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Putin's Obscure Path From KGB to Kremlin

Acting president, who's likely to win election, remains a mystery. The ex-spy has also managed to project himself as whatever Russians and foreigners alike want him to be.


According to Putin, his paternal grandfather, Spiridon Putin, worked as a cook for V. I. Lenin and then Stalin. It is unlikely that he would have had such a job without being part of the state security apparatus.

During World War II, Putin's father, Vladimir, served in the NKVD--predecessor of the KGB--and was dropped behind Nazi lines in Estonia, Putin said. The elder Putin's unit was nearly wiped out, but he escaped by hiding underwater in a swamp and breathing through a hollow reed, his son said. Later, his father was wounded by a grenade, he said, and saved only because a friend carried him miles across the ice to a hospital.

Putin's mother, Maria, meanwhile, was trapped in Leningrad, as St. Petersburg was formerly called, by the 900-day Nazi siege. She barely managed to avoid starving to death--a fate that claimed 640,000 lives. Putin said he had two older brothers who died in early childhood, one shortly after birth and one during the siege.

The family's house was destroyed during the war, and Putin's parents ended up living in communal housing in Leningrad. In October 1952, five months before Stalin died, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin was born.

The Putins, occupying one small room, shared the apartment with several families. There was no hot water or a proper kitchen. Putin recalls as a child chasing rats in the stairwell.

His father worked at a train-car factory and was the secretary of a Communist Party cell; his mother held a series of low-level jobs, including sweeping streets and washing test tubes at a laboratory.

Putin's teachers say he was selected in the ninth grade to attend Leningrad School No. 281, a school for the city's brightest students.

His classmates and teachers there remember him as a top student who was self-confident but did not try to draw attention to himself. Smaller than others his age, he studied judo and sambo, a Russian cross between judo and wrestling.

Classmate Sergei Kudrov recalled that, in ninth grade, an older student kicked Putin when no teacher was looking. Putin kicked back. After school, the bully and his friends were waiting. Putin calmly stepped forward and quickly subdued the bigger boy. Putin never boasted about it, Kudrov said, and no one at school picked on him again.

Speaking recently about the war in Chechnya, Putin just as easily could have been talking about that schoolyard fight: "Only one thing can be effective in such circumstances: to go on the offensive," he said. "You must hit first and hit so hard that your opponent will not rise to his feet."

That same year in school, Putin decided that he wanted to join the KGB after reading a novel about a spy in Germany. At the time, he said, he knew little about the agency's gruesome history of mass repression and murder or its continuing suppression of dissidents. "My impressions of the KGB were based on romantic stories about spies," he said.

Putin was so interested in the secret police that he went uninvited to the KGB's Leningrad office. The KGB never took anyone who volunteered, an agent advised him, only those it selected. Putin asked how he could best prepare himself, and the agent suggested law school. Putin's course was set.

He won a place at prestigious Leningrad State University and studied law. He never contacted the KGB again, but the omnipresent agency was watching. During his final year, the KGB offered him a job. He was graduated in 1975 with a law degree and began working in counterintelligence.

Putin was one of a select few chosen to study in Moscow at the KGB's foreign intelligence institute, where he was enrolled under the pseudonym Platov, learned German and earned a black belt in judo.

In 1985, the KGB sent him to East Germany, where he lived in Dresden and had a cover job heading a German-Russian house of friendship.

Putin said the main focus of his work was spying on member nations of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. His assignment was to recruit agents, collect data from public and covert sources, analyze the material and send it to Moscow. He was successful enough that he received two promotions and his term was extended two years.

Although he rarely left East Germany, his supporters say his experience in Dresden gave him firsthand exposure to the West and the advantages of its political and economic systems.

In 1989, the Berlin Wall came down and Putin's job collapsed with it. Putin destroyed secret documents, burning so many that his stove "burst."

He returned to Russia in 1990, the year Germany was reunified.

He had been steadily climbing the KGB ladder, but now everything in his homeland seemed uncertain. The KGB appointed him deputy director of Leningrad State University, but working there undercover was not what he wanted to do.

Soon after, he met Anatoly A. Sobchak, an ex-law professor who was chairman of the city council and one of Russia's foremost democrats.

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