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Putin inauguration: World view of a Russian feeling dissed

As the second presidential inauguration of Vladimir Putin approaches, a former correspondent who once worked for him looks at the world view of the Russian iron man. His theory: The president is feeling dissed by the West and believes it conspires to "destroy" Russia.

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But being in charge of St. Petersburg's food imports affected Putin in another way, too. He was a novice in politics and business. His boyhood had been spent dreaming of joining the KGB, and his entire career had passed in the secret world of surveillance and espionage. For five years he had been based in Dresden, East Germany, watching Moscow's sway over Eastern Europe slowly crumble. On his return to Russia in 1990 he had stumbled into politics almost by chance. And not just into politics, but into the glittering world of foreign trade and investment – a world that soon presented him with great temptations.

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Since the city had no hard currency with which to buy food imports, he was given the task of arranging barter deals – supplying Soviet oil and other raw materials in exchange for imports of foodstuffs. In 1992 an investigation by members of the St. Petersburg City Council established that the raw materials had been duly exported, but the food supplies – to the tune of $92 million – had never materialized. Responsibility for the missing largess fell directly on Putin's shoulders, and the council demanded his dismissal. His boss, Mayor Sobchak, stood by him, but the whiff of corruption has stuck to Putin ever since.

When he later became president, Putin presided over the creation of a state in which corruption is so widespread and so complex that one Russian businessman told me I would never, as a Westerner, understand it: "Theft is not theft as you know it. It is the entire system – the political system, the business establishment, the police, the judiciary, the government, from top to bottom, all intertwined and inseparable."

Putin surrounded himself with cronies from his previous life – from the St. Petersburg administration, from the KGB, even friends from his judo club, and co-owners of a "dacha co-operative" – a settlement of private country houses on a lake outside the city. He gave them the best positions in government, and allowed them to commandeer the most lucrative sectors of Russia's economy, its banks and mass media. One of the leading opposition figures, Alexei Navalny, has dubbed Putin's party, United Russia, "the party of crooks and thieves" – a coinage so successful it almost certainly contributed to the party's poor performance in last December's parliamentary elections.

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Back in the 1990s, Putin's rise to the top was precipitous – and it remains something of a mystery how a little-known, middle-ranking intelligence officer, tainted with allegations of corruption, could have achieved such a meteoric career. In St. Petersburg he had cloaked himself in the kind of democratic credentials that were vital for advancement in the Boris Yeltsin period, becoming head of the pro-government Our Home Is Russia party in the city.

He was also skilled at making allies, who helped him move from St. Petersburg to Moscow. Here he swiftly climbed through the Kremlin ranks, spending less than a year in each position: deputy chief of staff to the president, director of the FSB (successor to the KGB), head of the Security Council, prime minister.

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