviet society and institutions didn’t like his singledom. That was because a single agent was more prone to extramarital affairs, which may make him an easy prey of blackmail.
Young Putin was a good KGB agent but not a boyfriend material to any Soviet girls. He could barely manage a smooth conversation with ladies despite his looks and physical prowess.
According to Roldugin, Putin had begun his romantic relationship with Lyudmila Khmarina, a friend’s sister. In 1979, Putin was engaged to her but just before his marriage Putin broke up with her. “It’s better to suffer now than later”, Putin explained his action. As the one and only son who got spoiled his whole life, Putin grew accustomed to single life and even thought he would be living the rest of his life without any spouse. And that’s exactly what we see him now. A widower who lives his life without any problems.
But in 1980, Putin changed his mind. He met with a charming blonde stewardess named Lyudmila Shkrebneva. Putin was not dressed properly the night he met her and the young stewardess even didn’t pay much attention to him. The stewardess asked Putin if he could help her buy a musical performance ticket and he said yes. Putin gave her his phone number, an action he never did to a stranger or a new acquaintance like Ms. Shkrebneva.
Their relationship was not smooth sailing. Shkrebneva had to abandon his stewardess career and got back to university just because Putin wanted her to. Putin turned out to be a very jealous, possessive and dominant boyfriend. And when Putin’s mother met with the new girlfriend of her son, she wasn’t fond of the ex stewardess and told her opinion to the young lady brazenly. He had a better Lyudmila, Maria said rudely.
Shkrebneva finally found out about Putin’s occupation after 1,5 years they were dating. She had mixed feelings about her lover’s job in the KGB: pride and fear of being ‘in the dark’. The job was awesome and even noble but there was also some fear that she could never understand Putin well. There would always be things to hide in their household. Unspoken topics and feelings.
Despite this, Skhrebneva accepted Putin’s marriage proposal. On July 28, 1983 they got married. The couple ironically enough went to Ukraine on their honeymoon. They rode through Kiev and Crimea, two places Putin would annex and destroy years later.
Putin apparently used marriage as a strategy to advance his career in the KGB. This was said by one of his colleagues in the KGB. That’s because bachelorhood was not favored by the KGB key officials.
After his marriage Putin was promoted to a major and sent to The Red Banner Institute, an elite foreign intelligence school in Moscow. The Leningrad branch of KGB sent Putin to this Academy because he was considered a working class young man who was not spoiled, smart with languages and very loyal to the Soviet union.
This Academy was very discriminative. They did not accept any young officers who practiced religions. They did not except any Jews or Muslim ethnicity from Tatar and Chechnya.
While the Soviet Union was waging war in Afghanistan, inside their leadership circle there was a step back. The KGB‘s chief officer Yuri Andropov died suddenly and also his successor without warning died. The Soviet Union was in a crisis inside, and the KGB agents knew this really well.
While Lyudmila was pregnant at home, Putins was starting foreign intelligence courses at the red banner institute for years. Here Putin learned how to go undercover as a spy. He could use any identities he needed. These KGB agents might introduce themselves as journalists, trade Delegates, or Russian diplomats.
At the Red Banner Academy, Putin was seen as a shining candidate. He showed his best potential to the instructors right there. And he started to use an alias, Comrade Platov.
Putin was very lucky because he could learn foreign intelligence techniques and tricks from the very best. The red banner Academy consisted of three departments namely counter intelligence department, Political department, and science and technology department.
There are three KGP veterans instructing here. They had a very strong reputation in the past, they managed to penetrate the British power things to some Cambridge graduates.
In 1985, their first born daughter Maria was born. At this time his career seemed to blossom even more. He was an established family man and a shining career.
Because Putin spoke German fluently, his chance to be sent to German-speaking countries was high. But which country was it? Putin had no idea because he was just to accept whatever decision the elite made.
If he was to be sent as a spy in a capitalist German-speaking country, his journey would be even longer. That was because as an agent he had to immerse himself into the Western, capitalistic culture and system. To learn all of these things, he might need another year or two at the academy.
Putin’s weakness is that he is a risk taker. It is one of his characters since childhood that is not gonna go away easily. Even Putin had worked for the KGB and learned so much at the red banner Academy, he seemed to be over willing to take risks, even that means taking risks that are not worth it. He sometimes got involved in fighting on streets with thugs just because he was tempted to do so. The most recent was a fight in a metro in Leningrad.
With such an overly bold and brave character, he could be a great MMA fighter or a wrestler or an extreme sport enthusiast, but for Secret Service, especially KGB agent being a risk taker is just not the desired character.
Based on KGB evaluation on Putin’s character and performance, He was considered mediocre. He failed to show any interest in building a career as an agent or a spy. He is withdrawn and unable to communicate smoothly with other people. Putin’s best characteristics would be his academic prowess, his tendency to be pedantic, and his smart brain.
Putin’s Worst character proved to put his career in halt because it hindered his career progress. Instead of finishing his supposedly three year education in the Academy, he finished at the end of the first year and then got sent to Dresden, Germany.
At this time Putin was already 33 years old. Though in his early 30s he never went abroad so being dispatched to Dresden was the first Foreign assignment that he had as a KGB agent. So if you think that someone has to go around the world visiting as many countries as possible in his 20s, that just doesn’t apply to everyone and life just goes on. If you can’t visit foreign countries in your twenties, it doesn’t mean the end of the world.
In Dresden, he showed himself as someone with exemplary work ethos, humble roots of the working class, and fast adaptability to the whole new environment. He won the heart of a senior even. But on top of that, Putin dared to show his free thinking, his belief in God and individuality. He wasn’t afraid to be different from others though he was careful enough not to show it to superiors.
Life in Dresden was much better than Russia. Major Putin, his wife Lyudmila and their little daughter Maria now could enjoy luxurious stuff and privileges no one in Russia had. They could buy bananas, expensive outfits, and even porn.
For the first time in his life, Putin started to stop practicing judo. He didn’t exercise at all in Dresden and gained a considerable amount of extra weight thanks to his new habit of drinking local beer. He seemed to enjoy and fully immerse himself in German culture and society.
Putin was a bit disappointed since he didn’t have a son so he impregnated Lyudmilla again but alas, their second kid was a daughter again, Yekaterina.
As a husband and father, Putin was extremely patriarchist, old school, traditional, and conservative. He never helped Lyudmilla with household chores and babysitting. To Putin, his tasks were working as a KGB agent and providing his family things they needed. He never praised Lyudmilla for her dedication because he thought praises made women spoiled.
At first this kind of life seemed privileged, and comfortable. They all had whatever they needed except that these KGB families were not allowed to interact with anyone outside the housing compound. Pretty much like living in a golden cage. Lyudmilla was so stressed out.
Being a spy himself, Putin was very careful but Lyudmilla of course wasn’t. She befriended an allegedly West German foreign spy. Lyudmilla told the spy that her marriage was rocky, and that Putin was a temperamental and unfaithful husband. Lyudmilla thought Putin slept with other women, claiming him a serial womanizer. It was clearly not a happy marriage. (to be continued)