Copyright © 2000 Nataliya Gevorkyan, Natalya Timakova, and Andrei Kolesnikov.
All rights reserved.
Preface............................................................vii Principle Figures in First Person...................................ix Part One: The Son....................................................1 Part Two: The Schoolboy.............................................13 Part Three: The University Student..................................27 Part Four: The Young Specialist.....................................45 Part Five: The Spy..................................................65 Part Six: The Democrat..............................................83 Part Seven: The Bureaucrat.........................................123 Part Eight: The Family Man.........................................147 Part Nine: The Politician..........................................163
Putin talks about his parents, touching on his father's World War II sabotage missions, the Siege of Leningrad, and life in a communal flat after the war. It isn't easyno hot water, no bathroom, a stinking toilet, and constant bickering. Putin spends much of his time chasing rats with a stick in the stairwell.
I know more about my father's family than about my mother's. My father's father was born in St. Petersburg and worked as a cook. They were a very ordinary family. A cook, after all, is a cook. But apparently my grandfather cooked rather well, because after World War I he was offered a job in The Hills district on the outskirts of Moscow, where Lenin and the whole Ulyanov family lived. When Lenin died, my grandfather was transferred to one of Stalin's dachas. He worked there a long time.
He wasn't a victim of the purges?
No, for some reason they let him be. Few people who spent much time around Stalin came through unscathed, but my grandfather was one of them. He outlived Stalin, by the way, and in his later, retirement years he was a cook at the Moscow City Party Committee sanitorium in Ilinskoye.
Did your parents talk much about your grandfather?
I have a clear recollection of Ilinskoye myself, because I used to come for visits. My grandfather kept pretty quiet about his past life. My parents didn't talk much about the past, either. People generally didn't, back then. But when relatives would come to visit, there would be long chats around the table, and I would catch some snatches, some fragments of the conversation. But my parents never told me anything about themselves. Especially my father. He was a silent man.
I know my father was born in St. Petersburg in 1911. After World War I broke out, life was hard in the city. People were starving. The whole family moved to my grandmother's home in the village of Pominovo, in the Tver region. Her house is still standing today, by the way; members of the family still spend their vacations there. It was in Pominovo that my father met my mother. They were both 17 years old when they got married.
Why? Did they have a reason to?
No, apparently not. Do you need a reason to get married? The main reason was love. And my father was headed for the army soon. Maybe they each wanted some sort of guarantee.... I don't know.
Vera Dmitrievna Gurevich (Vladimir Putin's schoolteacher from grades 4 through 8 in School No. 193):
Volodya's parents had a very difficult life. Can you imagine how courageous his mother must have been to give birth at age 41? Volodya's father once said to me, "One of our sons would have been your age." I assumed they must have lost another child during the war, but didn't feel comfortable asking about it.
In 1932, Putin's parents came to Peter [St. Petersburg]. They lived in the suburbs, in Peterhof. His mother went to work in a factory and his father was almost immediately drafted into the army, where he served on a submarine fleet. Within a year after he returned, they had two sons. One died a few months after birth.
Apparently, when the war broke out, your father went immediately to the front. He was a submariner who had just completed his term of service ...
Yes, he went to the front as a volunteer.
And your mama?
Mama categorically refused to go anywhere. She stayed at home in Peterhof. When it became extremely hard to go on there, her brother in Peter took her in. He was a naval officer serving at the fleet's headquarters in Smolny. He came for her and the baby and got them out under gunfire and bombs.
And what about your grandfather, the cook? Didn't he do anything to help them?
No. Back then, people generally didn't ask for favors. I think that under the circumstances it would have been impossible, anyway. My grandfather had a lot of children, and all of his sons were at the front.
So your mother and brother were taken from Peterhof, which was under blockade, to Leningrad, which was also blockaded?
Where else could they go? Mama said that some sort of shelters were being set up in Leningrad, in an effort to save the children's lives. It was in one of those children's homes that my second brother came down with diphtheria and died.
How did she survive?
