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From Chasing Rats To Blood Baths: How Putin's Childhood Shaped His Leadership

Vladimir Putin as a student of Primary School No. 193 in Leningrad in the 1960s.
Vladimir Putin as a student of Primary School No. 193 in Leningrad in the 1960s.

TBILISI -- Julia Ioffe, a Russian-American journalist, has extensively covered Russia and contributed to publications such as The New Yorker, The New York Times, and The Washington Post.

RFE/RL's Georgian Service interviewed Ioffe at the ZEG Tbilisi Storytelling Festival in Georgia's capital, of which RFE/RL is a media partner, where she presented a panel on Vladimir Putin's childhood.

Now the Washington correspondent for the U.S. news website Puck, Ioffe recently launched a podcast titled About A Boy: The Story Of Vladimir Putin, which explores how the Russian president's challenging early life shaped his transformation into the leader he is today.

Ioffe spoke about Putin's early life in the "dvor," a communal courtyard in Russia often associated with a tough, working-class life where people commonly have to survive on their street smarts.

RFE/RL: What do you think would be some of the most important lessons Putin took from his experience in the dvor and his youth years in Leningrad, when he was a gang member?

Julia Ioffe: So, this is a very key part of the podcast [concerning] what the lessons are, and the way they continue to inform Putin today, the way they continue to inform his decision making, including in Ukraine, including on the world stage. But the lessons are that physical weakness is weakness. You will be devoured. That physical strength is everything. That violence is the only way to change hierarchies, established social hierarchies, that compromise is for weak people and that everything is a zero-sum game.

[It means] that if I'm winning, that means you're losing, and if you're winning, that means I'm losing, so I better change that. There's no such thing as a win-win situation. So, all the people in the West who call for a compromise and a diplomatic solution and negotiations with Putin over Ukraine fail to take into account that he himself does not believe in negotiations. And he does not believe that there can be a world in which both he wins and Ukraine wins. The amount by which Ukraine wins is the exact amount to him by which he loses -- and he cannot allow that.

Julia Ioffe Discussing Putin's Childhood
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Julia Ioffe Discussing Putin's Childhood

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RFE/RL: We don't hear much about Putin talking about himself and his youth. Considering what he has spoken about, you know, chasing rats, being involved in gang fights, it leads me to a question: How much of this image is crafted? How much of this is what he wants the Russian people to believe, by selling an image of an underdog that always stood up for himself and paved his way with blood and sweat. How much of this is manufactured?

Ioffe: We know that some of it is true, because we've heard from other people in his life that his parents were quite poor and uneducated, that he did live in a terrible communal apartment, that his parents really were quite traumatized by the war and quite absent.

And we know that this generation in Leningrad, this immediate postwar generation, grew up with really traumatized parents. That's why we try to focus not so much on Putin individually and what actually happened when he was in sixth grade or fifth grade or whatever, but talked about the broader, generational, citywide, countrywide, generation-wide things that were happening that would inform him because, first of all, I don't think a boy from the intelligentsia would be able to fake this, and if he was able to fake this, I don't think he'd be able to keep this up for 24 years. There's something about it that's quite genuine, quite obviously real.

Second, the fact that this is the image he goes with is telling, because he thinks, I think correctly, that a lot of the country grew up like this or knows someone who grew up like this. It resonates with them, because it's something they know, either because they grew up like this or their parents grew up like this, or their grandparents grew up like this, or all of the above. And that's the Russian everyman.

RFE/RL: Yeah. A dream come true for every Russian "gopnik." ("Gopnik" loosely translates as "thug.")

Ioffe: Yes, gopnik, exactly.... But yes, this is his image of the Russian everyman. [Former U.S. President Donald] Trump has an image of the American everyman; this is Putin's image of the Russian one, and, so far, he's been right. And it's also kind of determinative -- he's also created much more of this underclass in Russia through his policies. And now we're seeing that that's who goes and dies in Ukraine, because their lives don't mean much. They're not worth much to them, to their government. Creating this underclass that is disposable and politically convenient for him....

I think [Putin] sees himself as a leader of that stature. Stalin, Peter the Great, somebody who is going to shape Russia for decades to come even after he's gone."

The third point I'd make is that it's not so much that he's positioning himself as an underdog, and not even as a schoolyard bully, but he's positioning himself as somebody who is from the streets, who knows what real life is. That he's a realist. He's not an idealist. He's not going to promise you things he can't deliver on. He knows what the real world is like. He knows that, as Russia's representative on the world stage and inside Russia, it's this Hobbesian dog-eat-dog world that he's presenting to people. He's like, I know what the world is really like, and I know how to live in that world, and I know how to win in that world. It's not that I'm an underdog, it's that I'm a winner in that world. I know how to use violence.

RFE/RL: As they say, [in Russian] "the kid done good."

Ioffe: Exactly, exactly, exactly. One other thing I'll say about [Putin] in the dvor. And it's something that was pointed out to me by my father and his friends, men of that generation before I really read the campaign autobiography, before I made this podcast, before I looked into any of this.

