Interviews with Putin's schoolteacher reveal a bad student with a bright mind. Putin is always late for school and doesn't make it into the Pioneers. But then, at age 10, he discovers the martial arts and, after reading novels and watching spy movies, develops a single- minded ambition to join the KGB. At 16 he troops over to the KGB headquarters where he's told that he has to go to law school and keep his mouth shut if he really wants to be a spy. Despite the pleas and threats of his parents and judo coaches, he decides to do just that.
Do you remember first grade?
I was born in October, so I did not start school until I was almost eight years old. We still have the photo in our family archive: I am in an old-fashioned, gray school uniform. It looks like a military uniform, and for some reason I'm standing with a flowerpot in my hand. Not a bouquet, but a pot.
Did you want to go to school?
No, not especially. I liked playing outside, in our courtyard. There were two courtyards joined together, like an air-shaft, and my whole life took place there. Mama sometimes stuck her head out the window and shouted "Are you in the courtyard?" I always was. As long as I didn't run away, I was allowed to go play in the courtyard without asking for permission.
And you never once disobeyed?
When I was five or six, I walked out to the corner of the big street without permission. It was on the First of May. I looked around me. People were rushing around and making a lot of noise. The street was very busy. I was even a little afraid.
Then one winter, when I was a little bit older, my friends and I decided to leave the city without telling our parents. We wanted to go on a trip.
We got off the train somewhere and were completely lost. It was cold. We had brought some matches and somehow managed to start a fire. We had nothing to eat. We froze completely. Then we got back on the train and headed home. We got the belt for that stunt. And we never wanted to go on another trip again.
So you stopped looking for adventures?
For a time. Especially when I went to school. From first through eighth grade, I went to School No. 193, which was in the same lane as my house, about a seven-minute walk. I was always late for my first class, so even in the winter, I didn't dress very warmly. It took up a lot of time to get dressed, run to school, and then take off my coat. So in order to save time, I never put on a coat, and just shot out to school like a bullet and got right behind my desk.
Did you like school?
For a time. As long as I managed to be what would you call it? the unspoken leader. The school was right next door to my house. Our courtyard was a reliable refuge, and that helped.
Did people listen to you?
I didn't try to command people. It was more important to preserve my independence. If I had to compare it with my adult life, I would say that the role I played as a kid was like the role of the judicial branch, and not the executive. And as long as I managed to do that, I liked school. But it didn't last. It soon became clear that my courtyard skills were not enough, and I began to play sports. And in order to maintain my social status I had to start doing well in school. Up until the sixth grade, to be honest, I had been a pretty haphazard student.
Vera Dmitrievna Gurevich:
I met Volodya when he was still in the fourth grade. His teacher, Tamara Pavlovna Chizhova, once said to me, "Vera Dmitrievna, take my class. The kids aren't bad."
I went to visit the class and organized a German language club. It was interesting to see who showed up. About 10-12 students came. Tamara Pavlovna asked me who was there. I told her: Natasha Soldatova, Volodya Putin . . . She was surprised. "Volodya, too? That doesn't seem like him." But he showed great interest in the lessons.
She said, "Well, just you wait. He'll show you." "What do you mean?" I asked. She replied that he was too sneaky and disorganized. He wasn't even in the Pioneers.
Usually you are accepted into the Pioneers in the third grade. But Volodya wasn't because he was such a cutup. Some classes studied English, and others German. English was more in fashion than German, and there were more English classes. Volodya ended up in my class. In fifth grade, he hadn't really proven himself, but I sensed that he had potential, energy, and character. I saw his great interest in the language. He picked it up easily. He had a very good memory, a quick mind.
I thought: This kid will make something of himself. I decided to devote more attention to him and discourage him from hanging out with the boys on the street. He had friends from the neighborhood, two brothers by the name of Kovshov, and he used to prowl around with them, jumping from the roofs of the garages and sheds. Volodya's father didn't like that very much. His papa had very strict morals. But we couldn't get Volodya away from those Kovshov brothers.
His father was very serious and imposing. He often had an angry look. The first time I came to see him, I was even frightened. I thought, "What a strict man." And then it turned out that he was very kindhearted. But there were no kisses. There was none of that lovey-dovey stuff in their house.
