In the early 1950s, as Russia recovered from WWII, two same-named baby boys were born in Leningrad. One would rise to infamy—Vladimir Putin—while the other, though more obscure, would nonetheless have an impact as my father. Their stories, converging early on but sharply diverging later, humanize what otherwise seems like a uniform and difficult history of Russia and its dwellers. This tale of two Vladimirs also highlights the way our loves orient and shape our character. One of the Vladimirs always placed the love of power first while the other ordered his life around love of family and scientific research.
Originally—and now again—named St. Petersburg, the two Vladimirs’ birthplace was the city of Peter the Great, the Tsar who modernized Russia in the early eighteenth century. In proper authoritarian manner, he claimed sovereignty even over the great northern swamps by the Neva River. Workers draining the swamps and building the city died in droves, but Peter’s dream was complete: a glorious city like no other, dubbed the Russian Venice.
The city was the focal point of the Bolshevik Revolution and was duly rechristened as Leningrad, in honor of Russia’s new leader. The next quarter century was not an easy time for the city or Russia, as it lived through bloody purges first at the hands of Lenin, then those of Stalin. Then there was the Great Patriotic War, known to the rest of the world as World War II. During that war, Leningrad was blockaded by the Germans for 872 days, from fall of 1941 to early winter of 1944. An estimated 1.5 million people died during this siege, many from starvation.
But by the early 1950s, the city was on the upswing and the arrival of the two Vladimirs must have seemed a tangible reminder of the renewal of life for their respective families. The similarities between the two Vladimirs’ life trajectories highlight and exemplify the standardization of Soviet life experiences for most citizens. Yet, their stories also bring forth the significance of individual choices in shaping one’s life and character.
Vladimir Putin was the youngest of three, but both his brothers had died before his birth. The first perished as an infant before WWII, while the second died of starvation during the siege of Leningrad—part of that horrific statistic of 1.5 million dead. The other Vladimir was the younger of two boys born in quick succession to two research scientist parents. The fathers in both families served in the Red Army during the war and survived while the mothers in both families had withstood starvation during the blockade of Leningrad, even as it killed so many friends and relatives all around them.
The death of Stalin in March 1953 ushered in a new, slightly gentler Communism. No more purges and executions in the dead of night. The Gulags, while continuing in some form, were less brutal and widespread. Still, we would be remiss to not note the highly anxious world the two Vladimirs imbibed growing up. My father spent some of his childhood away from Leningrad, in Sverdlovsk, where his parents worked at a top-secret research facility. But, by the time college rolled around, they were back in Leningrad. And so it was that the two Vladimirs were students at the same time at Leningrad State University, where Putin studied law while my father studied nuclear physics.
It is here that each of them made a decision that would shape the course of his life thereafter. Putin would join the Communist Party while my father quietly refused.
Following graduation, Putin was recruited by the KGB; the first of many steps leading over the course of the following quarter century to promotion after promotion into higher and higher echelons of Soviet and post-Soviet leadership. My father, on the other hand, became a scientist in the Leningrad Institute of Nuclear Physics. Within just a couple of years of each other, each of the two Vladimirs got married and bought the same first car: the Zaporozhets, a cheap and readily available car named after its production facility in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, a city that made the news over the past year and a half because of Russian attempts to take over its nuclear reactor.
In retrospect, several salient pivotal points are apparent in the lives of both Vladimirs; obviously significant to us in hindsight, yet undoubtedly more ambivalent at the time for these young men. The decision to join or forgo the Community Party is one such choice. But another was each Vladimir’s choice of a spouse. While Putin married a fellow Russian, my father married a Ukrainian Jew, most of whose family perished during the Holocaust. His decision to abstain from the Party and to marry a Jew likely negatively affected my father’s potential for career advancement in Russia. Though he wrote a doctoral dissertation, he was never allowed to defend it. Neither was he allowed to travel for conferences outside the country. Both of these “prizes” were the purview of Party members alone—indeed, Vladimir Putin both defended a (probably plagiarized) PhD dissertation of his own (in Economics) and had traveled abroad, working for a time in Germany in the 1980s, still a time of closed borders.
1991, however, proved to be the year of greatest divergence for the two Vladimirs. It was in that year, a time of open borders shortly before the Soviet Union collapsed, that my father immigrated with the rest of my immediate family to Israel—a choice made possible by my mother’s ethnic identity. My father’s work subsequently brought him—and the rest of us—to the United States in 1996, and we have been here ever since.
For the other Vladimir as well, 1991 was a momentous year, one fraught with peril. For many prominent Communists, after all, the fall of the Soviet Union was a moment of despair and danger, existential as much as physical. Such is, indeed, the story of Svetlana Alexievich’s masterful and heartbreaking Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets. But Putin managed to turn what seemed to be poison lemons for some of his peers into the most potent lemonade imaginable. First, he became interim president following Boris Yeltsin’s resignation in 1999. Promptly elected to an official first term of his own in 2000, he has been de facto in charge of Russia ever since.
That which we love shapes us, and this is true of every individual, famous, infamous, and obscure alike. We all begin lives just the same—as tiny, fragile, powerless infants. So it was with the two Vladimirs. We forget sometimes that every tyrant, every monster in the eyes of history, once entered the world like this. But a lifetime of little daily decisions and circumstances shapes us into who we are seven decades later. And so, a lifetime of pursuing power and loving it more than anything else has shaped Putin into who he is today—someone with no pity or mercy for any person or nation. None of our souls is capable of resisting the pull of evil amidst mounting daily decisions to put power first instead of love of God and neighbor.
The evil of Communism undoubtedly also played a role in desensitizing Putin and other apparatchiks to the evil around them; we can never forget the evil Lenin and his ilk chose to unleash upon Russia and the world for generations to come. Yet, even if Russian society was designed to malform Russians according to the dictates of Marxism, not all assented so willingly to the corruption of their souls. My father chose not to be complicit, or at least be less complicit, in the evils of Communism even as it hurt his career and minimized his place in Soviet society. Human beings are partially but not entirely the products of their environments. As our examination of the lives and loves of the two Vladimirs has shown, we are all capable of choosing good or evil when the time comes.