Putin in St Petersburg: Tracing the Russian president's younger days


Nezhinskij, a historian and tour guide, showing a picture of a young Putin while driving around St Petersburg during a tour. Photos: Ulf Mauder/dpa

Russian President Vladimir Putin takes pride in his native city, St Petersburg. And special tours offer a glimpse into the longtime leader's ties to the metropolis on the Gulf of Finland.

"I don't offer gossip on the private life of Putin, on the number of his illegitimate children," Yuri Nezhinskij clarifies right at the start. The historian notes that he has a doctorate and only works with original sources.

Nezhinskij doesn't focus on Putin only as a political figure, whose critics have also repeatedly demonstrated by the thousands in the city on the Neva River, lending it the nickname Venice of the North.

"We take a look at Putin as a son, a student and an athlete, and at his beginnings with the KGB," says Nezhinskij.

According to Nezhinskij, the KGB once rejected Putin when he asked to be admitted at the "Big House". He was told to study law first.Putin worked in St Petersburg's city administration in the 1990s, where he was responsible for international relations, among other things. Putin worked in St Petersburg's city administration in the 1990s, where he was responsible for international relations, among other things.

But Putin did eventually become a KGB officer and was sent to the eastern German city of Dresden for many years to help keep the surveillance state of the former East Germany up and running.

When the German Democratic Republic (GDR) collapsed, Putin – who had built a family in the meantime – returned to Russia.

Nezhinskij leads visitors to the residence dating to the era of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin where Putin and his wife, Lyudmila, used to live with their two daughters.

He recounts how the KGB officer first met the stewardess from Kaliningrad at St Petersburg's splendid Nevsky Prospekt boulevard for a concert.

"Putin initially didn't tell her that he worked for the secret service," Nezhinskij explains.Vladimir and Lyudmila married in 1983; 30 years later, the couple announced their separation during an intermission of a performance of a ballet in Moscow. Ever since, Putin has been officially single.This is the building where Putin used to do judo training in St Petersburg. He is now honorary president of the International Judo Federation (IFJ). This is the building where Putin used to do judo training in St Petersburg. He is now honorary president of the International Judo Federation (IFJ).

Nezhinskij's city tour also offers glimpses of the president's childhood, from the church where he was christened to Baskov Lane 12, the kommunalka, or communal apartment, where Putin's family lived together with other families when he was growing up.

Little Vladimir was a rowdy child who loved to chase rats in the courtyard with friends and was rejected by the Pioneers, the youth organisation operated by the Communist Party, for a long time, according to Nezhinskij.

His school was right next door, but "Putin was always late for class", the guide explains, quoting Vladimir's teacher Vera Gurevich, who is still alive and has written a book about her former pupil.

Nezhinskij also shares some stories about Putin's father, a disabled World War II veteran, and his mother, who survived the Siege of Leningrad, lost two sons and was 40 years old when Vladimir was born.

Further stops on the tour include Putin's judo club – today he is also honorary president of the International Judo Federation (IFJ) – and his law school, with a plaque in his honour.

Visitors will also get to see the smolny, or city administration, where Putin used to serve as deputy mayor under Anatoly Sobchak.

When the liberal politician lost the vote in 1996, Putin's smolny career also came to an end, heralding his time in Moscow.

Many of those who used to work at the city administration back then are now holding high posts: Alexei Miller, for example, is now head of Russia's state-owned Gazprom energy company, while Dmitry Medvedev was Russian president from 2008 to 2012 and now heads the Kremlin party United Russia.

Putin's list of favourites is extensive, according to the video "Putin's Palace", in which jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny alleges that a luxurious mansion on the Black Sea belongs to Putin and was financed by bribes.

Nezhinskij knows about the accusations, but they are not the subject of his tour. And who books these tours tracing Putin's footsteps?

Nezhinskij says that the three-and-a-half-hour car excursion he offers, called "Putin in Peterburg", is booked mostly by intelligence officers, but also journalists.

"It's also the worst-selling tour of all the ones I do," he adds. – dpa

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