Squiz Shortcuts – Vladimir Putin
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Vladimir Putin, the President of Russia, is in the news a lot. Whether it’s on the diplomatic trail, in dealings with the US and other big nations, or in relation to the poisoning of political opponents, he’s someone worth knowing a bit more about. In this episode of Squiz Shortcuts, we take a look at who he is, how he came to be the leader, his broad agenda and how he is using his increasing power.
What’s his family background?
Vladimir Putin born in what is now known as St Petersburg – in the Soviet Union in 1952. And his family’s story is one that’s not uncommon from the era. Putin’s mother was a factory worker and his father was a conscript in the Soviet Navy. From the late 30s to the mid-40s Russia was heavily involved in WWII and then there was a long period of recovery. Putin as you say was born in that post-war period. He is the youngest of three children and his brothers died before he was born. They were both born in the mid-30s, one died in infancy and the other of diphtheria during the Siege of Leningrad by Nazi Germany’s forces in World War II. Leningrad is what St Petersburg was called back then. He lived in a tough area and grew up in communal housing. He would often get into fights which led him to learn judo – in which he has a black belt – and the Soviet martial art known as Sambo. He’s a national master in Sambo. And we occasionally see images today of Putin practicing both of these. That upbringing of course influenced his approach to politics – he said in 2015: “Fifty years ago the Leningrad street taught me a rule: if a fight is inevitable you have to throw the first punch.”
What was his early adult life like?
After leaving school Putin went on to study law at Leningrad University, and it’s there that he joined the Communist Party – something that was mandatory at the time. Then into in 1975 he joins the KGB – which was the main security agency for the Soviet Union from 1954 until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Kremlin’s website says Putin knew he wanted to join the KGB before he left school. Working as an intelligence officer, he was stationed in East Germany for a time. but he returned to Leningrad in early 1990’s after the collapse of East Germany in 1989 and resigned from the KGB. He did not agree with the 1991 coup attempt against the Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and didn’t want to be part of the intelligence in the new administration.
How did he get into politics?
Just as the Soviet Union was collapsing – his political career started… He started working for his great friend Anatoly Sobchak who was the mayor of Leningrad. And up to the mid-90s, he increases his influence in what’s now known as St Petersburg. And he’s climbs his way up so far that it merits a move to Moscow. From there, he’s appointed President Boris Yeltsin deputy chief of Presidential Staff, where he stays until May 1998. And climbing even further up the tree, Yeltsin appointed Putin as Director of the Federal Security Service (FSB), the primary intelligence and security organisation of the Russian Federation and the successor to the KGB.
How did he then become president?
As Putin was moving up the career ladder, Boris Yeltsin’s leadership was fading though. It’s not long after he comes FSB Director that Putin is put into the presidential job – something Yeltsin said he wanted having nominated Putin as his successor. Yeltsin resigned unexpectedly on NYE 1999 making Putin acting president. And he was elected in his own right in mid-2000.
How did he gain so much power?
Putin has been dominant in Russian politics ever since becoming president, holding the sort of power that can only be understood by having a quick look at how Russia’s government works.
Like the US – the Russian President can only serve two consecutive presidential terms. After Putin’s second term in 2008 ran out he became prime minister of Russia. And through political manoeuvring, Putin was able to switch the hierarchy of power in Russian politics to make Prime Ministerial role more powerful than the President. He then managed to switch that power back when he won a third term as President in 2012. That term didn’t expire until 2018. And then he wins that election for a fourth term that’s not due to expire until 2024.
What are some accusations he has faced?
Throughout his presidency there’s been accusations of vote rigging and manipulation of elections by eliminating opposition candidates. And in mid-2020, further constitutional changes were approved that would allow Putin to stay in power until 2036. That was approved via a referendum, and again there were claims that the result was falsified. Russia has seen widespread protests over the result and the changes. He’s now described as the ‘forever president’ of Russia because he would be 84yo by the time 2036 rolls around.
Putin’s administration has also been roundly criticised for lacking of transparency. And there have been claims of big time corruption amongst the ruling elite. And Putin himself is said to be a billionaire. He’s been accused of being on the take of some big deals and he was mentioned in one of the world’s biggest international financial scandals, known as the Panama Papers. For his part, he’s said that he takes a modest government wage and has little in personal wealth.
Plenty of Russians also say their freedoms have been diminished under Putin, they point to the government’s ongoing control over the media, and say that many people have been jailed for speaking out against Putin or forced to leave the country. Those enemies can be politicians who oppose him – like Alexi Navalny who was recently poisoned by a nerve agent that was made by the Russians back in the 80s and 90s. He’s also accused of repressing minorities, particularly LGBTQI people.
What do people say about him?
And around the world, Putin has divided opinion. While some admire him as a strong leader who has put Russia up alongside some of the most powerful countries in the world, his opponents say that strong leadership is characterised by the taking away many people’s freedoms.
What is his agenda?
Prior to Putin coming to power was the collapse of the Soviet Union. At that time Russia was in all sorts of economic and social trouble and Putin presented himself as a strong leader who could Russia out of those troubles.
Broadly, he came to the office of president with a policy agenda based on improving economic efficiency, social policies aimed at countering poverty, and stable growth of people’s overall wellbeing with a focus on raising education standards and health. At the time he said “a country in which the people are not healthy physically and psychologically, are poorly educated and illiterate, will never rise to the peaks of world civilisation.” At the heart of reforms were improvements to the economy. To do that, Russia had to move away from the communist way of doing things, and the political system under Putin has been described as incorporating some elements of economic liberalism. Putin’s view of communism in those early days was that it was “a blind alley, far away from the mainstream of civilisation”. In more recent times he’s put the communist leaders of the past on a pedestal, but he pretty much rejected communism as he headed into the 2000s.
What’s the US-Russia relationship like?
In years gone by, the US-Russia relationship took a dive, but US President Donald Trump, who says he sees an upside in having a good relationship with Putin, has made many in the international political and diplomatic community uneasy about that approach. And it’s made some people in the US uneasy given evidence Russia meddled in the 2016 presidential election.
What about Russia’s relationship with the rest of the world?
Putin makes no apologies for pursuing what he says is an agenda in Russia’s national interest, and so Russia is involved in many international fights. It was Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in February 2014 that attracted widespread condemnation. And Putin is also criticised for supporting governments in Syria and Iran, and also in North Korea. And when it comes to a rising power, China’s President Xi Jinping has said that Putin’s his best friend. Putin himself was a bit less gushy saying the US-China relationship is an important “global partnership and strategic cooperation”.
What is his family life like?
In 1983, Putin married Lyudmila Shkrebneva, and they lived together in East Germany – where he was stationed with the KGB – until 1990 . They have two daughters together but their divorce was finalised in 2014. Since then there’s been a lot of speculation that Putin is in a relationship with former rhythmic gymnast Alina Kabaeva. They’ve made public appearances together as spouses, but nothing has been confirmed about the relationship or if they have children together.
Any quirky facts about Putin?
Putin is a bit of fitness fanatic and has an action man reputation as he’s been pictured on horseback, going diving, in F1 cars and is a big fan of dogs. He can also speak German fluently, he’s a practicing Russian Orthodox and has a great love of ice hockey.
ABC podcast – ‘Russia, If You’re Listening’