© Reuters

Vera Putina’s Lost Son

— Von

There are secrets that nobody knows, real secrets. There are secrets that only a few people know. And then there are secrets that really aren't secrets anymore at all, but which are somehow connected to the forbidden. The eavesdropping methods of the East German secret police, the Stasi, are an example of such a dark, yet commonly known, secret.

Everybody in East Germany knew about it, but nobody could talk about it publicly. Something similar appears to apply to Vladimir Putin’s childhood. It seems there is an unspoken, and unproven, secret that is part of his 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.

If there is truth to this secret, and if it had been brought to light earlier, it is possible it might have changed world history. It is possible that Vladimir Putin would never have become president. It is possible that the war in Chechnya would have taken a different course and that the wars in Georgia and Ukraine wouldn’t have happened at all. It is even possible that today Russia would be bound to the European Union in a partnership. 

That Putin is capable of lying to the public has been widely apparent at least since the annexation of Crimea. But does the Russian president also use the political tool of deception when it comes to his own mother? Or is this old woman, who still lives in Georgia today, merely spreading a conspiracy theory?

This is a search for the truth, based on interviews with contemporary witnesses, on media reports and on video recordings. It began 15 years ago.

1 — The Plane Crash, March 2000, Moscow
übersicht
  1. 1 — The Plane Crash, March 2000, Moscow
  2. 2 — The Lost Son, January 2000, Metekhi
  3. 3 — The Election Result, March 2000, Istanbul
  4. 4 — The Murder, October 2000, Tbilisi
  5. 5 — School Days, September 1960, Leningrad
  6. 6 — Blood Sample, February 2015, Metekhi
  7. 7 — The Wrong Murder, September 2003, Baku
  8. 8 — The Only Photo, March 2015, Western Europe
Ziya Bazhayev eastjournal.net

As Ziya Bazhayev walks through Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport on the morning of Thursday, March 9, 2000, there are still 17 days left until the presidential election. Bazhayev is from Chechnya and is the head of Alliance Group, a Russian oil firm. Walking next to him is Artyom Borovik, the Russian journalist who had reported from the front lines of the Soviet-Afghan War, written several books about the Soviet army’s foreign deployments and founded the investigative magazines Sovershenno Sekretno and Versiya, both of which were critical of the government. In an article that had appeared a short time earlier, he had quoted the Russian interim president as having said: "There are three ways to influence people: blackmail, vodka and death threats." The interim president is Vladimir Putin.

Russian journalist Artyom Borovik news.bbc.co.uk

Just one year earlier, Putin was a largely unknown intelligence agency staffer. Then, in August 1999, an aging President Boris Yeltsin named him Russian prime minister. That New Year’s Eve, Yeltsin announced his retirement from politics and Putin also temporarily assumed the office of president. Months earlier, Russian troops, acting on Putin’s orders, had crossed the border into Chechnya, which had been seeking independence, marking the start of the Second Chechen War.

Now, on March 26, Putin would be at the mercy of Russian voters for the first time. If he won, he would, at age 47, be the youngest president Russia had seen since Joseph Stalin.

Oil executive Bazhayev and reporter Borovik are both 39 years old and have known each other for years. On this day, they plan to fly together to the Georgian capital city of Tbilisi, with Bazhayev having chartered a Yak-40 short-haul plane for the trip. Two bodyguards with Bazhayev's company have joined the two men, but the other seats in the aircraft remain empty. The crew is comprised of four people and an experienced pilot who, by the time of the flight, has accumulated 7,000 hours in the cockpit. At just under zero degrees Celsius, the air temperature is unseasonably warm.

A Chechen by the name of Rustam Daudov, who worked in a top position in the Chechen representative office in Tbilisi, had contacted Bazhayev a few weeks before. On the phone, he urged Bazhayev and Borovik to come and visit him personally in Tbilisi so that he could show them a video. He said he would also give them a copy.

Daudov told them the video would prevent Putin from winning the election, provided Borovik could publish the story in time in Russia. Reporter Borovik had never spoken to Daudov before, but Bazhayev knew him through a mutual acquaintance and considered him to be a credible informant. The three engines on the Yak-40 start up at 8:43 a.m. and the jet begins taxiing along the runway, accelerating for almost a kilometer and taking off. About 50 meters up, the plan banks to the left, loses altitude and explodes upon impact with the asphalt. Everyone onboard dies.

