Vladimir Putin is the current President of Russia. He was elected as Russia’s second President (succeeding Boris Yeltsin) in 2000 and served until 2008. After four years as Prime Minister of Russia he was re-elected as Russia’s fourth President (succeeding Dmitry Medvedev) in 2012.
Early Life and Career
Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin was born on 7 October 1952 in Leningrad.
From a poor family in a city only just recovering from a horrific siege, Putin was not a model student. On his own personal website, Putin describes himself as “a troublemaker, not a Pioneer.”
In his teens, though, Putin the rebel turned into a dedicated student. His natural talent for sports (Putin today is a keen judo and hockey player) and languages brought him to the attention of his teachers, who encouraged him to study hard.
From an early age, Putin knew that he wanted to become an intelligence officer. After graduating from Leningrad State University in 1975 with a degree in international law, he joined the KGB.
In 1985, after a decade of domestic postings, Putin was stationed at the KGB’s offices in Dresden, East Germany. There is not much publicly available information about Putin’s time as a KGB operative. His official role was that of translator, but it is widely believed that he also played a role in recruiting assets that could provide secret information or, potentially, act as secret agents for the Soviet Union. Some lurid rumours, but not much detail, exist about Putin’s extra-marital affairs or the time he shot over the heads of German protestors who tried to storm the KGB’s headquarters in 1989 while the Berlin Wall was collapsing.
Putin’s wife and family
Putin married Ludmilla Shkrebneva, a student of Spanish and former Aeroflot flight attendant, on 28 July 1983. Together they had two daughters, Maria and Yekaterina.
Not much is known about Putin’s daughters, as their father has taken great care to ensure their privacy. They attended university under assumed names, and it is thought that both live abroad.
In 2014, shortly after the MH17 airliner was shot down in Ukraine, it was revealed that Maria Putina lives in the Netherlands. And in 2010 rumours flew around that Yekaterina Putina had married the son of a South Korean Admiral.
Putin and Ludmilla Putin (Ludmilla Putina) divorced in early 2014, after effectively living separate lives for many years.
There have been reports of other romances in Putin’s life over the past few years – notably with the gymnast turned politician Alina Kabaeva – but none have been confirmed.
Return to Russia
Putin returned to Russia soon after the Berlin Wall had fallen and began his political career in his home town of Leningrad (which had by then been renamed St Petersburg). An astute judge of the political wind, Putin resigned as a Colonel in the KGB in protest at the attempted hard-line coup in August 1991. Then, under the wing of St Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak, Putin quickly became a senior member of the city administration. He spent six years working as head of the Committee for External Relations where, despite nearly being fired for his role in a corruption scandal, he began to build the political network that would propel him to the top of Russian politics.
When Sobchak lost the 1996 election, Putin resigned and moved to Moscow where he quickly rose up the ranks of a chaotic Boris Yeltsin government. From a relatively humble start as head of the Presidential Property Management Department Putin moved up to deputy chief of the Presidential staff, head of the Federal Security Bureau (the successor to the KGB), Deputy Prime Minister and then, finally in 1999, Prime Minister of Russia.
Acting President of Russia
In 1999, President Boris Yeltsin’s health was failing and he was was becoming less and less popular as leader of Russia. On 31 December 1991 he surprised the world by announcing that he was resigning as President, leaving Vladimir Putin as Acting President of Russia.
Putin’s first act as Acting President was to sign a decree guaranteeing Yeltsin and his family immunity from prosecution. He then went on to successfully fight an election campaign which culminated, on 7 May 2000, with his appointment as President of Russia.
Vladimir Putin was the third Acting President in Russia’s modern history.
The first, Alexander Rutskoy was named as Acting President on 21 September 1993, during Russia’s constitutional crisis, although he was not widely recognized as holding the role. The second, Viktor Chernomyrdin, was sworn into office for 5 and 6 November 1996, while Boris Yeltsin underwent heart surgery.
First term as President of Russia
Putin was elected by a country that had been battered by the transition from communism to market economy, and which had fared badly in the economic crash of 1998. Russia had just devalued the ruble, defaulted on its debts, and experienced inflation of over 80%. Aware of this, Putin’s first promise to the nation was to turn Russia into “a free, prosperous, flourishing, strong and civilized country, a country that its citizens are proud of and that is respected internationally.”
Putin’s first task was to break the power that Russia’s oligarchs held in politics. Under Yeltsin they had bought cheap assets from the state and turned them into massive businesses and fortunes. Putin was convinced he could not rule effectively if they were involved in politics. So, he started a war with them.
Prominent oligarchs were arrested and their assets seized. The most prominent oligarch to be arrested was Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the billionaire owner of the Yukos oil firm.
Khodorkovsky’s arrest, and subsequent decade long imprisonment, convinced many of the other oligarchs to enter a so-called ‘Grand Bargain’ with Putin. In exchange for agreeing to stay out of politics forever, they would be left to run their businesses the way they wanted, free of political interference.
Putin’s first term was not without controversy or challenge, however. Two crises in which he was first criticised for a slow response, and then risked everything in a bold and controversial gamble could be seen as pivotal in his development as a leader.
