The Untold Truth Of Vladimir Putin

At the time of this writing, Vladimir Putin is 69 years old, having been born on October 7, 1952, per Britannica. He is the president of the nation officially known as the Russian Federation, currently serving his fourth term in that post and eligible to run for the highest office in Russia twice more, according to NPR. Thus, the man who has held power in Russia since 1999 — with a brief, orchestrated stint as prime minister, per Reuters — may well remain in power until the year 2036.

Which seems likely, for according to polls, just days before this writing, Putin's approval ratings among Russians were at an elevated, stable 69%, according to PBS News Hour. Which is hard to square up against the opinion most people around the world hold of this autocratic ruler at present. Vladimir Putin is today one of the most hated men on the planet. Under his direct influence and using pretexts so flimsy they are believed by next to no one beyond Russian borders, Russian troops and paramilitary forces are currently staging a massive invasion of Ukraine.

What drives Putin to launch an egregious invasion of his nation's neighbor even as the world protests? What has formed this soon-to-be septuagenarian into such a ruthless, power-hungry despot that he has ostensibly no regard for human life, the rule of law, or basic decency? The short answer: it's complicated. The longer answer: it's complicated, so let's take a look under the hood.

Putin grew up in a communal apartment shared with three families

Born in St. Petersburg (then called Leningrad in honor of the founder of the Communist Party in the USSR, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, or Lenin, via BBC) in the early 1950s, young Vladimir Putin and his family had a living situation that was entirely common for Soviet citizens of the time: the Putins shared a single apartment with two other families, according to Newsweek. This meant communal use of the stove, the sink, the restroom, and so forth among all three of the families. Yet the Putin family was actually well set up in the context of the place and time, having the largest room to themselves. It was a 12-foot-by-15-foot room the young Vladimir shared with his mother, a former factory worker who would work numerous odd jobs later in life, father, a soldier injured during WWII (via the New York Times) and later a skilled toolmaker, and would have shared with two older siblings had they not both died young.

The Putins were also notable in that they had a television set and telephone in their apartment as well as a small dacha, or vacation home (picture a basic cabin, not a lavish beach house) outside of the city to which they could retreat when time permitted, via Newsweek. For the times, it was an entirely comfortable upbringing, one that would even have been the envy of many nearly destitute Soviet citizens of the day.

Young Vladmir was a promising athlete but middling student

Despite the aura the adult Putin likes to create around himself — one in which he comes across as nearly infallible and infinitely capable — be the task at hand besting an opponent in a judo match (via Newsweek), landing a nearly impossibly large pike (via the Christian Science Monitor), leading a flock of wild birds on a migration route (via the Guardian), piloting a compact submersible craft (via Reuters), or leading a nation through the ups and down of history, Vladimir Putin's life has hardly been one long success story.

As a young man, Putin was a poor student, according to ABC News. He was often tardy and occasionally truant, he did not devote much time or effort to studies or testing, and he was often in trouble for things like talking in class, passing notes, and even hurling chalkboard erasers at other students when possessed by fits of anger. His grades were modest at best, and overall he showed little promise during his grade school years. 

Mediocre performance in grade school and middle school notwithstanding, Putin earned a spot in the respected high school Leningrad School No. 281, according to the LA Times, and in his high school years, Putin turned things around, studying hard and earning much better marks. And at that point, Putin continued to focus on the one area in which he had always shined: athletics, and in particular martial arts. Putin had begun to practice sambo and judo at around age 11, and he showed an immediate aptitude for martial arts, which remain an important part of his life — both personally and in his public persona — even today.

Vladimir Putin has a law degree

Not that Russian president Vladimir Putin displays much concern for following laws these days (if he ever has), but it's still worth noting that Putin earned a law degree back in the '70s. To be specific, he graduated with his degree in law from Leningrad State University in 1975, according to Biography. Though the future intelligence officer, president, and prime minister of Russia would never actually practice law, 15 years after graduating, he did, for a brief stint, work at the same school from which he had graduated following the end of a long KGB assignment, per USA Today.