My uncle helped her. He would feed her out of his own rations. There was a time when he was transferred somewhere for a while, and she was on the verge of starvation. This is no exaggeration. Once my mother fainted from hunger. People thought she had died, and they laid her out with the corpses. Luckily Mama woke up in time and started moaning. By some miracle, she lived. She made it through the entire blockade of Leningrad. They didn't get her out until the danger was past.
And where was your father?
My father was in the battlefield the whole time. He had been assigned to a demolitions battalion of the NKVD. These battalions were engaged in sabotage behind German lines. My father took part in one such operation. There were 28 people in his group. They were dropped into Kingisepp. They took a good look around, set up a position in the forest, and even managed to blow up a munitions depot before they ran out of food. They came across some local residents, Estonians, who brought them food but later gave them up to the Germans.
They had almost no chance of surviving. The Germans had them surrounded on all sides, and only a few people, including my father, managed to break out. Then the chase was on. The remnants of the unit headed off toward the front line. They lost a few more people along the road and decided to split up. My father jumped into a swamp over his head and breathed through a hollow reed until the dogs had passed by. That's how he survived. Only 4 of the 28 men in his unit made it back home.
Then he found your mother? They were reunited?
No, he didn't get a chance to look for her. They sent him right back into combat. He wound up in another tight spot, the so-called Neva Nickel. This was a small, circular area. If you stand with your back to Lake Ladoga, it's on the left bank of the Neva River. The German troops had seized everything except for this small plot of land. And our guys held that spot through the entire blockade, calculating that it would play a role in the final breakthrough. The Germans kept trying to capture it. A fantastic number of bombs were dropped on every square meter of that bit of turfeven by the standards of that war. It was a monstrous massacre. But to be sure, the Neva Nickel played an important role in the end.
Don't you think that we paid too high a price for that little piece of land?
I think that there are always a lot of mistakes made in war. That's inevitable. But when you are fighting, if you keep thinking that everybody around you is always making mistakes, you'll never win. You have to take a pragmatic attitude. And you have to keep thinking of victory. And they were thinking of victory then.
My father was severely wounded in the "Nickel." Once he and another soldier were ordered to capture a prisoner who might talk during interrogation. They crawled up to a foxhole and were just settling in to wait, when suddenly a German came out. The German was surprised, and so were they. The German recovered first, took a grenade out of his pocket, threw it at my father and the other soldier, and calmly went on his way. Life is such a simple little thing, really.
How do you know all this? You said your parents didn't like to talk about themselves.
This is a story that my father told me. The German was probably convinced that he had killed the Russians. But my father survived, although his legs were shot through with shrapnel. Our soldiers dragged him out of there several hours later.
Across the front line?
You guessed it. The nearest hospital was in the city, and in order to get there, they had to drag him all the way across the Neva.
Everyone knew that this would be suicide, because every centimeter of that territory was being shot up. No commander would have issued such an order, of course. And nobody was volunteering. My father had already lost so much blood that it was clear he was going to die soon if they left him there.
Coincidentally, a soldier who happened to be an old neighbor from back home came across him. Without a word, he sized up the situation, hauled my father up onto his back, and carried him across the frozen Neva to the other side. They made an ideal target, and yet they survived. This neighbor dragged my father to the hospital, said goodbye, and went back to the front line. The fellow told my father that they wouldn't see each other again. Evidently he didn't believe he would survive in the "Nickel" and thought that my father didn't have much of a chance either.
Was he wrong?
Thank God, he was. My father managed to survive. He spent several months in the hospital. My mother found him there. She came to see him every day.
Mama herself was half dead. My father saw the shape she was in and began to give her his own food, hiding it from the nurses. To be sure, they caught on pretty quickly and put a stop to it. The doctors noticed that he was fainting from hunger. When they figured out why, they gave him a stern lecture and wouldn't let Mama in to see him for awhile. The upshot was that they both survived. Only my father's injuries left him with a lifelong limp.
And the neighbor?
