For a man who has consistently been named the most powerful person on the planet, Russian president Vladimir Putin certainly doesn’t fall below expectations. He is probably one of the most polarizing figures that anyone can think about, as there hardly seems to be any middle ground when arguing with someone about Putin. People either see him as one of the greatest leaders a nation ever had, or label him as a ruthless dictator that controls the world’s largest country with an iron fist. Seriously, just try and find someone who thinks he’s “just alright.” I bet it won’t be easy. You can’t just like or dislike Putin, you either love him or despise him. But, to be honest, much like many other powerful leaders, the truth is always in the middle, although most people only see the sides.
Few things can be said with absolute certainty about a man like Putin, and one of them is that he definitely is someone who cares a lot about his image. And while many critics laugh at photos of Putin swimming in a frozen lake or riding on the back of a horse without his shirt on, I think he very much understands that the public sees a leader like him as the personification of his country, and the image of a strong powerful Putin equates in most people’s minds with a strong and powerful Russia. Now, whether you see him as a great leader or as a scary dictator, here are some things you should know about him from both sides. But, keep in mind that the source of all the information most people (including us) have about Putin is the media, and we all know that you can’t always trust the media.
15. DOESN’T: He Is A Former Russian Spy
Young Vladimir Putin joined the KGB, Soviet Russia’s feared secret service, in 1975 and spent his first 10 years monitoring foreign officials in Leningrad. He was then transferred in Dresden, Germany, where he worked undercover pretending to be a translator until the fall of the Berlin Wall, during which he is said to have burned all of the KGB files in order to prevent demonstrators from obtaining them. He then briefly worked in Saint Petersburg until 1991, when he resigned from the KGB in the eve of the failed coup d’état attempt against President Mikhail Gorbachev, one of the last steps that led to the fall of the Soviet Union. Of course, this is the official story. After all, he was a secret agent, so there’s hardly any way to know what he actually did during the almost two decades he spent in the service of his country.
14. DOES: He’s A Martial Arts Master
Although he is accompanied by a dozen bodyguards everywhere he goes, Putin is definitely far from being unable to defend himself. The official Kremlin website states that the President has been practicing judo since he was 11, and holds the title of Master of Sports in both judo and samba. He even received an honorary doctorate in judo from South Korea’s Yong In university and is the honorary president of the European Judo Union. And like this wasn’t enough already, he also holds a black belt in karate. If world leaders would settle their differences by fighting one on one, I doubt there would be anyone crazy enough to challenge Putin.
13. DOESN’T: Some Analysts Say He’s Worth Billions
Okay, this is bordering on conspiracy theories but there is a large number of people, including some very esteemed analysts, that consider Putin to be one of the world’s richest men, right next to, or even above the world’s wealthiest billionaires like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. Low estimates begin at $40 billion and there are even some experts that believe the Russian President is worth around $200 billion. Now, it’s important to how you look at this, because frankly, if you think Putin just has billions upon billions of dollars in some shady secret bank accounts around the world, as many people seem to think, I have to tell you it seems quite ridiculous. Sure, as the President of Russia, a country with tremendous resources and power, Putin probably has control over assets worth maybe trillions of dollars, but that doesn’t mean it’s his own personal wealth. For a man who holds so much power, I hardly believe personal wealth is of any interest to him as he can simply get or do anything he wishes instantly.
12. DOES: He Loves Animals
The Kremlin website lists “Animal protection” as one of Putin’s key interests, alongside sports, driving, and other leisure activities such as fishing and horseback riding. He is Chairman of the Russian Geographical Society’s Board of Trustees and is actively engaged in the protection of rare species of animals in all of Russia. His Siberian expeditions during which he shot various wild animals with tranquilizer guns in order to allow experts to attach tracking collars are now famous, due in part to the fact that they were photographed in detail to help build Putin’s reputation as a patron of the wildlife.