And I just remember they would all say, "He's so little," like it would have been very hard for him in the dvor and you can see how he is obsessed with his own shortness and how he wears lifts in his shoes, and how he gets photographers to photograph him a certain way.

He is someone who, because of his size, is clearly constantly aware of his own weaknesses and trying to get ahead of people perceiving his weaknesses, which is, I think, also something that comes from being physically small in a world where physical force and physical strength are the only things that determine your social standard.

RFE/RL: Well, that does nothing to alleviate the stereotypes about short people being....

Ioffe: [laughs] I wasn't trying to.

RFE/RL: Let's move from Putin's childhood to the recent version of him. And in 2014, you wrote a piece called The Loneliness Of Vladimir Putin. And the question I would ask is, if he was lonely back then [as a child], how lonely is he now? Or has he found some playmates that he can finally play with?

Ioffe: I think now he's quite lonely. I think we saw that in the pandemic, the way he isolated himself and how scared he was for his own health. The fact that he just demoted [former Security Council head Nikolai] Patrushev, who was one of his closest advisers, that he demoted [former Russian Defense Minister Sergei] Shoigu, who is one of his closest friends, as far as he has friends. It seems like he is telegraphing to us that he doesn't need anybody, he doesn't need to listen to anyone, he doesn't need anyone's input, advice, second opinion, that he knows everything himself.

The longer he's in power -- [Russian author Leo] Tolstoy wrote about this -- the longer you're in power, the higher up you get, the lonelier you are. And to me, when you ask about the loneliness of Vladimir Putin, I just keep thinking what he said about a decade ago, when he said how lonely it is for him, because there's no one to talk to.

Gandhi's dead, Churchill's dead. And that's the level he imagines he's at, and that those are his equals. And so, of course, he feels lonely, but I think that's also kind of where the idea to invade Ukraine came out of: the deep isolation of the pandemic. Like, we all went a little crazy, but we showed it by starting weird hobbies and ordering too much stuff online. And he did it by cooking up a plan to invade Ukraine.

RFE/RL: So he has ascended in his own eyes, like in a very, very twisted version of Coriolanus. He's no longer a man, but a dragon.

Ioffe: [laughs] Yeah

RFE/RL: I think he's the only one who sees himself that way. On to another of your articles, this time a very recent one in May, when you wrote a piece about Putin with the headline, A Czar Is Born. And to be perfectly honest, that kind of startled me because the question is: If the tsar is born now, at his fifth inauguration, what was he before then?

Ioffe: I think this really cemented it and, honestly, we picked that headline because it was a play on the movie title, A Star Is Born. So, it was more about the pun than that he had become a tsar now. But I think this was really, truly, just [about] whatever pretenses there had been before about him having advisers, procedures, law -- it's just all gone.

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Since the beginning of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Vazha Tavberidze of RFE/RL's Georgian Service has been interviewing diplomats, military experts, and academics who hold a wide spectrum of opinions about the war's course, causes, and effects. To read all of his interviews, click here.

And it's because of the war. It's the war and the need to win. Because losing in the courtyard is a social death. And he knows that losing in Ukraine would be his personal death. And he just said it recently, a couple days ago. He said that would be the end of our...statehood. Everything is now subservient to this. And that he's now the kind of tsar, the generalissimo, the everything. He doesn't even need his closest friends and advisers, he's got this. He knows everything. He can do military tactics, he can do the economy. It's very Stalin.

RFE/RL: Very emperor-like. Speaking of tsars, there's precious few ways of ending your reign. First is you get assassinated. Second is you abdicate. Third is you die on the throne. Which one looks more likely to you?

Ioffe: I think if I've learned anything in writing about Russia for almost two decades, it's that predicting anything is hard. And Putin also loves to surprise us. He loves to be unpredictable.... If I had to guess...I would say that the more probable of the three scenarios is dying on the throne.

RFE/RL: He seems to be working toward that goal.

Ioffe: That's clearly his intent, I think.

RFE/RL: If that's the case, then he must be betting on living for quite a long time yet, because there seems to be no inclination of him naming any successors.

Ioffe: Well, here's the thing. If you name a successor, that's it. You're done. You've hobbled yourself. You're a lame duck, you're done. So, if he's thinking of a successor, he's not going to tell us about it for a long time. He's also experimented with a successor. His name was [former Russian President] Dmitry Medvedev. And he clearly didn't think that Medvedev did a good enough job, because he came back and punished Medvedev socially, politically, for a long time, and Medvedev had to work hard to kind of crawl back in and up.

I think things in Russia are going to continue to get worse and worse and worse and more authoritarian, more totalitarian, more isolated, more aligned with China than with the West."