The first year of his presidency was rocked by the Kursk submarine disaster. In August 2000, the Oscar class nuclear submarine exploded and sank with the loss of all hands. Putin was criticised heavily for his slow response and, in particular, for not returning from vacation immediately to personally oversee the crisis.
Perhaps conscious of the way he had been criticised, Putin responded very differently to the October 2002 Moscow theatre hostage crisis. Three days after 40 Chechen terrorists had taken 850 people hostage in the Dubrovka Theatre, Putin ordered a rescue mission that would involve pumping gas into the theatre to knock everyone unconscious. 130 of the hostages died from gas poisoning during the rescue, although the rest were rescued. Although he was criticised by many for approving such a risky rescue mission, he was praised by many others for his bold response.
For several years there have been rumours that Putin has used his position as leader of Russia to amass a massive fortune of $40 billion – which would make him one of the richest men on earth.
The rumour first surfaced in Stanislav Belkovsky’s 2007 interview with German magazine De Welt, where he claimed that Putin had massive stakes in prominent companies. Nothing was officially in his name, though – it was all registered in the name of close allies.
Fuel was added to the fire in 2012 when many major news outlets speculated about whether a massive and opulent ‘palace’ was being built on the Black Sea coast for Putin.
Putin has always denied that he is a wealthy man. Official earnings statements always show his income hovering around $150,000 per year and a net worth of less than $1 million.
Second term as President of Russia
Early in his second term, Putin set the tenor for his administration – declaring his goal to be “to bring about a noticeable rise in our people’s prosperity.”
To this end, he methodically set about consolidating the gains of his first four years in office. His war with the oligarchs was comprehensively won when Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his partner Platon Lebedev were sentenced to nine years in jail, and Yukos, their company, was forced into bankruptcy.
Good governance was, within limits, the order of the day and, fuelled by a booming global oil and gas market, Russia’s economy grew by an average of 7% per year across Putin’s two presidential terms. The government ran a surplus in each of those years as well, which has helped the Russian economy to ride out some of the global economic slump since 2008.
Kremlin control over state security was also enhanced, largely as a result of the Beslan School hostage crisis. A group of Chechens launched a three day raid on a school in Beslan, Chechnya in which over 1,000 people – mostly children – were taken hostage. More than 300 – again, mostly children – were killed.
Towards the end of his term, speculation began to mount as to whether Putin would step down from the presidency – the law entitled him to hold the office for only two consecutive terms. Unable to run for President, Putin stepped aside in favour of close political ally Dmitry Medvedev. Convincingly elected, Medvedev immediately appointed Putin as his Prime Minister.
Putin as Prime Minister of Russia
It very quickly became clear that, despite being in a role that was technically subordinate to the President, Putin was very much the senior partner in Russia’s government.
Although Medvedev had a lot of independence to act, Putin was the overall boss. He took the lead role in Russia’s 2008 war against Georgia, and in rebuilding the Russian economy after the 2008-09 economic crisis.
When not governing, Putin spent his time on a number of leisure activities designed to show his strength and manliness. Photos of an often shirtless Putin engaging in outdoor pursuits proliferated.
Despite speculation that Putin and Medvedev might run against each other in the 2012 Russian Presidential election, Medvedev stepped aside after just one term. He supported a campaign for Putin to be elected for a third term as Russia’s President – legal because Putin was only barred from standing for three *consecutive* terms as President.
Putin’s third term as President
In 2012 Putin was elected as President for a third time with 63.6% of the vote.
But, despite attempts to demonstrate that the election was fair (for example, webcams in every polling booth) his victory was marred by protests. Tens of thousands of anti-Putin protestors took to the streets on several occasions – mostly in major cities – but gradually lost momentum. In the absence of significant support for the protests, Putin took the opportunity to bring in strict laws against holding future protests – something his critics argue is part of Putin’s wider plans to entrench his rule at the expense of democracy.
In an increasingly conservative Russian society, Putin drew international criticism for his government’s record on LGBT rights, particularly during the otherwise uneventful 2012 Sochi Winter Olympic Games.
During 2014, Putin has overseen the first formal expansion of Russian territory since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Amidst the chaos of revolution in neigbouring Ukraine, Russia seized the opportunity to reclaim its authority over Crimea, the most southerly region of Ukraine. An undeclared military intervention by Russia was swiftly followed on 21 March 2014 by the formal annexation of Crimea into the Russian Federation (an event which saw the population of Russia increase by almost 2 million people).
Despite this conflict, and the sanctions that have been imposed on Russia, Vladimir Putin remains a genuinely popular leader of Russia. His approval ratings (in blue in the above chart, contrasted with red disapproval ratings) have risen to over 80% since the annexation of Crimea. Even before this, over the course of 14 years in charge of Russia, his approval rating has never been lower than 60%.
The Russian President is the Russian head of state, the Guarantor of the Russian Constitution, the Commander in Chief of the Russian military, and the most senior Russian official. He signs new laws and is also able to propose his own new laws. He appoints many senior Russian government officials, including the Prime Minister.
The Russian President is elected for a six year term, and can serve no more than two consecutive terms of office. Further terms can be served after a period out of office.
There have been three Presidents of Russia – Boris Yeltsin (two terms), Vladimir Putin (three terms) and Dmitry Medvedev (one term).