MOSCOW — Vladimir Putin’s torso, which he sometimes bares during sporting pursuits, is a familiar part of his public image. How much Putin reveals of the man behind the buff exterior is another question.
After 18 years as Russia’s leader — and with another six-year term sure to follow a March election — Putin doesn’t show the appetites or vulnerabilities that can personalize Western politics, even when staged or spun. If he has moments of merriment or melancholy, they happen in private.
The president’s air of shadow, distance and restraint also stands out in Russia’s more rigid political culture. Never has Putin burst into wild dancing a la Boris Yeltsin or confessed a boyish affection for arena rock like Dmitry Medvedev did as a self-described Deep Purple fan.
He may be chronically on guard, deliberately not exposing his inner life out of concern that opponents could exploit it. Or he might be exhibiting his essence: a man so focused on power that other interests blur. When U.S. President George W. Bush met Putin in 2001 and said he’d gotten “a sense of his soul,” some critics snorted that Putin had no soul.
“He doesn’t like people naturally,” Mikhail Zygar, a top editor at independent Dozhd TV and the author of “All The Kremlin’s Men,” said. “He considers those politicians who talk about values to be cheating him.”
Yet others see a strong strain of warmth in Putin. “Easy-going,” encouraging and even healing is the description offered by Yuri Tolstoy, who was one of Putin’s law professors in Leningrad, now St. Petersburg.
Tolstoy, 90, says the 65-year-old president visited him this fall after he received Russia’s highest civilian honor.
“I must say that after the recent meeting with Vladimir Putin, my health has improved. He has filled me with life energy,” Tolstoy told The Associated Press.
“He is a charming and witty man. He is sincere and open in communication with anyone,” another of Putin’s former professors, Dzhenevra Lukovskaya, said. “Speaking globally, I’d say President Putin meets the challenges of the national self-identification of Russia.”
Russia appears to be the self-identification of Putin as well. If he lacks an overarching system of ethics and moral imperatives, he has an essential sense of being Russian, perhaps of embodying Russia itself.
“He’s not there because he’s believes he’s a dictator. No, he believes he’s the man who’s trying to save the country,” Zygar said.
At the same time, “Putin is not a strategical player as he is portrayed; he is a very tactical player, he is good at responding” in Zygar’s view.
He cited Russia’s military offensives in Syria as an example. Putin’s motivation in starting the Syria campaign was exasperation with the international criticism over Russia’s backing for separatist rebels in Ukraine’s war.
What’s known of Putin’s youth suggests that he hungered for two kinds of power — visible and clandestine — in an environment imbued with both Russia’s suffering and its valor.
Putin was born Oct. 7, 1952, to factory-worker parents in Leningrad, a city pervaded by memories of a nearly 900-day Nazi siege during World War II. One of his older brothers died of diphtheria during the siege; the other died a few months after birth.
According to “First Person,” a book of interviews published after he became acting president in 1999, Putin and his parents lived in a dismal communal apartment with a wretched toilet down the hall.
Putin said he responded to the rough circumstances by becoming a childhood “hooligan,” one of the few in his school barred from joining the Communist Young Pioneers. In his early adolescence, Putin channeled his aggressive tendencies into the martial arts, a sport he practiced avidly into late middle-age.
In a moment of naive determination, he says he went to a local KGB office to ask about joining the spy service. He was told the agency was highly skeptical about the trustworthiness of prospective agents who walked in from the street.
“All those years in university, I waited for the man at the KGB office to remember me,” Putin said. One day “a man came and asked me to meet with him. He didn’t say who he was, but I immediately figured it out … If they didn’t want to say where, that meant it was there.”
Putin’s ultimate assignment with the KGB turned out to be Dresden, in the Soviet Union’s close ally, East Germany. When Putin later rose to prominence in Russia, many sniffed that being posted in a friendly country didn’t speak well of his acuity in the intelligence game.
“I would not exaggerate the importance of his KGB years,” where he was more of a bureaucrat than a spy, Zygar said. Instead, he sees Putin’s epiphany as something that happened after he left the KGB and became a deputy of Anatoly Sobchak, St. Petersburg’s reform-minded mayor.
Sobchak was such a democrat at heart that he allowed an open election and then accepted his defeat in it.
“That was a tragedy for Sobchak’s team and a tragedy for Putin personally and that was the lesson: how you should never repeat those mistakes: free and fair elections, open debates and really influential opposition,” Zygar said.
The lesson is likely to apply to the 2018 presidential election. The only truly influential opposition aspirant, anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny, is almost certain to be blocked from the ballot because of a felony conviction.
That means Russians who hope to see Putin unseated focused on longshot Ksenia Sobchak — Anatoly Sobchak’s daughter, a television personality who has never held office and who as yet has not qualified for the ballot.
Putin’s dominance of Russia’s politics manifested itself with extraordinary speed.
Few, if any, politicians have stepped more quickly from the shadows to subject of rapt interest at home and abroad. Before being named Yeltsin’s prime minister in August 1999, he was head of the Federal Security Service, one of the KGB’s successor agencies, a post that inherently lacks visibility.
Yeltsin shuffled prime ministers at an alarming rate, and Putin might have become just another to go through the revolving door. But the next month, while commenting on the early days of the second war against Chechen rebels, he made an impression.
“If we capture them in the toilet, then we will waste them in the outhouse,” he said
Adamant, macho, and a touch of crude language — the remark seemed to reveal the essence of Vladimir Putin.
He’s rarely strayed from that public image since then. Occasionally, there’s a brief sweet moment of him cuddling one of the puppies foreign dignitaries have given him. He once amused, or shocked, his audience by kissing the belly of a boy whose cuteness had touched him.
But glimpses of the private man are few. He makes no appearances with his two adult daughters. The 2013 announcement that he and wife, Lyudmila, were divorcing was a piece of precise stagecraft. The couple appeared on national television at an opera intermission, praised the performance and then said they were separating.
Control appears so integral to Putin’s nature that it can be difficult to visualize how he would cope with not being Russia’s president. If he wins re-election, he would be termed out of office in 2024.
“I do not expect him to retire after the presidency. I think he is more likely to take some other position overseeing things in Russia from a different perch,” Dmitry Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, said.
Irina Titova in St. Petersburg and Kate de Pury in Moscow contributed to this story.