Cradle to Kremlin: how Putin’s childhood casts a shadow

From rats to riches, the Russian president’s extraordinary rise to power may explain his actions in Ukraine

Vladimir Putin
Putin was seen as a ‘miracle baby’ by his parents
(Image credit: Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Ever since Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine in 2022, and with no end to the conflict in sight, many commentators have tried to explain what motivates the Russian president.

Putin has been called a “raging bully”; an “aggressive narcissist” and a “septuagenarian in a hurry to make his name in the history books as the man who saved Russia”, said Katie Strick in the Evening Standard.

But it could be his past, particularly his tough childhood, that provides the greatest understanding of Putin’s present strategy.

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“As he himself admits, it was then, in neighborhood brawls, that he learned lessons that he has followed ever since – to take on any and all adversaries, never to retreat, and to fight to the finish,” says William Taubman in The Boston Globe.

‘The miracle baby’

Putin grew up in the ruins of post-war Leningrad – now St Petersburg – a city scarred by a brutal 900-day siege during the Second World War. Putin’s mother, Maria, almost died of starvation while his father was away fighting.

His was a gritty, hungry childhood in a neighbourhood overshadowed by war and infested with vermin. “From the outset it was the survival of the fittest,” wrote Philip Short in The Sunday Times. At the hospital where Maria gave birth, one newborn in 50 died before leaving; a harrowing statistic for a mother who had already lost two baby sons.

Although it was an unsentimental upbringing, Putin’s parents doted on him as their “miracle baby”, said the Daily Mirror, and he was treated as a king, according to author Masha Gessen. This despite his mediocre grades and bad behaviour in class, said ABC News.

He had a wristwatch as a teen – something his dad didn’t have – and when his parents won a car, they gave it to their son, according to the Mirror. “There’s a lot of proof he feels he is chosen now,” said Gessen. The proof could include his sprawling “Putin’s Palace” home, photos of him riding bare-chested on horseback, and his immense personal wealth.

His love for spy novels as a child strengthened his self-belief in his own unique destiny. “Books and programmes about espionage like ‘The Shield and the Sword’ took hold of my imagination,” Putin later explained. “What amazed me most of all was how one man’s effort could achieve what whole armies could not.”

He went on to become a KGB spy, and his romantic notions also help explain his desire to restore Russia’s former glory and rebuild the Russian Empire. “He will always be a KGB man, deep down,” British cartoonist Darryl Cunningham told the Evening Standard. “He still looks back to the old Soviet Union and all the lands and countries that they dominated.”

He was said to be furious when the Soviet Union collapsed, blaming the then Russian president, Mikhail Gorbachev, for being “weak”. It is “a wrong many believe he is still trying to right today”, said Strick in the Standard.

‘No retreat’

He might have been treated as royalty by his parents as a child, but he was small and often picked upon. Despite this, he never shrank from a brawl. His best friend at school recalled to The Boston Globe: “He could get into a fight with anyone… He had no fear… If some hulking guy offended him, he would jump straight at him – scratch him, bite him, pull out clumps of his hair.” He would later earn himself a black belt in judo, and was praised for his dogged work ethic.

One particularly illustrative example is his account of facing down a rat in the building where he lived. “It had nowhere to run,” Putin recalled in his memoir. “Suddenly it lashed around and threw itself at me… Luckily, I was a little faster and I managed to slam the door shut in its nose.” Years later he would reach the conclusion: “No one should be cornered. No one should be put in a situation where they have no way out,” explained Short in The Sunday Times.

In fact, it was his scrapping as a child, rather than his years at the KGB, which shaped him the most, helping him form the view that if a fight is inevitable, you should always throw the first punch. “If something happens,” he insisted, “you should proceed from the fact that there is no retreat.” As late as 2016, Putin was still drawing this same lesson, said Taubman in The Boston Globe, using Israel as an example. “Israel never steps back but fights to the end and that is how it survives,” Putin wrote.

It’s an attitude that also explains his attitude to the US in the ongoing conflict with Ukraine, one that could spell disaster, said Taubman. “Would he dare to use tactical nuclear weapons to bring that about? If Putin won’t quit, who is to say he wouldn’t?”

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