Back in the early 1990s, St. Petersburg businessman Maksim Freidzon never would have predicted that the plain-looking bureaucrat sitting on the other side of the desk would one day be the most powerful man in Russia.
"There was a term for it back then -- a committee man on the take," Freidzon recalls, referring to agents of the KGB, or Committee for State Security. "I first heard this term back in 1992 from friends whom I'd asked about how to deal with the External Affairs Committee of the mayor's office…. I asked: 'What are they like?' 'Committee men on the take…. but for money they will do everything properly.'"
Freidzon went to the External Affairs Committee office on Antonenko Street -- "They had their own little burrow separate from [the mayor's office at] Smolny" -- and handed over the papers to register his first international business project.
During the discussion, Vladimir Putin "wrote down a figure and said: 'Aleksei Miller will take care of this.' And that was it. I have to admit -- they did everything properly, quickly and without any problems," Freidzon says.
The figure Putin named was $10,000.
At the time, Putin was St. Petersburg deputy mayor and head of the External Affairs Committee. Miller -- who is now the CEO of state-controlled natural-gas giant Gazprom -- was his deputy.
Wiggling To Survive
Freidzon, who now lives in Israel, is suing Gazprom, LUKoil, and several other companies and individuals in the United States for $540 million, claiming they allegedly illegally took over a stake in the Soveks oil firm that belonged to his company, Sigma.
Many people today are mistaken about how Putin got his start in the new Russia after he returned home from his KGB posting in Dresden with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Freidzon says.
Russian businessman Maksim Freidzon (file photo)
"The idea that Vladimir Vladimirovich was some sort of authoritative gangster is extremely exaggerated -- maybe by Putin himself," he says.
"The reality was much more prosaic. As I understand it, he definitely worked a lot and productively with bandits. He served them and tried to be useful to them."
"As far as I know, in the view of the people who really made decisions in the city then -- and those people were inveterate criminals -- he was a nobody."
"At that time, there were conflicts between various groups of important people, and he had to maneuver among people who hated one another," Freidzon adds. "He wiggled and survived. And earned what he could."
'An Organized, Hungry Gang'
Freidzon says he was disappointed, but not surprised that the KGB was able to reassert its power in Russia.
"They didn't have any ideology," he says. "They wanted money and the opportunity to spend it freely. Even back in the 1980s, they were involved in anything that smelled of money -- they protected black-market money changers and hard-currency prostitutes. They were actively involved in the antiques market and so on. Under [KGB Chairman Yury] Andropov, they tried to get into business -- they wanted a share of everything."
"They were an organized, hungry gang," he concludes.
Russia's best hope at the time, according to Freidzon, was to carry out a thorough lustration of KGB agents. When that failed to happen, he became certain "the KGB would try to take power."
He says at that point it was clear that the "organized, hungry gang" would be able to outmaneuver the "business-Komsomol-reformers and the small number of sincere democrats" who briefly held power after the demise of the Soviet Union.
Over the course of those few years, Freidzon met with Putin several times. He ended up paying another $10,000 to finalize a deal to provide imported weapons to the St. Petersburg police.
"I think he was a driven person who had no limits concerning the methods he'd use to achieve his ends," Freidzon says. "I think that, in the KGB, if a person had some sort of moral or ethical restrictions, they were wrung out of him during training and psychological preparation. They weren't taught to selflessly obey the Ten Commandments."
"Under Stalin, who is so loved in Russia now, Vladimir Vladimirovich would have been shot for theft at the very beginning of his career," he concludes.
RFE/RL correspondent Robert Coalson contributed to this report