Vladimir Putin could be likened to a Rubik’s cube, a puzzle of a man who remains impossible to fully solve. As he unleashed his “special military operation” five weeks ago, to “de-Nazify” and “demilitarize” Ukraine, President Putin remains an enigma. While each day of his war against his Western neighbor leaves mounting casualties, piles of rubble and millions of refugees, a question persists: Why is he so intent to destroy and kill?
In Putin’s mind, at least, “Russia is Putin” and “Putin is Russia,” making Ukraine, which was once part of the Soviet Union, “very personal,” said Aubrey Immelman, a professor of psychology at St. John’s University/College of St. Benedict, in Minnesota. Immelman, who studies political personalities, told PassBlue that “make Russia great” really means “make Putin great.”
His journey from deep poverty to reportedly off-the-charts wealth and megalomania has been well documented. But his early youth provides insights that could help explain his current mind-set.
He was born on Oct. 7, 1952, in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), the third and only surviving child of Vladimir Spiridonovich Putin, a World War II veteran, and Maria Ivanovna Shelomova. Before young Vladimir was born, the couple had two other sons, Albert, who died in infancy, and Viktor, who died of diphtheria during Nazi Germany’s siege of Leningrad.
On Sept. 8, 1941, after bombing the city into submission, Nazi forces surrounded it, cutting its citizens off from all sources of heat, electricity and food — a siege that is viscerally familiar now to the people, for example, still left in the city of Mariupol in Ukraine. The Leningrad siege lasted for nearly 900 days and resulted in the deaths of one million people, most of whom died from starvation.
It was one of the coldest winters on record, said Lisa Kirschenbaum, a professor of history at West Chester University in Pennsylvania, describing the first months of the siege, roughly from November 1941 to March 1942. Daily temperatures hovered around minus-40 degrees Fahrenheit, and “the Nazi plan [was] quite literally to starve the city to death,” Kirschenbaum told PassBlue. “The defining features of that first winter of the war was cold, darkness and hunger . . . a pretty grim time.”
Although Putin was born seven years after World War II ended and was spared the horrors of the siege, the household was most likely still traumatized from the conflict. His father returned to Leningrad a wounded veteran, and his mother, Putin has said, nearly died during the siege. He tells the story in a collection of interviews published in his 2000 autobiography, “First Person: An Astonishingly Frank Self-Portrait by Russia’s President Vladimir Putin.”
“Once, my mother fainted from hunger,” he wrote. “People thought she had died, and they laid her out with the corpses. Luckily, mama woke up in time and started moaning. By some miracle, she lived. She made it through the entire blockade of Leningrad.”
In his autobiography, Putin describes growing up poor in Leningrad and living in a communal apartment with his parents, sparring with rats and scrapping with bullies in the courtyard. During this time, with the help of popular Russian spy movies, such as “The Sword and the Shield,” Putin romanticized the idea of becoming a special agent for the KGB. The infamous security agency was created in 1954 to serve as “the sword and shield of the Communist Party.”
According to Putin, when he was 16 years old, he went to a local KGB office to apply for a job but was turned down and told by “a guy” to come back after completing “some type of civilian higher education,” such as law school. Putin followed these orders, and after studying law at Leningrad State University, he joined the KGB in 1975. Soon after, he was sent to Dresden, a backwater city at the time, in East Germany, bombed to its bones by Allied forces during World War II.
While in Dresden, working as a counterintelligence officer, Putin witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and rumblings of the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was a moment that New York Times chief White House correspondent Peter Baker described as profound, in “Putin’s Road to War,” a PBS documentary.
“Suddenly, the old empire was collapsing,” Baker said. “Everything [Putin] knew growing up was disappearing, and this was a moment that defined him and his life.” Years later, as president of Russia, Putin referred to the Soviet Union’s demise as the 20th century’s greatest “political disaster.” (See video below of Putin’s address to Russia’s Federal Assembly, 2005.)
“For Soviet citizens born around the time that Putin was born . . . there was a sense that the Soviet Union was going to last forever,” said Glennys Young, in an interview with PassBlue. Young is a Soviet and Russian historian at the University of Washington in Seattle. “So, the collapse was a huge shock to many, many Soviet citizens.”
Amir Weiner, a Sovietologist at Stanford University who studies the KGB, told PassBlue that for Putin, a “very proud” KGB agent, “there’s a sense that everything he was so proud of was . . . turning into ashes.”
Weiner continued: “Putin likes to tell the story . . . how he was in Dresden,” at the KGB office around the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall, “surrounded by demonstrators . . . trying to get his bosses on the phone to figure out what’s going on . . . and nobody answered. They tell [Putin] Moscow is silent.” The experience for Putin, Weiner said, was “humiliating.” The Soviet Union officially collapsed on Dec. 25, 1991.
