Of late, the world’s attention is focused on Vladimir Putin. From indiscriminately supporting Bashar al-Assad’s regime in bombing out Syrian refugees, to meddling in the US Presidential elections, Putin has rattled the world far enough to sit up and pay attention. Back in the 1990s, Putin’s rise and transformation from a KGB spy into a self-designed Czar of an authoritarian Russian empire, seemed highly unlikely and unexpected. He emerged out of nowhere – at that time, Russians had absolutely no idea who he was and Putin had to work hard in building his identity as a potent leader. He would go on to climb the ladder of politics and power in a frenzied, fevered, driven manner, which would pronounce him as one of the most powerful and dangerous leaders of the 21st century.
Putin becomes a homegrown spy
Putin had a childhood anchored in crippling poverty. He grew up in Leningrad (now known as St. Petersburg) in the 1950s. Fascinated by the KGB, a foreign intelligence committee for State Security (which disintegrated post the collapse of the Soviet Union), Putin had made up his mind to become part of the Russian espionage by the time he was 16 years old. At that time, a wide-eyed teenager with only the experience of bullying at school, Putin visited the local KGB office at Leningrad, expressing an interest in joining the service. But he was sent away. In the mid-1970s, at the age of 23, Putin returned to the KGB with a more fervent determination and a law degree in tow. This time, he was accepted and vigorously trained. On the completion of his training, Putin was sent to work as an agent in Dresden, East Germany. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Putin retired as a colonel from the KGB and focused on supporting Anatoly Sobchak, the law-professor-turned-Mayor for St. Petersburg.
With no political background, Putin becomes the deputy mayor of St. Petersburg
Under Anatoly Sobchak (1937-2000), the Mayor of St. Petersburg, Putin was given a headstart in his political career. Putin knew Sobchak since the time he was a student at a law school, where Sobchak had been his professor. When Sobchak became the first elected Mayor of Leningrad, he pushed for Putin to become his deputy (1994), where the latter ended up heading the chair of the external relations committee. During his office, from day one, Sobchak’s protege worked hard at building his image as a “saviour”, one whose priority was helping the citizens of St. Petersburg.
In the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia was facing a stinging food crisis – there was a crippling food shortage and the country had to scrounge for foreign currency to procure food from other countries. Putin announced a programme that would enable companies to sell oil and minerals, which would in turn get them money to buy food. However, there was just one problem – the money earned by these companies during the programme (1.24 million) disappeared without a trace, leaving St. Petersburg’s citizens hungry. According to sources, it was Putin who was responsible for the corruption and other economic crimes – but he was never arrested for them, because Sobchak ensured Putin’s safety. The two shared the I-scratch-your-back-you-scratch-mine relationship – therefore when Sobchak was voted out of power in 1996 for poor governance and was attacked by the press, federal prosecutors and the unhappy lot of St. Petersburg, Putin went to great lengths to protect him. He even helped the ailing Sobchak leave for Paris.
Hop-Skip-Jump: From Deputy Mayor to President to Prime Minister
In 1996, Putin’s political career nosedived when he became a part of the Kremlin, handpicked by Russia’s then President, Boris Yeltsin. The President had observed Putin’s loyalty and dedication towards his mentor Sobchak, which led Yeltsin to realise that Putin would do the same for him when he stepped down as the President. Putin would ensure that Yeltsin continued to enjoy privileges and protection under his wing. Yeltsin’s faith in him and Putin’s ambition ensured a rapid progression in Putin’s political career. From being the Deputy Chief of Staff in 1997, he was promoted as the Prime Minister in 1999, and eventually in the fall of 1999, Putin was catapulted into Yeltsin’s chair after the latter gave his resignation. Putin served as an incumbent President at that time.
However, as soon as Putin took office, the notorious apartment building bombings across Moscow, Buynaksk and Volgodonsk in September 1999 that killed hundreds took place. Many have labelled the incident as Russia’s 9/11. Almost immediately, Putin took to the media, emphatically promising revenge, projecting himself as the man who would avenge the death of his countrymen. He held separatist rebels residing in Chechnya responsible for the act, which was used to justify Russia’s ruthless invasion of Chechnya. Overnight, Putin (whom not many Russians knew about) became a popular political hero, wielding immense authority. In 2000, a few months following the apartment bombings, when Putin ran for Presidency, he won unanimously. That cemented his position in the Kremlin.
There has been grave speculation around whether the Chechen rebels were really responsible for the apartment bombings. This is because a few days after the apartment bombings in Moscow, another bomb (which was defused) was found in an apartment building basement in Ryazan. Interestingly, the bomb looked like it had been skillfully made (like the ones made by those in the military or the FSB, a secret service extension of the KGB); it looked nothing like the amateur ones made by a bunch of rebels. But many of those who’ve tried to investigate the matter further have seen unforeseeable deaths.
In a span of 17 years, Putin has transformed Russia’s identity, making it a totalitarian country that is succeeding, showing an uptick in its progression as an economic power. In 2014, Putin went to war with Ukraine and annexed Crimea. It was a move which shocked and stunned the world, and wavered Russia’s relationships with certain countries, including the United States. But to the people of Russia, Putin’s seizure of Crimea projected him as a saviour – a defender of the Russian identity who was making ‘pragmatic’ attempts to recapture and piece together the former territories of a disintegrated Soviet Union. Putin also backed Assad’s regime in decimating the rebels in Syria that lead to the obliteration of Aleppo.
Never before, however, was Putin’s geopolitical ambitions considered as a serious threat to the world than in the Fall of 2016, when Russia was held responsible by the United States for intervening in the latter’s presidential elections. Donald Trump’s win is ominous and his unflinching favouritism for the Russian President is unnerving. If they merge their political clout once Trump ascends to power, the world will definitely be different.
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