An investigative report published a few days later states that a technician had likely forgotten to fill the wing mechanism with anti-freeze fluid and that the wing flap had been unable to open beyond an angle of 10 degrees. But given that the air temperature on that Thursday morning had barely been below the freezing point, the Yak-40's mechanical system should have worked even without anti-freeze fluid. Journalist Artyom Borovik’s father would later accuse the Russian secret service of causing the accident. He alleged his son had been murdered because of the reporting he was doing.

The day after the accident, Daudov sits in his office inside the Chechen representative office on the fourth floor of an old building in the center of Tbilisi. He drinks tea as broadcasts can be heard on TV reporting on the deaths of Borovik and Bazhayev. The videotape he had wanted to give the two is still in his desk drawer.

2 — The Lost Son, January 2000, Metekhi
übersicht
  1. 1 — The Plane Crash, March 2000, Moscow
  2. 2 — The Lost Son, January 2000, Metekhi
  3. 3 — The Election Result, March 2000, Istanbul
  4. 4 — The Murder, October 2000, Tbilisi
  5. 5 — School Days, September 1960, Leningrad
  6. 6 — Blood Sample, February 2015, Metekhi
  7. 7 — The Wrong Murder, September 2003, Baku
  8. 8 — The Only Photo, March 2015, Western Europe

Around two months before the plane crash, a man who claims he used to work for the Georgian intelligence service walks into Daudov's office. He says he knows that Daudov has good connections to the leaders of the Chechen independence movement. He sets a photo of an old woman on the table and says it’s Vladimir Putin's real mother.

The man offers to cut a deal with Daudov. For $500,000 – money, he says, Daudov should obtain in cash from Chechnya – he will kidnap the woman and turn her over to the Chechens. By threatening to kill his mother, the Chechens could blackmail the Russian president and force him to end the Chechen War.

At this point in time, Daudov is 39 years old. He knows the tools secret services use to do their work. During the 1990s, during the first war against the Russians, he had been an advisor to the Chechen government and was standing just a few meters away from the car of the Chechen president and smoking a cigarette when the vehicle exploded. Russian special units had tracked the vehicle through the satellite telephone and fired a rocket at it. The attack ruptured Daudov's left ear drum and shrapnel penetrated his back, but he survived. Since then, he’s felt spies are capable of just about anything.

Still, the Georgian telling him about Putin’s mother strikes Daudov as being strange. Daudov says nothing came of the deal and that he sent the man away. In the following days, Daudov makes inquiries among his colleagues and acquaintances. It doesn’t take long before he ascertains, with the aid of Georgian journalists, where the women claiming to be Vladimir Putin’s mother lives.

Video: Vera Putina talking about her alleged son Abspielen
"Of course I love my son." Georgian reporters of private TV station Rustavi 2 met Vera Putina in Metechi in October 2006 and September 2008. Excerpts of their recordings

In January 2000, Rustam Daudov drives a small van the approximately 60 kilometers from Tbilisi to the village of Metekhi. He takes along his video camera and also flour, sugar and canned meats as a gift.

Vera Putina is a small, delicate woman, who always wears a headscarf when she leaves the house. When she hears the visitor arrive, she walks into the courtyard through the small vineyard. Daudov introduces himself and addresses the issue of Vladimir Putin. "I am convinced he is my Vova!" the woman, 73-years-old at the time, says, using a diminutive form of Vladimir. Daudov then sets up his camera and Putina sits down and begins recounting her story.

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 says that when Vova was two years old, she had to travel to Tashkent, thousands of kilometers away, for the practical part of her training. She planned to leave her son for weeks at a time with his grandparents. Meanwhile, in Tashkent, she met Georgy Osepashvili, a Georgian man who was fulfilling his military duty near the dormitory she was staying in during her training. At the end of her training, she moved with him to Georgia, to the village of Metekhi, where they married. Putina 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. "He didn’t want him to stay with us," Putina says. The couple was poor and, by then, had their own daughter together. But Osepashvili also had to support a son who wasn't his own. For several years, unrest plagued the family home. Once, the sister of Putina's husband even took Vova and gave him to a stranger, a major who didn't have any children of his own. When Putina found her son again, she decided: "I have to take Vova back to my parents."

But he couldn't stay there for long, either, because Putina's father was extremely ill. "My parents had to give Vova to foster parents," Putina says. He was about nine years old at the time. Since then, she says, she has "always felt guilty, but I had no choice".

That’s the story that Daudov taped during his first visit. At this point, it is still the story of a young boy who, according to his mother, loved fishing and judo, and who just happened to be named Vladimir Putin. At this point, there is still no direct connection to the Russian prime minister.