Soon after, in the early 1990s, Putin, unemployed, returned to his hometown of St. Petersburg and to his wife, Lyudmila Shkrebneva, and their young daughters, Maria and Katerina. Putin and Lyudmila eventually divorced, and he never remarried.
Despite being virtually unknown in Russia’s political circles, Putin moved to Moscow in 1996, and two years later, he was made director of the FSB (Russia’s main security agency and successor to the KGB) by President Boris Yeltsin. From there, Putin’s capital rose quickly, and in August 1999 Yelstin appointed him prime minister.
In the American movie director Oliver Stone’s 2017 documentary, “The Putin Interviews,” Putin tells an eerily prophetic story about a conversation he had with his father before he died in 1999, when Putin was not yet prime minister. (His mother died in 1998.)
“My father died two months before I was appointed prime minister,” Putin said. “But even before I became prime minister, when I would go visit him in the hospital, he would always tell the nurses, ‘Look, here’s my president coming.'”
By then, Putin had gained recognition in the Kremlin. But beyond that inner circle, he was still unknown to average Russians. For Putin and his supporters, his relative obscurity, they realized, could hurt his chances of winning a future presidential election. In September 1999, a series of apartment bombings killed more than 200 sleeping Russians, spreading panic across Moscow. To this day, Putin denies having anything to do with the bombings; however, the incident and Putin’s reaction to it as prime minister helped to cast him as a savior of the Russian people.
Although the official explanation from Putin and his government at the time claimed that the bombs were planted by Chechen rebels, alternative causes and theories abound, making a definitive reason elusive. At a press conference on Sept. 24, 1999, Putin blamed the bombings on Chechen “terrorists” and vowed to pursue them “everywhere,” from the airport to the toilet, promising Russians that, if necessary, “we’ll waste them in the outhouse.”
This lashing out is similar to language he used recently in a speech in Moscow, on March 16 (below), referring to his country’s assault on Ukraine, vowing to get rid of “scum” and “traitors” by spitting them out like flies.
“It’s gulag underworld language . . . he’s determined to show his might,” Elizabeth Wood, a professor of history at MIT, told PassBlue in a Zoom interview. Putin’s choice of words was no accident, Wood said, in his referral to the infamous, deadly forced labor camps originated by Stalin.
A few months later, on Dec. 31, 1999, Yeltsin, facing accusations of corruption and struggling with alcoholism, stepped down and appointed Putin as acting president of Russia. In March 2000, Putin won his first presidential election, with 53 percent of the vote.
Putin has now been in power since for 22 years (he stepped down from the presidency and served as Russia’s prime minister from 2007 to 2012, while Dmitry Medvedev was Russia’s president). Technically, Putin could remain Russia’s president until 2036, after he signed a law in 2021 extending presidential terms.
As Putin has consolidated massive power in Russia, he has excoriated the United States and the European Union — the West — for threatening Russia’s national security, and he has for years railed against NATO’s eastward expansion. In 1999, Russian troops attacked Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, killing upward of 25,000 civilians. In 2020, a report from the United Nations’ Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria accused Russia of committing war crimes in the country, where according to estimates from the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, more than 350,000 civilians have died in the 11-year war.
In 2014, Russian troops under Putin annexed Crimea in Ukraine and supplied weapons to Russian-backed separatists in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine the same year. He has also been accused of waging cyberwarfare against the US during its 2016 presidential election, and is now accused of committing war crimes in his war on Ukraine.
Kenneth Dekleva, a senior fellow at the George H.W. Bush Foundation for US-China Relations, has studied what he calls Putin’s political psychology. He described him in an email to PassBlue as a “highly-intelligent, tactical, strategic, and ruthless leader,” who “abhors weakness” and will not “easily yield” to pressure from the West.
“[Putin] is highly motivated by his own revanchist views to make Russia a respected, great power once again,” Dekleva added. “But this is now unlikely, as he has become a pariah, and Russia risks becoming a long-term pariah state as well.”
While Russia continues its onslaught in Ukraine and no immediate cease-fire is in sight, President Joe Biden has called Putin a “war criminal” and a “butcher.” During his trip to Poland recently, Biden said, “for God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.”
Biden’s off-the-cuff remarks, however explosive, could presage the inevitable. In the last episode of Oliver Stone’s documentary, the director asked Putin whether he’s been corrupted by power.
“Indeed, this is a very dangerous state,” Putin said. “If a person in power feels that they have lost it . . . then it’s time for them to go.”
We welcome your comments on this article. What are your thoughts?