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The Slavic Warrior

I've already detailed how Vladimir Putin, using the letter of the law and exploiting a powerful legacy of state worship, was able to install himself as the new Russian strongman, a nouveau czar for a resurgent Russia. The people loved the images he projected—weapon-firing warrior, tough-guy pilot, shirtless horseman. After the long, painful years with an ineffectual and often drunk Boris Yeltsin, this was exactly the kind of leader they yearned for.

Moreover, it wasn't just showmanship. Putin not only talked the talk, he walked the walk: He crushed the Chechen revolt, destroyed the hated oligarchs (selected friends spared), and took no back talk from anyone.

For the United States, Putin's popularity in Russia all comes down to this: What does he want? The answer is far more complicated than most Americans—from politicians to the mainstream media and to Joe Sixpack—imagine. Failure to appreciate Putin's vision and his complexities has been, and will continue to be, the United States' Achilles' heel.

This book tries to blow away some of the fog that hides the real Russian leader from us, so that we in the West can see him as he is, not as he's being painted in the press; not as we might wish (or fear) he is, but as he really is. Only then can we find out what he wants.

Little Boy Putin

Vladimir Putin hails from St. Petersburg, or Leningrad as it was known when he was born there in 1952. That was less than a year before the passing of Stalin and the end of his decades-long rule by terror and the 20 million deaths it brought.

The St. Petersburg connection is fitting for Putin. First, the city was founded by Peter the Great at the dawn of the eighteenth century, after he seized control of the port from Russia's archrival, the Swedish Empire. Peter was decisive, fearless, and dedicated to the glory of Mother Russia. The powerful czar is the historical figure Putin strives to emulate.

Second, St. Petersburg has long been Russia's "window to Europe." It sits directly across the Baltic Sea from Stockholm, on the delta of the Neva River. Although Russia stretches from there to the Pacific, Putin considers the motherland as first and foremost a European country, and that its rightful place is at the head of the European nations.

Putin's mother was a factory worker and his father a Soviet Navy conscript. His parents raised him in a rat-infested communal apartment where four adults and two children shared a single, 200-square-foot room without hot water or even a bathtub for the cold water. The toilet was outside, on a landing, which made for brutally painful trips during the long Russian winters.

Yet despite his poor upbringing, Putin was exposed to the ways of the Soviet elite at a young age, through a man destined to have a profound effect on his character: his paternal grandfather, Spiridon Ivanovich Putin. Young Vladimir learned all about war and revolution at the feet of a granddad who had lived through both. He also received an early education in Russian politics.

The elder Putin, born in 1879, came from peasant stock in the Volga basin, about a hundred miles southeast of Moscow. At the age of 15, he left home for St. Petersburg, where he was trained as a cook and once served the infamous Grigory Rasputin, who noted the similarity in their names and was so impressed with the cuisine that he left a 10-ruble gold coin as a tip.

After World War I and the Communist revolution, Spiridon moved to Moscow where, given his culinary reputation, he was hired to cook at Lenin's dacha at Gorki. After Lenin's death in 1924, Spiridon continued to serve the family and later became a cook for Stalin. His connection to Lenin, who had been highly critical of Stalin, apparently did him no harm. Unlike many of Stalin's intimates, whom the dictator killed off or banished to forced-labor camps, Spiridon survived all the purges. He even managed to outlive the tyrant he fed so well.

This was no small feat; it required sensitive political instincts and nimble balancing. In St. Petersburg and late in his life, he passed what he had learned to a grandson eager to hear of such things. And, intriguingly, he may also have initiated Vladimir into some of the arcana of the spy game. There are indications that Spiridon had been trained by the NKVD, the secret-police predecessor of the KGB. He died when his grandson was 13.

By his own account, Vladimir Putin was a mischievous child at best. He thirsted for autonomy and power. He was bossy and impulsive, a schoolyard punk prone to violence. He was a poor student. Once he was hauled before a neighborhood "comrades' court" for acts of petty delinquency.

Hostility toward Jews has a long and unlovely history in Russia, but whatever the reason, Putin seems not to have absorbed that sentiment. He grew up with and befriended Jewish neighbors. His early German-language teacher was a Jew, and in her later years, he acknowledged her influence in his life by giving her an apartment in Tel Aviv. Dodging anti-Semitism has worked to Putin's advantage. It has left him free to seek political support from the Jews among Russia's oligarchs, and, as we'll see, it has allowed him to deal dispassionately with Israel as a potential ally in the Middle East.

 
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