Vera Putina, 89, pensioner and Vladimir Putin, 62, president of Russia © laif

Daudov returns to Metekhi several times. And Putina will go on to describe to him what happened after Vladimir was placed with his new family. 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.

Once again, Daudov records everything Putina says, listening to her for hours. He speaks to several village residents, who still have strong memories of Vova. One of his former classmates is today in charge of the small school in Metekhi.

 At some point, Daudov begins asking the woman for proof of her story. Putina smiles and shakes her head. "Vova still carries my last name, but he doesn’t want to recognize me as his mother. That's the reason people from the KGB came here to my house. They took along all the family photos and admonished me that I was not allowed to tell anyone about him." She says they told her that everything about the story was classified information.

Eight years later, reporters with Britain’s Daily Telegraph newspaper would find records in the nearest city showing that a boy by the name of Vladimir Putin had in fact attended the school in the village of Metekhi.

3 — The Election Result, March 2000, Istanbul
übersicht
  1. 1 — The Plane Crash, March 2000, Moscow
  2. 2 — The Lost Son, January 2000, Metekhi
  3. 3 — The Election Result, March 2000, Istanbul
  4. 4 — The Murder, October 2000, Tbilisi
  5. 5 — School Days, September 1960, Leningrad
  6. 6 — Blood Sample, February 2015, Metekhi
  7. 7 — The Wrong Murder, September 2003, Baku
  8. 8 — The Only Photo, March 2015, Western Europe

During the weeks preceding the presidential election, a few Georgian newspapers go ahead and publish the story of Putin’s true mother. But following the deaths of oil executive Ziya Bazhayev and journalist Artyom Borovik, Russian journalists cease making the trip to Rustam Daudov in Tbilisi. There are still seven days left until the election.

Daudov senses a last opportunity to pitch the story – this time to his contact at the Turkish conglomerate İhlas, which owns several television broadcasters and newspapers in addition to firms in the construction, trade and energy industries. If İhlas provides significant coverage of the issue, Daudov hopes, the Russian media might also report on it.

This time around, Daudov doesn’t want to rely on telephone conversations alone. He flies to Istanbul and meets with Murat Arvas, assistant to the CEO of İhlas. They come to an agreement under which Putina’s story is to be published first in the daily newspaper Türkiye and then followed up with the broadcast of Daudov’s film on İhlas’ largest TV station.

The newspaper article is published, but the same day a staff member at the Russian Embassy contacts Türkiya. The man wants to know where the newspaper obtained this information. The film's broadcast is then halted. When Daudov asks why, he is informed by Murat Arvas that it is because of Blue Stream.

Blue Stream is the name of the gas pipeline that is supposed to solve Turkey’s energy problems. Russia is expected to deliver up to 19 billion cubic meters of natural gas a year to the country through the pipeline.

The Russians threaten that they could still stop the project, even shortly before construction commences, if Turkey continues to disseminate information directed against Russian interests.

On the evening of March 26, 2000, the day of the Russian presidential election, Daudov sits in his hotel room in Istanbul. His videotape is placed in the inner pocket of his suitcase. The TV is showing the first exit polls from Russia, with Vladimir Putin leading.

In the end, Putin wins 52.9 percent of the vote and he is elected to become Russian president with an absolute majority in the first round of voting.

4 — The Murder, October 2000, Tbilisi
übersicht
  1. 1 — The Plane Crash, March 2000, Moscow
  2. 2 — The Lost Son, January 2000, Metekhi
  3. 3 — The Election Result, March 2000, Istanbul
  4. 4 — The Murder, October 2000, Tbilisi
  5. 5 — School Days, September 1960, Leningrad
  6. 6 — Blood Sample, February 2015, Metekhi
  7. 7 — The Wrong Murder, September 2003, Baku
  8. 8 — The Only Photo, March 2015, Western Europe

Back in Georgia, Rustam Daudov’s wife asks him if the family is still safe following the publication of the article in Turkey. She says she fears for the safety of their three children. He reassures her and continues to look for ways to publicize Vera Putina’s story. Daudov believes the old lady from Metekhi. He feels the world needs to learn the truth about the man governing Russia.

Antonio Russo, journalist from Italy © day.kiev.ua

But the world doesn’t listen to Daudov. In Chechnya, Russian troops still occupy the capital city Grozny. And suddenly his contact people in Turkey are claiming he is spreading war propaganda on behalf of the Chechens.