Not that Putin was the least bit upset about never being a practicing lawyer — frankly, he never even wanted to use the degree as anything more than a stepping stone toward his ultimate goal in life as a young man: he wanted to be a spy. According to TIME, the young Vladimir Putin became enamored by the KGB after reading about the agency's clandestine work and, at the tender age of 15, even showed up to a local KGB outpost to volunteer to join the service. When an officer there explained to young Putin that the KGB never took on volunteers, always recruiting its members, Putin asked what he could do to increase his chances of being hired, to which the man replied one should attend law school.

Thus it was that Putin studied hard, earned a law degree, and soon after graduating was indeed invited to join the secret police; his dreams of a career as a spook came to pass.

He served as a KGB officer for a decade and a half

Vladimir Putin served as a KGB officer for about 15 years, thus his time as a spy was by far the most substantial portion of his career before he entered politics in the 1990s. According to Britannica, he joined the KGB – or Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti in full, which translates in English to the Committee for State Security — shortly after graduating from Leningrad State University in 1975, and he would remain a KGB operative until his 1990 retirement from the service. At his separation from the secretive organization, he had earned the rank of lieutenant colonel.

In the early days of his career as a spy, Putin was stationed in his home city of Leningrad and tasked with monitoring the activities both of foreign nationals in the city as well as Russian officials working at consulates in Leningrad (via the Washington Post). After nearly a decade spent in this relatively low-level type of assignment, Putin was briefly transferred to Moscow for additional KGB training before being sent to the East German city of Dresden, then a part of the USSR, where he would serve in a still-classified capacity for the next handful of years.

As East Germany slipped out of Soviet control in 1989, the year the infamous Berlin Wall fell, Putin returned to Russia, settling later in Moscow where he would soon start his new life working in politics once he had separated from the KGB, an outfit that itself was counting its days: The KGB would be dissolved as the USSR itself collapsed in 1991, with the spy organization replaced by two new groups, the FSB and SVR, per The Guardian and the BBC.

He served as head of the FSB

When Vladimir Putin retired from the soon-to-be defunct KGB in 1991, he was not done with spy services for good. In 1998, Russian president Boris Yeltsin appointed Putin as the head of the FSB, one of the primary successor organizations to the Soviet-era Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti (KGB), according to Business Insider. Yeltsin then ordered the FSB, under Putin, to pressure and conduct surveillance operations against powerful labor unions operating in the country's east, as well as crack down on right-wing dissidents.

The post-Cold War bureau that is the FSB, or Federalnaya Sluzhba Bezopasnosti, is comparable to the KGB in some ways, but it differs as well. Whereas the KGB was largely concerned with monitoring and control of dissident citizens and foreign operatives within the Soviet Union, the FSB is involved in internal security, counterintelligence, antiterrorism, and the surveillance of Russian military forces, per Britannica. But the organization uses the former headquarters of the KGB as its main offices, so the successor links are not hard to seek out. And considering a man who came up in the KGB briefly headed the FSB before moving to one of the few posts of even greater power — namely the presidency — of course there is that continuity as well.  

Putin has served as president and prime minister of Russia many times

Vladimir Putin has served as the president of Russia and as the prime minister multiple times. But looking at just how many terms he has served in these top spots is hard to fathom until you break it down, so let's take a moment and break it down right now. According to Business Insider, President Boris Yeltsin, who clearly saw huge potential in Vladimir Putin, appointed the 47-year-old Putin as prime minister of Russia in August 1999. It's entirely possible Yeltsin did so primarily to clear the way for his quasi-protégé to move up to even higher office, for when Yeltsin stepped down from the presidency a mere four months later, in December 1999, he appointed Putin as the acting president of Russia. Putin would be elected to the office in his own right three months later in March 2000.

So that's already a stint as prime minister and as president by early on in the first year of the new millennium. He was officially sworn in for his first full presidential term in early May of 2000 and held the office until May 2008. Then, Putin was appointed as the prime minister of Russia by his handpicked successor to the presidency, Dimitry Medvedev, per Reuters. After waiting while Medvedev served a single term as president, Putin ran and, of course, won office again, resuming his role atop Russia's political hierarchy in 2012. With term limits for Russian presidents having been extended to six years, he held office until 2018 and was then handily reelected.