11. DOESN’T: There Has Been An Increasing Number Of Protests Against Him
As his presidential term is approaching its end, thousands of Russians have flooded the streets to protest as rumors of Putin’s intentions to run for President again in 2018 surfaced. Although he hasn’t publicly made up his mind about seeking re-election, many people believe that Putin is acting more and more as a dictator, as he has been leading the country since 1999 as President for three terms and as prime minister for two terms. If he will run in 2018, chances are, he will win another 6-year term, which means he would have effectively spent a quarter of a century in power. During an illegal protest in Saint Petersburg in March this year, hundreds of anti-Putin protesters were arrested by Russian police, including some prominent critics of the President.
10. DOES: He Loves Driving (Fast)
Though his personal website states that Putin prefers Russian cars, he definitely seemed to enjoy racing a Formula 1 Renault car in Sochi, pushing it all the way up to 150 mph all while sporting a patriotic helmet that displayed the Russian national symbol, a double-headed eagle. An interesting story is that of Putin’s first car, he claims was won by his mother on a lottery ticket. It was a Zaporozhets, a modest Russian 2-door saloon that was designed to become a “people’s car” of the Soviet Union. Although, these days, he’s mostly driven around by chauffeurs in bulletproof limos, Putin is often photographed at the wheel of various Russian cars in order to look more relatable to the average man and promote Russian-made products.
9. DOESN’T: Some Of His Friends Made Billions
One of the most controversial aspects of his time in power is the fact that many people close to Putin—friends, family, or former judo partners—became ridiculously rich after some business dealings that we will generously describe as shady. While Putin’s rise to power is linked to some of the richest and most powerful Russian oligarchs at the time, the landscape of Russian billionaires has changed quite a lot during his presidency. Many former oligarchs that stood up to Putin saw their fortunes diminish and some were even imprisoned on corruption charges. Now, it’s hard to know the true story behind the rise of the new Russian oligarchs, but politics and corruption definitely played a big part for some of them. And even if they might’ve made it without any help from Putin, it’s clear that staying on top requires them to support the most powerful man in Russia (and probably the world).
8. DOES: He Swims In A Freezing Lake Because That’s What Real Men Do
Vladimir Putin is, if you think about it, the embodiment of absolute masculinity. He hunts dangerous animals, loves driving, and is, by all means, an “action man.” Here, you can see the Russian president casually swimming in a freezing lake, like it’s the lavish swimming pool from his Presidential residence. This very expressive photograph was taken in Northern Ireland, where Putin attended the G8 conference among other world leaders, including former US President Barack Obama. The story goes like this: Both Obama and Putin wanted to use the hotel gym in the morning, but as tensions between the two countries were escalating, neither of them wanted the other as a workout buddy. To resolve this issue, Putin gave up the gym workout for a swimming session in a lake near the resort. It seems that this feat of masculine strength didn’t sit well with the world leaders, as this was the last G8 Conference that Putin attended before Russia was voted out of the group.
7. DOESN’T: His Son-In-Law Miraculously Became Russia’s Youngest Billionaire
Kirill Shamalov, who turned 35 this year, is one of Russia’s (and the world’s) youngest billionaires. Oh, and he’s also coincidentally married to Katerina Tikhonova, Vladimir Putin’s daughter. As if that wasn’t enough, his father, Nikolai Shamalov, is also a longtime friend of Putin and a very rich man, thanks to shady deals back in 2004 after which he emerged as one of the shareholders of Rossiya Bank, one of Russia’s major banks and a favorite among Russian oligarchs. Young Kirill began his career after finishing his law studies at St. Petersburg State University. At only 26, he became VP of business administration at the petrochemical company, Sibur. Through a stock options scheme, he acquired a 4.3% stake in the company and after his marriage with Katerina in 2013, he bought another stake in Sibur from another friend of Putin, Geenady Timchenko, this time, a much more hefty 17% (the wedding gifts must’ve been crazy). To have so many accomplishments (and money) at such a young age, it seems that Mr. Kirill’s business acumen is out of this world.
