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Vladimir Putin’s Suspect Family Lineage

Can Vladimir Putin’s namesake relations reveal more about his political style — and future?

August 20, 2001

Can Vladimir Putin's namesake relations reveal more about his political style — and future?

The full name of every Russian consists of three parts. Only the first name is given, and there is no middle name of the kind used in Western cultures. Both the Russian middle name and last name are predetermined by family lineage. The middle name that every Russian uses is the name of his or her father. For example, President Putin’s full name is Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, meaning Vladimir the son of Vladimir.

This way of naming people, known as a patronymic, was also common in Scandinavia until relatively recently, and Icelanders still use them to this day instead of their last names. Even in Britain, patronymics still survive in the form of such common family names as Johnson — the son of John — or Peterson, the son of Peter.

Thus, in Russian families, brothers share the same patronymic, of course, being the sons of the same man. Ironically, the two greatest reformers in Soviet history — Nikita S. Khruschev and Mikhail S. Gorbachev — share the same patronymic, Sergeyevich.

This indicates that they are both the sons of Sergeys, although different Sergeys, no doubt. And their shared patronymic is a mere coincidence: their fathers were unlikely to have ever met and belonged to different generations.

And yet, the two Soviet leaders even looked like one another, with their stocky built and bald pates. They were also political twins in that they attempted to reform the Soviet Communist party — and give it a more human face. Both ultimately failed and were forced out, spending their retirement in disgrace and relative obscurity.

Nikita Sergeyevich Khruschev was replaced in 1964 by Leonid I. Brezhnev, who instituted a more repressive communist rule. No wonder then that he shared the patronymic with Lenin. Both were called Ilyich — the son of Ilya, the Russian version of Elisia, the Old Testament prophet.

Lenin, of course, was considered to be the prophet of communism, and under Brezhnev the Soviet Union attained what was then called the developed socialist stage, which was to precede communism directly.

Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev, for his part, was pushed out in 1991 by Boris N. Yeltsin. Yeltsin’s political style earned him the nickname Czar Boris both in Russia and abroad. Although he was an elected president, and Russia under his rule was a democratic country, Mr. Yeltsin certainly behaved like the autocrat of old.

For example, he paid little attention to the Duma, the Russian parliament, and when he decided he didn’t like its make-up, he simply dissolved it. He was equally capricious when appointing and dismissing his ministers, doing so as though he were the Sun King in 17th century France.

Unlike most monarchs, however, he didn’t die on the throne but chose to retire. Still, like a true sovereign, he managed to appoint his own successor, Mr. Putin.

At this point, you wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Yeltsin’s behavior was very much in keeping with his patronymic — Nikolaivich, the son of Nicolas. We should recall that the last ruling Russian czar was Nicolas II, and Mr. Yeltsin’s patronymic thus makes him the monarch’s direct descendent, at least as indicated by our family naming.

This, of course, brings us back to Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. What, by the logical powers indicated by patronymics, would be Mr. Putin’s family lineage? Well, back to Lenin, of course, since Putin’s patronymics means that he is the son of a Vladimir. Hence perhaps such Leninist tactics as closing down the free media, strengthening the role of the state, and turning more confrontational with the “imperialist” West.

However, Putin’s patronymic also suggests another, equally ominous connection. Let’s not forget that Mr. Putin’s previous career was spent in the KGB, the Soviet secret police. Before being hand-picked by Mr. Yeltsin as his anointed successor, Mr. Putin even briefly ran the Russian intelligence service.

Who was the only other head of the security service to rule Russia? It was Yuri Vladimirovich Andropov, who served as Secretary General of the Soviet Communist Party during the mid-1980s. Mr. Andropov and Mr. Putin share the same patronymic, which could in theory make them brothers of sorts.

Although Mr. Andropov wanted to reform the Soviet Union, the methods he employed to accomplish this goal were definitely borrowed from his previous job. For example, to combat low morale and high absenteeism, the KGB under Mr. Andropov’s rule began rounding up shoppers during the 9-to-5 period. Unless you were retired or underage, you had to give a satisfactory explanation as to why you were not at work.

Security services are of necessity murky institutions. Old hands know that once you join, you can never leave voluntarily. They are not so much a place of employment but a secret brotherhood. Mr. Putin has resigned his commission in the Russian security service in order to become the country’s leader. Insidiously, his patronymic suggests otherwise.

On the other hand, one solace is that Mr. Andropov’s tenure in office was very brief. He took power in 1982, but his health was already failing. He died in office in 1984. Similarly, Lenin was also ailing, and was in office only a brief time, spending his final years in semi-retirement.

Mr. Putin, of course, is a young man in the pink of health. However, if in keeping with his family lineage his rule proves short-lived, it may not be such a bad thing for Russia.