During this fourth — or, depending on how you look at things, fifth — term as president, Putin saw to it that laws were changed that will let him run twice more, so he may well serve until 2036 if he remains healthy, at liberty, and interested in power (via NPR).

He is filthy rich

Vladimir Putin has more money than he could easily spend in a lifetime, especially given the fact that he is nearing 70 years of age. According to Forbes, Putin is almost assuredly a billionaire, and potentially many times over, but no one can get a handle one exactly how much money the Russian president is worth — and that's despite many experts having spent many years trying — nor can we be sure exactly how he has amassed his shadowy wealthy, either. But there are a handful of prevailing theories that might explain how Putin has become so prosperous.

The first major infusion of cash the ostensibly public servant may have gained could have come from his misappropriating the wealth seized from oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, whom Putin and his government had jailed on trumped up charges in 2003, per Forbes. Much of the cash that was taken from the billionaire was never accounted for, after all. Another theory behind Putin's wealth is even more directly illicit: He may well simply be paid by people whom he allows to break the law, or at least skirt it. Putin may well have made millions or even tens of millions through bribes, kickbacks, and thank-you payments — in the form of cash, stocks, or both — for helping his cronies (aka friends, family, and others willing to pay) to better themselves as long as they better his bank account.

There is one other theory, and it's that Putin is rich in bravado and swagger, but not in cash. He may well not have billions or even many millions himself despite his projection of wealth, but it really would not matter as he has the state coffers of Russia at his disposal to fund almost any whim.

Putin was married for more than 30 years

Vladimir Putin was married for a very long time, but has now been divorced for many years. Putin married his now ex-wife, Lyudmila Putina, on July 8, 1983, after the couple had courted for a couple of years, according to The Week. Born in early 1958, Lyudmila Aleksandrovna Shkrebneva was a little more than half a decade Putin's junior and was in her early 20s when they met. She was a stewardess, which was a coveted and competitive job in the USSR in that era. Putin would later say of his marriage to "Lyuda," as he often called her: "I understood that if I didn't marry for another two or three years, I would never marry. Though, of course, I had made a habit of leading a bachelor's life. Lyudmila uprooted it" (via The Washington Post).

So perhaps unsurprisingly, Putin was not exactly a hopeless romantic. It's surprising (for "impressive" isn't quite the right word) that the Putins managed to stay married for so many years, all things considered. The couple remained married for 30 years, only divorcing in the year 2013. By the end of the union, there was apparently no love left and plenty of acrimony, with Lyudmila calling her husband "a vampire," per The Week, and Putin saying at one point that those who could stand to be around his soon-to-be ex-wife for more than three weeks deserved to have a monument erected in their honor. By 2013, Putin's wife was so rarely seen that some even conjectured she had joined a convent. Which she had not — in fact, Lyudmila even remarried a few years after the split, per The Washington Post.

Putin has (at least) two children

Vladimir Putin definitely has at least two children, and there is a chance he has more — the Russian president is a master at keeping his personal life secret, despite how often the eyes of the world are on him, so it's quite hard to know for sure. But the two known children were born long before he had ascended to top national office, and we do know a few things about them. Both children are daughters, and both were born with Putin's ex wife Lyudimila, per The Week. One of his now-adult children is believed to be 36 years old, the other 34, meaning both were born in the latter years of the 1980s; thus, they would have been born when Putin was still posted in Dresden in East Germany.

Vladimir Putin's older daughter, Maria Vorontsova, is a genetics researcher and endocrinologist (via Reuters) who lived for some years in the Netherlands until officials in that country called for her to be expelled following the suspected Russian-backed downing of a passenger plane in the year 2014, per The Guardian. His younger daughter, Katerina Tikhonova, per RFERL, is a scientist who studies physics and mathematics and is a member of the Russian council for the development of physical culture and mass sports (via RusLetter). She is also a former competitive acrobatic dancer.

He has a semi-secret girlfriend

While Vladimir Putin's marriage may have flamed out with no love left at the end of 30 long years, he still has lots of love to give, it seems. And some of that love overlapped, too. Putin has purportedly been involved with former gymnast Alina Kabaeva since the early 2000s, though as per standard operating procedure with the Russian president's personal life, the details here are all quite murky, according to India TV News.

