It was 1976, and Vladimir V. Putin was living a lie. He had recently graduated from law school and was working for the KGB when he bumped into two high school classmates, Sergei and Yelena Kudrov.
Putin told them that he had just won a car in a government lottery and was working at the local prosecutor's office, the Kudrovs recalled. He ducked questions about his job by joking: "Before lunch, we're busy catching criminals. After lunch, we're busy shooting them."
Today, after 16 years as a spy and a decade in government posts, Putin is poised to become Russia's second elected president. As acting head of state, he is expected to win next Sunday's election. Yet much of his past remains a mystery, and the kind of president he would be is shrouded in uncertainty.
The Kudrovs remember Putin as an earnest, hard-working student who quietly stood his ground but never bragged. They plan to vote for him but wonder if he hung on to the good qualities of his youth during his rise to power.
"I think he is a decent person," said Sergei Kudrov, a onetime chemical engineer who manages a building materials shop. "But our experience tells us there are no decent people in the Kremlin. So my question is: If there are no decent people in the Kremlin, what is he doing there?"
As prime minister since August and acting president since New Year's Eve, Putin has pledged to restore order, revive the economy and make Russia great again.
He has led this nation into a brutal war in the republic of Chechnya that has left thousands of people dead and forced a quarter of a million from their homes. He ordered the destruction of Chechnya's capital, Grozny--once a city of 400,000--and has kept silent about widespread atrocities allegedly committed by his troops.
Although he has offered few specifics about what he would do with a full term as president, a poll done for the Moscow Times and released Friday shows him leading his 11 challengers with 53% of the vote. The same survey gives his closest rival, Communist leader Gennady A. Zyuganov, 22%.
At 47, Putin is the youngest leader to rise to power in the Kremlin since Josef Stalin became general secretary of the Communist Party in 1922. Fit, energetic and active, he has profited from the striking contrast with Boris N. Yeltsin, the doddering president who appointed him.
Like the good spy he was, Putin has demonstrated the ability to take on the appearance of whatever people wish to see in him. In a sense, he has become a blank screen on which Russians and foreigners alike project their hopes and desires.
To nationalist Russians, Putin is a patriot who will crush Islamic separatists in Chechnya and reunite the country. To Communists, he is a pragmatist with whom they can build an alliance in parliament. To monarchists, he is an enlightened leader who will remove Lenin's mummy from its Red Square mausoleum.
Western-oriented business people see Putin as a "reformer" who will further open the country's markets to foreign investment. To Russia's tycoons, he will protect crooked privatization schemes of the 1990s that helped make them rich. President Clinton, who met with Putin last year, recently declared that he is a leader "we can do business with."
Putin Won't Debate or Air Commercials
Putin's appeal among the electorate is so broad that he has refused to debate other candidates and has declined to run campaign commercials promoting himself like a consumer product. "I will not be trying to find out in the course of my election campaign which is more important, Tampax or Snickers," he said disdainfully.
Putin, just under 5-foot-6, seems to enjoy perpetuating the mystery that surrounds him. He was asked in a recent interview with the newspaper Kommersant Daily whether he will become a different person once he wins office in his own right. "Do you really have the desire to change all and everything?" he was asked.
"I won't tell you," Putin replied.
In an attempt to give the former spy a human face, his campaign last week released a book, "In the First Person: Conversations with Vladimir Putin," based on 24 hours of interviews with three journalists. It is the first time that Putin has disclosed many details of his early life and KGB career.
The book and interviews by The Times with former teachers, classmates, KGB colleagues, St. Petersburg officials and staff members paint a portrait of a man reared in hardship and Communist tradition who acquired a strong desire to achieve and a belief in discipline and order. To hear Putin tell it, his family background is like a page from Soviet history. He represents the third generation of his family to serve the Communist leadership or its secret police, starting from the first days of Bolshevik rule in the 1920s and ending with the death throes of the Soviet Union in 1991.
According to Putin, his paternal grandfather, Spiridon Putin, worked as a cook for V. I. Lenin and then Stalin. It is unlikely that he would have had such a job without being part of the state security apparatus.
During World War II, Putin's father, Vladimir, served in the NKVD--predecessor of the KGB--and was dropped behind Nazi lines in Estonia, Putin said. The elder Putin's unit was nearly wiped out, but he escaped by hiding underwater in a swamp and breathing through a hollow reed, his son said. Later, his father was wounded by a grenade, he said, and saved only because a friend carried him miles across the ice to a hospital.
Putin's mother, Maria, meanwhile, was trapped in Leningrad, as St. Petersburg was formerly called, by the 900-day Nazi siege. She barely managed to avoid starving to death--a fate that claimed 640,000 lives. Putin said he had two older brothers who died in early childhood, one shortly after birth and one during the siege.
The family's house was destroyed during the war, and Putin's parents ended up living in communal housing in Leningrad. In October 1952, five months before Stalin died, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin was born.
The Putins, occupying one small room, shared the apartment with several families. There was no hot water or a proper kitchen. Putin recalls as a child chasing rats in the stairwell.
His father worked at a train-car factory and was the secretary of a Communist Party cell; his mother held a series of low-level jobs, including sweeping streets and washing test tubes at a laboratory.
Putin's teachers say he was selected in the ninth grade to attend Leningrad School No. 281, a school for the city's brightest students.
His classmates and teachers there remember him as a top student who was self-confident but did not try to draw attention to himself. Smaller than others his age, he studied judo and sambo, a Russian cross between judo and wrestling.
