Using his unique access to the Kremlin, German journalist Alexander Rahr shares the inside story on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s formative years in Leningrad and his path to the KGB.
Putin never concealed his background. Spiridon, his grandfather on the father’s side, was a cook, but not a regular one. Initially, he prepared meals for Lenin, then—for Stalin. A person working in such a position and in such proximity to the Kremlin’s leaders could not not be a staffer at the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs (NKVD), KGB’s predecessor. Spiridon served the dictator daily, and it is beyond any doubt that he was being watched much more closely than any Politburo member.
Portraits of Politburo members decorated the pages of textbooks and posters. As a result, their faces were familiar to any Soviet student. Leonid Brezhnev, the leader of the Communist Party and the head of state, was listed first. Then came Aleksei Kosygin, the Chair of the Council of Ministers, Defense Minister Dmitriy Ustinov—at one point both had direct links to the Leningrad military-industrial complex—and Mikhail Suslov. In terms of the Kremlin Olympus, the latter had the reputation of a “gray cardinal” responsible for the purity and consistency of the Communist ideology. But Vladimir Putin probably remembered the face of the 50-year-old Yuri Andropov best. In 1967, the latter was appointed as the head of the KGB. Five years later, he became a member of the Politburo upon Brezhnev’s insistence: this was a sure sign that the political influence of the organization that he headed—which at one point became the dark symbol of Stalin’s dictatorship—had grown. Of course, at that point Putin could not even imagine that 30 years later he would take over Andropov’s place at Lubyanka KGB headquarters in Moscow.
At one point in the summer of 1970, 17-year-old Vladimir knocked on the massive door of building #4 located on Liteynyi Avenue. Most Leningrad residents tried to approach this building as rarely as possible, since the KGB Administration was located there. Putin’s future boss described his visit in an interview to Komsolskaia Pravda newspaper as follows: “Putin’s wish to work for the KGB appeared if not in his childhood, then, in the very least, in his youth. Immediately after graduating high school, he visited our Administration and announced right there in the doorway: ‘I want to work here.'”
According to Putin, at first he dreamt of becoming a pilot, but by the age of 16, he definitively decided that he would wear the epaulettes of a KGB officer without any doubt. Of course, the fact that his grandfather at one point worked in the system was not an insignificant factor. Yet Putin’s future colleagues were somewhat surprised because no one approached them with this kind of request in quite some time. They immediately explained to the young visitor that this would only be possible after serving in the military or graduating from university. “What university is preferable?”, asked Vladimir. “Law school,” they responded. Thus Putin used every opportunity to get into law school at the Leningrad University, which was located on the 22nd line of the Vasilyevsky Island, that is in the central part of town. This was not easy. He had to overcome his parents’ resistance, who were hoping that their son would choose the profession of an engineer. But in the end, Vladimir got his way. Then it turned out that in order to attend law school, one had to receive recommendation letters from the District Party Committee or the Young Communist League (Komsomol). Exceptions were made for those, who graduated high school with excellent grades. It paints Putin in a positive light that he managed to overcome all the hurdles and was admitted to his faculty of choice upon the very first attempt.
A few weeks later, Putin celebrated his 18th birthday, and the next day he heard on the radio that Alexander Solzhenitsyn received the Nobel Prize in literature. In all likelihood, by then Putin had read Solzhenitsyn’s novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. At that time, what was known about Gorbachev—who held the post of the First Secretary of the Stavropol Regional Party Committee—was that he treated dissidents with a certain level of sympathy. In contrast, the First Secretary of the Sverdlovsk (today’s Yekaterinburg) Regional Committee of the Communist Party, Yeltsin—who in the middle of the 1970s ordered the demolition of the Ipatiev House, the basement of which witnessed the murder of the tsar’s family in 1918—avoided all contacts with conformists. In general, his manners and management style resembled those of the First Secretary of the Leningrad Regional Party Committee, Grigory Romanov, in many ways.
What did Vladimir Putin think when he heard the news of Solzhenitsyn’s award? It is highly unlikely that he was either disappointed or pleased. The only thing that disappointed Putin was the fact that he, as he later said, was unable to work for the KGB due to being too young. In one interview, Putin defended the existence of the so-called “informants” and stated that the state has the right to use secret agents to receive the necessary information. However, it is highly unlikely that Vladimir Putin wanted to work in the senseless and unenviable field of going after dissidents. There is no doubt that Putin was attracted to a different kind of activities within the KGB. It was during that memorable year that Willy Brandt’s government began to carry out his famous Ostpolitik, and the relationship between the Soviet Union and the West seemed to shift toward détente. As a result, The Federal Republic of Germany became the main European trade partner of the USSR. In February of 1970, Moscow and Bonn signed the first agreement on natural-gas supplies. In August, Federal Chancellor Brandt and Leonid Brezhnev signed an agreement in Moscow establishing the framework for future relations between the two countries.
Did Vladimir want to become a Soviet James Bond? Hardly. First, he lacked the necessary training. He did not serve in the military. However, all faculties at the university had military departments, so Putin, much like the other students, did not need to wear epaulettes and carry a gun. Of course, Putin had to attend military training in his final year. However, he and his peers likely interpreted them as a kind of gym class with a somewhat greater load. After graduating university, Putin was given the title of lieutenant in the reserve.
In 1974, in the middle of his fourth year, the long-time dream of Putin as a student had come true. A KGB officer called him at home and offered to meet. The next day, Vladimir, burning with impatience, waited at the appointed place. The man who called him did not show up, and Putin decided that he was not coming at all. Finally, the KGB officer arrived after all, immediately offered a job in his organization to Putin, and pointedly noted that they did not need just any law student, but only promising “cadres.” Indeed, only three students from the Faculty of Law received this kind of offer in addition to Putin. Working for the KGB was considered prestigious not only because of the high salary. Many were attracted by the prospect of getting unusual training.
Putin had to wait for an entire year before receiving an official invitation to the personnel department of the Leningrad branch of the all-powerful KGB.
In October of 1975, Putin turned 23. His thesis on the subject of establishing a system most favorable to international trade earned the highest grade. Now he had the full right to call himself a lawyer. Vladimir’s cherished dream also came true: he started working for the KGB.
What lay ahead was a very stressful life. Of course, Putin had no idea just how exciting and interesting it would be.
Excerpted, translated, and edited from the Russian version of Alexander Rahr’s A German in the Kremlin (Alexander Rahr, Wladimir Putin: Der ‘Deutsche’ im Kreml [Munich: Universitas, 2000]) by Nina Kouprianova