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How Did Vladimir Putin Rise to Power? | How Putin Went From KGB Spy to President

Vladimir Putin is a man who's popular for being the tough Russian man who leads Russia and rides bears. He's also known as a notorious dictator, especially after Russia began an invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

But how exactly did Putin come to power? How did he become the President of Russia? And how has he stayed in power for the last 20 years? This is the story of Russia's Vladimir Putin went from KGB spy to Russian president...


Story Chapters


Putin's KGB Origins

Putin was a KGB agent stationed in Dresden, East Germany, on the night the Berlin Wall fell. An angry mob started to crowd around the Russian Intelligence Building, where only he and a few other men were.

Putin phoned Moscow for help, but they told him that he was on his own. So he bluffed. Putin walked outside with his gun and announced to the crowd that he and the armed guards stationed inside were ordered to fire if anyone broke in. There were no armed guards, only Putin and a few other men. However, the bluff worked, and the crowd soon dispersed.

Vladimir Putin eventually became the Deputy Mayor of St. Petersburg and eventually moved up to a position on the presidential staff in Moscow. There, he was appointed by Yeltsin as the head of the Federal Security Service (the successor to the KGB).

Yeltsin’s career was dying, and everyone could see it. So he began to look around for a potential successor. He found Putin. Nobody knew who Putin was, and surprisingly, that played in his favor.

He hadn’t been embroiled in all the scandals of the Yeltsin government, and nobody really expected much from him. And so Putin was appointed Prime Minister and was immediately faced with the task of defeating a brewing rebellion.

Putin and The Second Chechen War

Yeltsin and The First Chechen War

In 1970, a 10-year-long invasion of Afghanistan began that led to the end of the Soviet Union. The defeat of the Soviet Union in the Soviet-Afghan War resulted in many seasoned Islamist fighters dispersing to other Muslim areas to fuel more jihads. One of these areas was a region in southern Russia bordering the country of Georgia: Chechnya.

The First Chechen War was instigated by Boris Yeltsin three years earlier. He had sent a large military force to Chechnya to deal with an uprising. With 52,000 Russians wounded and 8,000 Russian deaths later, the Russians were forced to make peace on less than favorable terms.

“Nothing captured more vividly the disarray of Yeltsin’s Russia than the brutal ineptitude of the first Chechen war… Equipped with bandoliers and large knives in their belts, they looked more like gang members than professional soldiers.” —William J. Burns

How Putin Dealt With The Second Chechen War

And so, when Putin was put in charge of the Second Chechen War, he had a lot to live up to. The people were losing faith in the political system and were worried Yeltsin would find any reason he could to stop the elections happening in June 2000 from taking place. Yeltsin’s approval rating at that time was a stunning 2%. Putin’s approval rating was also at 2%.

Then a series of bombings in Moscow and other cities stirred up fear and anger in the Russian population.

The blast ripped off the facade of a nine-story apartment building. The dead bodies of 18 persons, including two children, were pulled from the rubble. Eighty-nine persons were hospitalized. The explosion, like that on Kashirskoye Highway, took place at five in the morning. The psychological shock was so great that afterward hundreds of people were unwilling to sleep in their homes and insisted on spending the night outdoors.

Russians wanted revenge and justice for the terrorists who did it. And the Russian government blamed the Chechen rebels. So, Russia and Putin went to war against the Chechen rebels.

This time, however, the war was a success, and Putin suddenly became the most popular Russian politician. Although the conflict still isn’t officially over, as rebel guerrillas still fight in the countryside, major resistance has been quashed by Russia. Russia had learned from the previous war and captured the Chechen capital much easier than the first time.

David Satter of the Hudson Institute describes how Putin’s war won him the presidency,

In August, 2 percent of the population favored Putin for the presidency. By September, his popularity was 4 percent. In October, it reached 21 percent. In November, Putin was favored for the presidency by 45 percent of the population, far more than any other candidate. It was now clear that there would be no need to introduce emergency rule and postpone the elections. Putin would be able to win the election on his own with the help of a new war.

