February 28, 2000 12:00 PM

For a moment, it appeared as if Vladimir Putin had gone soft. On Dec. 31, the very day on which Boris Yeltsin resigned as president of Russia, his anointed successor sent off a two-page personal response to an e-mail request by French movie icon and animal-rights activist Brigitte Bardot that he crack down on illegal pit bull fighting in Moscow. With the ardor of a dazzled fan, the politician who once vowed to wipe out Chechen rebels, “even if we find them sitting in the toilet,” referred to animals as “our little cousins.” He added that he hoped the 65-year-old star would “make the trip to our country, which loves you.”

But within a matter of days the hardline 47-year-old acting president had focused his attention on escalating the war against Chechnya. Before long, despite heavy rebel resistance, Russian firepower had reduced the Chechen capital of Grozny to a bombed-out ruin. “A short while ago the terrorists’ last bastion of resistance was seized,” he told a state-controlled television station on Feb. 6. “So we can say the operation to liberate Grozny is over.”

Among Russians, wearied by the erratic leadership and economic malaise of recent years, Putin’s tough talk has struck a chord. With just a few weeks remaining before the March 26 election, he is riding high in the polls, with a popularity rating of 58 percent. Given the recent withdrawal of former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov from the race and the fact that Putin’s nearest rival, Communist Party chief Gennady Zyuganov, is polling a mere 15 percent, the acting president seems certain to become the country’s next democratically elected leader.

While some see the former KGB agent and prime minister as colorless, many agree that Putin’s intensity and focus offer hope of improvement over his predecessor, the flamboyant yet sometimes seemingly rudderless Yeltsin. Clearly some insiders grew wealthy under Yeltsin’s brand of capitalism, but a third of Russia’s population live below the official poverty line of $36 a month. “The people are yearning for a strong hand to be their savior,” says Nikolai Petrov, a political analyst with the Carnegie Foundation in Moscow. “People so much want to believe that this paternal figure will make everything better.” Moscow pensioner Ksyenya Alexeeva, 70, is among them. “If he manages to do anything about [our troubles],” she says, “then the people will bow down and kiss his feet.”

Yet Putin zealously guards his privacy (his wife, Lyudmila, and their daughters Katya, 14, and Maria, 13, stay close to the prime minister’s residence, where they still live) and remains a relative unknown, even to close acquaintances. “A lot about him is a mystery,” says Russian actor and singer Mikhail Boyarsky, who has known Putin for seven years. “When I once asked him about his great workload, all he answered was, ‘I am a soldier and I must work.’ ”

Born to factory workers in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), Putin grew up in a communal apartment shared by several families. At the Leningrad State University law school, Anatoly Sobchak, a former professor who would later become mayor of St. Petersburg and Putin’s boss, recalls him as a well-liked honors student who didn’t stand out as a leader. When it came to achieving his goals, though, he “was a determined, even stubborn young man,” Sobchak says.

After graduating in 1975 with a degree in civil law, Putin spent 15 years as a KGB agent, based for much of the time in East Germany, where he reportedly recruited scientists to snoop on the West. In 1990 he returned to Leningrad State University as an assistant to the rector and became re-acquainted with Sobchak, who appointed him as a deputy after becoming mayor in 1991. Soon, recalls onetime journalist Ruslan Linkov, “Putin was the most influential player in city hall. He was an excellent psychologist who could manipulate people.”

Though the St. Petersburg legislature investigated Putin in the early 1990s for suspected favoritism in issuing export and import licenses, the case was thrown out for lack of evidence. After Sobchak lost the 1996 mayoral election, Putin resigned. That same year he was recruited by the Kremlin and quickly rose to become director of the Federal Security Service, a successor to the KGB. Last year, on Aug. 9, Yeltsin appointed him prime minister—Yeltsin’s seventh and last.

As acting president, Putin quickly distanced himself from Yeltsin by ousting the former president’s daughter and adviser Tatyana Dyachenko. Then he set about boosting his popularity by raising pensions and taking a hard line on Chechnya. Still, some in the West are suspicious of the democratic credentials of a career KGB man. As for where Putin will take Russia in the new century, “that hinges on who he really is,” says David Satter, a visiting Russia expert at Johns Hopkins University. “And that’s something we just don’t know at this point.”

Anne-Marie O’Neill

Juliet Butler in Moscow, John Varoli in St. Petersburg, Glenn Garelik in Washington, D.C., and Peter Mikelbank in Paris

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