Most know Vladimir Putin as the autocratic president of Russia and former KGB officer. Under his leadership, Russia has seen democratic backsliding, with limited freedom of the press and a lack of fair elections, as well as meddling in foreign elections. No stranger to controversy on the world stage, Putin’s latest grasp for power has been the invasion of Ukraine.
Beyond that, he’s largely a mysterious figure. What motivates Putin, and how did he climb his way up to the Russian presidency? To find out, we’ll need to investigate not just his political career, but the entirety of his life and upbringing, and the history of Russia itself.
For a comprehensive and up-to-date account of Putin as a man and leader, we’re turning to British journalist Philip Short’s latest book. Putin delves into the politician’s background to the fullest extent possible, drawing on almost 200 interviews conducted internationally over eight years, and on primary sources in over a dozen languages. Declared “compelling and nuanced” by the San Francisco Chronicle, this is the one Putin biography you shouldn’t miss. It expertly contextualizes Putin’s life within the pages of history.
For a compelling sneak peek at the book, keep reading. The following passage from Putin focuses on the humble origins of Russia’s future president, who was born in a tumultuous nation marked by decades of food insecurity and civil unrest.
Vladimir Putin was born on Tuesday, October 7, 1952, at Maternity Hospital No. 6, known locally as the Snegiryov hospital, five minutes’ walk from his parents’ home on Baskov Lane, which, despite its name, was a straight, wide street of what had once been elegant nineteenth-century apartment buildings, now shabby and dilapidated, just north of Leningrad’s principal thoroughfare, Nevsky Prospekt, leading to the Winter Palace.
The hospital, founded in 1771 by Catherine the Great, was the oldest in Russia and the largest and reputedly the best in Leningrad. That was not saying a great deal. In Russian maternity clinics in those days, expectant mothers were crammed into filthy wards, infested with cockroaches, with blood and faeces on the floor and soiled bedlinen, where they were left to the mercy of nurses who, when they were not sadistic, were often callous. ‘It doesn’t hurt when you’re screwing your husband, does it, but now you’re having a baby, you’re wailing,’ one woman remembered a midwife telling her. Even at the Snegiryov, cleanliness was rudimentary and painkillers were unknown. Babies were separated from their mothers for 36 hours after birth. From the outset it was the survival of the fittest. One newborn in 50 died before leaving hospital. Husbands were kept away, and Putin’s father had to stand on the street outside with the other men, hoping to see his wife at one of the windows and to learn from her or another woman if the birth had gone well and whether he had a son or a daughter.
Other traditions proved equally tenacious. In the cities, infants were no longer swaddled, as they were in the countryside; instead they were ‘wrapped tight’, so that they could not move, which amounted to the same thing. Otherwise, it was believed, their arms or legs would ‘turn out crooked’. Forty years later, a French medical team visiting the city was appalled to find that this ‘medieval practice’ continued and ‘no one questions that it is correct.’
Young Volodya, as his parents called him, spent the first weeks of his life in a wicker basket, suspended from the ceiling, as had been the custom in the countryside. Both his father and mother had grown up near Tver, on the Volga River, 110 miles north-west of Moscow along the main highway to Leningrad. They lived in neighbouring hamlets which had once formed part of the domains of a Privy Councillor to Tsar Alexander the First, where Putin’s great-grandfather, Ivan Petrovich, had been a serf. Ivan’s son, Spiridon – Putin’s grandfather – had moved to St Petersburg, then Russia’s capital, in the 1890s, to train as a chef, eventually taking charge of the kitchens at the Astoria Hotel, the newest and most luxurious establishment in the city, built for the tercentenary of the Romanov dynasty in 1913. The family was comfortably off and lived in an apartment in nearby Gorokhovaya Street. It was there, two years earlier, that Putin’s father, Vladimir, had been born. Among Spiridon’s regular clients was Grigory Rasputin, the Siberian mystic whose hold over Tsar Nicholas II and his wife, the Tsarina Alexandra, helped bring about their downfall. According to family legend, when Spiridon cooked for him, the monk would tip him a ten-rouble gold coin. But after the Revolution, the hotel closed and the rooms were taken over by Communist Party officials. The banks closed, too, and Spiridon, a frugal man, lost his considerable savings. As the White Russian armies, backed by the European powers, sought to strangle the new revolutionary regime at birth, civil war broke out. The Bolsheviks’ leader, Lenin, unleashed a ferocious wave of terror against suspected counter-revolutionaries, conducted by the newly established Cheka, the ancestor of the KGB, which claimed at least a hundred thousand lives. Famine set in, killing five million more. In Leningrad two thirds of the population, recent immigrants from the countryside, fled back to the villages from which they had come. The city became a wasteland, with grass growing in the streets.