In October, a colleague at the Chechen representation in Tbilisi tells him that he knows an experienced war correspondent from Italy who has already reported on the conflicts in Rwanda, Bosnia and Kosovo and is now conducting research in Chechnya. The reporter is named Antonio Russo and he is prepared to travel to Georgia to view the video about Vera Putina.

On the afternoon of Oct. 15, Russo shows up as agreed in Daudov’s office. It’s a Sunday, and Daudov’s colleague is there when the two talk about Putin’s childhood. Russo is 40 years old, deeply tanned and wears his long hair in a ponytail. After about two hours, Daudov gives the Italian a video cassette. Russo thanks him and departs.

Early the next morning, Russo’s body is found, with his hands tied, on the side of the road some 35 kilometers east of Tbilisi, not far from a village called Ujarma. According to the autopsy, the reporter died at around 2 a.m., with the cause of death being injuries to his lungs resulting from several broken ribs. "He was abducted and then run over by a truck. It was a professional murder. The killer knew exactly what he was planning. He wanted to get going so he could show his colleagues the results of his reporting," says an Italian member of the European Parliament. Furthermore, Russo’s computer, mobile phone and the video cassettes vanished from his hotel room.

Russo’s death is never completely cleared up. The two Italian investigators sent to look into the murder are sent back to Italy after just two weeks in Georgia. One official who was involved in the case hints to an Italian radio station that the Russian secret service may have played a role. Two Georgian police officers who try to investigate Russo’s death also end up dead: One commits suicide and the other is poisoned.

5 — School Days, September 1960, Leningrad
übersicht
  1. 1 — The Plane Crash, March 2000, Moscow
  2. 2 — The Lost Son, January 2000, Metekhi
  3. 3 — The Election Result, March 2000, Istanbul
  4. 4 — The Murder, October 2000, Tbilisi
  5. 5 — School Days, September 1960, Leningrad
  6. 6 — Blood Sample, February 2015, Metekhi
  7. 7 — The Wrong Murder, September 2003, Baku
  8. 8 — The Only Photo, March 2015, Western Europe

 "I know more about my father’s family than about my mother’s." This sentence opens Vladimir Putin's biography. Following his ascendency to the presidency, he published the autobiography in early 2000. "First Person: An Astonishingly Frank Self-Portrait by Russia’s President" is the product of an extended interview with Putin conducted by three Russian journalists. "I come from an ordinary family," he states.

Vladimir Putin with his official parents © Laski Diffusion/Newsmakers/Getty Images

In the book, Putin says, "My parents never told me anything about themselves," particularly his father, who he describes as "a silent man." On the other hand, though, Putin describes in detail just how courageously his father fought in World War II. His grandfather, Putin claims, even worked as a cook for Lenin and Stalin. In all, the story Putin has to tell sounds like it comes straight from a Soviet picture book.

What is striking, though, is that Putin 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.

Vladimir Spiridonovich Putin and Maria Ivanovna Putina, the couple that Vera Putina considers to be her son’s foster parents, are the president’s true parents, according to the biography. Before Vladimir, the book claims, they already had two sons, both of whom died before the end of the war.

By the time the biography was published, the parents had already died as well: Putin’s official father passed away in August 1999, with his official mother having died the year before. Instead, it is Putin’s teacher from Leningrad, Vera Gurevich, who bears witness in the interview book to his childhood. "Volodya’s parents had a very difficult life. Can you imagine how courageous his mother must have been to give birth at age 41?" she says.

In the Soviet Union at that time, it was indeed very unusual for a woman over 40 to give birth. The teacher also says of Putin that, even then, she "sensed that he had potential, energy and character. … I thought: This kid will make something of himself." The book also notes that Putin loved sports, particularly judo and fishing.

Vera Putina and the Georgian village of Metekhi are not mentioned in the book at all. If you ask today for a Kremlin statement in response to the claims made by Vera Putina, the first words from the spokeswoman responsible are: "Wow, this is not an easy subject." Then she says that the president’s personal spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, is the only one who might have something to say. But for days, Peskov left a list of questions about the president’s childhood, and about the Russian state’s possible involvement in the deaths of Bazhayev, Borovik and Russo, unanswered. Indeed, he never responded to the questions about those who died. An aide did, however, say that the only information known about Vladimir Putin can be found on the official Kremlin website.

A photo released by the Kremlin shows the young Vladimir on the lap of his official mother. Or is it the same boy as on the left? © Steffen Dobbert

In addition to the information in the official biography, the website contains a photography of a baby and two women, who are not identified. The photo is said to be of Putin as a small child. In addition, there is a shot of a boy on the lap of Maria Ivanovna Putina, Putin’s official mother. The boy appears to be between six and eight years of age — much younger than Putin would have been at the time Vera Puntina claims he was sent to his foster parents. If this picture does, in fact, show young Vladimir Putin, then it would be proof that Vera Putina’s story is incorrect.

