Was Vladimir Putin Born in Georgia?

The answer, according to a recent article in Germany’s highly respected Die Zeit, is maybe. “It seems,” writes correspondent Steffen Dobbert, that “there is an unspoken, and unproven, secret that is part of [Vladimir Putin’s] biography”:

There are those who are convinced that the Russian president spent the first nine years of his life with a family whose existence he continues to dispute to this day. They also believe he spent the first half of his childhood in Georgia, and not in Russia. They believe that later, as the head of the domestic intelligence agency, Putin changed his life story and denied the existence of his biological mother in order to speed his path to power—and to avoid being seen, during his first Russian election campaign, as an illegitimate child who had grown up in Georgia.

Putin’s possible biological mother is the 89-year-old Vera Putina, “a small, delicate woman, who always wears a headscarf when she leaves the house” in the Georgian village of Metekhi.

She says she was born on Sept. 6, 1926 in a village near Ochyor, a small Russian town in the foothills of the Ural Mountains. She attended school for eight years and completed training to become a mechanic for agricultural machinery and, after that, completed additional training. During the extra training, she met Platon Privalov, fell in love and became pregnant. It was only at that point that she found out that Platon was already married. She split up with him and moved back in with her parents. The child, a boy, was born on Oct. 7, 1950 in her hometown. She christened him as Vladimir, but mostly called him Vova. Putina says she never told Vova the name of his father.

Putina then married Georgy Osepashvili and moved with him to Metekhi. She brought Vova, her illegitimate son, with her. “She says her husband had nothing against it—at least not in the beginning. Later, she and her husband began to fight about Vova.” Eventually, Putina put Vova up for adoption.

She says that Vova’s foster parents, Vladimir Spiridonovich Putin and Maria Ivanovna Putina, a childless couple, were distant relatives of her parents. They are also the couple the Russian politician would later call his birth parents. Vera Putina says the two moved with Vova to what was then Leningrad. They registered him with the authorities and also had his birth certificate changed. They made Vladimir exactly two years younger, claiming Oct. 7, 1952 as his date of birth. This allowed Vova, who was now officially not quite eight years old, to repeat first grade at his new school in Leningrad, starting on Sept. 1, 1960. He had already attended the village school for three years in Georgia, but he still hadn’t really learned Russian, Vera Putina says.

Is the story true?

There’s no smoking gun, as Dobbert stresses, but the argument for believing Putina rests on several bits of evidence and inference:

  • Why would an old woman from Georgia lie?
  • Why would the Russian security service repeatedly harass and attempt to silence a politically insignificant citizen—Putina—of a foreign country?
  • Why would three men investigating the story encounter suspicious deaths?
  • Why would “Britain’s Daily Telegraph newspaper … find records … showing that a boy by the name of Vladimir Putin had in fact attended the school in the village of Metekhi”?
  • Why is it the case that Putin’s own memoir “only goes into detail about his childhood after he starts school in Leningrad, after Sept. 1, 1960—a time when, according to Vera Putina, he had already left the village of Metekhi”?

Naturally, this could all amount to another sensational conspiracy theory about Russia’s elusive leader—or, given the bizarre nature of politics in Putin’s Russia, the story could be true precisely because it’s so bizarre.

But assume it’s true. So what? Why should anyone in Russia care that Putin was an illegitimate child? After all, it’s not as if children born out of wedlock are a rarity in Russia. Nor would Putin’s lowly origins undermine his credibility. Quite the contrary, he could easily have spun his background into a Russian Horatio Alger story—which is exactly what he did with his (real or imagined) hard-luck childhood in Leningrad.

I’m betting that the putative problem for Putin is Georgia. For one thing, it’s been a pain in the Kremlin’s side since the 1990s. How would it look if the great leader promising to put Russia’s “near abroad” in order hailed from one of its greatest trouble spots? For another, Georgia isn’t Russia, and a leader promising to reestablish Russian greatness and promote Russian patriotism, supremacism, and ethnocentrism had better be a red-blooded Russian boy.

The only thing worse for Putin would be to have had a parent in the Ukrainian nationalist underground that fought the Soviets until the mid-1950s.

Whatever the reality, writes Dobbert, “Only Vladimir Putin himself knows the answers to these questions.” Now that a major German newspaper has run the story, however, Putin may have to start making some of those answers public. 

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