Vladimir Putin

When then-Russian president Boris Yeltsin appointed little-known former spy Vladimir Putin as prime minister in 1999, newspaper headlines dubbed him "Putin The Great Unknown" and "Russia's Mystery Man".

The third generation of his family to serve his country's government his grandfather worked as a cook for Lenin and Stalin, and his father once served with the KGB's predecessor Vladimir didn't make matters any clearer with his close-lipped demeanour. "Do you really have the desire to change everything?" he was asked during his successful run for president in 2000. "I won't tell you," came the response.

Born to factory worker parents in Leningrad (now St Petersburg) on October 1, 1952, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin was raised in communal housing as an only child after his two brothers died in childhood, one at birth and one during the 900-day Nazi siege. Though religion was not permitted, his mother Maria secretly had him baptised as an Orthodox Christian he's now a practicing member of the church.

As a teen, Vladimir was selected to attend a school for Leningrad's most intelligent students, where he developed an interest in martial arts and set his mind on a life as spy after reading an espionage novel. "My impressions of the KGB," he would later admit, "were based on romantic stories."

But first, Vladimir attended Leningrad State University to study civil law. He became Leningrad's judo champion in 1974, the year before he graduated, and was offered a job with the KGB when he finished his education. He trained in Moscow, studying languages and earning a judo black belt, and in 1985 was sent to East Germany to spy on NATO member nations. Living undercover as "Mr Adamov", the director of the Soviet-German House of Friendship, it is said that Vladimir spoke German so perfectly that he could mimic regional dialects.

In 1989, the collapse of the Berlin Wall meant it was time for Vladimir to return home. He took on a job at his old university, continuing his intelligence work, and became reacquainted with his former law professor Anatoly A Sobchak, chairman of the city council. Described by the politician as a "determined, even stubborn young man", Vladimir became his aide and helped him win a 1991 mayoral race.

His eye on a political life, he quit the KGB. When Sobchak lost a 1996 re-election campaign, Vladimir was asked to join President Boris Yeltsin's administration at the Kremlin before being appointed to head Federal Security Service (the successor to KGB) in 1998.

On August 9, 1999, Yeltsin named him as prime minister. Though Vladimir, the fifth to take the position in a year and a half, didn't expect to last long, President Yeltsin resigned four months later and named his prime minister as successor. Under the Russian constitution open elections would be held in three months, but Vladimir was the overwhelming favourite to win.

It came as no surprise that he refused to debate and also wouldn't run campaign commercials to sell himself. "People in the executive should prove their worth by concrete deeds and not advertising," he said. "Advertising is all about what is best, Tampax or Snickers. I'm not going to occupy myself with that." His tactic worked. Supported by his wife Lyudmila, whom he married in the early Eighties, and his two teen daughters, Katya and Maria, he ran away with the election.

Even before becoming Russia's second democratically-elected president, Vladimir had gone to work, raising pensions and taking a hard line on the Chechnya conflict. He also put a slew of ex-KGB colleagues into executive posts, causing many to speculate he was on his way to imposing authoritarian rule. "This logic is characteristic of people with a totalitarian way of thinking," he says. "In theory, that's how a man should behave if he wants to stay in this position for the rest of his life. I don't."

His presidency lasted for two terms - the maximum length of time allowed under Russian law - until May 7, 2008. He remains in a prominent political role within Russia though - as he was sworn in as Prime Minister the day after his presidency ended.
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