The Unity Party was created with no other platform other than support for Putin. Pro-Putin forces took the majority of the Parliament, and now there was no other real opposition.

And so, on New Year’s Eve 1999, President Boris Yeltsin appointed Putin as acting president and resigned from his position. Immediately, Putin made a decree stating that Yeltsin was free from prosecution.

How Putin Subdued Russia's Oligarchs

The Rise of the Oligarchs

After the fall of the Soviet Union, and fostered under Yeltsin's leadership, Russia’s moral fibers had deteriorated. Because of this, criminals and gangsters started to take over Russia. However, while stealing was widespread, certain ambitious men began to take advantage of the failing Soviet Union.

Essentially, during the 1980s, ambitious men began to take advantage of a weakening government to, somewhat brilliantly, make money. And they made a lot of money.

There were three types of people who found success during this time.

  1. Former factory directors were able to become owners of the factory they worked at

  2. The "nomenklatura oligarchs" came from the elite and were mostly already in charge of certain industries in the Soviet Union. They used their position to take over these industries for themselves

  3. The "non-nomenklatura oligarchs" didn’t come from the elite and were, in a way, shunned from being successful under the Soviet system. So, they rose through the Soviet "black market" and were in an advantageous position when the Soviet Union fell because of their knowledge of handling money. They were able to set up or own a bank, which put them in a good position to take over Russian industries.

So, when the Soviet Union fell and privatization began, these men were able to make even more money. For example, Mikhail Khodorkovsky had amassed a small fortune before the fall and started to make more after.

The new Russian government was even weaker than the Soviet government, and Khodorkovsky and others used this to their advantage. For example, in the early days of the new Russia, there wasn’t a treasury. So, Khodorkovsky approached the government and said,

"You have to pay the teachers in Kolymskaja. You have no way to pay the teachers. I'll pay the teachers. Give me $600 million. I'll pay all the teachers in the country.”

So the state gave him the money. And what did Khodorkovsky decide to do? He didn’t pay them. Instead, Khodorkovsky decided to wait because if he invested the $600 million, it could make a lot of money over time.

And the teachers could wait a few months, right? They didn’t, and the teachers were outside the bank demanding pay. To deal with the angry teachers, he sent a few guys out with guns to tell them to back off.

When Russia Freed Price Controls...

The real turning point, however, was the privatization of state-owned businesses and the removal of government price controls (the Soviet government had controlled the prices of things). They were advised to do this as soon as possible to get the market to start working on its own.

However, when the new government removed the price controls, the prices of food and other everyday items soared. Even more catastrophic was the process of turning over state-owned businesses to private owners...

The Oligarchs and Privatization

So how did the Russian government decide to turn over government-controlled industries to individuals? Very profitable Russian industries like oil, natural gas, and metals? They decided to hand out "vouchers" to every citizen that gave them a little bit of ownership in the now-private company. The idea was that, with the right people, the market would eventually fall into place.

The thing is, people had grown up in a socialist society, and nobody really understood what it meant to "own a part of a company." Most people didn’t see any value in the vouchers. Often, vouchers were sold on the street for vodka. So the same ambitious men, the "oligarchs", saw an opportunity. They decided to buy up as many of these "worthless vouchers" as they could.

Because that’s the big problem with privatization. Marshall Goldman, a Davis Professor in Russian Economics, explains it this way,

"[The Russians], and particularly the western advisors, neglected the fact that what you were doing was privatizing, except for the small shops, large enterprises that were essentially monopolies. So what happened? You've turned a state monopoly into a private monopoly, but the private monopoly doesn't operate all that much differently.”

Russia during the 1990s was, as mentioned before, a land without the rule of law. It was a country ruled by thugs, criminals, and gangsters. And although inflation made money worth less, enough money could still buy you whatever you wanted in post-Soviet Russia.

And so, certain individuals held enormous power over Russia by owning entire key industries. And in 1996, the oligarchs used their power to get Boris Yeltsin reelected... and in return, he privatized more industries that the oligarchs would snatch for more money.

