Vladimir Putin was little known inside or outside Russia until 1998. That’s when then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin appointed him to a senior job in his administration; he was head of security and chief of Yeltsin’s Security Council. This was familiar ground for Putin who had spent most of career in the Soviet Union’s KGB spy agency. In August 1999, Yeltsin fired his prime minister (he was in the habit of doing that a lot) and put Putin into the job. Four months later, the ailing Boris Yeltsin retired and named Mr. Putin Acting President. He has held the reins of power ever since.
Who is Vladimir Putin?
In 2013, Forbes Magazine said Russian President Vladimir Putin was the most powerful person in the world
Vladimir Putin is said to be one of the richest men in the world
The Russian President’s personal fortune has been estimated at between $40 and $70 billion; the gap in guesses is so wide as to suggest nobody knows how much he’s worth, except that it’s a lot.
Mr. Putin did not inherit his apparent wealth. He likes to play up his humble background; as The Telegraph reports (August 2012) “He once described how, as a child, he had to beat aside rats with a stick at the entrance to his parents’ communal apartment in St. Petersburg.”
Meanwhile, The Washington Post reported (April 2014) that “Putin earned 3.6 million rubles last year (approximately $101,000)…”
The suspicious mind might ask “How can someone with an income of a hundred thousand dollars amass a net worth of tens of billions?”
In April 2012, Maeve McClenaghan of The Bureau of Investigative Journalism set out to answer that question. What she and her colleagues found was a wall of secrecy.
One investigator, Stanislav Belkovsky, claims that Mr. Putin has major ownership positions in some of Russia’s oil and gas companies. However, these businesses are so guarded about who has a stake in them that it’s impossible to confirm whether Mr. Putin is involved or not.
The same lack of openness involves a palace overlooking the Black Sea said to be worth about $640 million, and a $50-million yacht. There are several other luxury residences that Mr. Putin frequents but whose ownership is murky.
One thing is certain, and that is Mr. Putin likes high-end watches. In recent years, he has been photographed with timepieces on his wrist valued at almost $300,000.
Putin's Black Sea Palace
The Putin System
Allegations of corruption have swirled around the Russian leader since he was deputy mayor of St. Petersburg in the early 1990s
A city investigation found that he charged commissions (bribe is such an ugly word) of between 25 and 50 percent for signing contracts. Some contracts were never completed and others went to companies that vanished as soon as they were paid. Although investigators recommended Mr. Putin be fired he suffered no punishment.
The Wilson Center has detailed this and other questionable activities. In the early 2000s, Germany looked into Mr. Putin’s connection to a company called SPAG. “The Germans charged that SPAG had been used to launder money out of, and into, St. Petersburg from a variety of sources, including the Cali [Colombia drug] cartel.” Again, everybody escaped consequences.
According to a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation documentary “Different scandals marked Putin’s term of office as deputy mayor… He manages the city’s casinos whose profits disappear into thin air [and] gives the city’s oil monopoly to a friend.”
Mr. Putin is surrounded by shady and extremely wealthy characters; they seem to profit from their connections to the Russian leader.
In March 2014, Anne Applebaum of Slate Magazine reported on a company called Rosneft. She says it was created as “a blatant act of thievery.” There was a series of complex ownership transfers, which at one point had the company’s head office located in a vodka bar. Rosneft is now the largest oil company in Russia, under Chief Executive Officer Igor Sechin. Who he? A former member of Mr. Putin’s cabinet and close adviser to the Russian president.
Don’t Cross the Boss
Mr. Putin does not like criticism
Vladimir Gusinsky owned a television station that in 2000, as the BBC reported, aired a “satirical puppet show Kukly, which mercilessly mocked the new president.” Within months of Mr. Putin’s election, Mr. Gusinsky was facing fraud charges and he fled the country.
Mikhail Khodorkovsky, head of a large oil company, accused Mr. Putin and his associates of massive corruption.
Convictions for fraud and tax evasion put him behind bars for nine years. Mr. Khodorkovsky was adopted by Amnesty International as a prisoner of conscience, meaning the human rights group believed him to have been unfairly persecuted.
Here’s an October 2006 report from World Politics Review: “Over the last month, Russia has experienced a surge of contract killings, with five high-profile murders - a potent reminder that the country is far from the stable democracy its leaders say it is. The Oct. 7 murder of the anti-Kremlin journalist and human rights advocate Anna Politkovskaya is the most prominent of these, and the latest of 11 murders of Russian journalists in the last six years.”
In June 2014, five men were convicted of the contract killing of Ms. Politkovskaya, but who ordered the murder has never been revealed.
Alexander Litvinenko was a former Russian secret service agent living in London. He accused President Putin of being behind Ms. Politkovskaya’s death. A few days later he fell ill and died in November 2006 of what was found to be poisoning by radioactive polonium.
Members of the feminist punk protest group Pussy Riot, such as Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (right), spent two years in prison under harsh conditions for daring to criticize Mr. Putin.
Dominic Sandbrook (Daily Mail, February 2014) writes that “those sent to Vladimir Putin’s freezing Siberian prison colonies endure horrific conditions, with no hot water, no toilets and, often, daily beatings.”
Alexei Navalny has been in and out of prison many times. He’s an anti-corruption activist who calls United Russia, the political organization led by President Putin, a party of “crooks and thieves.” He’s currently appealing a sentence of five years in prison over what he calls “trumped up charges” of fraud.
The BBC comments that he “joins a growing list of opponents of President Vladimir Putin who have ended up on the wrong side of the law or in exile, or have met their deaths in suspicious circumstances.”
Putin loves to portray himself as macho.
Mr. Putin on the Couch
Plenty of people are psychoanalyzing Vladimir Putin from a distance
Dr. Ian Robertson is an Irish neuropsychologist. He says the key to understanding Mr. Putin’s behaviour is his contempt “for what he almost regards as weak - and, possibly in his macho world view, effeminate - western leaders. More important is his contempt for their institutions such as international treaties and laws.” (Psychology Today).
American psychiatrist Dr. Keith Ablow echoes this: “he believes that those with power should use it and that those who are reticent to use it are no different from those who are inherently weak.” (Fox News).
Both men mention narcissism, a condition that is marked by being totally absorbed in self. Narcissists see people as objects to be used and they are highly manipulative and easily angered if they feel they are not getting the attention they believe they deserve.
The Mayo Clinic notes that narcissists “believe that they’re superior to others and have little regard for other people’s feelings. But behind this mask of ultra-confidence lies a fragile self-esteem, vulnerable to the slightest criticism.”
Meanwhile, over at NBC News, Erin McClam writes (March 2014) that Mr. Putin “cannot abide humiliation or chaos. He will not be lectured to. He relishes the chance to poke a finger in the eye of the United States. Informed by his own training in the KGB, he is all about rebuilding Russia as a world power not to be messed with.”
And that, takes us back to Dr. Robertson who writes that the Russian president “firmly and genuinely believes that without him, Russia is doomed.”
Sources (among others)
“Profile: Vladimir Putin.” BBC News, June 7, 2013.
“Nations in Transit 2014.” Freedom House.
“Putin: The Richest Man on Earth?” Maeve McClenaghan, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, April 19, 2012.
“Has Vladimir Putin Always Been Corrupt? And Does it Matter?” Thea Cooke, The Wilson Center, undated.
“Politkovskaya’s Death, Other Killings, Raise Questions About Russian Democracy.” Daria Solovieva, World Politics Review, October 31, 2006.
“The Danger That Lurks Inside Vladimir Putin’s Brain.” Ian H. Robertson, Psychology Today, March 17, 2014.