A Disappearance in Damascus: A Story of Friendship and Survival in the Shadow of War
Reviewed by: Karl Homann
In The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin (Aug 23, 2016), Steven Lee Myers recounts Putin's public life --from his childhood of abject poverty in Leningrad to his ascent through the ranks of the KGB, and his eventual consolidation of rule in the Kremlin. (Amazon.com)
A Man Named Vladimir
Review by Karl Homann
Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, that is, the four-time President of the Russian Federation and Commander-in- Chief of the Russian Armed Forces.
Putin has served as President of Russia from 2000 to 2008 and again since 2012. In between his presidencies, he was Prime Minister of Russia. On March 18, 2018, he was re-elected as president with 77% of the popular vote, although his popularity has declined somewhat to just above 60%, given the drop in petroleum and natural gas prizes, of which Russia is a major exporter. When Putin steps down in 2024, he will barely have reached the age of 72
But WHO is this man, named Vladimir Putin, a question that was not only asked by foreign leaders and commentaries when he suddenly appeared on the political scene in 2000 as a protegee of Boris Yeltsin, the first President of the Russian Federation (1991 to 1999), but by Muscovites themselves.
The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin (Aug 23, 2016) by Steven Lee Myers in his Putin biography provides some of the answers, though, at times, skewed by the writer’s western perspective. Myers gives a succinct answer at the very end of the biography, as Putin inevitably and unchallenged cruises towards his fourth presidency:
No Putin, no Russia.
And that will, indeed, be the case until 2024.
Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin was born on October 7, 1952 in Leningrad (today, Saint Petersburg), the third son of the elder Vladimir, who worked in a railroad carriage factory, and was a member of the Communist Party. His mother Maria was forty-one years old when she gave birth to her son. They lived in one room of a communal, rat-infested apartment; no hot water, no bathtub, only a communal kitchen and bathroom, which they shared with two other families.
“We lived simply - cabbage soup, cutlets, pancakes, but on Sundays and holidays my Mom would bake very delicious pirozhki, stuffed buns with cabbage, meat and rice, and vatrushki, cottage cheese tarts.”
An elderly Jewish couple became his surrogate grandparents, and ever since, Putin holds a strong disdain for all religious intolerance, especially anti-Semitism. At school, he was bullied for his size but learned martial arts to defend himself. According to his teachers, he was an indifferent student, petulant, disruptive, and the only one among 45 classmates who did not join the Communist Youth organization.
“I was a hooligan, not a Pioneer,” he wrote later.
In fact, Putin never became or was a member of the Communist Party, but popular Russian espionage novels and movies of the 60’s inspired him to join the KGB. Young Vladimir tried three times to find the right entrance to the KGB “Big House” in Leningrad, before an officer flatly told him that the KGB did not accept volunteers. To get rid of the young man, the officer suggested that he attend law school. So, against the wishes of his parents, Vladimir enrolled in the university law school in the fall of 1970. He also continued his studies of the German language, which he still speaks fluently today.
During the summer, he attended judo competitions, cut timber, worked in construction camps, and once earned 800 rubles, with which he bought a coat that he wore for the next fifteen years.
In the summer of 1975, he finally fulfilled his childhood dream of joining the KGB, which by this time had grown into a vast bureaucracy. Putin was assigned to the personnel office, not exactly what his childhood imagination had hoped for. But luck was on his side when the former KGB chairman Yuri Andropov became the supreme leader of the Soviet Union and sought to reform the Soviet system, especially in economic affairs and international relations.
As if he had anticipated it, Putin had written a thesis on the principle of “most-favored-nation status in international trade” during his study at the Leningrad State University. He, therefore, was transferred to the elite branch of the KGB, the Directorate responsible for intelligence operations beyond the Soviet Union’s borders. But once again, he was assigned rather routine tasks such as monitoring religious Easter processions. When a friend asked him what it meant to be an “intelligence officer”, Vladimir answered,
“I am a specialist in human relations.”
In 1979, with the rank of captain, he attended the KGB Academy in Moscow, whose training manual described an intelligence officer’s characteristics as having “a warm heart, a cool head, and clean hands.”