Classmate Sergei Kudrov recalled that, in ninth grade, an older student kicked Putin when no teacher was looking. Putin kicked back. After school, the bully and his friends were waiting. Putin calmly stepped forward and quickly subdued the bigger boy. Putin never boasted about it, Kudrov said, and no one at school picked on him again.
Speaking recently about the war in Chechnya, Putin just as easily could have been talking about that schoolyard fight: "Only one thing can be effective in such circumstances: to go on the offensive," he said. "You must hit first and hit so hard that your opponent will not rise to his feet."
That same year in school, Putin decided that he wanted to join the KGB after reading a novel about a spy in Germany. At the time, he said, he knew little about the agency's gruesome history of mass repression and murder or its continuing suppression of dissidents. "My impressions of the KGB were based on romantic stories about spies," he said.
Putin was so interested in the secret police that he went uninvited to the KGB's Leningrad office. The KGB never took anyone who volunteered, an agent advised him, only those it selected. Putin asked how he could best prepare himself, and the agent suggested law school. Putin's course was set.
He won a place at prestigious Leningrad State University and studied law. He never contacted the KGB again, but the omnipresent agency was watching. During his final year, the KGB offered him a job. He was graduated in 1975 with a law degree and began working in counterintelligence.
Putin was one of a select few chosen to study in Moscow at the KGB's foreign intelligence institute, where he was enrolled under the pseudonym Platov, learned German and earned a black belt in judo.
In 1985, the KGB sent him to East Germany, where he lived in Dresden and had a cover job heading a German-Russian house of friendship.
Putin said the main focus of his work was spying on member nations of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. His assignment was to recruit agents, collect data from public and covert sources, analyze the material and send it to Moscow. He was successful enough that he received two promotions and his term was extended two years.
Although he rarely left East Germany, his supporters say his experience in Dresden gave him firsthand exposure to the West and the advantages of its political and economic systems.
In 1989, the Berlin Wall came down and Putin's job collapsed with it. Putin destroyed secret documents, burning so many that his stove "burst."
He returned to Russia in 1990, the year Germany was reunified.
He had been steadily climbing the KGB ladder, but now everything in his homeland seemed uncertain. The KGB appointed him deputy director of Leningrad State University, but working there undercover was not what he wanted to do.
Soon after, he met Anatoly A. Sobchak, an ex-law professor who was chairman of the city council and one of Russia's foremost democrats.
Putin said he told Sobchak that he was still a KGB agent but was offered a job anyway. Putin became one of Sobchak's key aides and helped him win election as mayor in 1991. Soon after, as die-hard Communists staged a coup and seized Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev, Putin said he quit the KGB, retiring as a lieutenant colonel.
"Vladimir clearly realized we couldn't double-deal, we couldn't play a double game," said Valery A. Golubev, a former KGB agent and Sobchak staff member who quit the spy agency at the same time.
Putin became deputy mayor and ran the day-to-day operations of the city. Among his duties was heading St. Petersburg's department on foreign economic ties.
'100% Discipline and . . . 100% Order'
"When we worked in Putin's agency, we had 100% discipline and we had 100% order," said Marina Manevich, a former staff member. "This was not coerced. It was introduced softly, tactfully and in a very intelligent manner. And if such order and discipline are enforced in our government, that will be great luck for our country."
Putin's friends in St. Petersburg say his biggest accomplishment was opening the city to foreign investment. The early 1990s also set the stage for the city to become Russia's crime capital, where today corruption is rampant.
Sobchak, who died Feb. 20, was charged with corruption after he left office, but Putin was largely untouched by such allegations. At one point, Putin was accused of playing a pivotal role in shipping metals abroad in exchange for food that never reached the city, but no charges were filed.
After Sobchak lost his 1996 bid for reelection, Putin was offered a job in Moscow by Pavel P. Borodin, the head of the powerful Kremlin property department. Borodin was later at the center of a scandal over allegations that a Swiss company gave Yeltsin and his family credit cards after winning huge Kremlin contracts. But Putin, as Borodin's deputy, was not implicated.
Putin said he was more surprised than anyone in 1998 when he was appointed to head the FSB, the reconstituted KGB. Last August, as fighting with Chechen rebels began to heat up, Yeltsin named Putin as premier and his preferred successor. At the time, few thought that the mousy, soft-spoken Putin could persuade voters to elect him president.
Putin said he expected to last only a few months, just like the three previous prime ministers. But rather than worry about his longevity, he concluded that his mission was to bring the Caucasus Mountains of southern Russia under control and squash the rebels who posed a threat to the nation's stability.
He mobilized for war, and his moves struck a chord with the public. His popularity skyrocketed--as much for his willingness to take a firm stand and restore order as a desire to fight the Chechens.
In the 80 days since Yeltsin stepped down, Putin has sent mixed signals about what his presidency would be like.
He has criticized government corruption, yet his first move as acting president was to sign a decree granting Yeltsin immunity from prosecution.
In an interview on British television, he talked theoretically about the possibility of Russia's joining NATO, but he has bluntly refused to allow international observers to investigate allegations that Russian troops have raped and executed civilians in Chechnya.
He has shown little respect for media freedom, sanctioning the arrest of a journalist in Chechnya. Yet he speaks about the necessity of establishing the rule of law.
He has put trusted ex-KGB colleagues in top positions, but rejects speculation that he intends to sweep out Yeltsin-era officials after the vote and impose authoritarian rule.
"This logic is characteristic of people with a totalitarian way of thinking," he said. "In theory, that's how a man should behave if he wants to stay in this place for the rest of his life. I don't."
Sergei L. Loiko of The Times' Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.