THE UNIVERSITY STUDENT
Putin studies hard at the university, but still finds time to cruise Leningrad in his Zaporozhets car and compete in judo tournaments. Over the summer he works in construction with his buddies. He has romances and breakups, but his primary passion remains intact: finding a way into the KGB.
Was it hard to get into university?
Yes, it was, because there were 100 slots and only 10 of them were reserved for high school graduates. The rest were for army guys. So for us high-schoolers, the competition was fierce; something like 40 kids per slot. I had gotten a B in composition but A's in all my other subjects, and I was accepted. By the way, at that time, they didn't take into account the total grade point average of the applicant. So in tenth grade I could completely devote myself to the subjects that I would have to pass to get into university. If I hadn't dropped the other subjects, I wouldn't have gotten in.
Thank God, we had very smart teachers with sharp tactics in our school. Their main goal was to prepare students to get into college. And as soon as they realized that I wasn't going to become a chemist and wanted to major in the humanities, they didn't interfere. In fact, quite the opposite they approved.
You evidently studied hard in university, with your future in mind?
Yes, I studied hard. I didn't become involved in any extracurricular activities. I wasn't a Komsomol functionary.
Was your stipend enough to cover your living expenses?
No, it wasn't enough. At first, my parents had to support me. I was a student, and didn't have any money. I could have earned extra money working construction like a lot of people. But what would have been the point? I was on a construction crew once.
I went to Komi, where I chopped trees for the lumber industry and repaired houses. I finished the job and they handed me a packet of money, probably about 1,000 rubles. In those days, a car cost 3,500 or 4,000 rubles. But for a month and a half of work, we got 1,000! So it was good money. Actually, fantastic money.
We earned our pay. And then we had to spend it on something. My two friends and I went to Gagry on vacation without even stopping back in Leningrad. We got there, and on the first day we got drunk chasing shish kebabs down with port wine. Then we tried to think of what to do next. Where could we go to spend the night? There were probably some hotels around, but we didn't have much hope of getting into them. Late at night, we finally found an old lady who agreed to take us in and give us a room.
We spent several days swimming, tanning, and getting good rest. But soon we had to get out of there and somehow get back home. We were running out of money. We came up with a plan; we would finagle places on the deck of a steamship on its way to Odessa. Then we would take a train to Peter, buying tickets for the top bunks in the sleepers, which were cheaper.
We pooled our pocket change and realized we had nothing but a few kopecks left for provisions. We decided to buy some tushonka, some canned stew, for the trip. One of the fellows was rather careful he had more money left over than the other, who was a spendthrift. When we told the more economical friend that he should share his dough, he thought for a minute and then said, "That canned meat is pretty hard on the stomach. That's not really the right thing to get." And we said, "Whatever you say. Let's get going."
When we got down to the docks, a huge crowd had gathered. The ship was giant as well a beautiful white ocean-liner. We were told that only passengers with tickets to the cabins were being allowed on, and those with deck seats were not yet being admitted. All the deck passengers had little tickets made out of hard cardboard, but we had larger-sized, mixed-passage tickets that looked like the ones first-class passengers would have had. My friend who had refused to chip in for the canned meat said, "You know, I don't like the look of this. I don't think it's going to work out. Let's try to get on right now." I said, "It's awkward, let's just stand here and wait our turn." He said, "Well, you can stand around if you want. We're going to get on." So they went to board the ship, and of course I ran after them.
The ticket-taker asked us what kind of tickets we had. "We have the big ones," we answered. He waved us on.
So we were let on board the ship with the first-class passengers. And then the foreman or somebody else yelled, "Are there any others for first class?" The crowd on the dock was silent. He asked once again, "Are there only deck passengers left?" The crowd, hoping they would now be allowed on, cried out excitedly, "Yes, just deck passengers!" To which he shouted, "Raise the plank!"
They lifted the walkway, and suddenly panic broke out on the dock. People were furious. They had been deceived. They had paid money, and now they weren't being let on the ship.
