Putin appears to have impressed President Yeltsin's family and closest advisers not only with his vitality and can-do attitude, but above all with his strong sense of loyalty toward his benefactors. When his former boss Sobchak became embroiled in a corruption scandal, Putin stuck by him and helped him escape to Paris to avoid prosecution. Putin also showed great loyalty toward Pavel Borodin, a Russian official who gave him his first job in the Kremlin. When the state prosecutor started investigating Mr. Borodin for involvement in a multimillion-dollar bribery and money-laundering scam, Putin – now FSB chief – got rid of the prosecutor by using a well-worn KGB trick: secretly shot footage allegedly showing him with prostitutes. (Putin later put up $3 million in bail to get Borodin out of a Swiss jail, where he was serving time for the kickback scheme, which involved a Swiss construction firm.) His new patrons evidently understood he would show the same loyalty to Yeltsin and his family – and that his secret service connections were a help, not a hindrance.
He finally stepped into Yeltsin's shoes when the president resigned on the last day of the 20th century. Ten days earlier Putin had told a gathering of secret service agents: "I want to report that a group of FSB operatives, sent to work undercover in the government, is successfully carrying out its mission." Maybe it wasn't entirely a joke.
Putin, though now acting president, was still scarcely a public figure, and when he allowed a cameraman to follow him on one of his first days in the Kremlin he looked gauche and unsure of himself. In unbroadcast footage he appears weirdly detached from the world around him. He hasn't bothered to look and see what view there is from the window of his new Kremlin office and is surprised when he pulls back the curtains. His desk is empty, apart from a couple of papers, one of which he quickly turns face down because it is from the FSB. At home, in the presidential residence, he is taken aback when asked about the furniture because he simply hasn't thought about it: For this austere man, home comforts apparently mean nothing.