Amid the crisis of the global coronavirus pandemic, the 20th anniversary of Vladimir Putin's first election as Russian president on March 26, 2000, passed largely unremarked. A long interview with Putin by the state news agency TASS that was expected to be rolled out in 20 installments running up to the big date was quietly postponed amid poor ratings after 17 segments, hopelessly overtaken by headline-grabbing events.
For blogger and filmmaker Artyom Kruglov, the date was another day at work at what he describes as "the archeological dig" of Putin's little-known rise to power.
"One layer is peeled away and documented," he told RFE/RL's Russian Service, "and then we start on the next. On the surface, we have Putin's official biography.... But if you dig deeper, you find a second layer, and then a third."
Since 2015, Kruglov has run a website called Putinism As It Is, which attempts to document the hidden pages of the strongman's biography, from his youth in Soviet Leningrad, to his early days in the KGB, to his purported ties with notorious Russian organized crime structures. Kruglov has also reformatted much of his research as a series of video reports on YouTube that have accumulated more than 1.3 million views.
Picking Through The Archives
For five years, Kruglov has picked through the memoirs and interviews of police investigators, security-service agents, members of organized-crime gangs, and others to piece together the story of how a young tough rose to become the dominant figure in Russia's modern history. This information often enables him to read between the lines of Putin's official biographies, including In The First Person (2000) and Oleg Blotsky's two-volume 2001 authorized biography Putin: The Story Of A Life.
"If you take everything that Blotsky collected, it emerges that Putin is a person with a lot of complexes," Kruglov said. "He is embarrassed by his origins; he doesn't like women.... He grew up in an antisocial, anti-human environment, in a criminal world on the fringes of the Nekrasov Market, which was one of the most criminalized parts of the entire city [of Leningrad]. There, he was picked on and beaten."
Putin, Kruglov emphasized, was a product of "post-war, Soviet Leningrad."
"His internal bestiality comes from such a childhood," he added. "And it was intensified by his years in the KGB."
Kruglov draws particular attention to Leonid Usvyatsov, who was Putin's first martial-arts coach in the 1960s. Usvyatsov was also coaching Arkady Rotenberg, who remains one of Putin's closest confidants and one of Russia's richest oligarchs.
Usvyatsov, a criminal recidivist who spent 20 years in Soviet prisons, was -- Kruglov said -- a criminal "authority" known as Lyonya the Sportsman.
"He was essentially a second father for Putin and Rotenberg," Kruglov said, noting that Putin refers respectfully to Usvyatsov several times in the In The First Person biography.
"Usvyatsov was a Jew who ripped off other Jews who were emigrating to Israel [and had to sell their possessions]," Kruglov said. "That was his criminal specialty."
However, he used his sports-world connections to get Rotenberg admitted to the Leningrad Institute of Sport and Putin into Leningrad State University.
"Lyonya was murdered in a basement during a criminal conflict in 1994," Kruglov said. "I even felt a little sorry for him. He would have fit right into Putin's panopticon today -- he would have been no worse a sports minister than Vitaly Mutko or fulfilled state tenders no worse than Rotenberg. Or he could do as well at the United Nations as [Vladimir] Safronkov does."
Putin's 15-year career in the KGB (1975-90) really formed him as a person, Kruglov added. In his official statements, Putin has always said he performed unspecified "counterintelligence work." He has also said he was "a specialist in communicating with people" and that he participated in "actions against dissidents."
Vladimir Usoltsev-Gortanov, who shared an office with Putin when the two were stationed in Dresden, East Germany, wrote in his 2003 memoir that Putin "worked in Leningrad for the Fifth Directorate," which was the section of the KGB that combatted "ideological diversions."
"Volodya began his career in the most odious section of the KGB -- the Fifth Directorate," Kruglov said. "The heirs of that section are now in Center E [the antiextremism section of the Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor to the KGB] and are fabricating cases against...fake 'counterrevolutionary organizations.'"
According to Kruglov's research, Putin's main work for the KGB in the Leningrad years was "recruiting foreigners who came to the Soviet Union and Soviet citizens who communicated with foreigners or were going abroad."
Hard Currency And Honey Traps
This was a potent position for the eager young Putin.
"Working on foreigners often meant using criminal and antisocial elements -- prostitutes of both sexes, money changers, and hard-currency speculators," he said. "They worked with resellers of icons and antiques, with contrabandists. With anyone who could 'hook' the foreigner in some way or provide information about him."
"Working in this department was a good opportunity to meet people in the Soviet shadow economy and various criminal circles," he added.
When Putin was moved to Moscow in the mid-1990s, the connection there between the FSB and the Izmailovo criminal group was already solid, Kruglov said. At the time, the group was headed by Soviet Afghan War veteran Anton Malevsky, whom Kruglov describes as a "confirmed racist" who formed connections with acquaintances in the FSB to drive the Caucasian, particularly Chechen, criminal groups out of Moscow.
In 1993, as part of his effort to weaken the former KGB, President Boris Yeltsin put the elite Vympel special-forces unit under the Interior Ministry.
"Immediately, 600 well-trained special operations agents found themselves on the street," Kruglov said, noting that many of the elite KGB agents felt insulted at the prospect of being subordinated to the "police."
"Malevsky found work for many of these unemployed people," Kruglov continued. "Several 'private security firms' were set up which became joint enterprises of the Izmailovo gang and the FSB."
When Putin became director of the FSB in 1998, "he inherited all of this from his predecessors," Kruglov said. Only two months after assuming his post, Putin brought the Vympel unit back under the FSB.
The Izmailovo syndicate remains "the most powerful criminal syndicate in Russia," Kruglov said, and is still connected with the FSB's Special Operations Center (TsSN).
"For 20 years, they have been receiving their dividends," he said, adding that while other mafia structures in Russia have suffered under Putin, the Izmailovo group has flourished.
"We have to look the truth in the eyes," Kruglov concluded. "Russia is run by a criminal-security regime of the worst possible sort. They are soaked in blood, theft, and crime. And they are all connected by a shared past. There is even a joke -- 'the criminal band of the 1990s that seized power is now scaring everyone with the prospect of returning to the lawless 1990s.'"