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Big Boy Putin

As has happened for many street toughs, sports rerouted his life. Around the age of 12, while his grandfather was still alive, Putin started boxing and then moved on to judo, karate, and the Soviet martial art sambo.

He would go on to become the citywide sambo champion and at one point actually take down the world judo champion in a sambo match.

It was the physical and spiritual demands that attracted the young Putin to martial arts. They were the way of the warrior, a role he coveted for himself. He also learned he would have to compensate for his slight physical frame, which was common among children whose mothers had battled starvation during the Nazi siege of Leningrad. He was strong for his size. But judo taught him that he would also need to be smart, cunning, and, above all, tightly disciplined.

With the new passion for martial arts came a transformation into a top student.

As an adolescent, Putin loved the spy stories he found in books, on TV, and in the movies. In comic book tales promoted by the KGB, agents of the Soviet secret services were portrayed in heroic roles fighting Nazi Germany. A 16-year-old Putin was fascinated with the 1968 film The Shield and the Sword, a James Bond-style movie depicting a double agent who infiltrated Germany to thwart the Nazis' war plans.

Putin began to dream of a life as a Russian spy. But unlike other kids with such fantasies, he acted on his. In the ninth grade, he initiated a meeting at the office of the KGB Directorate to find out how to get a job. He was told that law school was one way into the KGB. He also was told never to contact the agency again.

After that, Putin pursued the law with singular determination, despite it being a low-paying and low-prestige field in Soviet Russia. Against the wishes of his parents, who saw him as an engineer, he enrolled in the law department of Leningrad State University in 1970. He never did have to contact the KGB again. They came to him instead, in the fourth of his planned five years of college. In 1975, at the age of 22, he was recruited as an agent.

Putin at Work

Over the next 16 years, Putin worked as a self-described "specialist in human relations." Fluent in German and able to pass for Nordic, he was posted to Dresden in the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) in 1985 and spent five years there under cover. He apparently was good at his job, because he was promoted three times, yet he remained a minor functionary.

Like any Soviet intelligence officer who managed to stay employed and alive, he was expert at reading and manipulating people and was unfazed by violence. These were indispensable qualities for anyone out to make his way to the top of the Russian political pile.

With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the unraveling of the German Democratic Republic, Putin's communications line to Moscow went silent, leaving him to make decisions on his own. It was a pivotal episode in his life. As he later recalled, "It seemed to me as if our country no longer existed. It became clear that the Soviet Union was in a diseased condition, that of a fatal and incurable paralysis: the paralysis of power." Years later, he would vow that no such paralysis would ever take hold on his watch.

He understood that he was in danger and had to flee the German Democratic Republic. But before doing so, with his office under siege by an angry mob, he destroyed and burned many files. Then, carrying the most sensitive material with him, he stepped out the front door and slipped away unnoticed, like a ghost.

He formally resigned from the KGB in 1991, by which time he had returned to the university to finish his PhD. In his doctoral thesis, he argued that Russian economic success would depend on properly exploiting energy resources.

After college, Putin entered politics in St. Petersburg, where he fostered relationships with Dmitry Medvedev and Igor Ivanovich Sechin, who would remain his closest associates through the years.

A portrait of Peter the Great—not Boris Yeltsin, whom most of Putin's contemporaries honored—hung in Putin's office. The picture, which showed the early Romanov czar in his prime, was a fitting symbol for Putin's ambitions. When Peter came to power at the end of the seventeenth century, Russia was an isolated country untouched by the scientific and technological developments of the European Renaissance. The powerful Russian Orthodox Church was still steeped in medieval superstition, and Russia's culture remained cut off from the rest of Europe.

Despite strong pushback from the Russian aristocracy, Peter reformed the military and reorganized the government. He built a formidable navy, secured access to the Black Sea through battles with the Ottoman Empire, and expanded Russian territory into the Baltics. In addition to modernizing the Russian alphabet, starting the first Russian newspaper, secularizing schools, and bringing Western-style dress into vogue, Peter recruited European experts to introduce Russian students to the world of technology.

Peter's farsighted reforms revolutionized the Russian economy and equipped Russia to function internationally as a modern country. To produce such extraordinary results, however, Peter ruled as a tyrant who dragged his people into modernity whether they wanted to go or not—a model that appealed to Putin's heart. The economic and political derangement Putin would inherit would seem to him like a reappearance of the disordered nation Peter had transformed into a global power. When Putin's turn came, he knew what to do.

 
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