From 1985 to 1990, he served in Dresden, East Germany, undercover as Mr. Adamov, the director of the Soviet-German House of Friendship, a social and cultural club.
Personal note: As a high school student, my class visited one of these centres in East Berlin in 1960, one year before the Wall, where we discussed the benefits and/or disadvantages of the capitalist versus the socialist political system with our East German counterparts.
Putin genuinely enjoyed spending time in Germany, and he respected the German culture. According to Putin's official biography, during the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989), he burned KGB files to prevent demonstrators from obtaining them. Then he confronted the angry mob, alone, and talked them out of storming the building.
At age 28, still a bachelor, Putin met Lyudmila Shkrebneva, a blue-eyed stewardess with Aeroflot. Whenever she asked what he did during the day, he evaded her questions with jokes like:
“We go fishing all day. Before lunch, we catch. After lunch, we release.”
Her, however, he did not release.
In April 1983, on a trip to the Black Sea and Crimea, he hinted that in three and a half years, she had probably made up her mind. “Yes,” she said. He replied: “Well, then, if that’s the way it is, I love you and propose that we get married.” Vladimir and Lyudmila stayed married for 30 years and had two daughters, but almost nothing is known about Mariya, 33 and Yekaterina, 31. As adults, they have never been photographed by the Russian media, and it has been said that the Russian public would not recognize the women if they ran into them on the street. The girls have always been carefully guarded by the Russian government and were even pulled out of school and taught at home once their father hit the spotlight.
Two articles, one in BUSINESS INSIDER, August 28, 2012, and an investigative report by Reuters in 2015, tried to dig up some details, but had to admit that much of what they found was unconfirmed speculation and social media gossip.
Much the same can be said about Putin himself. While his public life and career are well-documented, little is known about his private life. We know that he loves sports:
“I just love everything new. I enjoy learning new things. The process itself gives me great pleasure.”
He skies, plays ice hockey, rides horses, scuba dives. He flies air planes from ultralights to guide Siberian white cranes on their migration route south, fighter planes for fun and water bombers to put out forest fires. He also takes a keen interest in animal protection programs: Amur Tigers, Beluga Whales, Polar Bears, and Snow Leopards.
His mother has said that Vladimir loves his daughters, but Putin also loves dogs, perhaps, even more than his daughters.
“The more people I know, the more I love dogs,” says Putin.
His beloved black Labrador Konni died in 2014. Once answering a question at a press conference, Putin stated that, like everyone else, he, too, can be in a bad mood: "In those moments, I consult with my dog Konni, who gives me good advice."
Konni has since been replaced with other puppies, the gifts of political leaders: Buffy, a Bulgarian Shepherd; Yume, an Akita, as thanks for Russia’s help with a Japanese earthquake in 2011; an Alabai puppy from Turkmenistan, named Verny (or “Faithful”) in Russian.
Little else is affirmatively known about Putin’s private life. Apart from social media gossip, he remains an enigma. But a 2017 Business Insider article gives us a glimpse of his working life.
He rises late; has breakfast at noon. Next, he takes time to exercise. Newsweek reports that Putin spends about two hours swimming, one at noon, another at midnight. According to Putin, when he is in the water, he "gets much of his thinking about Russia done”. After his swim, Putin lifts weights in the gym. As we know from photos – some real, some photo shopped – the 66-year-old has, over the years, cultivated a “macho” image.
When he gets to work in the early afternoon, he reads his briefing notes, reports on domestic and foreign affairs, as well as clips from the Russian press and the international media. He is extremely well-informed on all political matters, domestic and foreign.
Occasionally, Putin will watch a satirical online video mocking him and his government. Otherwise, he abstains from most technology at work, preferring "red folders with paper documents, and fixed-line Soviet War Era telephones" to computers.
No hacking, no tweets!
The Russian president stays up until midnight working. And so must his staff and advisers, one of whom says that Putin is a modest man, soft-spoken who waits his turn to speak. But when he speaks, he speaks with authority and is very articulate. He vigorously confronts any inefficiency and incompetence in his ministers, firing them openly or suggesting that they resign, if they are not capable of handling their job.
