During a visit to Russia in 1992, Bush administration foreign policy adviser Condoleezza Rice was introduced to Vladimir Putin - at least, she thinks so. "There's almost nothing I recall about him," she said. "I remember a masklike face."
Fast-forward eight years. At the annual economic forum in Davos, Switzerland, a panel of Russian political and business heavyweights was asked bluntly, "Who is Putin?"
Silence reigned, until laughter in the audience elicited some vague platitudes about the acting president of Russia. And yet on March 26, all signs indicate that Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, who eight months ago was an obscure former spy turned Kremlin functionary, will be elected Russia's president for the next four years.
The dour-visaged Putin, 47, has been called "The Accidental President," "Mr. Nobody" and the "Gray Cardinal." Most Russian analysts are at a loss to explain his meteoric rise from KGB officer to deputy mayor of St. Petersburg to former President Boris Yeltsin's handpicked successor.
Fewer still claim to know what kind of leader he will be.
He orchestrated a brutal campaign to seize and occupy Chechnya, winning huge approval ratings at home, and pledged to increase defense spending.
He restricted information from the Chechen conflict and has proposed new Internet controls and restrictions on the Russian news media. Kremlin jobs have been staffed with a number of ex-KGB officers.
But his public pronouncements have been pacifying, and he has shown a friendly face to the West, winning praise from Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and a man-we-can-do-business-with endorsement from President Clinton. He has signaled some flexibility on a U.S. desire to amend the anti-ballistic missile treaty and, in a recent BBC interview, suggested Russia might eventually join NATO.
His mixed messages are a portent of things to come, said analyst Andrei Piontkovsky, head of Russia's Strategic Studies Center.
For Russians, Putin is the anti-Yeltsin. A small, wiry man who doesn't smoke, drinks (if at all) in moderation, runs 40 minutes every morning and practices judo, Putin is a workaholic and reportedly is slow to anger. He is a practicing Orthodox Christian, and Kremlin image makers have made sure the public has seen him at home with his wife, Lyudmila, their two teen-age daughters and a fluffy poodle named Chiapa (Pooch).
His nature seems split between democrat and demagogue. He keeps his own counsel; his inner circle has a membership of one - characteristic, analysts say, of veterans of the security services.
He is generally regarded as more pragmatic and less complex than Yeltsin.
"I don't think you'll see the feckless, floating leadership in Russia we've had in the past," said Rice, a Stanford University professor who's serving as foreign policy adviser to Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush. "I think he believes that good things flow from a sense of order."
By all accounts, Putin appreciates the "good" things about the old Soviet system - the sense of order, discipline and central planning. In remarks earlier this year to the Moscow PEN writers club, Putin defended the KGB's role in the Stalin-era purges.
Yet he does not appear to be governed by a distinct ideology.
"Beyond these elemental views on order and control, I don't think there's a vision," said a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Putin has demonstrated a distrust of unfettered news media, and an overarching desire to keep the military on his side, while reinstating the old communist practice of political officers in the barracks.
Work ethic the key
Like an athlete who takes extra drills and beats the naturally gifted opponent, Putin has used diligence, loyalty and an ability to work with a variety of bosses to rise in the Russian bureaucracy, analysts say. Fealty to Yeltsin helped thrust a man whom Piontkovsky calls "a rather mediocre personality" into position to become the second most powerful leader in the world.
"He may not have a fire in the belly, but he has organizational skills and he's extremely loyal," said the U.S. official.
"But he hasn't been tested at all," the official added, "on the level he's being asked to operate."
Putin was born Oct. 7, 1952, in the city then known as Leningrad. He was the only child of a metal factory foreman and his wife, who unlike many Soviet women did not work. The Putins lived modestly, and for some years shared a communal apartment.
Showing academic promise, young Vladimir Putin enrolled in secondary school No. 281, the equivalent of a U.S. school for the gifted and talented. Classmates recall him as a conscientious student who sometimes struggled with chemistry, the school's hallmark, but excelled in history and the humanities.
School photos show Putin - one of few students who frequently wore a necktie - with his silver-blond hair combed downward, giving him a kind of Prince Valiant look.
His true passion was a combination of judo and wrestling known as sambo, and he quickly achieved first-class status. He was not someone lightly messed with.
"He was reserved, and always kept himself under control," said classmate Alexander Matveyev, who graduated with Putin in 1970. "He created the appearance of being powerful psychologically and physically."
Raisa Polunina, his biology teacher, said Putin was creative and made good grades; he was the school's top student in German. A literature teacher named Mikhail Demenkov exposed his students to works by banned authors, including Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
Putin also was fond of the Beatles, and played their music when he was put in charge of the school's radio room.
In 1970, he entered Leningrad State University, where he majored in civil law and studied German. One of his law professors was Anatoly Sobchak, who would later become mayor of St. Petersburg. Before his death last month, Sobchak told reporters that Putin acquired an understanding of democracy at the university, where the atmosphere in that era was "free-thinking and dissidentlike."
