ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — It was 1976, and Vladimir V. Putin was living a lie. He had recently graduated from law school and was working for the KGB when he bumped into two high school classmates, Sergei and Yelena Kudrov.
Putin told them that he had just won a car in a government lottery and was working at the local prosecutor's office, the Kudrovs recalled. He ducked questions about his job by joking: "Before lunch, we're busy catching criminals. After lunch, we're busy shooting them."
Today, after 16 years as a spy and a decade in government posts, Putin is poised to become Russia's second elected president. As acting head of state, he is expected to win next Sunday's election. Yet much of his past remains a mystery, and the kind of president he would be is shrouded in uncertainty.
The Kudrovs remember Putin as an earnest, hard-working student who quietly stood his ground but never bragged. They plan to vote for him but wonder if he hung on to the good qualities of his youth during his rise to power.
"I think he is a decent person," said Sergei Kudrov, a onetime chemical engineer who manages a building materials shop. "But our experience tells us there are no decent people in the Kremlin. So my question is: If there are no decent people in the Kremlin, what is he doing there?"
As prime minister since August and acting president since New Year's Eve, Putin has pledged to restore order, revive the economy and make Russia great again.
He has led this nation into a brutal war in the republic of Chechnya that has left thousands of people dead and forced a quarter of a million from their homes. He ordered the destruction of Chechnya's capital, Grozny--once a city of 400,000--and has kept silent about widespread atrocities allegedly committed by his troops.
Although he has offered few specifics about what he would do with a full term as president, a poll done for the Moscow Times and released Friday shows him leading his 11 challengers with 53% of the vote. The same survey gives his closest rival, Communist leader Gennady A. Zyuganov, 22%.
At 47, Putin is the youngest leader to rise to power in the Kremlin since Josef Stalin became general secretary of the Communist Party in 1922. Fit, energetic and active, he has profited from the striking contrast with Boris N. Yeltsin, the doddering president who appointed him.
Like the good spy he was, Putin has demonstrated the ability to take on the appearance of whatever people wish to see in him. In a sense, he has become a blank screen on which Russians and foreigners alike project their hopes and desires.
To nationalist Russians, Putin is a patriot who will crush Islamic separatists in Chechnya and reunite the country. To Communists, he is a pragmatist with whom they can build an alliance in parliament. To monarchists, he is an enlightened leader who will remove Lenin's mummy from its Red Square mausoleum.
Western-oriented business people see Putin as a "reformer" who will further open the country's markets to foreign investment. To Russia's tycoons, he will protect crooked privatization schemes of the 1990s that helped make them rich. President Clinton, who met with Putin last year, recently declared that he is a leader "we can do business with."
Putin Won't Debate or Air Commercials
Putin's appeal among the electorate is so broad that he has refused to debate other candidates and has declined to run campaign commercials promoting himself like a consumer product. "I will not be trying to find out in the course of my election campaign which is more important, Tampax or Snickers," he said disdainfully.
Putin, just under 5-foot-6, seems to enjoy perpetuating the mystery that surrounds him. He was asked in a recent interview with the newspaper Kommersant Daily whether he will become a different person once he wins office in his own right. "Do you really have the desire to change all and everything?" he was asked.
"I won't tell you," Putin replied.
In an attempt to give the former spy a human face, his campaign last week released a book, "In the First Person: Conversations with Vladimir Putin," based on 24 hours of interviews with three journalists. It is the first time that Putin has disclosed many details of his early life and KGB career.
The book and interviews by The Times with former teachers, classmates, KGB colleagues, St. Petersburg officials and staff members paint a portrait of a man reared in hardship and Communist tradition who acquired a strong desire to achieve and a belief in discipline and order. To hear Putin tell it, his family background is like a page from Soviet history. He represents the third generation of his family to serve the Communist leadership or its secret police, starting from the first days of Bolshevik rule in the 1920s and ending with the death throes of the Soviet Union in 1991.