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.
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."