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Putin: How a spy rose to power and held on to it

March 18, 2018

Vladimir Putin has used a system of misinformation and cronyism to stay in power for decades. DW takes a look at how an obscure low-level spy became an unbeatable leader.

A man holds a placard depicting Russian President and Presidential candidate Vladimir Putin
Image: Reuters/M. Shemetov

Vladimir Putin has won a fourth term as president of Russia, giving him another six years in office. The political victory caps off a career spent accumulating power, evading consequences for legally questionable activities and changing Russia's image for the world and for itself.

After completing his law degree in 1975, Putin famously started his career at the KGB, the Soviet secret police force. He was posted to Dresden, East Germany, where he posed as a translator.

Read more: Opinion: Vladimir Putin's great deceit

Although much has been made of his spy career, including sly allusions from Putin himself, his biographer Masha Gessen has written that his time in Germany was "reduced mainly to collecting press clippings, thus contributing to the mountains of useless information produced by the KGB."

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Putin returned to his home of St. Petersburg. He would continue to rise through the ranks of Russia's political establishment non-stop from there.

In 1990, in his very first year working for St. Petersburg city hall, city councillors discovered that Putin had permitted the sale of highly undervalued steel in exchange for foreign food aid that never arrived. Despite an investigative committee recommending his ouster, Putin remained in his position until 1996, having already formed a close friendship with Mayor Anatoly Sobchak.

Read more:Vladimir Putin's landslide re-election: Leaders react and look forward 

Friends in high places

Throughout the following years, Putin used his network of political friendships to make his way up the ladder. In 1997, then-President Boris Yeltsin named Putin his deputy chief of staff, and a year later he was made the chief of the FSB, the post-Soviet successor to the KGB.

Shortly thereafter, Yeltsin appointed Putin to be his prime minister. Putin managed to take this post despite both Yeltsin's rivals and loyalists trying to take him down, as they all jockeyed to put themselves in position to succeed the ailing president.

When Yeltsin unexpectedly resigned in 1999, Putin became acting president. One of his very first acts was to pardon Yeltsin of corruption, before setting his sights on being elected outright.

In March 2000, Putin steamrolled past the other two contenders to become president with 53 percent of the vote. One important factor in Putin's victory was image. Unlike many of Yeltsin's other would-be successors, Putin had taken an unrelenting position in support of the Second Chechen War. This made him appear like a strong law-and-order candidate — a welcome relief after years of chaos.

Consolidating power

Putin's success was not only because of his own image but because of how he changed Russia's image of itself. The fall of the Soviet Union and the administration of the often drunk, sickly Yeltsin were both deeply embarrassing. That Putin managed to bring his country out of the economic ashes into a period of boom time during his first administration also helped solidify his popularity.

Barred from running for a third consecutive term in 2008, Putin became prime minister to President Dmitry Medvedev. During that administration, the presidential term was extended from four years to six, to take effect at the next election. In 2012, Putin became president once again and named Medvedev his premier, prompting allegations of a tandemocracy.

'A mafia state'

According to Russian-American author Masha Gessen, Putin's ability to so easily wield power at home is derived not only from a carefully crafted image: The former spy has remained in the Kremlin despite a declining economy, diplomatic isolation and nearly continuous allegations of corruption and human rights abuses because of his ability to "have words mean nothing."

"He just keeps talking … It's meant to create the impression that he knows what he's talking about. But it's also just meant to drown you in meaningless stuff."

Speaking with the Atlantic, Gessen added that Putin's desire to build a mafia-style government on the ruins of a totalitarian regime had left Russia "a mafia state and a totalitarian society."

Gessen also takes issue with the West's idea of Putin as a "Bond villain mastermind of global chaos," but does argue that this very perception has worked in the president's favor.

And the Putin political machine shows no signs of slowing down. Having set up a complex web of political and economic cronyism, the end of Putin would also spell the end of stability in Russia. But with his victory on Sunday, Vladimir Putin will remain in power until at least 2024.

Elizabeth Schumacher
Elizabeth Schumacher Elizabeth Schumacher reports on gender equity, immigration, poverty and education in Germany.