Most 65 year olds are either retired or contemplating taking life a little easier – but Vladimir Putin is preparing for an election to remain Russian president.

The vote is just over a week away and comes as fingers are again pointing at Russia after a nerve agent attack on UK soil left a former spy, his daughter and a police officer in a critical condition.

And while the West may be horrified by his regime’s involvement in the US election, the war in Ukraine and even systematic doping in sport, the election result is expected to be a formality, with Putin set to extend his 18 year long stint leading Russia.

But how did a poor boy from a tiny flat in St Petersburg become one of the world’s most powerful leaders?

And how did the man with his finger on the nuclear button amass a net worth estimated to be as high as $200billion – which would make him the richest man in the world.

A clue can be found in the swift actions which often strike alarm into Western government – how he ruthlessly disposes of rivals and enemies.

Class photo of a young Putin in 1960 (Image: REX/Shutterstock)
Putin in 1983 (Image: REX/Shutterstock)
Putin marries Lyudmila in 1983 (Image: REX/Shutterstock)
Vladimir Putin school photo
Putin as a 14-year-old in 1966 (Image: REX/Shutterstock)

But it was far from a foregone conclusion that he should be able to wield such power and the story of his rise is extraordinary.

Born to poor parents in a Leningrad suburb, his mother worked in a factory and his father was in the Soviet Navy until he was injured during the Second World War.

Young Putin was no academic star, but excelled at judo and the martial art Sambo.

He scraped his way to University and on to a low level KGB post.

Vladimir Putin’s Russian reign

  • Becomes acting President on 31 December 1999 after Boris Yeltsin’s shock resignation
  • Election triggered three months early, in March 2000, and he wins with 53% of the vote in the first round
  • Serves the permitted two terms
  • Becomes Prime Minister on 8 May 2008
  • Begins new phase as President on 7 May 2012

His was destined to be an undistinguished career – but then came the collapse of the Soviet Union and with it the number of KGB agents was greatly reduced.

He ended up working for the Mayor of Saint Petersburg, formerly Leningrad, Anatoly Sobchak.

Former friend Sergey Pugachyov, a Russian investor, recalls in a new BBC documentary how Putin’s rise was unlikely and unexpected.

He said: “Putin was a former KGB officer at a very low level, there were thousands like him thrown out by the system – the Soviet Union – on the street.

Vladimir Putin in KGB uniform
Putin in KGB uniform (Image: REX/Shutterstock)
Vladimir Putin Visiting the navy in 2000
Visiting the navy in 2000 (Image: REX/Shutterstock)
Vladimir Putin with daughters Mariya and Yekaterina
With his daughters Mariya and Yekaterina (Image: REX/Shutterstock)
Vladimir Putin with his parents
With his parents (Image: REX/Shutterstock)

“Putin didn’t have ambitions of any kind, not career ambitions, nor political ambitions. They were totally out of the question.

“It was an accident that Putin moved on to the Mayor’s office.”

In the chaos following the collapse of the Soviet Union the mayor needed an enforcer, and Putin fitted the role perfectly.

From being a grey faced instrument of the state he became a personality and rose to be the mayor’s right hand man.

When the Mayor lost the election in 1996 to a deputy, Putin, his other deputy, lost his job and headed to Moscow with wife Lyudmila and their two children.

This was the end of the 1990s and post Soviet Russia was on the brink of collapse. The Kremlin knew a saviour was needed to show strength.

The incumbent president Boris Yeltsin was old, a drunk and unable to show strength. Putin was untainted by the old regime and a fresh face in the capital.

Valentin Yumashev, was chairman of the the presidential executive office and Boris Yeltsin’s son in law. He says: “Yeltsin was looking for someone within his entourage close to him who could be offered up and, if things went well, could be elected

“Putin was a modest man. He never spoke unless he was asked to, but when it was his turn and he had to he spoke.

Putin meets North Korean leader Kim Jong II in 2000
Putin meets North Korean leader Kim Jong II in 2000 (Image: AFP)
Vladimir Putin does judo in 2000
Putin is a keen judo fan (Image: AFP)
topless Vladimir Putin riding a horse
A picture of a topless Putin riding a horse on holiday in 2009 became an enduring image (Image: AFP)
Putin meeting Cuban President Fidel Castro in 2000
Putin meeting Cuban President Fidel Castro in 2000 (Image: Hulton Archive)

“When something had to be said he was very articulate, which was important.”

A campaign was put together to help Putin – painted as young, energetic and sporty against out-going old, sick Yeltsin – to take the reins from him when he stepped down.

Pugachyov recalls in Putin: The New Tsar: “ I personally tried to convince Putin to become president.