Spiridon left, too, taking the family to his birthplace at Pominovo, a tiny settlement of crooked wooden houses straight out of a painting by Chagall, strung out along either side of a narrow dirt road, three hours on foot from Tver. It was there that his second son, Putin’s father, Vladimir, met his future wife, Maria Ivanovna Shelomova, from the hamlet on the other side of the river. They married in 1928, when both were seventeen, and four years later moved to Peterhof, then a small garrison town that had grown up around Peter the Great’s seafront palace on the Gulf of Finland, 20 miles west of Leningrad, where Maria’s elder brother, Pyotr, who had wed Vladimir’s younger sister, was living. At first the two couples shared a single room. But in 1934, after Vladimir had completed his military service as a submariner in the Baltic Fleet, he and Maria finally obtained a room of their own. Two children were born: Albert, who died of whooping cough in infancy, and Viktor, who succumbed to diphtheria when he was about two years old during the blockade of Leningrad in March 1942.
Viktor’s death has given rise to many unanswered questions.
As the Germans advanced on Peterhof at the end of August 1941, Maria and her baby son were alone: her husband was with the Red Army, no one knew where or even whether he was still alive. Another of her brothers, Ivan, a naval liaison officer attached to the Communist Party’s Regional Committee, brought her to Leningrad and found her a place to stay with relatives. But the city was already in the grip of famine and as a refugee from the suburbs, she had no ration book and no way of obtaining food for herself and her small son. At first Ivan shared his own rations with them, but after he was transferred away from the city, their situation became desperate.
There are conflicting accounts of what happened next. Putin remembered his parents saying that the authorities took his brother away, against his mother’s wishes, and placed him in an orphanage on the grounds that he would have a better chance of surviving the winter there than if he stayed with her. Another version, which may have come from Putin’s mother herself, recounts that one day, when she was too weak to move, ‘two young women came to her door. She asked them, “Take my son. Save him.” And they took the boy away. A few days later she learnt that he had died.’
Neither version is credible.
The city’s orphanages did not accept children under three years old, and Viktor was not yet two. The 30,000 or so orphans rescued from the streets or from empty, freezing apartments in the winter of 1941–2, when the city was blockaded by the Germans and starvation was at its height, were all from families where the adults had died and there was no one left to take care of them. At least as many others were left to fend for themselves because there were not enough places. Moreover conditions in the shelters were often appalling. The staff stole the children’s food; the dormitories were unheated; in some establishments, one child in six died in the first weeks after admission. Even in Moscow, which was far better provided for than Leningrad, the orphanages had a dreadful reputation. One mother, who had been warned by a friend that she would be well advised to bring her daughter home, found when she went to fetch her that the children’s stomachs were swollen with hunger and they were all covered in lice.
The story of the two mysterious young women is even less believable. At a time when the whole city – apart from the Party elite, which was well fed throughout the war – was maddened by hunger and everyone knew that there were cases of cannibalism, no parent, however desperate, would surrender their child to strangers.
One may legitimately wonder whether, behind Viktor’s death, there lurked a family tragedy which no one would ever discuss. Putin himself did not learn until long afterwards that his brother had been buried in a mass grave in the Piskaryovskoe Cemetery, with some 470,000 others who had died during the blockade.
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