6. DOES: He Just Found Two Archeological Treasures While Casually Diving
Well, you probably got the idea so far. Putin is not like you and me. He’s a hundred steps above. When he went scuba-diving in the Black Sea on his day off, he just “happened” to find two ancient Greek urns that were totally not planted there by someone beforehand. I mean, it has probably happened to almost anyone, just casually finding some archaeological treasures on the sea floor. They’re like everywhere. It’s just that not all of us have a photographer with us at all times to capture our accomplishments like Vladimir does. Even if you all probably guessed that most of the photos and stories that depict Putin as a heroic macho man are probably publicity stunts, just take a moment to think “What if?” What if it’s all real and Putin is simply the greatest man in the world? I know it’s not, but seriously, just think about it.
5. DOESN’T: Some Of His Critics Were Assassinated
Rumors of Putin “taking care” of his critics are nothing new to western media. One case that received increased publicity was that of Alexander Litvinenko (pictured above), a former KGB officer who fled court prosecution in Russia and was granted asylum in the UK. While living in London, Litvinenko wrote a book detailing how the Russian secret service organized the infamous apartment bombings of September 1999—killing 293 people and injuring more than 1,000—as part of a grand scheme that was aimed at bringing Vladimir Putin to power. He also personally accused Putin of ordering the murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya in October 2006. One month later, Litvinenko suddenly fell ill and was hospitalized. He died days after it was established that he was poisoned with a radioactive chemical—polonium-210. In one of his last statements, he blamed Putin for his assassination.
4. DOES: He Loves The Beatles
British photographer Platon is the man behind Putin’s famous portrait that appeared on the cover of TIME Magazine in 2007. Sharing his experience of working with the Russian president, Platon revealed that after greeting Putin, he thought it’d be funny to surprise him with a more spontaneous remark and said, “I am an Englishman. I love The Beatles. Do you?” Putin, not looking very surprised, turned to his team of advisors and translators and ordered them to get out of the room. He then turned to Platon and said, in perfect English, “I love The Beatles!” His favorite song is “Yesterday” and his favorite Beatle is Paul McCartney, whom he met on more than one occasion and even saw live in 2003, when he performed in Moscow’s Red Square in front of more than 100,000 people.
3. DOESN’T: He Hates Homosexuals
Well, that’s not really a secret anymore. Putin has expressed his views on homosexuality many times. And right now, there aren’t many places in the world where gay people have it worse. In 2014, Russia even passed a law that criminalized “gay propaganda,” and that photo you can see showing a more “colorful” Putin in front of the LGBT flag has been made illegal in Russia. But when you consider the fact that more than 70% of Russians believe homosexuals are immoral and psychologically disturbed people, it just seems right that Putin’s views align with those of this great majority of people. After all, he is a politician.
2. DOES: He Is A Sober Russian
As the leader of a country that is famed for its alcohol consumption, many may find it very surprising that Putin does not actually drink. Sure, you can see him at official events sipping on a glass of champagne (like in this photo), but that’s only a formality that he chooses to respect. His very sober demeanor is one of the things that boost his popularity among Russians, especially considering that his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, seemed to be drunk most of the time, including when meeting with other world leaders. One thing that is certain is that his example should be followed by more Russians, considering more than 30% of the fatalities in Russia are linked to alcohol consumption. To better understand just how serious the problem is, the same figure for the US is consistently around 3%, and the next country after Russia on the list is Estonia, with a mere 20%.
1. DOESN’T: His Personal Life Is His Best Guided Secret
Not much is known of Vladimir Putin, the man behind the Russian president. He was married until 2013, when he announced that he and his longtime wife, Lyudmila, were going to have an amicable divorce. From their marriage, Putin has two daughters, of which there is very little known about. One of them is married to Kirill Shalamov, a Russian billionaire, and the other is rumored to be married with a Dutch man and is living in the Netherlands. Along the years, Putin has also been no stranger to rumors of affairs with other women, including a somewhat ridiculous story of him being involved with former Russian spy turned fashion model, Anna Chapman. But the name that seems to pop out the most is that of former Russian gymnast, Alina Kabaeva, who is believed by many to be Putin’s secret wife. There are even reports of her giving birth to Putin’s child in a secret Swiss hospital. How is that for conspiracy gossip?