The neighbor survived, too! After the blockade, he moved to another city. He and my father once met by chance in Leningrad twenty years later. Can you imagine?
Vera Dmitrievna Gurevich:
Volodya's mother was a very nice personkind, selfless, the soul of goodness. She was not a very educated woman. I don't know if she finished even five grades of school. She worked hard her whole life. She was a janitor, took deliveries in a bakery at night, and washed test tubes in a laboratory. I think she even worked as a guard at a store at one time.
Volodya's papa worked as a toolmaker in a factory. He was much liked and appreciated as a ready and willing worker. For a long time, incidentally, he didn't collect disability, although one of his legs was really crippled. He was the one who usually cooked at home. He used to make a wonderful aspic. We remember that Putin aspic to this day. Nobody could make aspic like he did.
After the war my father was demobilized and went to work as a skilled laborer at the Yegorov Train Car Factory. There is a little plaque in each metro car that says, "This is car number such-and-such, manufactured at the Yegorov Train Car Factory."
The factory gave Papa a room in a communal apartment in a typical St. Petersburg building on Baskov Lane, in the center of town. It had an inner airshaft for a courtyard, and my parents lived on the fifth floor. There was no elevator.
Before the war, my parents had half of a house in Peterhof. They were very proud of their standard of living then. So this was a step down.
Vera Dmitrievna Gurevich:
They had a horrid apartment. It was communal, without any conveniences. There was no hot water, no bathtub. The toilet was horrendous. It ran smack up against a stair landing. And it was so coldjust awfuland the stairway had a freezing metal handrail. The stairs weren't safe eitherthere were gaps everywhere.
There, on that stair landing, I got a quick and lasting lesson in the meaning of the word cornered. There were hordes of rats in the front entryway. My friends and I used to chase them around with sticks. 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. It jumped across the landing and down the stairs. Luckily, I was a little faster and I managed to slam the door shut in its nose.
Vera Dmitrievna Gurevich:
There was practically no kitchen. It was just a square, dark hallway without windows. A gas burner stood on one side and a sink on the other. There was no room to move around.
Behind this so-called kitchen lived the neighbors, a family of three. And other neighbors, a middle-aged couple, were next door. The apartment was communal. And the Putins were squeezed into one room. By the standards of those days it was decent, though, because it measured about 20 meters square.
A Jewish familyan elderly couple and their daughter, Havalived in our communal apartment. Hava was a grown woman, but as the adults used to say, her life hadn't turned out well. She had never married, and she still lived with her parents.
Her father was a tailor, and although he seemed quite elderly, he would stitch on his sewing machine for whole days at a time. They were religious Jews. They did not work on the Sabbath, and the old man would recite the Talmud, droning away. Once, I couldn't hold back any longer and asked what he was chanting. He explained about the Talmud, and I immediately lost interest.
As is usually the case in a communal apartment, people clashed now and then. I always wanted to defend my parents, and speak up on their behalf. I should explain here that I got along very well with the elderly couple, and often played on their side of the apartment. Well, one day, when they were having words with my parents, I jumped in. My parents were furious. Their reaction came as a complete shock to me; it was incomprehensible. I was sticking up for them, and they shot back with, "Mind your own business!" Why? I just couldn't understand it. Later, I realized that my parents considered my good rapport with the old couple, and the couple's affection for me, much more important than those petty kitchen spats. After that incident, I never got involved in the kitchen quarrels again. As soon as they started fighting, I simply went back into our room, or over to the old folks' room. It didn't matter to me which.
There were other pensioners living in our apartment as well, although they weren't there long. They played a role in my baptism. Baba Anya was a religious person, and she used to go to church. When I was born, she and my mother had me baptized. They kept it a secret from my father, who was a party member and secretary of the party organization in his factory shop.
Many years later, in 1993, when I worked on the Leningrad City Council, I went to Israel as part of an official delegation. Mama gave me my baptismal cross to get it blessed at the Lord's Tomb. I did as she said and then put the cross around my neck. I have never taken it off since.