When the crisis in Ukraine first escalated in February, many German experts on Russia were caught off guard. Almost none of them had foreseen that the revolution in Kiev would be followed by the events in Crimea. Not least because many journalists and scientists had misjudged Vladimir Putin.
While much has been said about Russia's president since then, Vladimir Putin continues to surprise audiences worldwide. These 15 facts will make you better understand the Russian leader.
1. Vladimir Putin's mother survived the Siege of Leningrad.
From 1941 to 1944, German and Finnish troops systematically cut off all supplies to Russia's Leningrad, aiming to starve the metropolis' inhabitants. The episode is considered to be one of the most gruesome war crimes committed by the Wehrmacht on Russian soil. Putin's mother, Maria Ivanovna, survived the siege. One million people died, amongst them also an older brother of the yet unborn Vladimir.
2. He was brought up without high-running emotions.
In a documentary by German public broadcaster ARD called “Ich, Putin,” the Russian leader told journalist Huber Seipelt:
I cannot claim that we were a very emotional family. That we talked to each other much. Everyone somehow dwelled in themselves. We did on the other hand get along quite well. My parents stayed together all those years, until the end of their lives. Yet still I didn't know of anything emotional, of heroic deeds, difficulties or tragedies. They didn't want to talk about that.
3. Putin's father was a “real proletarian.”
Putin's childhood friend Sergej Rodulgin said Putin's father loved his son, but always found some fault in him. “He was afraid to seem too indulgent,” Rodulgin told Seipelt.
4. He started judo to “keep his place in the pack.”
The rather slight teenager Vladimir Putin realized that the other male teenagers started growing faster during puberty. That's why, Putin claimed, he started learning judo. He wanted to assert himself.
5. He told his ex-wife only shortly before their marriage that he worked for the intelligence agency.
“If someone absolutely has to talk about working for the intelligence agency, he has no place there,” Putin told Seipelt.
6. Putin believes that the West is afraid of Russia.
The beginning of "Ich, Putin" features a dialogue that can appear bizarre in light of events of the past months.
“Where does this negative attitude of the West towards you come from?"
– "From the anxiety." – "Anxiety due to you?" – "Due to Russia. With our scale, our atomic weapons, and our possibilities in other different fields. But that is old thinking.”
7. Putin speaks German perfectly.
He proved this, for example, during a speech in 2001 before the Bundestag. He had spent almost five years as a KGB agent in Dresden. When the government of the GDR began to crumble in 1990, Putin was sent back to Moscow.
8. He believes the end of the USSR was the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.” But he isn't nostalgic for Soviet times.
It is true that Putin has an affinity for the symbols of power from the Soviet Union: He reintroduced the Soviet anthem with new lyrics, for example.
But almost nothing is left of the social policy achievements of the Soviet Era. Take the miserable state of Russia's health care system, as well as the financial safety net. At the end of 2011, 16 percent of Russians lived below the already miserable poverty line of $192 a month. On the other hand, rich Russians are doing comparatively well: They only paid 13 percent income tax since the beginning of the 21st century.
9. Putin likes to display himself as an ice hockey player.
Despite practicing for hours at a time on an ice rink outside town, Putin doesn't play very well. But ice hockey is a national sport in Russia, and it works just as well as soccer in Germany to gain sympathy points.
10. In spite of all the domestic issues, Putin has the reputation of having put Russia “back on its feet.”
This has a lot to do with the fact that Russia underwent a severe crisis during the chaotic '90s, which not only shocked the economy, but also the bureaucracy, cultural life, social cohesion and the concept of statehood.
When Putin took power in 2000, he reformed the country and rebuilt it along autocratic principles. Russia reaped a lot of revenues in the following years, especially from the export of natural resources.
Yet it is also true that economic growth had slowed down distinctly before the crisis in Crimea. What Russia needs are investments. But these currently aren't foreseeable due to the sanctions in place.
11. Even on his country estate he keeps an “entourage like P. Diddy.”
12. Putin likes the Beatles.
Platon also said Putin's favorite Beatle is Paul. And his favorite song is probably the most melancholic one of the Fab Four: “Yesterday.”
13. Putin was head of the leadership party United Russia for four years, without being a member.
Formally speaking he was asked to be president, which again speaks volumes about his influence in the country.
14. He doesn't see himself as a diplomat.
Questioned by an ARD reporter, he once answered: “Absolutely not.”
15. Quite the opposite: He has humiliated his opponents publicly a number of times.
For example, he once threatened the oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky with a tax investigation on live television from the Kremlin. Khodorkovsky was arrested shortly after.
Another episode that comes to mind was his appearance at a factory for ship propellers, which was almost bankrupt. Putin told the management during a meeting: “When I said I was coming here, they jumped around like cockroaches. With their ambition, their incompetence and their pure greed, they have taken these people hostage.”
The shareholders then had to sign in public a contract that guaranteed the factory would stay open.
This article originally appeared on The Huffington Post Germany and was translated from German.