Later they were told that there was a freight overage and that the ship was full.
If we hadn't gotten on board when we did, we would have been left standing on the dock. And we didn't have a single kopeck left. I don't know what we would have done.
So we settled into some lifeboats, which hung out over the water. And that was how we got home, as if we were lying in hammocks. For two nights I looked up at the sky, and I couldn't take my eyes away. The ship sailed on, and the stars seemed to just hang there. Do you know what I mean? Sailors may be used to that, but for me it was a wondrous discovery.
That first evening we ogled the cabin passengers. It made us a little wistful to see how wonderful their lives were. All we had were the lifeboats, the stars, and the tins of tushonka.
Our thrifty friend didn't have any canned meat. He couldn't hold out any longer, and went to the restaurant. But the prices there were so high that he quickly came back and said indifferently, "Well, I suppose I wouldn't mind scarfing down a little tushonka." But my other friend, who kept strictly to the rules, said, "You know, you should worry about your stomach. It's not good for you." So the thrifty guy starved for a day after that. It was cruel, of course, but it was also fair.
When I went to university, I started concentrating on my studies. Athletics took second place. But I did work out regularly and took part in all the All-Union competitions, although it was just by habit, really.
In 1976, I became the city-wide champion. The people in our section included not only amateurs, like me, but also professionals and European and Olympic champions in both sambo and judo.
I became a sambo master black belt after entering university, and then a judo master two years later. I don't know how it is nowadays, but back then you had to collect a certain number of victories over opponents of a certain level, and to place in serious competitions. For example, you had to be among the top three in the city or get first place in the All-Union competition for Trud.
I remember a couple matches vividly. After one of them I couldn't even breathe, only croak. My opponent was a strong guy, and I had used up so much energy that I just wheezed instead of inhaling and exhaling. I won, but only by a slim margin.
And then there was the time I lost to the world champion, Volodya Kullenin. Later he began to drink heavily and was murdered on the street. But in university he was a fine athlete, really brilliant and talented. He hadn't started drinking when I fought him. We were competing for the city championship. He was already world champion. Right away, during the first minutes, I threw him across my back and did it gracefully, with ease. In principle, the match should have ended right then, but since Kullenin was world champion, it wouldn't have been right to stop the fight. So they gave me some points and we continued. Of course Kullenin was stronger than me, but I fought hard. Under the rules of this martial art, any sort of crying out is considered a signal of defeat. When Kullenin twisted my elbow backward, the judge seemed to hear me make some grunts. So Kullenin was declared the victor. I remember that match to this day. And I was not ashamed to lose to a world champion.
There was another match I'll remember for the rest of my life, although it wasn't one I took part in. I had a friend in university whom I had talked into joining the gym. First he took judo, and he did quite well. Once there was a competition and he was fighting. He took a jump forward and landed headfirst on the mat. His vertebrae were dislocated and he was paralyzed. He died 10 days later in the hospital. He was a good guy. And to this day I regret talking him into taking judo. . . .
Traumas like this were quite frequent during the competitions and matches. People would break their arms or legs. Matches were a form of torture. And training was hard, too. We used to go to an athletic center outside of Leningrad on Khippiyarvi Lake. It's a fairly large lake, about 17 kilometers wide. Every morning when we got up, we ran around the lake first thing. After our run, there would be exercise, then training, breakfast, more workouts, lunch, rest after lunch, and then workouts again.
We used to travel around the country a lot. Once we went to a match in Moldavia, in preparation for the Spartakiad competition of the peoples of the USSR. It was horribly hot. I was coming out of our workout with my friend Vasya, and wine was for sale everywhere. He said to me, "Let's toss back a bottle of wine each." "It's too hot out," I replied. "Then let's just relax," he said. "Alright, alright. Let's get some wine," I said
We each took a bottle, went back to our room, and flopped down on our beds. He opened his bottle. "It's too hot," I said. "I'm not going to." "Really?" he said. "Okay, have it your way." He gulped the bottle straight down. Then he looked at me. ''Are you sure you aren't going to have any?" "I'm sure," I said. So he took the second bottle and knocked it back. He put the empty bottles on the table, and instantly he was out like a light. There he was, suddenly snoring. I really regretted not drinking along with him! I squirmed and squirmed. I couldn't hold out any longer, and poked him. "Hey, you. You're snoring, stop it! You're snoring like an elephant."