NOTE: Putin’s rather unusual work schedule may have something to with the former 11 and present 9 time zones.
Putin doesn’t drink alcohol, except a little at formal receptions. According to Politico, the Russian President may be taking a symbolic stand amid Russia’s widespread alcoholism and wishes to separate himself from his drunken predecessor Boris Yeltsin.
Over the weekend, he leaves time for his English classes, and on Sunday he sometimes goes to church and to confession, although those close to him stress that “his life is not that of an Orthodox Christian.”
When Putin took on the Russian presidency for the first time (2000), he inherited a country that was run by eight oligarchs who controlled almost 50 percent of Russia’s GDP, in companies gifted by Boris Yeltsin for political support (sort of a Russian form of “Citizens United”). In February 2003, Putin called them all together and told them:
There will be no more oligarchs. If you are unhappy with that, you have only yourselves to blame.
I have watched a Russian video of Putin flying halfway across the country to meet with the owners of a factory which they were planning to close. He called them “cockroaches” and put a contract in front of them to keep the factory open. When the main oligarch owner lied about having signed, Putin said, “I don’t see your signature.” Then he gave him a pen, pointed to the spot of the document: “Sign here”, and after he had signed, he walked away while putting Putin’s pen in his pocket, Putin called him back, saying “Now give me my pen back.”
While some might argue that Putin’s leadership does not reflect a specific ideology, Chris Miller (Assistant Professor at The Fletcher School and author of Putinomics: Power and Money in Resurgent Russia) has discerned three beliefs which are consistent with Putin’s political pronouncements and actions.
When Putin began his political career, the former Soviet Union was unable to effectively collect taxes or provide services, therefore…
1. Putin believes that the government needed a strong centralized control of the vast empire (then 11, now 9 time zones). To maintain that central control has been his highest priority.
2. Second, to keep the populace supportive of his government and thus to prevent revolt, Putin believes that the key is rising wages and pensions.
3. Third, economic progress depends heavily on private enterprises but only so long as those enterprises (or oligarchs) do not interfere with either central government control or rising salaries and pensions. Whenever a private enterprise violates either of first two beliefs, then the government takes control of the enterprise.
Whoever does not miss the Soviet Union has no heart. Whoever wants it back has no brain. (Vladimir Putin)
Putin wanted to make Russia strong again and reconnect it with the West. But after several attempts and many rejections, he just does not seem to care any longer whether the West wants a relationship with Russia or not.
Today, Russia’s economy has stabilized, inflation is at historic low, the budget is nearly balanced. Gazprom, Russia’s largest natural gas exporter, has again increased its deliveries to Europe. The Russian share of the European gas market increased to 34 percent last year. Ironically, even the remaining 20 US military installations in Germany are heated by Russian natural gas.
At a summit in June 2001, in Slovenia, George W. Bush said,
“[Putin] is a man deeply committed to his country…. I looked the man in the eye. I found him very straightforward and trustworthy – I was able to get a sense of his soul."
The relationship between Bush and Putin, however, soured, once the US invaded Iraq.
Did Trump in Helsinki get a sense of Putin’s soul? – Why would he? Or should that be, why wouldn’t he?
Hilary Clinton remarked in one of her loosing electoral debates: Putin was a KGB agent and this, by definition, means that he has “no soul”. Would she say the same about her successor, Secretary of State, Mike “Top CIA Spy” Pompeo? That he, too, has no soul.
According to Putin, the United States must respect another country’s interests and not change the rules whenever it suits them:
THE ECONOMIST - Feb 4th, 2016
VLADIMIR PUTIN seems impervious to the woes that afflict normal leaders. His approval rating stayed at slightly above 80% (2016), but has since fallen to slightly above 60% (2018). For his fans, Mr. Putin’s shock-resistant ratings serve as proof of his righteousness.
Some Russian liberals and Western observers have claimed that there is something wrong with the polls. But the independent Levada Centre records approval levels for Mr. Putin similar to those of state pollsters; and so does the in-house sociological service of Alexei Navalny, an opposition leader, whom The Wall Street Journal has described as "the man Vladimir Putin fears most."