“I remember where we were: in the Kremlin, building 14. In his office. Putin responded with a definite ‘No’. He didn’t want it. It was a completely unreal situation for him.

“The election was due to happen in the summer and I knew it was impossible to make Putin – whom not a single person in Russia knew – a candidate within six months.

“My idea was that Yeltsin would leave and Putin would become acting president so become President without an election.

“And that’s what happened.”

It might seem an impossible turn of events, but Russia was a country with no sense of real democracy and so anything was possible if you were in power. The election originally scheduled for June 2000 was brought forward three months by Yeltsin’s resignation on the eve of the new millennium, and Putin swept to power in the first round.

Officially installed in his new office, Putin asked finance minister Mikhail Kasyanov to become Prime Minister.

He told the BBC he accepted but on the provision 15 state reforms were implemented. Putin agreed and they all eventually were except for one – reform of the gas sector, which was to play a key part in his continued rise.

Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin
With Donald Trump whom he is accused of helping (Image: TASS)
At the 2012 Olympics – watching judo, of course (Image: AFP)
With Prime Minister Theresa May in 2016 (Image: TASS)
Vladimir Putin with a Kalashnikov machine gun
Another macho picture with a Kalashnikov (Image: AFP)

Putin was full of promise and hope, and selected Tony Blair as the first foreign leader he wished to meet because the British Prime Minister was at the height of his popularity.

Jack Straw, former Foreign Secretary, recalled his meeting with Putin, saying: “My impression was he was a man comfortable in his own skin and Tony Blair was very much the same – there was a lot of testosterone about.

“He likes himself and he likes his body. They are remarkably similar in many ways.”

Putin met with George W Bush in further efforts to build good relations with the West and at home his popularity soared as people felt Russian pride was being restored.

But the new president, despite his position, was not yet a rich man.

In fact, the story goes a wealthy friend stepped in to buy computers for the Putin children because their father could not afford to.

In addition his position as President was not stable. Wanting to secure his future, he turned his attention to those who had made fortunes in the post-Soviet asset grab by the private sector.

Vladimir Yakunin, deputy minister for transport, long serving KGB member and neighbour of Putin said at the time 46 per cent of Russian GDP was produced by privately owned companies owned by eight families – the oligarchs.

In the break up of the Soviet Union the men had seized nationalised industries through bribes and pay-offs and become fabulously rich from them.

Putin, knowing how unpopular the oligarchs were with voters, now turned his attention to them. In February 2003 he met with the oligarchs to discuss corruption.

Among them was Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the then 4th richest man in the world and the group’s spokesman, who was suspected by the Kremlin of wanting to turn wealth into political power.

He did not know the meeting would signal the start of his undoing and had no idea Putin had decided he wanted some of the wealth for himself.

He said: “The line had already been crossed.

“Probably if I’d had a better understanding of the essence of this regime as a criminal organisation I would have been able to oppose it more effectively.”

During a discussion of a particular energy deal Khodorkovsky claimed corruption had taken place – what he hadn’t appreciated was Putin’s personal knowledge of the deal and that suspicions the President had taken what amounted to a multi million dollar bribe were correct.

He inadvertently insulted Putin.

He said: “It’s hard to imagine now, how I couldn’t understand it then.

“Back then I couldn’t imagine that I would face a position where the president was only interested in personal wealth.”

With Tony Blair at Downing Street (Image: Press Association)
Blair visited Putin at his private house (Image: PA)
Gary Kasparov
Chess champion Garry Kasparov has been a long term critic of the Russian leader (Image: Getty Images North America)
Viktor Yushchenko
Ukraine presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko was allegedly poisoned on the campaign trail in 2004 (Image: Reuters)

Khodorkovsky was arrested, his businesses confiscated and sold via an intermediary to an ally of Putin.

He now lives in Switzerland as an exile and never dares return.

The brutal treatment sent nervous ripples through the financial and political worlds as Russia appeared to be stable and little was known about Putin’s thirst for wealth.

But the ripples of concern for the new Russia were soon waves of fear when an election in neighbouring Georgia brought to power a reformer politician who wanted to take the country away from Russia.

The new Prime Minister Mikheil Saakashvili met with Putin and was flattered by him, but beneath the smiles came a thinly veiled threat to stay in line.

Instead, like Putin before him, he looked to Washington and was embraced by US President George W Bush, who reversed his pro-Russian views.

Putin was furious – the Russian leader felt isolated.

Elsewhere in Europe, leaders not understanding Putin’s psyche also spoke of the country as a being an example of freedom in Eastern Europe.

