It didn't take long for the secretive secret agent to transform himself into the man we know today – confident, brusque, abrasive, given to coarse language. A Russian journalist whom he met over lunch when he was still FSB chief describes his ability to mimic his interlocutors, to empathize with them and make them feel comfortable. Soon the new president was able to make foreign leaders feel at ease. George W. Bush famously looked into Putin's eyes and felt he got a sense of his soul. For his part, Putin soaked in and copied the manners and self-confidence of the world leaders he now mingled with.
The Putin we have gotten used to over the past 12 years is a strange mixture: On the surface we see the global politician, smartly dressed, brilliantly well-informed, and quick-witted; but under the veneer we also sense the ghost of the Leningrad school brat, the youth who, by his own admission, readily lost his temper and got into scraps. "I was a hooligan," he told interviewers shortly before he was elected president in 2000.
It was the coarse Putin of the Leningrad backyards we heard when he told a French journalist who dared to question him about the ferocious bombing of Chechnya: "If you're such a Muslim sympathizer, come to Moscow. We can have you circumcised!" It was the slumdog Putin who threatened to hunt down terrorists and wipe them out – to have them "scraped from the bottom of the sewers."
It was the unsophisticated Putin, his view of Western democracy conditioned by years of Soviet propaganda and KGB training, who said it was "normal" for demonstrators in the West to be "beaten about the head" by police, and who once told President Bush that the United States wasn't a democracy because the president was elected "not by the people but by an electoral college." "Vladimir," Bush whispered to him, "don't say that in public – it'll only show you don't understand our system at all."