But it is strange that the same boy, or someone who looks extremely similar, appears again in the biography. According to the caption, this second photo, a single portrait, does not show Vladimir Putin. Rather, it is of one of the first two sons of Vladimir Spiridonovich Putin and Maria Ivanovna Putina who lost his life during the siege of Leningrad in World War II. In a later official biography of Putin, this second photo is missing.

Exactly 10 days after DIE ZEIT sent in its questions about Putin’s childhood, a long Op-Ed contributed by Vladimir Putin appears in the magazine Russki Pioner, a lifestyle monthly. After years during which Putin had said little about his family, the Op-Ed suddenly offers detailed information about his parents. Shortly before the 70th anniversary of the end of the war, it could be an attempt to prepare the Russian people for the approaching commemoration. At the same time, though, it seems like an effort to counter any possible doubts about his biography.

His mother was a very gentle and good-natured woman, Putin writes. His father, he says, worked in a munitions factory at the beginning of the war before volunteering for the front later. There, he and his comrades only barely managed to evade the fascists. "They were chased through the forest," Putin writes. His father survived "because he hid in a swamp, stayed there for several hours and breathed through a reed." Further: "He heard how the nearby German soldiers walked past just a few steps away."

6 — Blood Sample, February 2015, Metekhi
übersicht
  1. 1 — The Plane Crash, March 2000, Moscow
  2. 2 — The Lost Son, January 2000, Metekhi
  3. 3 — The Election Result, March 2000, Istanbul
  4. 4 — The Murder, October 2000, Tbilisi
  5. 5 — School Days, September 1960, Leningrad
  6. 6 — Blood Sample, February 2015, Metekhi
  7. 7 — The Wrong Murder, September 2003, Baku
  8. 8 — The Only Photo, March 2015, Western Europe

A remote train station, an abandoned gas station, a few hundred peasant houses surrounding a centuries-old church: That is Metekhi. It’s a sunny winter’s day and the icy peaks of the Lesser Caucasus glitter on the horizon. The Kura, Georgia’s longest river, flows next to the road.

Vera Putina still lives in the same weathered house — complete with a small garden of grape vines —in which she has spent almost her entire life. Parts of the fence have been torn out of the ground and the gate is rusty.

She opens the door, deep wrinkles surround her eyes. She is now 89 years old. As she steps forward to greet her visitors, one can see that her bones and joints ache. When confronted with questions about her son, a look of disbelief crosses her face and, before she can really answer, Luba, one of her three daughters, bounds out of the house in a gray winter parka and stands protectively in front of her mother. Luba has traveled to Metekhi on this day by bus from Tbilisi. Vera Putina’s husband Georgy Osepashvili died several years ago and her daughters now care for their aging mother. Luba has brought along medications and will slaughter a couple of chickens later.

"You shouldn’t waste your time talking to my mother," Luba says. "She is not allowed to say anything. She has been forbidden from talking to journalists. They scared everyone in the village. They were from the secret service."

She complains how much her family has had to suffer because of the Russian president. Luba’s grandson joked once at school, she says, that he would like to throw a bomb at the school. He was in first grade. It was a bad joke, to be sure, but it was turned into a scandal at the school. A teacher said that he was likely just as big a criminal as his uncle Vladimir, who, as Russian president, had waged war against Georgia in 2008.

As president, Putin is fond of being photographed while fishing (this photo was taken in 2007 in Siberia). © Dmitry Astakhov/epa/dpa

A few years ago, two men and two women showed up late one evening to her mother’s house, Luba relates. One of the men claimed to be a policeman and the women said they were nurses. The group drew blood from the old, insecure woman — and then they disappeared.

Luba is convinced that they were sent by the Russian secret service, though she heard nothing about the results of the blood tests. But she doesn’t need any proof. "Nobody here doubts that Vladimir Putin is my mother’s son", she says. The mother and daughter then put a stop to our discussion, not wanting to talk about him anymore.

Dali Gsirischvili, Putins former classmate © Steffen Dobbert

A few hundred meters away, a woman is sweeping the path in front of her house. Her name is Dali Gzirishvili and she is roughly the same age as Vladimir Putin. When asked about the Russian president, Gzirishvili answers that she disagrees with his policies, but then she smiles. She says that she went to school with him. In the summer, she would often play with Volodya at the river. Fishing, she says, was his favorite thing to do.