That was pretty much the exception. We didn't party much, because drinking made the workouts that much harder. There was this one huge guy that worked out with us. His name was Kolya. Not only was he gigantic, but he had this incredible face. He had a massive jaw that jutted forward and a huge overhanging brow. One night some hooligans started picking on him in a dark alley, and he said, "Guys, calm down. Pipe down for just a second." Then he took out a match, struck it, and held it up to his face. "Just look at me," he said. And that was the end of that incident.
Sergei Roldugin (soloist in the Mariinsky Theater Symphony Orchestra, a family friend of the Putins, and godfather of Putin's older daughter, Masha):
Volodya went to school with my brother. When I moved to Leningrad, my brother told me about Vovka. He brought him over to our house, and we hit it off. I think it was in 1977. After that, he became like a brother to me. When I had nowhere to go, I would go over to his house. I would eat and sleep there.
I was drafted into the army and served in Leningrad. Once, Vovka came over to see me in his Zaporozhets. I jumped over the fence and went AWOL. We went cruising around Leningrad all night. The muffler was broken, and we raced around, singing songs. I can even remember the song we sang:
"We had just one night,
Someone's train left this morning,
And then someone's plane a little later . . . "
We sang and sang, very loudly, without any inhibitions. After all, the muffler was broken. Once my mother was given a state lottery ticket instead of change at a cafeteria, and she won a Zaporozhets car. I was in the third year of university and we couldn't decide what to do with that car for a long time, since we were living very modestly. I had just bought my first coat when I came back from working construction, a year after the vacation with my friends in Gagry. This was my first decent coat. Money was tight in our family, and to give the car to me was absolute madness. We could have sold it, after all, and gotten at least 3,500 rubles for it. That would have settled our family budget well in advance. But my parents decided to spoil me. They gave me the Zaporozhets. I lived the good life in that car. I used to drive it everywhere, even to my matches.
I was a pretty wild driver, but I was terrified of crashing the car. How would I ever repair it?
Once you did get into an accident, though. You ran over a man.
It wasn't my fault. He jumped in front of me or something. . . . Decided to put an end to his life. . . . I don't know what on earth he was doing. He was an idiot. He ran off after I hit him.
They say you chased him.
What? You think I hit a guy with my car and then tried to chase him down? I'm not a beast. I just got out of the car.
Are you able to remain calm in critical situations?
Yes, I remain calm. Even too calm. Later, when I went to intelligence school, I once got an evaluation, where they wrote the following as a negative character assessment: "A lowered sense of danger." That was considered a very serious flaw. You have to be pumped up in critical situations in order to react well. Fear is like pain. It's an indicator. If something hurts, that means something's wrong with your body. It's a sign. I had to work on my sense of danger for a long time.
Evidently you aren't a gambler?
No, I'm not a gambler.
Toward the end of university we went to military training camp. Two of my friends were there, one of whom had gone to Gagry with me. We spent two months there. It was much easier than the athletic camps, and we got really bored. The main source of entertainment was cards. Whoever won went to the village and bought milk from an old lady. I refused to play, but my friends didn't. And they lost everything quickly.
When they had nothing left, they would come and plead for money. They were real gamblers. And I would ask myself, "Should I give them anything? They'll just lose it."
And they would say, "Listen, your few kopecks won't save you anyway. Why not just give them to us." And I would say to them "Alright. After all, I have a lowered sense of danger," and hand over the cash.
Boy, did they make out like bandits! They couldn't lose for winning. And we went to buy milk from the lady every night.
University is a time for romances. Did you have any?
Who didn't? But nothing serious . . . if you don't count that one time.
