Who Is Vladimir Putin?
Four times since 2013, Forbes Magazine has designated the Russian president as the world’s most powerful person. He is also one of the wealthiest. A former KGB officer, he is described by some as a stone-cold killer.
Rise to Power
Vladimir Putin was little known inside or outside Russia until 1998. That’s when then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin appointed him to a senior job in his administration; he was head of security and chief of Yeltsin’s Security Council. This was familiar ground for Putin who had spent most of career in the Soviet Union’s KGB spy agency.
In August 1999, Yeltsin fired his prime minister (he was in the habit of doing that a lot) and put Putin into the job. Four months later, the ailing Boris Yeltsin retired and named Mr. Putin Acting President. He has held the reins of power ever since.
The Russian President’s personal fortune has been estimated at between $40 and $70 billion; the gap in guesses is so wide as to suggest nobody really knows how much he’s worth, except that it’s a ridiculously large amount.
And, he managed to acquire this wealth from a very modest salary. The state news agency Russia Beyond reported in 2017 that “… he received 8,858,432 rubles ($156,504), which was about the same amount he earned in 2015 (8,891,777 rubles ($157,093). On top of this, Putin revealed that he owned a 1,500 m2 lot of land, an apartment (77 m2), and a garage (18 m2).”
So, Mr. Putin must be the world’s canniest investor who makes Warren Buffett look like a bumbling amateur or he inherited a fortune from his parents.
But, he likes to play up his humble background; as The Telegraph reports, “He once described how, as a child, he had to beat aside rats with a stick at the entrance to his parents’ communal apartment in St. Petersburg.”
The suspicious mind might ask “How can someone with an income of a hundred and fifty thousand dollars amass a net worth of tens of billions?”
In April 2012, Maeve McClenaghan of The Bureau of Investigative Journalism set out to answer that question. What she and her colleagues found was a wall of secrecy.
One investigator, Stanislav Belkovsky, claims that Mr. Putin has major ownership positions in some of Russia’s oil and gas companies. However, these businesses are so guarded about who has a stake in them that it’s impossible to confirm whether Mr. Putin is involved or not.
The same lack of openness involves a palace overlooking the Black Sea said to be worth about $640 million, and several multi-million dollar yachts. There are plenty of other luxury residences that Mr. Putin frequents but whose ownership is murky.
One thing is certain, and that is Mr. Putin likes high-end watches. In recent years, he has been photographed with timepieces on his wrist valued at almost $300,000.
The consensus among Moscow watchers is that his fortune has come largely from plundering the Russian treasury.
Allegations of corruption have swirled around the Russian leader since he was deputy mayor of St. Petersburg in the early 1990s.
A city investigation found that he charged commissions (bribe is such an ugly word) of between 25 and 50 percent for signing contracts. Some contracts were never completed and others went to companies that vanished as soon as they were paid. Although investigators recommended Mr. Putin be fired he suffered no punishment.
The Wilson Center has detailed this and other questionable activities. In the early 2000s, Germany looked into Mr. Putin’s connection to a company called SPAG. “The Germans charged that SPAG had been used to launder money out of, and into, St. Petersburg from a variety of sources, including the Cali [Colombia drug] cartel.” Again, everybody escaped consequences.
According to a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation documentary “Different scandals marked Putin’s term of office as deputy mayor … He manages the city’s casinos whose profits disappear into thin air [and] gives the city’s oil monopoly to a friend.”
Mr. Putin is surrounded by shady and extremely wealthy characters; they seem to profit from their connections to the Russian leader.
In March 2014, Anne Applebaum of Slate Magazine reported on a company called Rosneft. She says it was created as “a blatant act of thievery.” There was a series of complex ownership transfers, which at one point had the company’s head office located in a vodka bar.
Rosneft is now the largest oil company in Russia, under Chief Executive Officer Igor Sechin. Who he? A former member of Mr. Putin’s cabinet and close adviser to the Russian president and seen by many as his de facto deputy.
Rosneft’s name appears in the infamous dossier of MI6 agent Christopher Steele outlining concerns of connections between the company and then-presidential candidate Donald Trump.
Don’t Cross the Boss
Vladimir Gusinsky owned a television station that in 2000, as the BBC reported, aired a “satirical puppet show Kukly, which mercilessly mocked the new president.” Within months of Mr. Putin’s election, Mr. Gusinsky was facing fraud charges and he fled the country.
Mikhail Khodorkovsky, head of a large oil company, accused Mr. Putin and his associates of massive corruption.
Convictions for fraud and tax evasion put him behind bars for nine years. Mr. Khodorkovsky was adopted by Amnesty International as a prisoner of conscience, meaning the human rights group believed him to have been unfairly persecuted.
Here’s an October 2006 report from World Politics Review: “Over the last month, Russia has experienced a surge of contract killings, with five high-profile murders - a potent reminder that the country is far from the stable democracy its leaders say it is. The Oct. 7 murder of the anti-Kremlin journalist and human rights advocate Anna Politkovskaya is the most prominent of these, and the latest of 11 murders of Russian journalists in the last six years.”
