Vladimir Putin (1952-) is a former KGB agent who has ruled Russia for more than two decades. Intent on restoring Russian might following the collapse of the Soviet Union, he has launched several military campaigns, including an invasion of Ukraine, and helped usher in what’s often described as a new Cold War. Meanwhile, he has steadily tightened his grip on power, persecuting political opponents, shuttering independent media outlets, and otherwise dismantling the country’s nascent democracy.
Putin's Early Years and Personal Life
Much about Vladimir Putin’s personal life remains murky. Born in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) in 1952, he has recalled growing up modestly in a rat-infested communal apartment building. His parents, who lost two children prior to his birth—one of whom died during the prolonged Nazi siege of Leningrad in World War II—apparently doted on him despite working long hours. As a youth, he practiced martial arts and is reputed to have gotten into many fist fights.
In 1983, Putin married a flight attendant, Lyudmila Shkrebneva, with whom he has two daughters. (The couple divorced around 2013.) He is rumored to have fathered other children as well. Throughout his time in office, Putin has kept his family out of the public eye.
Putin as a KGB Agent
After studying law at Leningrad State University, Putin joined the KGB, the Soviet counterpart of the CIA. In the mid-1980s, he was sent to the city of Dresden in East Germany, where, in his words, he gathered “political intelligence,” in part by recruiting sources. Putin remained in Dresden during the fall of the Berlin Wall, and, with a risky bluff, purportedly prevented a crowd of protestors from storming the local KGB headquarters.
Putin's Political Rise
Putin returned to Leningrad in 1990 and claimed to have resigned from the KGB the following year. The subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union affected him deeply; he later called it the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century. Around that time, he got his political start as an aide to Anatoly Sobchak, his former teacher who became his mentor and St. Petersburg’s mayor.
In 1996, Sobchak lost his bid for re-election and later fled abroad amid corruption allegations. Yet Putin continued his meteoric rise, moving to Moscow, Russia’s capital, and securing one Kremlin post after another (while also defending an economics dissertation he allegedly plagiarized). By 1998, Putin led the KGB’s main successor organization, and the following year President Boris Yeltsin named him prime minister, the country’s second-highest office, thereby elevating him from obscurity to heir apparent.
When an ailing and increasingly unpopular Yeltsin resigned on December 31, 1999, Putin took over as acting president. (Months later, he would win election to a full term.) Helped by rising oil and gas prices, the economy improved in the early 2000s and living standards rose. Many Russians saw him as bringing order and stability after the hyperinflation, tumultuousness, and perceived lawlessness of the Yeltsin years.
Putin's Consolidation of Power
In his first address as Russia’s president, Putin promised to protect freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and property rights, and he likewise announced his commitment to democracy. Yet democratic backsliding began almost immediately under his leadership. The Kremlin brought independent television networks under state control and shut down other news outlets; abolished gubernatorial and senatorial elections; curtailed the judiciary; and restricted opposition political parties. When elections took place, outside observers noted widespread voter irregularities. Putin’s system was sometimes referred to as a “managed democracy.”
Because Russia’s constitution barred a third consecutive term, Putin stepped down in 2008, with his longtime confidante Dmitry Medvedev taking over as president. But Putin retained the role of prime minister and left little doubt about who was really in charge. When Medvedev’s term ended in 2012, the two swapped positions, and Putin once again became president. He has occupied the top job ever since, at one point signing a law that allows him to stay in power until 2036.
Putin has habitually placed his friends and old intelligence colleagues in key posts, several of whom became extravagantly wealthy, and he’s propagated a cult of personality. Perceived opponents have been called “scum” and “traitors” and dealt with harshly. Some, like oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, have been jailed, whereas others have wound up dead. In 2006, for example, investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya was gunned down on Putin’s birthday, and that same year Russian defector Alexander Litvinenko was assassinated in England with radioactive polonium.
More recently, opposition leader Aleksei Navalny was banned from running for president, survived an assassination attempt, and was then imprisoned on what’s widely considered to be politically motivated charges. Yet another high-profile death occurred in 2023, when Yevgeny Prigozhin was killed in a plane crash after launching a short-lived mutiny against Russia’s military leadership.
Putin's Relationship with the West
Many Western leaders originally approved of Putin, with U.S. President George W. Bush saying he had “looked the man in the eye,” found him “very straightforward and trustworthy,” and gotten a “sense of his soul.” Putin was the first foreign leader to call Bush following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. And though he opposed the Iraq War, Putin assisted in aspects of the so-called War on Terror. He moreover described Russia as a “friendly European nation” that desired “stable peace on the continent.”
Putin’s relationship with the West deteriorated, however, in part over NATO’s 2004 expansion into seven Eastern European countries and over pro-Western revolutions that broke out in Georgia and Ukraine. Putin was furthermore irked by U.S. lobbying to bring Georgia and Ukraine into NATO and by its support for an independent Kosovo. In 2007, he accused the United States of overstepping “its national borders in every way.” Over time, Putin came to think of himself as a protector of traditional Russian values, standing up to a hypocritical and morally decadent West.
In 2014, as tensions escalated over Ukraine, Russia was expelled from the Group of Eight industrialized nations. Around that time, he granted asylum to U.S. whistleblower Edward Snowden. And, according to U.S. intelligence agencies, he interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, greenlighting a computer hacking operation that infiltrated the campaign of Hillary Clinton.
Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump maintained generally friendly ties. But the U.S.-Russian relationship reached arguably its lowest point in decades following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine. Since then, Russia has been hit with a slew of economic sanctions, Ukraine has received much Western military assistance, and U.S. President Joe Biden has called Putin a “thug,” a “murderous dictator,” and a “war criminal.”
During his more than two decades in office, Putin has used the military in increasingly aggressive ways. Early in his tenure, he violently suppressed a separatist movement in the Russian republic of Chechnya. In 2008, he orchestrated a brief but large-scale invasion of Georgia, thus cementing Russian control of the breakaway regions Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Starting in 2015, he intervened in the Syrian civil war, among other things authorizing a prolonged bombardment of the city of Aleppo. Additionally, he has deployed Russian mercenaries in various African countries.
Putin’s most prolonged conflict has taken place in Ukraine. In 2014, when Ukrainian protestors ousted their Russian-backed president, Putin responded by annexing Crimea—which had been gifted from Russia to Ukraine during the Soviet era—and by backing a separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine. Then, in 2022, he launched an all-out invasion of Ukraine, but failed to take Kiev, the capital. Heavy fighting has since claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. The Russian armed forces have been accused of purposely targeting civilians and committing torture and other atrocities, prompting the International Criminal Court to issue a warrant for Putin’s arrest (though he is unlikely to stand trial).
The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, by Masha Gessen, published by Riverhead Books, 2012.
The Strongman: Vladimir Putin and the Struggle for Russia, by Angus Roxburgh, published by I.B. Tauris, 2012.
First Person: An Astonishingly Frank Self-Portrait by Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, 2000.
‘The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin,’ by Steven Lee Myers. The New York Times, November 8, 2015.
The Making of Vladimir Putin. The New York Times, March 26, 2022.
Putin, Vladimir. Encyclopedia Britannica