Still, law graduates of the prestigious school were considered stalwarts of the Soviet system, and the KGB recruited heavily there. In 1975, the "Sword and the Shield" (as the KGB is known in Russia) plucked Putin, an honors graduate, from a class of 100.
He joined the spy agency's Service Number One in Leningrad. He longed to be posted abroad, but the KGB did not like to send single agents to foreign postings. In the early 1980s, Putin met Lyudmila at a play, and he and the former schoolteacher were soon wed. The Putins were posted to East Germany in 1985.
Using the name Adamov, Putin headed a German-Soviet friendship society in Dresden. Some reports claim he had a role in groundbreaking efforts to steal Western technology. Others contend he was a bit player gathering political intelligence and trying to recruit foreigners.
"There has been a deliberate inflation of Putin's public image," said Oleg Kalugin, a former KGB general who once supervised 3,000 agents in Leningrad. "He was one of 450 KGB officers in East Germany, and 400 were based in East Berlin. Dresden was a backwater."
Moving home, and up
Whatever his duties, Putin has spent one-third of his life in the KGB and much of that time in East Germany, where he saw a communist system that functioned better than the Soviet model.
The German influence has been long-lasting. Putin speaks the language fluently, and his daughters, 13 and 14, attend a German school in Moscow.
Putin went home in 1990 and while still a reserve officer in the KGB became assistant to the Leningrad State University deputy dean, keeping tabs on foreign students and contacts with Westerners. He began studying English.
He also re-established contact with Sobchak, who had quit teaching and been elected mayor of the newly renamed St. Petersburg. Putin first served as an aide charged with attracting foreign investment, and quickly moved up to deputy mayor, earning a reputation as the man to see in city government.
Alexander Belayev, former chairman of the St. Petersburg Legislature, said Putin "tried not to be noticeable, but people realized he was very important to Sobchak."
Belayev said Putin is "probably nostalgic about the past, when Russia was strong and the core of the empire. He wants to restore the power of the Russian state."
Putin's exposure to Western mores and businesses practices expanded dramatically, as did his English language skills. Although still unknown to the general public, Putin had attracted the attention of the Yeltsin apparatus.
Putin resigned in 1996 after Sobchak lost a re-election bid. Then Moscow beckoned.
Putin was installed as an aide to Kremlin property manager Pavel Borodin, overseeing foreign economic assets. Within six months he was put in charge of the Kremlin's relations with 89 Russian regions. As acting president, Putin has shown an eagerness to draw the regions more tightly into Moscow's field of gravity.
In July 1998, he was asked to take control of the Federal Security Service, a successor agency to the KGB. Less than a year later he rose again, to secretary of the president's Security Council.
When Yeltsin fired Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin and his Cabinet in August 1999, he turned to a man who had a reputation for loyalty and dependability. Some analysts believe Putin, the fifth prime minister in two years, earned Yeltsin's trust when he blunted a widening business-corruption scandal that threatened Kremlin insiders.
Then came the New Year's Eve surprise. Yeltsin, in resigning and making Putin acting president, moved up the election timetable from June to March, presenting Putin with a huge incumbent's advantage over his handful of rivals.
"For all of Yeltsin's democratic instincts," said Rice, "he wound up rigging the election."
Putin, ever the pragmatist, immediately granted Yeltsin and his family immunity from any corruption charges brought by future investigations.
Some call it a bloodless coup engineered by two men. In a few days, the Putin era in Russia will truly begin.
SUBJECT: FOREIGN RELATIONS (89%); US PRESIDENTS (89%); PUBLIC POLICY (89%); US FEDERAL GOVERNMENT (89%); FOREIGN POLICY (89%); NATIONAL SECURITY (78%); INDUSTRY ANALYSTS (73%); INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS (73%); INTERVIEWS (70%); US DEMOCRATIC PARTY (68%); DEFENSE SPENDING (65%); MISSILE DEFENSE SYSTEMS (65%); TREATIES & AGREEMENTS (50%); COLLEGE & UNIVERSITY PROFESSORS (50%);
PERSON: VLADIMIR PUTIN (95%); VLADIMIR PUTIN (95%); CONDOLEEZZA RICE (92%); CONDOLEEZZA RICE (92%); BILL CLINTON (53%); HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (53%); HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (53%);
CITY: MOSCOW, RUSSIAN FEDERATION (79%); SAINT PETERSBURG, RUSSIAN FEDERATION (58%);
STATE: GRAUBUNDEN, SWITZERLAND (72%);
COUNTRY: RUSSIAN FEDERATION (95%); UNITED STATES (92%); SWITZERLAND (90%);
LOAD-DATE: January 29, 2002
GRAPHIC: Photo-3; 1. Photo by IVAN SEKRETAREV, Associated Press: Vladimir Putin is as steely and subdued as Boris Yeltsin was overbearing and bellicose. A wiry man who drinks (if at all) in moderation and runs every morning, Putin is described as poker-faced and efficient. 2. Photo by Associated Press: Vladimir Putin (right) listens to soldier Alexander Nazarov, who was wounded in Chechnya, during his visit to a military hospital in Voronezh on Saturday. 3. Putnin.