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Putin Was a 1960s Leningrad Gopnik. Loved Fighting and Taking Risk
Rejected by Pioneers for bad behavior
In the courtyard [he wrote later], the way a child asserts his identity is completely different … Growing up there is like living in the jungle … I was rebellious and so naturally I didn’t follow the school rules. A school is a … structured community: there are clear norms of behaviour. But when someone is brought up in the jungle and then finds himself in a different context, he continues to live by the rules [he knew before].
In school he is put in a kind of cage. The cage is uncomfortable, and he begins to ‘push back’ against the ‘walls’ which hem him in. Naturally, such a rebellion, such a ‘love of freedom’, provokes a corresponding reaction on the part of the teachers. Already you don’t like the way the teachers behave. So you start to resist. This, of course, produces more conflict. And on and on it goes.
That was true only up to a point, for the older boys formed gangs and fought over territory, exciting the admiration of Vova, as his friends started calling him, and other younger children, who tried to emulate them.
School for the junior classes was six days a week but only in the mornings. Volodya spent the afternoons making mayhem with his friends in the courtyard until it was time for his father to return from work, when he made his way up to the apartment and pretended to be doing his homework.
Under the school rules, consistent bad behaviour, which was noted in a child’s personal file – a dossier that accompanied them throughout their school careers – was supposed to lead to expulsion, but schools were reluctant to take that step because it reflected badly on the teachers. In Putin’s case, moreover, his study marks were passable and it was felt that he had the potential to do better. Only in one respect did his bad conduct hold him back. Like all children in the first and second grades, he was automatically enrolled as an Oktyabryonok, literally an ‘October child’, meaning a child of the Revolution. The movement had been created by Lenin’s wife, Krupskaya, and was modelled on and designed to supplant Baden-Powell’s Boy Scouts, which had attracted a following in Russia during the First World War. The Oktyabryata were the equivalent of Wolf Cubs and Brownies and spent much of their time playing games. But there was also a more formal side. They wore red badges bearing an effigy of Lenin, sang patriotic songs and pledged to be ‘diligent, to love school and respect their elders’. Apparently young Volodya showed little enthusiasm for that part of their activities, for when it came to joining the next level of the organisation, the Pioneers, to which children were usually admitted at the beginning of the third grade, he was rejected.
That was highly unusual. Out of the 40 or 45 children in a class, one or two might be refused admission because of their bad marks. Putin was rejected because of his bad behaviour – and not only in the third grade, when all his peers became Pioneers, but in the fourth and fifth grades as well.
In later life, Putin wrote that he had been a hooligan as a child. Some of his contemporaries have argued that he was exaggerating to make it seem that his childhood had been tougher than it really was. It is true that, in the Soviet Union at that time, a hooligan was a criminal in the making and Putin did not take that road. But he was certainly a tearaway. The historian, Dmitry Travin, who also grew up in Leningrad in the 1960s, recounted: ‘It wasn’t so much that conflicts sought him out, it was he who was always looking for conflicts.’ Whenever a fight broke out, Putin was the first to pile in. Viktor Borisenko, who became his best friend at school and for four years shared a desk with him, remembered:
“He could get into a fight with anyone. It still amazes me … He had no fear. He didn’t seem to have an inner instinct for self-preservation. It never occurred to him that the other boy was stronger and might beat him up … If some hulking guy offended him, he would jump straight at him – scratch him, bite him, pull out clumps of his hair … He wasn’t the strongest in our class, but in a fight he could beat anyone, because he would get into a frenzy and fight to the end.”
It was partly a way of compensating for his small stature. He was thin and wiry, a child with a voracious appetite and a surfeit of nervous energy. But he was also capable of thinking about what he was doing and attempting, if not always successfully, to exercise self-control. In Travin’s words, he had ‘both aggressiveness and common sense. At first glance, it seems they are total opposites … But in fact, they complement each other.’ Viktor Borisenko remembered one occasion when a teacher dragged him off by the scruff of the neck because a classroom which he was supposed to have cleaned was dirty. ‘He was furious and sat silently for a long time … But then, when it seemed to be already over, he suddenly flared up and exploded. That happened several times.’ Although he showed little interest in his studies and was spurned by the Pioneers, his classmates respected him for his audacity and for the way he rushed to the defence of his friends.
However, Volodya’s misdeeds eventually caught up with him. When he was about 12 years old, the Housing Office of his apartment block ordered him to appear before a ‘Comrades’ Court’, where he was given a solemn warning that, if he continued to make trouble, he would be sent to a reform school, at which children who had ‘a negative and anti-social influence on other pupils’ underwent re-education. His father pleaded for leniency and the Court agreed to remand him to his parents’ custody to see how he would behave.
The other change in Putin’s life that autumn came from his discovery of sambo, a form of mixed martial arts based on judo which had been developed by the Red Army in the 1920s for use in hand-to-hand combat. A year earlier he had started boxing, but his enthusiasm waned after his nose was broken in a fight and he had to stop training. Hanging around with nothing to do, one rainy October afternoon, he and his friend Borisenko decided to use his father’s prized black telephone to call up the local sambo clubs and ask whether there were training sessions they could attend after school.
Volodya’s motives were mixed. He liked brawling and hanging out with the local toughs in the courtyard but he was beginning to realise that it would bring diminishing returns. ‘The atmosphere was terrible,’ Borisenko remembered. ‘Unshaven, dirty guys with port wine and cigarettes. Booze, obscene language, fights. And Putin was in the midst of all these bums. He wasn’t a hoodlum himself, but he was constantly hanging out with them.’ It was obvious that many of them would end up in prison. But what concerned Volodya more was his own status. ‘To maintain the kind of leadership I had,’ he explained later, ‘it needed real physical strength and skills. I wanted to keep that kind of leadership … I knew that if I didn’t start sport, then in the courtyard and at school, I would no longer have the position I was used to.’
Putin stood out, Rakhlin remembered, for his single-mindedness and the determination with which he fought, as though each bout were his last. But his parents strongly disapproved. The sports clubs were frequented by criminals and former labour camp inmates. His father wanted him to play the accordion, which he himself had learnt in Tver when he was a boy. To please him, Putin mastered a few simple tunes, but his heart was not in it. Eventually things reached a point where they forbade him to go to the club any more and Rakhlin had to intercede on his behalf. This happened several times, and the sambo coach became a regular visitor to the Putins’ home.
In the Soviet scheme of things, joining the Komsomol was a sign of maturity and a big step up in the world. But in many ways Putin remained the same incorrigible youth that he had always been. He still got into fights, though less often than before. He still could not resist a challenge. There was a tradition in Baskov Lane, dating back to Stalin’s time, of boys climbing along the cornices and window-ledges of a girls’ school at the end of the street. When another boy dared him to do the same at their school, he climbed out onto the iron balustrade of a fifth-floor window and, hanging onto the cornice above, pulled himself hand over hand across the façade of the building, unfazed by the 60-foot drop to the pavement below, until he reached the window of a neighbouring classroom and swung himself inside.
His classmates thought that he was ‘attracted to risk’. That was no doubt part of it.
Nor did he get much support from his sambo partners. In the sports clubs, law enforcement was not looked upon kindly. Putin was infuriated when another of his coaches, Leonid Usvyatsov – who had recently completed a 10-year term in a prison camp – taunted him for wanting to go to law school ‘to become a filthy cop’.
Once he had taken his decision, he followed a principle that he had absorbed as a child in the courtyard: ‘If you want to win a fight, you have to carry it through to the end, as if it were the most decisive battle of your life.’