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Vladimir Putin: A Profile

FRIDAY 23rd May 2003

Winston Churchill once described Russia as "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma". Observers of Russia in the 21st century could surely say the same of the country’s president, Vladimir Putin.

Efficiency

Shadowy bureaucrat turned assured world leader, Putin talks of market democracy and capitalist western values. But his early life was spent in the former Soviet Union, and he looks back fondly on this time of state control. Political pundits wonder when the real Putin will reveal himself.

Born in Leningrad, six months before the death of Stalin, the young Putin experienced a poverty-stricken childhood tempered by a good education. He developed lifelong passions for judo and spy novels, and first applied to the KGB at the age of 17. When they told him to go away and come back with a degree, he complied with an efficiency that would later serve him well.

Golden boy

Putin's duties for the agency, including economic espionage in Germany, brought him swift promotions and a reputation for integrity. But the downfall of the Soviet Union brought him back to his hometown where, as deputy mayor, he pursued reform and eventually to Moscow, where he became the Kremlin's golden boy.

Chosen, to great surprise, by Boris Yeltsin as his successor, Putin used his KGB training, plus his own discipline and common sense, in a series of jobs that included running the security service.

When he eventually assumed the role of president, Putin's tough treatment of rebel guerrillas in Chechnya ensured his popularity with the Russian people. But they wondered at his lack of emotion when the lives of 118 crew members were lost on the submarine Kursk.

Reform

Intent on internal reform, he claims "we are not happy with the pace, but we are still moving ahead". His mission is to "pull Russia out of the swamp", but his authoritarian stance and efforts to control public information have brought reminders of Soviet days.

Some have accused Putin of "colourless bureaucracy", but former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright spotted the "two distinct strands" of the Russian president.

Whether he wants to drive Russia into a new capitalist era, or embrace the values of its Soviet past, he is determined to put his nation back on its feet. To do this, Vladimir Putin may have to show his true colours sooner rather than later.