So through corrupt and devious means, even murder, the oligarchs maneuvered their way to become the richest and most powerful men in Russia. And their hunger for more money had a big impact on the Russian economy, partially explaining Russia’s poor economic situation in the 1990s.

Their pillaging of the country also caused the new government to be very weak, and even the average life expectancy dropped because of them. As you can see, the Russian oligarchs were a problem. And Putin had a solution.

Putin vs. The Oligarchs

That was all during the 1990s, but now it’s the 2000s, and Putin has a plan. In the early years of Putin’s presidency, he made sure to consolidate his power by gaining influence with the regional governments, the courts, and most importantly, Russian television. Then he went after the oligarchs.

Ironically, Putin’s popularity and success have been fueled by the oligarchs. If the oligarchs hadn't gotten Yeltsin elected president back in 1996, Putin wouldn’t have been appointed by Yeltsin to succeed him. And the oligarchs directly supported Putin too, using their news and TV monopolies to promote Putin and boost his popularity.

Putin started by joining public opinion and calling out the corruption of the oligarchs during his 2000 presidential election campaign. However, when he was elected, he didn’t take down "all" of the oligarchs, just the ones he believed threatened him.

The biggest oligarch Putin took down was Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Remember him? After making deals and taking advantage of the corrupt Yeltsin government, he was now worth a few billion dollars and owned the giant Yukos Oil Company.

In the summer of 2000, Putin and a group of the biggest Russian oligarchs had a meeting. Putin bluntly told them to stay out of politics and recognize his authority, and they would get to keep their wealth, businesses, mansions, yachts, and everything else.

However, Khodorkovsky used his money to fund political opposition to Putin and had political aspirations himself. He was even considering a merger with the gas titan Exxon Mobile. He started to become stubborn and arrogant. On TV, Khodorkovsky called out Putin’s corruption and challenged him.

So one day, when his plane stopped to refuel, Russian agents arrested him on charges of fraud and tax evasion. He would go on to serve time in Siberia, and his company would be handed over to one of Putin’s allies.

Putin would repeat this a few times. And to replace the oligarchs he disposed of, Putin created a new group of them with people who were loyal to him.

What Has Putin Done in Power

After dealing with the Chechen rebels and the growing problem of the oligarchs, Putin set out to make Russia better and return it to its former status. Here's some of the things Putin has done in power...

The Economy Fixed

Under Yeltsin, the economy was sick and weak because of the disastrous policies of the new Russian government. The privatization of Russian businesses, the devaluing of the Russian ruble, and the instability of Russia at the time all contributed to everyday Russians not having much money. This was all while the oligarchs were taking advantage of the government to build their own wealth.

Putin set out to fix it. First, he dealt with the oligarchs, as mentioned before. Apart from consolidating his power, he also did it to take over their immense wealth. He reformed the tax code too, to make it easier to pay taxes.

In addition, Putin encouraged foreign investors to invest in Russia to decrease Russia’s dependence on the West. Because of this, the new simpler tax code, and the rise of oil prices worldwide resulted in a new inflow of money for the Russian government.

Russia’s economy in general has also taken off. In 1999, Russia’s economy was only 196 billion dollars, but it has now reached over 1.7 trillion dollars in 2021. Unemployment has also dropped from 13% to just 5%, according to Statistica.

Restoring Morality

Putin decided that part of his restoration of Russia included bringing it back to traditional values. Probably influenced by the increase in crime and the deterioration of moral values after the fall of the Soviet Union, Putin introduced laws to encourage morality.

From laws banning LGBTQ propaganda to banning swearing on TV, Putin has also promoted Russian pride in the former Soviet Union. He’s done this partially by forbidding anyone from doing things like twisting the Soviet Union’s role in World War II.

Bringing Power Back To The Government

One of the other things Putin did first was to curb the power of the regional governors. He sorted the various regions and republics of Russia into seven regions, which are led by a minister appointed by the president.

He also established a stable relationship between himself and the Duma (the Russian Parliament), making it easier for him to pass more reforms. In addition, he attacked factionalism by narrowing down the number of existing political parties.