‘The miracle baby’: Here’s how Putin’s childhood shaped him into the dangerous leader he is today

Putin’s childhood was tough, and he still lives by the chilling lessons he learnt in a rat-infested St Petersburg.

Russian President Vladimir Putin childhood
© picture alliance/ Laski Diffusion/GETTYIMAGES
Russian President Vladimir Putin childhood

Now, Vladimir Putin is universally recognised as the vicious Russian President who has taken Russia to war against Ukraine, but he was once just a young child like the rest of us. So, what was Putin like as a young boy, and how did his childhood shape him into the despot he is today?

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Putin was born on October 7, 1952, and faced a lot of hardship in his early years. He was born in Leningrad (now St Petersburg), a city left scarred after a 900-day siege in WWII. He was poor and small for his age and therefore, unsurprisingly, was bullied.

Lessons learnt in Putin’s early years

Putin grew up in poverty, and the dilapidated Soviet block of flats he lived in was infested with rats. In Putin’s 2000 book First Person: An Astonishingly Frank Self-Portrait, he writes:

Once I spotted a huge rat and pursued it down the hall until I drove it into a corner. It had nowhere to run. Suddenly it lashed around and threw itself at me. I was surprised and frightened. Now the rat was chasing me.
Luckily, I was a little faster and I managed to slam the door shut in its nose. There, on that stair landing, I got a quick and lasting lesson in the meaning of the word cornered.

As he got older, it seems these lessons in conflict were translated into human interactions. William Taubman commented in The Boston Globe:

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.

Putin’s parents’ suffering

Putin’s mother Maria gave birth to him in a hospital where 1 in 50 newborns died. Maria had already lost two baby sons and was overjoyed when Putin arrived. Maria almost died of starvation once as Putin’s father was away fighting. Putin once explained that ‘people thought she had died, and they laid her out with the corpses’.

Putin’s father was 1 of only 4 in his unit who returned from the war alive, and he spent the rest of his life limping due to shrapnel injuries.

Putin was a ‘miracle baby’

Putin was the apple of his parents’ eye. They didn’t have much, but whatever they had was given to Putin as a priority. They shared their home with two other families, and his former school teacher said:

There was no hot water, no bathtub. The toilet was horrendous. And it was so cold, awful.

Putin was bullied until he started studying martial arts. He got a black belt in Judo and his inner circle was reportedly nicknamed as a ‘Jodocracy’.

His best friend from school told 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.

Masha Gessen, who wrote The Man Without A Face: The Unlikely Rise Of Vladimir Putin agreed that Putin is ‘scrappy, very ambitious, very, very greedy’.

His parents doted on him, and elevated his sense of worth: he was given a wristwatch rather than his father when the family could afford only one. Similarly, when they won a car it went straight to their student son.

The KGB and Putin’s ambition

Putin reportedly loved reading about spies, and wanted to become one before he was even out of school. At 16, he volunteered for the KGB and after studying law and economics, he ended up working for them as a spy. A fellow KGB officer Pavel Koshelev, said:

His most outstanding trait, I would say, was his fighting spirit and his strong will to achieve his goals.

Putin has said that his career as a spy prepared him well for presidency - a role in which he works 16-hour days. However, it also took a massive toll on his family.

Putin’s wife and children

Vladimir Putin married Lyudmila Putina, a former air hostess, in the mid-1980s and the pair had two daughters together. However, the couple divorced in 2014. Lyudmila explained the split was due to Putin’s work:

Our marriage is over due to the fact that we barely see each other. Vladimir is completely submerged in his work.

It seems fair to say that Putin puts nothing ahead of his own ambition and Russia’s success as a country. In the current climate - as Putin claims the West’s support of Ukraine is the same as declaring war on Russia - it is unsettling to know that, in 2015, he said:

50 years ago the Leningrad street taught me a rule: if a fight is inevitable you have to throw the first punch.

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Sources used:

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

The Mirror: Vladimir Putin's childhood explained - from 'miracle baby' to power-crazed president

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