We know for sure that Putin and Kabaeva have been an item in the past and likely still are. And we know Kabaeva is a good three decades younger than Putin. The former gymnast may be the mother to more Putin children — that's oft speculated but far from confirmed — and she may also be but one of several girlfriends the autocratic ruler has now or has had over the years of the past decade or two. Some sources have hinted that Kabaeva gave birth to twins by Putin, in fact. 

What is known for sure about Alina Kabaeva herself is that she was an inarguably talented and accomplished gymnast in her heyday, having earned dozens of medals in competitions all around the globe, including two Olympic medals: a gold and a bronze, via Sports Reference. After leaving sports, Kabaeva tried out modeling, singing, and a few other false start careers. She then entered politics and held a seat in the Duma section of Russia's parliament for nearly a decade.

He has a black belt in judo

Putin is definitely know for bragging about many things, but when it comes to martial arts, he puts his (unknown sums of) money where his mouth is: Putin is a black belt in judo. Or at least, he was until the International Federation of Judo stripped him of his title in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, per The Washington Post. Lack of title aside, the Russian president has long been recognized as a competent practitioner of judo and sambo, and he has trained in the martial arts since he was a boy (via Newsweek).

His prowess at judo was noted even when he was a young man and far from fame; according to the Wall Street Journal, "In 1976 Leningrad's evening newspaper hailed the 23-year-old 'judoist Vladimir Putin' [for winning] a prestigious competition and [being] elevated to the rank of champion." The practice has always been close to Putin's heart, so much so that well into his national political career, he even found time to serve as the head of the same studio where he had trained as a child. Putin has also trained in karate, according to Russia Beyond, in which he holds the "8th dan (rank)." It's worth noting that when a noted U.S. Marine judo expert analyzed Putin's performance in judo exhibitions, he confirmed the leader as genuinely capable even well into his 60s (via We Are the Mighty).

Putin speaks three languages

Vladimir Putin is fluent in three languages, according to Newsweek. Of course the native Russian speaks his mother tongue, and he is also quite fluent in German, a language he was compelled to use often during his years in the KGB when he was posted in East Germany. Putin is also known to be able to speak English, but what's not clear is the Russian president's level of fluency in this language. He is reportedly a good enough English speaker to be able to understand the language well enough to not need translators, but he hardly ever reveals this in public, instead having translators speak to him in Russian and to relay his spoken Russian messages back to the English speaker with whom he is in dialogue.

According to Express, it is almost assuredly a careful political calculation that has led to Putin's reticence to speak English in public. After all, geopolitically, most of the nations in which English is the primary language are at odds with Russia, and were even outright enemies of the Soviet Union he served during the earlier years of his career. In other words, it's a "power play," as Express puts it. He has admitted to knowing the language, though, and does use it privately, such as when he spoke directly to director Oliver Stone on several occasions while the American filmmaker interviewed him in 2017 (via Vox).

Putin does, for the record, often speak in German in public.

He has almost surely directly approved assassinations

Before the recent invasion of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin has a long history of ordering assassinations — or at least doing so tacitly, though no one paying much attention has any doubts who is directing things. Of the many deaths that have resulted from Putin's directives are those of journalist Anna Politkovskaya, shot to death in the fall of 2006 following her revealing reporting of the ongoing Russian aggression (and occasional atrocities) in Chechnya (via The Guardian). Putin also surely OK'd the poisoning death of former-intelligence-officer-turned-defector Alexander Litvinenko in London in that same year, per NPR.

There are a host of other successful assassinations that can be tied to Putin, along with several failed attempts, such as the failed poisoning of former intelligence officer Sergei Skripal (via The New York Times), and of opposition leader Alexey Navalny (via CNN). For those who have lived through an attempted Russian assassination, it's likely just a matter of time before another attempt is made — which makes Navalny's continued vocal opposition to Putin all the more impressive.

He was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize

In what has only become a more and more laughably bitter irony with the unprovoked and illegal invasion of Ukraine — and in recent years, what with the annexation of Crimea (via CNBC), the support of shadowy militant groups, and a predilection for assassinations (via NPR) — Vladimir Putin was once nominated for a Novel Peace Prize (via National Geographic). Yes, the same prize that has been issued to the likes of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Teresa, and the Dalai Lama, just to name a few. 