The feeling of revolution then spread to neighbouring Ukraine after Putin was humiliated when his preferred candidate Viktor Yanukovych lost the presidential election to Viktor Yushchenko.

Yushchenko was allegedly poisoned on the campaign trail and his face suddenly appeared scarred and disfigured.

His opponent denied any involvement but Yushchenko won the election.

Paranoid Putin believed the Americans were behind the victory and now felt his own presidency was under threat.

From that point he refused to trust the West, who gloried in the defeat of old Soviet values by a capitalist.

Jack Straw said: “I wish we had handled it differently.

“Imagine if in the United Kingdom we had not just Scottish independence but Welsh and Northern Irish, and the north west, the south west had also declared independence.

“We scared the Russians with th anxiety that they had always had about being encircled.”

Boris Yeltsin meets his Prime Minster Vladimir Putin
Russian president Boris Yeltsin meets his Prime Minster Putin in November 1999 – six weeks before the power handover (Image: AFP)
Mikhail Khodorkovsky was formerly Russia’s richest man but was jailed (Image: Bloomberg)

Putin’s reaction was to set the template for the future and in 2005 he turned inwards to Russia – “Russia is Putin and Putin is Russia” was the new slogan.

He vowed not to be beaten and to defeat all opponents.

In 2006 he passed a law allowing the KGB to kill “opponents” outside of Russia – within months Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned in a London sushi restaurant.

One problem was on the horizon in 2007: Putin faced a presidential election where he was due to step down.

The big challenger was hugely popular chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov and his victory would have meant the end of Putin’s power.

Soon Kasparov’s campaign was targeted – his plane was grounded, meetings disrupted, he was arrested, supporters intimidated.

He said: “Compared to what we see in Russia today those were vegetarian times. Back then you got 10 days in prison – today you get 10 years.”

Kasparov stood no chance against the power of Putin.

Another opponent had his candidacy disqualified because of a couple of dozen signatures being viewed as not correct among a list of 2million he had compiled to be eligible for the race.

Putin had been due to step down and did so – but there was a twist to come.

His successor Dmitry Medvedev took charge in 2008 but then immediately appointed Putin as Prime Minister. The message was clear: he might have lost his job but he kept his power. Putin would go on to regain the presidency in 2012.

In the same year Putin became Prime Minister, tensions in Georgia boiled over and Russian tanks were sent in. He was certain the West would do nothing.

The eight day war in August 2008 only ended when America threatened to bomb the Russian positions.

Former British Foreign Secretary William Hague recalls the contrast between President Medvedev and Putin.

He said: “He is much more a normal European politician – you get a much less sinister feeling talking to him than Putin.

“I escorted him to the London Olympics.

“I took him to the Excel Centre to see the judo, a Russian won the gold medal which Putin enjoyed immensely.

“He wasn’t going to leave until he saw a Russian win a gold medal. We had champagne, we had quite a party.

“We waved them off with some relief knowing that if they hadn’t won a gold medal we would have had him for a couple more days.”

In 2014, by now divorcing from his wife, the ever more narcissistic Putin hosted the Sochi Olympics.

But despite the glitz and glamour it ultimately backfired when widespread state sponsored doping was revealed among Russian athletes.

Talking to the UN in 2003 (Image: Getty Images North America)
Garry Kasparov once had dreams of being president (Image: AFP)
The president on holiday in southern Siberia (Image: AFP)

Meanwhile he moved to annex Crimea after its people showed a wish to break away as a sovereign state in the same manner as Georgia and Ukraine.

In Syria Putin cosied up to dictator President Bashar Assad to help secure influence and power.

While the rest of the world was shocked by Putin’s behaviour, back home the public loved his strength and it was likened to that of the all powerful Tsar.

But he was not to go unchallenged at home.

In 2012 Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy to Boris Yeltsin, challenged Putin’s authority with a pamphlet detailing the president’s wealth to his increasingly poor people.

It listed 58 jets, two yachts, and a summer palace and painted Putin as being similar to the despised oligarchs.

On February 27, 2015, Nemtsov was killed, shot in the back and head as he walked one evening near the Kremlin.

No one witnessed the murder and the CCTV cameras on the Kremlin walls were coincidentally switched off at the time.

The message was clear: Cross me and I will kill you.

Next came the accusations that Putin had ordered interference in the US Presidential elections and, despite the weight of evidence, no one seems able to land a knock out blow to prove it.

As much of the world struggles to find a new order amid democratic elections and referendums it seems Putin, who has created a domestic situation where he is all powerful, is indestructible.

Now in the US outspoken critic Kasparov is clear that Putin is more dangerous today than ever.


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