Vladimir Putin (born 1952) is the longest-serving Russian leader since Joseph Stalin, having led the country for more than 2 decades as either its Prime Minister or its President. His time in power has been characterised by territorial tensions in Eastern Europe, liberal economic reform, a crackdown on political freedoms and a cult of personality revolving around Putin’s ‘action man’ image.
Away from his public persona, Putin has lived a life of extremes: he grew up in poverty in 1950s and 1960s St Petersburg, for example, but now resides in a rural palace complex worth more than 1 billion dollars. And his personality is similarly marked by contrasts. Putin was a KGB officer during the Cold War and claims to be a ruthless black belt at judo, yet he also professes a sincere love for animals and an adoration of The Beatles.
Here are 10 facts about Vladimir Putin.
1. He grew up in poverty
Putin’s parents married at 17. Times were tough: during World War Two, his father was injured and ultimately disabled by a grenade, and during the Siege of Leningrad his mother was trapped and nearly starved to death. Putin’s birth in October 1952 was preceded by the deaths of two brothers, Viktor and Albert, who died during the Siege of Leningrad and in infancy, respectively.
After the war, Putin’s father took a factory job and his mother swept streets and washed test tubes. The family lived in a communal apartment with several other families. There was apparently no hot water and lots of rats.
2. He was not a model student
In ninth grade, Putin was selected to study at Leningrad School No. 281, which only accepted the city’s brightest pupils. A Russian tabloid reportedly later found Putin’s gradebook. It stated that Putin “threw chalkboard erasers at the children”, “didn’t do his math homework”, “behaved badly during singing class” and “talks in class”. In addition, he was caught passing notes and often fought with his gym teacher and older students.
While at school, he became interested in a career with the KGB. Learning that the organisation didn’t take volunteers and instead hand-picked their members, he applied to law school as a path into being selected. In 1975, he graduated from Leningrad State University.
3. He has reportedly broken records in Judo
Putin has practiced judo since he was 11 years old, before turning his attentions to sambo (a Russian martial art) when he was 14. He won competitions in both sports in Leningrad (now St Petersburg) and in 2012 was awarded eighth dan (a martial arts ranking system) of the black belt, which made him the first Russian to achieve the status. He has written books on the subject, co-authoring the book Judo with Vladimir Putin in Russian, and Judo: History, Theory, Practice in English.
However, Benjamin Wittes, editor of Lawfare and a black belt in taekwondo and aikido, has disputed Putin’s martial arts skill, stating that there is no video evidence of Putin displaying any noteworthy Judo skills.
4. He joined the KGB
Immediately after completing his law degree, Putin joined the KGB in an administrative position. He studied in Moscow at the KGB’s foreign intelligence institute under the pseudonym ‘Platov’. He served in the KGB for 15 years and travelled across Russia, and in 1985 was sent to Dresden in East Germany. He rose through the ranks of the KGB and eventually became a lieutenant colonel.
However, in 1989, the Berlin Wall came down. Two years later, the Soviet Union collapsed and Putin left the KGB. This wasn’t to be the end of Putin’s dealings with the KGB, however: in 1998, he was appointed the head of the FSB, the reconstituted KGB.
5. After the KGB, he started his career in politics
After his career with the KGB, he held a position at Leningrad State University for a short while before moving into politics. He was a distinguished employee, and by 1994 had earned himself the title of Deputy Mayor under Anatoly Sobchak. After his mayorship came to an end, Putin moved to Moscow and joined the presidential staff. He started as a Deputy Head of Management in 1998, then moved to the head of the Federal Security Service, and by 1999 was promoted to Prime Minister.
Just before the turn of the century, the then-President Boris Yeltsin resigned and appointed Putin as Acting President. Yeltsin’s opponents had been preparing for an election in June 2000. However, his resignation resulted in the presidential elections taking place sooner, in March 2000. There, Putin won in the first round with 53% of the vote. He was inaugurated on 7 May 2000.
6. He loves the Beatles
In 2007, British photographer Platon was sent to take a portrait of Putin for Time Magazine’s ‘Person of the Year’ edition. As a way of making conversation, Platon stated, “I’m a big Beatles fan. Are you?” He then recounted that Putin stated, “I love the Beatles!” and said that his favourite song was Yesterday.
7. He owns a palace in a forest
Putin’s enormous home, nicknamed ‘Putin’s Palace’, is an Italianate palace complex located on the coast of the Black Sea in Krasnodar Krai, Russia. The complex contains a main house (with an area of nearly 18,000m²), an arboretum, a greenhouse, a helipad, an ice palace, a church, an amphitheatre, a guest house, a fuel station, an 80-metre bridge and a special tunnel inside the mountain with a tasting room.
Inside there is a swimming pool, spa, saunas, Turkish baths, shops, a warehouse, a reading room, a music lounge, a hookah bar, a theatre and cinema, a wine cellar, a casino and about a dozen guest bedrooms. The master bedroom is 260 m² in size. The cost of the build is estimated to be around 100 billion rubles ($1.35 billion) in 2021 prices.
8. He has at least two children
Putin married Lyudmila Shkrebneva in 1983. The couple had two daughters together, Maria and Katerina, who Putin rarely mentions and have never been seen by the Russian people. In 2013, the couple announced their divorce on mutual grounds, stating that they didn’t see each other enough.
Foreign tabloids have reported that Putin had at least one child with a “former rhythmic gymnastics champion turned lawmaker”, a claim which Putin denies.
9. He has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize twice
Putin persuaded Assad to surrender Syria’s weapons peacefully as opposed to the other option of aggressive intervention, likely because of his friendship with the President of Syria, Bashar al-Assad. For this, he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014.
He was also nominated for the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize. The nomination didn’t come from the Kremlin: instead, it was supposedly submitted by controversial Russian writer and public figure Sergey Komkov.
10. He loves animals
Putin owns a number of pet dogs, and reportedly loves being photographed with different animals. The many pictures of Putin with animals can be broadly divided into three categories: a loving pet owner with his many dogs; an impressive animal handler with horses, bears and tigers; and the rescuer of endangered species such as Siberian cranes and the Siberian bear.
He also pushes for laws for the better treatment of animals, such as a law that prohibits petting zoos inside malls and restaurants, prohibits the killing of stray animals and requires proper care for pets.