[There's also] the obsession with health procedures and everything we hear about his weird shamanistic practices…. I mean, [the thing that] will never cease to amuse me is that he takes literal blood baths; there was a report in [independent Russian website] Proyekt about how he and Shoigu take these baths from the blood from [the] immature horns of these Siberian elk from the Altai region.... He's clearly obsessed with prolonging his life as long as possible.

RFE/RL: Still, on the subject of successors, him keeping mum on it kind of raises the question about the legacy, right? He's obviously concerned about his legacy.

Ioffe: Has been for a while, yeah.

RFE/RL: So does he think only about what kind of Russia he will leave behind after him and his [role] in it? Or does he think also and care what Russia will look like tomorrow, or in 10 years' time, in 20 years' time?

Ioffe: I think both. I think, in his mind, he is doing the things today that will make Russia better off and stronger.

RFE/RL: Even in his absence?

Ioffe: Even in his absence, but again his ideas of what is good for Russia are not necessarily yours and mine. Like, you can have a great Russia that isn't conquering neighboring countries by force. But he has different visions. I heard a story that, back in 2011, he was at a dinner and somebody asked him then what his greatest accomplishment was as president. And he said -- not the economy, not geopolitical stature -- he said reuniting the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian Orthodox Church abroad. There was a great Financial Times article about this about a year ago, where somebody from the Kremlin told them that Putin, in Putin's mind, has three advisers: Catherine the Great, Peter the Great, and Ivan the Terrible.

So, I think he sees himself as a leader of that stature. Stalin, Peter the Great, somebody who is going to shape Russia for decades to come even after he's gone.

RFE/RL: If you were to hazard a guess, where do you think he ranks himself among those leaders?

Ioffe: I don't know. Probably pretty high.

RFE/RL: If you think change is coming from Russia, where do you see this change coming from?

Ioffe: I don't think we're going to see a change coming for Russia for a very long time -- [as] in any positive change, or a change that you and I would define as positive change. I think things in Russia are going to continue to get worse and worse and worse and more authoritarian, more totalitarian, more isolated, more aligned with China than with the West. I think what he's doing now is damage that will take decades to undo. And I don't think the opposition is capable of pretty much anything.

Julia Ioffe (file photo)
Julia Ioffe (file photo)

RFE/RL: Since we're in Tbilisi and the session was called Putin's Childhood, let's explore this semi-mythical Georgian connection with Putin and his childhood in Georgia. How much do you know about it, how much of it do you believe?

Ioffe: We didn't explore this in the podcast, we thought about making another episode just about this alternative history, which, as far as I understand, there was a Russian woman who said she had this child with a Russian man, I think, outside of wedlock, and then married a Georgian man, moved down [to Georgia] with young Volodya Putin and that the stepfather was horrible to him and didn't basically accept the child we now know as Vladimir Putin as his own. And so, [according to this theory,] the mother said that she gave him up to relatives, distant relatives in Leningrad....because they were much older and there's no other way to explain why his parents are so much older. And that's who we think of as Putin's parents. And I know she spoke a lot to foreign journalists about this and people said she even looked like him. I don't know...

RFE/RL: The resemblance was uncanny.

Ioffe: Do you believe it?

RFE/RL: No, but I have written about it and it's.... Well, there is no way of 100 percent disproving it either, let's put it like that.

Ioffe: Well, there could have been if they took DNA tests, but that was never going to happen.

RFE/RL: Yeah, obviously. On to the more factual childhood of Putin then. And I know you're not a child psychiatrist, but still, let me ask: Him having no toys to play with, and him having to chase rats around to entertain himself, how much impact do you think it had on what kind of man he turned out to be?

Ioffe: I think it wasn't just that there were no toys or that [there were] rats. I think it was more that he was growing up in the dvor and there weren't really a lot of toys. And the way you spent time was by interacting with other kids, other boys. And that those interactions were all centered around physical strength and violence and a very strict social hierarchy. And that was your entertainment. And also learning how to read people.

This is something my father talks a lot about in the podcast, that [in the Soviet Union], [it was] like living under an X-ray machine in the dvor 24-7, that you couldn't hide anything, that everybody knew your record. Like, if you lied five years ago to someone. Or said you were going to do something three years ago and didn't do it, everybody would remember. You couldn't hide from your past or hide much of anything....

It's not so much about the toys and the rats as it is about the privations and the poverty of that era and the way it taught this generation that prosperity isn't guaranteed, things can always get worse, don't be spoiled.... We also talk about this in the podcast, [but it's about] not knowing what to do with money when you have it. That's why his palace in Gelendzhik (in Russia's Krasnodar Krai region) is what it looks like.... I think people who grew up with money tend to not decorate their houses in that way.

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    Vazha Tavberidze

    Vazha Tavberidze is a staff writer with RFE/RL's Georgian Service. As a journalist and political analyst, he has covered issues of international security, post-Soviet conflicts, and Georgia's Euro-Atlantic aspirations. His writing has been published in various Georgian and international media outlets, including The Times, The Spectator, The Daily Beast, and IWPR.

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