Once when I came to visit, I said to Volodya's father,"Your son is not working to his full potential." And he said, "Well, what can I do? Kill him, or what?" And I said, "You have to have a talk with him. Let's work on him together, you at home, and I at school. He could be getting better than C's. He catches everything on the fly." At any rate, we agreed to work on him; but in the end, we had no particular influence.
Volodya himself changed very abruptly in the sixth grade. It was obvious; he had set himself a goal. Most likely he had understood that he had to achieve something in life. He began to get better grades, and did it easily. Finally, he was accepted into the Pioneers. There was a ceremony and we went on a trip to Lenin's home, where he was inducted into the Pioneers. Right after that he became chair of his unit's council.
Why weren't you taken into the Pioneers until the sixth grade? Was everything really so bad up until then?
Of course. I was a hooligan, not a Pioneer.
Are you being coy?
You insult me. I really was a bad boy.
Vera Dmitrievna Gurevich:
Most of the kids liked to go to dances. We had evening events at the school. We called it the Crystal Club. And we put on plays. But Volodya didn't take part in any of this.
His father really wanted him to play the accordion and forced him to take lessons in the early grades. Volodya resisted it. Although he did love to pluck away on the guitar. He sang mainly Vysotsky,* all of the songs from the album Vertical, about the stars, and about Seryozha from Malaya Bronnaya Street.
*Vladimir Vysotsky was a popular Russian folksinger.
But he didn't like socializing much. He preferred sports. He started doing martial arts in order to learn how to defend himself. Four times a week he took classes somewhere near the Finland Station, and he got pretty good. He loved his sambo. And then he started taking part in competitions, which often required him to travel to other cities.
I got into sports when I was about 10 or 11. As soon as it became clear that my pugnacious nature was not going to keep me king of the courtyard or school grounds, I decided to go into boxing. But I didn't last long there. I quickly got my nose broken. The pain was terrible. I couldn't even touch the tip of my nose. But even though everyone was telling me I needed an operation, I didn't go to the doctor.
I knew it would heal by itself. And it did. But I lost my boxing bug after that. Then I decided to go in for sambo, a Soviet combination of judo and wrestling. Martial arts were popular at the time. I went to a class near my house and began to work out. It was a very plain gym that belonged to the Trud athletic club. I had a very good trainer there, Anatoly Semyonovich Rakhlin. He devoted his whole life to his art, and is still training girls and boys to this day.
Anatoly Semyonovich played a decisive role in my life. If I hadn't gotten involved in sports, I'm not sure how my life would have turned out. It was sports that dragged me off the streets. To be honest, the courtyard wasn't a very good environment for a kid.
At first I studied sambo. Then judo. The coach decided that we would all switch to judo, and we did.
Judo is not just a sport, you know. It's a philosophy. It's respect for your elders and for your opponent. It's not for weaklings. Everything in judo has an instructive aspect. You come out onto the mat, you bow to one another, you follow ritual. It could be done differently, you know. Instead of bowing to your opponent, you could jab him in the forehead.
Did you ever smoke?
No. I tried it a couple of times, but I never smoked regularly. And when I began to do sports, I simply ruled it out. I used to work out every other day, and then every day.Soon I had no time left for anything else. I had other priorities; I had to prove myself in sports, achieve something. I set goals. Sports really had a strong influence on me.
And you didn't try karate?
That was popular in those days, even thought it was banned. We thought karate and all other noncontact sports were like ballet. Sports was only sports if you had to shed sweat and blood and work hard.
Even when karate became popular and karate schools of all sorts began springing up, we viewed them purely as moneymaking enterprises. We, on the other hand, never paid any money for our lessons. We all came from poor families. And since karate lessons cost money from the start, the kids taking karate thought they were first class.
Once we went to the gym with Leonid Ionovich, the senior coach from Trud. The karate students were working out on the mat, although it was our turn. Leonid went up to their trainer and told him it was time for our class. The karate trainer didn't even look his wayas if to say, get lost. Then Leonid, without saying a word, flipped him, squeezed him lightly, and dragged him off the mat. He had lost consciousness. Then Leonid turned to us and said, "Go on in and take your places." That was our attitude toward karate.
Did your parents encourage you to take these lessons?
No, just the opposite. At first, they were very suspicious. They thought I was acquiring some sort of ugly skill to use on the street. Later, when they met the trainer and he began to visit our home, their attitude changed. And when I achieved my first successes, my parents understood that judo was a serious and useful art.