In June 2014, five men were convicted of the contract killing of Ms. Politkovskaya, but who ordered the murder has never been revealed.
Alexander Litvinenko was a former Russian secret service agent living in London. He accused President Putin of being behind Ms. Politkovskaya’s death. A few days later, he fell ill and died in November 2006 of what was found to be poisoning by radioactive polonium.
In March 2018, former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned in the U.K. by a nerve agent developed by the Russian military. Mr. Skripal had defected to the West, and intelligence sources say the attack was a clear message from Mr. Putin to his enemies: “We can get you no matter where you are.”
Members of the feminist punk protest group Pussy Riot spent two years in prison under harsh conditions for daring to criticize Mr. Putin.
Dominic Sandbrook (Daily Mail, February 2014) writes that “those sent to Vladimir Putin’s freezing Siberian prison colonies endure horrific conditions, with no hot water, no toilets and, often, daily beatings.”
Alexei Navalny has been in and out of prison many times. He’s an anti-corruption activist who calls United Russia, the political organization led by President Putin, a party of “crooks and thieves.”
The BBC comments that he “joins a growing list of opponents of President Vladimir Putin who have ended up on the wrong side of the law or in exile, or have met their deaths in suspicious circumstances.”
Mr. Putin on the Couch
Plenty of people are psychoanalyzing Vladimir Putin from a distance.
Dr. Ian Robertson is an Irish neuropsychologist. He says the key to understanding Mr. Putin’s behaviour is his contempt “for what he almost regards as weak - and, possibly in his macho world view, effeminate - western leaders. More important is his contempt for their institutions such as international treaties and laws.” (Psychology Today).
American psychiatrist Dr. Keith Ablow echoes this: “… he believes that those with power should use it and that those who are reticent to use it are no different from those who are inherently weak.” (Fox News).
Both men mention narcissism, a condition that is marked by being totally absorbed in self. Narcissists see people as objects to be used and they are highly manipulative and easily angered if they feel they are not getting the attention they believe they deserve.
The Mayo Clinic notes that narcissists “believe that they’re superior to others and have little regard for other people’s feelings. But behind this mask of ultra-confidence lies a fragile self-esteem, vulnerable to the slightest criticism.”
“… some observers have said that Putin has no face, no substance, no soul. He is a man from nowhere, who can appear to be anything to anybody.”
Clifford G. Gaddy and Fiona Hill, Foreign Affairs
Meanwhile, over at NBC News, Erin McClam writes that Mr. Putin “cannot abide humiliation or chaos. He will not be lectured to. He relishes the chance to poke a finger in the eye of the United States. Informed by his own training in the KGB, he is all about rebuilding Russia as a world power not to be messed with.”
And that, takes us back to Dr. Robertson who writes that the Russian president “firmly and genuinely believes that without him, Russia is doomed.”
In June 2005, Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots football team attended a gathering of business leaders in St. Petersburg. Vladimir Putin was also there and he admired Mr. Kraft’s diamond-studded Super Bowl ring. He told The New York Post “I took out the ring and showed it to [Putin], and he put it on and he goes, ‘I can kill someone with this ring.’ I put my hand out and he put it in his pocket, and three KGB guys got around him and walked out.” The ring is valued at $25,000.
The Association of Former Intelligence Officers (AFIO) in the United States keeps track of Vladimir Putin’s critics who are no longer alive. Early in 2017, Newsweek reported that even if the AFIO’s body count is exaggerated “the list of Moscow’s suspected victims would be grimly impressive: There are over 30 names on the list.”
Putin keeps his family life a secret. He married Lyudmila Shkrebneva in 1983 and they had two daughters, Mariya and Yekaterina. The couple divorced in 2014. In that year Newsweek reported that “No confirmed photographs exist of Putin’s two daughters, 29-year-old Maria, nicknamed Masha, and 28-year-old Ekaterina, known as Katya, as adults. The girls attended a university in Russia under false names; even their classmates were unaware of their real identity.”
Sources (among others)
- “Vladimir Putin: Russia’s Action Man President.” BBC News, February 27, 2018.
- “Putin: The Richest Man on Earth?” Maeve McClenaghan, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, April 19, 2012.
- “Has Putin Always Been Corrupt? And Does it Matter?” Thea Cooke, The Wilson Center, April 16, 2012.
- “Politkovskaya’s Death, Other Killings, Raise Questions About Russian Democracy. Daria Solovieva, World Politics Review, October 31, 2006.
- “The Danger That Lurks Inside Vladimir Putin’s Brain.” Ian H. Robertson, Psychology Today, March 17, 2014.
- “Putin and Medvedev Reveal How Much They Earned Last Year.” Oleg Yegorov, Russia Beyond, April 17, 2017.
Questions & Answers
© 2018 Rupert Taylor