Yes. She and I even planned to tie the knot.
When did that happen?
About four years before I actually got married.
So it didn't work out?
What got in the way? Something. Some intrigue or other.
She married someone else?
Someone else? Yes, later.
Who decided that you wouldn't get married? I did. I made the decision. We had already applied for a marriage license. Everything was ready.
Our parents on both sides had bought everything the ring, the suit, the wedding dress. . . . The cancellation was one of the most difficult decisions of my life. It was really hard. I felt like a real creep. But I decided that it was better to suffer then than to have both of us suffer later.
That is, you literally ran away and left her at the altar?
Almost. Except that I didn't run away. I told her the truth as much of it as I considered necessary.
Do you not want to talk about it?
No, I don't. It's a complicated story. It's the way it was. It was really
Do you have any regrets?
I liked his girlfriend, she was a pretty girl; a medical student with a strong character. She was a friend to him, a woman who would take care of him. But did she love him? I don't know. Lyuda, his wife or Lyudik, as we call her now, she really loves him.
I got along very well with that girl. I think her name was also Lyuda. She used to worry about his health. It wasn't just, "Oh, honey, how do you feel?" She would say, "Now, I can tell your stomach is hurting." I don't know what happened between them. He didn't tell me anything. He just said that it was all over. I think the falling-out was just between them, because their parents had agreed to the match.
Vovka suffered, of course. The thing is, we are both Libras and we take things like that very much to heart. And at that time I saw that he . . . that his . . . that he was a very emotional person but he simply could not express his emotions. I often used to tell him that he was terrible at making conversation. Why did he have such trouble talking?
Of course, he is Cicero now, compared to the way he talked back then. I used to explain to him, "You talk very quickly, and you should never talk so quickly." As a stage performer, I thought I could help him out. He had very strong emotions, but he could not put them into any form. I think his profession left its imprint on his speech. Now he speaks beautifully. Expansively, intelligibly, and with feeling. Where did he learn to do that?
So you didn't collaborate with the KGB while you were an undergraduate?
They didn't even try to recruit me as an agent, although it was a widespread practice at the time. There were many people who collaborated with the security agencies. The cooperation of normal citizens was an important tool for the state's viable activity. But the main point was the kind of basis this cooperation was established upon. Do you know what a "seksot" is?
It means secret colleague or collaborator.
Right. But do you know why it has acquired such a negative connotation?
Yes, ideological. They did political sleuthing. Everyone thinks that intelligence is interesting. Do you know that ninety percent of all the intelligence information is obtained from an agent's network made up of ordinary Soviet citizens? These agents decide to work for the interests of the state. It doesn't matter what this work is called. The important thing is upon which basis this cooperation takes place. If it is based on betrayal and material gain, that's one thing. But if it is based on some idealistic principles, then it's something else. What about the struggle against banditry? You can't do anything without secret agents.
So when did you join the KGB?
All those years in university I waited for the man at the KGB office to remember me. It seemed that he had forgotten about me. After all, I had gone to see him as a school kid. Who would've thought that I could have such spunk? But I recalled that they didn't like people to show their own initiative, so I didn't make myself known. I kept quiet.
Four years passed. Nothing happened. I decided that the case was closed, and I began to work out different options for finding employment either in the special prosecutor's office or as an attorney. Both are prestigious fields.
* This segment of questions and answers was published in newspapers, but was not included in the Russian edition of Vladimir Putin's book, First Person. Several other passages from the interviews that were published only in newspapers are included in this English edition.
But then, when I was in my fourth year of university, a man came and asked me to meet with him. He didn't say who he was, but I immediately figured it out, because he said, "I need to talk to you about your career assignment. I wouldn't like to specify exactly what it is yet." I picked up on it immediately. If they didn't want to say where, that meant it was there.
We agreed to meet right in the faculty vestibule. He was late. I waited for about 20 minutes. Well, I thought, what a swine! Or was someone playing a prank on me? And I decided to leave. Then suddenly he ran up, all out of breath.