How did Putin find himself even adjacent to the many lauded laureates of this august prize? It was made by the Russian International Academy of Spiritual Unity and Cooperation of Peoples of the World, an "advocacy group" (via The New York Times) that reportedly pursues peace around the globe. Putin was nominated by the organization thanks to his help finding a "nonmilitary" way to punish the Syrian government for using illegal chemical weapons in the course of the protracted Syrian Civil War. This is, of course, the same Putin who later worked closely with the government of Syrian "president" Bashar al Assad on matters such as securing a 50-year lease for Russian extraction of phosphate in regions of Syria (not to mention the presence of Russian military bases throughout the country), according to France 24.

Putin was definitely behind election interference in 2016

Many critics and opponents of President Trump believe that without the efforts of Russian hackers and propaganda specialists working at the direction of Vladimir Putin and his cronies, Donald Trump would never have become president of the United States of America. While there is no credible evidence that points to Russia directly interfering with the voting process that saw Trump elected in 2016, which means that he was indeed a legitimate president (via CNN), there is incontrovertible evidence of Russian meddling that indeed may have tipped the scales in favor of Trump and, more to the point, that unfairly and maliciously ruined the campaign of Hillary Clinton, who almost won nonetheless.

Putin is known to have directly ordered a campaign of interference and influence during the electoral process that year. This included hacking into and stealing emails from Hillary Clinton's campaign that were then made public at inopportune times and in improper context. It involved the creation of countless misleading or outright false stories and reports that were then disseminated widely via social media, and it meant releasing pilfered files to third parties, most notably WikiLeaks, that Russia could count on to release, further damaging the integrity of the American electoral process. The fallout is still being felt today and will likely have a long-lasting — if not permanent — deleterious effect on American politics.

Vladimir Putin is an animal lover

You can say a lot of negative things about Vladimir Putin and have them be true, and you can say a lot of positive things about him and have them be false, but one truth about this complex man is that he loves animals. Now, that's not to say he does not kill animals at times, whether he is hunting big game with a high-powered rifle or fishing while conspicuously shirtless, but nonetheless, he has a soft spot for furry friends. And feathered ones, too.

Witness the time Putin veritably leapt to his feet and snatched a dog held hanging from its scruff by Turkmenistan's president Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, per Fortune; Putin then cradled and calmed the puppy, protecting it with a notable tenderness. Witness the many times he has been photographed cuddling with big cats, such as leopards and tigers met at animal sanctuaries. Or the rather hard to explain time he donned a white jumpsuit and piloted a powered hang glider to help lead a migratory flock of endangered Siberian white cranes (via Smithsonian Magazine). 

The long and short story is that this hard man has a soft spot for animals. Now, if only he also had a soft spot for human beings, current Russian-global relations might be a lot better.

He may own more than 700 cars

It's quite likely that President Vladimir Putin is a very rich man, it's quite unlikely anyone will ever know the true extent of his wealth. But if you want to get an idea of his likely riches, look not to a dollar (or rouble, that is) amount alone, but also to other less liquid assets. Like those on wheels, for example. According to the India Times, Putin may own as many as 700 cars. While the most visible car associated with Putin is his official state car, an Aurus Senat Limousine that sells for around $245,000 without all of the many modifications added to Putin's ride (it weighs more than seven tons, resists bullets and blasts, and can reportedly keep Putin safe even if completely submerged in water, via the Hindustan Times), it is hardly his only vehicle.

Putin owns a broad array of cars of all types, and he apparently also may have as many as 58 aircraft — both helicopters and planes — one of the latter of which may be worth more than $715 million, per News. Putin also, of course, has a mega yacht that is worth around $100 million, and he may hold billions in pure gold as well, though that's more conjecture than likely fact (via India Times). 

For a bit of perspective here, according to TASS, the median monthly salary in Russia was 32,422 rubles, or about $450, per month, in 2020. That amounts to a median annual income of about $5,400 in U.S. dollars. Which is not enough to buy a plane, or yacht, or even a limousine.