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.
His 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.
“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.