"I'm sorry," he said.
I liked that.
"It's all arranged," he said. "Volodya, there's still a lot of time, but how would you feel if you were invited to work in the agencies?" I didn't tell him that I had dreamed of this moment since I was a schoolboy. I didn't tell him, because I remembered my conversation in the KGB office long ago: "We don't take people who come to us on their own initiative."
And when you agreed to work in the agencies, did you think about 1937?
To be honest, I didn't think about it at all. Not one bit. I recently met up with some old colleagues from the KGB Directorate guys who I worked with at the very beginning and we talked about the same thing. And I can tell you what I said to them: When I accepted the proposition from the Directorate's personnel department (actually, my recruiter turned out to be an official in the subdivision that served the universities), I didn't think about the [Stalin-era] purges. My notion of the KGB came from romantic spy stories. I was a pure and utterly successful product of Soviet patriotic education.
You knew nothing about the purges?
I didn't know much. Yes, of course, I knew about Stalin's cult of personality. I knew that people had suffered and that the cult of personality had been dismantled. . . . I wasn't completely naïve. Keep in mind that I was 18 when I went to university and that I graduated at age 23.
But those who cared to know, knew all about it.
We lived under the conditions of a totalitarian state. Everything was concealed.
How deep was that cult of personality? How serious was it?
My friends and I didn't think about that. So I went to work for the agencies with a romantic image of what they did. But after that conversation in the vestibule, I heard nothing more. The man disappeared. And then there was a phone call; an invitation to the university's personnel department. Dmitry GantserovI can still remember his name was the one to speak to me.
But there was almost a slipup at the employment commission. When they got to my name, a representative from the department of law said, "Yes, we're taking him into the bar." Then the agent who was monitoring the students' assignments suddenly woke up, he had been asleep somewhere in the corner. "Oh, no," he said. "That question has already been decided. We're hiring Putin to work in the agencies of the KGB." He said it right out loud like that, in front of the job-assignment commission.
And then several days later I was filling out all sorts of application forms and papers.
They told you they were hiring you to work in intelligence?
Of course not. It was all very systematic. They put it sort of like this: "We are proposing that you work in the field where we'll send you. Are you ready?" If the applicant was wishy-washy and said that he had to think about it, they would simply say, "Okay. Next!" And that person wouldn't have another chance. You can't pick your nose and say, "I want this and I don't want that." They can't use people like that.
You evidently said you were ready to work where they sent you?
Yes. Of course. And they themselves didn't even know where I would be working. They were just hiring new people. It's actually a routine matter, recruiting personnel and determining who should be sent where. I was made a routine offer.
Vovka told me right away that he was working in the KGB. Practically right away. Maybe he was not supposed to do that. He told some people that he was working in the police. On the one hand, I treated these guys with caution, because I had had some run-ins with them. I had traveled abroad and knew that there were always people posing as inspectors or officials from the Ministry of Culture. You had to keep your mouth shut when you were around them.
I once told a colleague of mine, "Come on, they're normal, they're nice guys." And he said, "The more you talk to them, the more dirt they will have in your file at 4 Liteiny Street."
* 4 Liteiny Street was the address of the KGB headquarters in Leningrad and currently houses the KGB's successor, the FSB (Federal Security Service).
I never asked Volodya about his work. Of course I was curious. But I remember once I decided to corner him and find out something about some special operation. I got nowhere.
Later I said to him, ''I am a cellist. I play the cello. I could never be a surgeon. Still, I'm a good cellist. But what is your profession? I know, you're a spy. I don't know what that means. Who are you? What do you do?"
And he said to me, "I'm a specialist in human relations." And that was the end of our conversation. And he really did think that he was able to judge personalities. When I divorced my first wife, Irina, he said, "I predicted that that's exactly how it would turn out." I disagreed you couldn't know what would happen between me and Irina from the start. But his comment made a big impression on me. I believed what he said: that he was a specialist in human relations.
End of Part 3