You started winning?
Yes, within about a year or two.
Vera Dmitrievna Gurevich:
I taught Volodya from fifth through eighth grade. And then we had to decide what school to send him to. Most of the class went to School No. 197 on Petra Lavrova had starting coming over to the Putin house as early as sixth grade. Volodya was not especially interested in girls; but they were certainly interested in him. So all of a sudden, he announced to everyone: ''I'm going to university." And I said "How?" And he said "I"ll solve that problem myself."
Even before I graduated from school, I wanted to work in intelligence. It was a dream of mine, although it seemed about as likely as a flight to Mars. And sure, my ambitions sometimes changed. I also wanted to be a sailor. And at one point I really wanted to be a pilot. The Academy of Civil Aviation is in Leningrad, and I was hell-bent on getting in. I read the literature and even subscribed to an aviation journal. But then books and spy movies like The Sword and the Shield took hold of my imagination. What amazed me most of all was how one man's effort could achieve what whole armies could not. One spy could decide the fate of thousands of people. At least, that's the way I understood it.
The Academy of Civil Aviation quickly lost its thrill. I had made my choice. I wanted to be a spy. My parents didn't understand this right away. My coach had gone to see them and told them that as an athlete, I could get into an institute practically without passing exams. So they tried to talk me into going to an institute. My coach took their side. He couldn't understand why I was resisting. "He has a 100 percent chance of getting into that Academy of Civil Aviation," he told my parents. "And if he doesn't get into university, then he'll have to go into the army."
It was a difficult situation. My father had a very commanding personality. But I dug my heels in and said I had made up my mind.
Then another coach of mine from the Trud Club, Leonid Ionovich, came to visit. He was a clever guy. "Well," he said to me. "Where are you going?" Of course he already knew. He was just acting sly. I said, ''To university." "Oh, that's great, good for you," he said, "in what department?" "The law school," I answered. Then he roared: "What?! To catch people? What are you doing? You'll be a cop. Do you understand?!" I was insulted. "I'm not going to be a cop!" I yelled back.
For a year, they put pressure on me every day. That only increased my desire to go to law school. But why law school? Let me explain.
In order to find out how to become a spy, sometime back around the beginning of the ninth grade, I had gone to the office of the KGB Directorate. A guy came out and listened to me. "I want to get a job with you," I said. "That's terrific, but there are several issues," he said. "First, we don't take people who come to us on their own initiative. Second, you can come to us only after the army or after some type of civilian higher education."
I was intrigued. "What kind of higher education?" I asked. "Any!" he said. He probably just wanted to get rid of me. "But what kind is preferred?" I asked. "Law school." And that was that. From that moment on, I began to prepare for the law faculty of Leningrad University. And nobody could stop me.
But my parents and my coaches tried. They threatened me with the prospect of the army for a long time. What they didn't understand was that the army suited me just fine. Of course it would have slowed my progress a little, but it wouldn't deter me from my decision.
The coaches, however, had more tricks up their sleeves. When I went to enroll in preparatory classes at the university, I learned that they had made up lists of athletes who were to be given priority in university admissions. I knew for a fact that I wasn't on any list. But when I was enrolling in classes, my gym teacher tried to force me to join the Burevestnik Club. I asked him, "How come I have to switch over to this?" And he said, "We helped get you into the university, so please be so kind . . ." I knew something was up.
I went to the dean. I walked in and and told him outright, "I'm being forced to transfer into Burevestnik. I don't think I should do that." And the dean, Prof. Alekseyev, a kind-hearted, good man, said, "Why are they forcing you?" And I said, "Because they supposedly helped me, as an athlete, to get into the university, and now I must pay them back by joining Burevestnik."
He said, "Really? That can't be! Everyone gets into this university on equal terms, judged according to their knowledge, not by some list of athletes. Wait a minute, and I'll find out." Then he reached into his desk, got a list out, glanced at it, and asked me my last name. "You're not on the list," he said, "So you can safely tell everybody to get lost." Which I did.
Nevertheless, in intervarsity championships I played on behalf of the university team, as I could do this without transferring from one sports club to the other. Still, the coaches didn't let up their efforts to recruit me. I told them a hundred times that I would not leave Trudall my friends were there, and my first coach. I said I would never join another club. I would play for the one I wanted.
End Part 2
End Part 2