President Donald Trump met today with Vladimir Putin for a summit in Helsinki, Finland. Here are five facts you should know about the powerful and controversial Russian president.
1. Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin was born in Cold War era Russia in 1952. His mother worked in a factory during World War II, and his father was drafted into the army, where he served on a submarine fleet. During his younger years, Putin was an atheist. He says he turned to the church after two major accidents in the 1990s—his wife’s car accident and a house fire. He now considers himself to be a devout member of the Russian Orthodox Church.
2. In 1970, Putin became a student at Leningrad State University’s law department, where he wrote a thesis on “The Most Favored Nation Trading Principle in International Law.” It was during his time in college that he became a member of the Communist Party. (In 2016, he said he still likes the ideas of theoretical communism “very much” and still has his Communist Party membership card at his home.) When he was there as a student, Leningrad State University’s law department was a training ground for the KGB (Committee for State Security). Putin has said that the KGB targeted him for recruitment even before he graduated in 1975. “You know, I even wanted it,” he said of joining the KGB. “I was driven by high motives. I thought I would be able to use my skills to the best for society.”
3. Putin served 15 years as a foreign intelligence officer for the KGB, including six years in Dresden, East Germany. While in Germany, his roles likely included recruiting members for the East German Communist Party and the secret police (Stasi), stealing technological secrets, and compromising visiting Westerners. In 1990, he retired from active KGB service with the rank of lieutenant colonel. After his retirement—and the collapse of the Soviet Union—Putin returned to his former university and served for 18 months as the assistant to the rector. He later admitted that he was “a KGB officer under the roof, as we say,” whose roles were to recruit and spy on students. While at the school, he reconnected with his former law professors, Anatoly Sobchak, a leader in the first wave of democratic reformers in the Gorbachev years who was elected chairman of the Soviet-era Leningrad council. Putin served as Sobchak’s aide and later became the first deputy mayor of St. Petersburg (formerly Leningrad). In 1996, Putin moved to Moscow and served on the presidential staff as deputy to the Kremlin’s chief administrator. Two years later Russian President Boris Yeltsin appointed Putin to be the director of the Federal Security Service, the domestic successor to the KGB, and later as head of the Kremlin Security Council. Putin somehow managed, while working important roles at the Kremlin, to write a 218-page dissertation and earn a prestigious Candidate of Science degree—the equivalent of a Ph.D.—from the Mining Institute in St. Petersburg.
4. Although Putin only earns a salary equivalent to $137,000 a year, because of corruption and cronyism he’s believed to secretly be one of the wealthiest men in the world. Putin is reported to have used his political influence to acquire stakes in several Russian and Ukrainian corporations (especially oil and gas companies) that would make him worth between $30 and $70 billion (in comparison, Amazon.com founder Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is worth $74 billion). According to a former Russian deputy prime minister, Putin owns 20 palaces (including one valued at $1 billion), four yachts, 58 aircraft, and a collection of watches worth half a million dollars. Most of his assets are hidden through shell companies and other tactics used to shield his net worth from public scrutiny.
5. Putin’s style and agenda have given rise to the term “Putinism.” As M. Steven Fish explains, Putinism is a form of autocracy that is “conservative, populist, and personalistic.” Fish says it’s conservative not only in its promotion, at home and abroad, of a traditionalist social agenda, but also because it “prioritizes the maintenance of the status quo while evincing hostility toward potential sources of instability.” Fish adds that Putinism’s populism overlaps with its conservatism in the form of “crowd-pleasing efforts to resist what Russian leaders cast as the advance of decadent liberalism on such issues as gay rights and women’s equality.” Finally, as a personalist autocracy, “Putinism rests on an unrestricted one-man rule and the hollowing out of parties, institutions, and even individuals other than the president as independent political actors.” On foreign policy matters, Putin espouses a nationalist agenda that seeks to re-establish Russia as a great world power and to offset America’s global leadership position. Under Putin’s watch, Russia has moved to expand its geopolitical influence by going to war with Georgia (2008), seizing Crimea (2014), intervening in eastern Ukraine (2014), and deploying military forces in the Syrian civil war (2015). Putin has also strengthened ties with China, India, the Arab world, and Iran in an attempt to reduce American and Western influence in Asia.