7 — The Wrong Murder, September 2003, Baku
übersicht
  1. 1 — The Plane Crash, March 2000, Moscow
  2. 2 — The Lost Son, January 2000, Metekhi
  3. 3 — The Election Result, March 2000, Istanbul
  4. 4 — The Murder, October 2000, Tbilisi
  5. 5 — School Days, September 1960, Leningrad
  6. 6 — Blood Sample, February 2015, Metekhi
  7. 7 — The Wrong Murder, September 2003, Baku
  8. 8 — The Only Photo, March 2015, Western Europe

Following the death of Antonio Russo, Rustam Daudov becomes convinced that the Russian secret service is able to do whatever it wants in Georgia. To protect himself, Daudov and his family change houses every couple of weeks during 2001 and 2002. Daudov’s 16-year-old son reports that he is followed by strangers in a car on his way home from school. When his younger brother comes home with a similar story, the parents forbid their children from leaving the house on their own.

Rustam Daudov thinks about leaving Georgia with his family. But where would they go? To Chechnya, which is still a war zone?

A few weeks later, representatives from the Georgian government come to representation of Chechnya in Tbilisi and tell Daudov and his colleagues that they will have to leave their offices in just a few weeks time. The Georgians no longer want a Chechen presence in their capital, they are told.

Daudov and his family initially remain in Tbilisi. But now, he begins flying regularly to Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. Chechnya still has an office there, from where they coordinate their independence efforts. But each time Daudov heads to the airport, his wife counts the days until he returns. She is afraid of being left alone with the children.

At 1:30 a.m. on Sept. 7, 2003, police find a dead body in the Baku city center. It is determined that the man died from five shots fired at close range. Next to the body, which is lying not far from Gargarin Bridge, the officers find empty shell casings from a Makarov pistol. "We are convinced it wasn’t a robbery. The victim apparently was out for a walk, during which he was shot. It was probably a targeted act. We still don’t know anything about a possible motive," a police officer says.

 The victim is a Chechen by the name of Rustam Daudov. Russian television reports on the murder and broadcasts a photograph of Daudov.

8 — The Only Photo, March 2015, Western Europe
übersicht
  1. 1 — The Plane Crash, March 2000, Moscow
  2. 2 — The Lost Son, January 2000, Metekhi
  3. 3 — The Election Result, March 2000, Istanbul
  4. 4 — The Murder, October 2000, Tbilisi
  5. 5 — School Days, September 1960, Leningrad
  6. 6 — Blood Sample, February 2015, Metekhi
  7. 7 — The Wrong Murder, September 2003, Baku
  8. 8 — The Only Photo, March 2015, Western Europe

It has been almost 15 years since the first meeting with Vera Putina. Rustam Daudov is sitting on the leather couch in his living room, several thousand kilometers from Georgia. On the night of Sept. 6, when the murder took place, he was in an airplane on the way back to Tbilisi from Baku. After he landed, he found himself having to console many friends and relatives, who had heard of the murder of the man who shared his name. But he, Rustam Daudov from Tbilisi, was still alive. Russian television may have broadcast his photo, but the murderers had apparently shot the wrong man, someone with the same name who also was from Chechnya.

After the murder, Daudov was able to leave Georgia. The United Nations obtained exit documents for him and his family and made it possible for Daudov to fly off to a new life in Western Europe.

For weeks, Daudov thought about whether he should meet with journalists from DIE ZEIT. His wife was opposed, but ultimately he acquiesced. Now, she is standing in the kitchen and asking her husband how the reporters were able to learn their last name. She is still afraid for her family’s safety, which is why we have not used Rustam Daudov’s real name in this story.

Putin’s official biography lies in front of him on the carpet, as does the video cassette. Daudov still considers the video, and the statements it contains, to be the key piece of evidence that Vladimir Putin is protecting a family secret. Daudov believes that, because Vera Putina is his real mother, he couldn’t bring himself to simply have her killed.

But what if the whole thing isn’t true? What if Vladimir Putin isn’t the liar, but someone else? What if he didn’t manipulate his life story for the benefit of his political career? What if Daudov and Vera Putina believe in a fallacy? What if, for example, Putina once gave a son named Vladimir to her grandparents, but it was not the same Vladimir as the Russian president?

In that case, the video would be a shocking deception that is linked to mysterious murders. Then, Vera Putina would have surrendered herself to an illusion. Daudov, at least, would have a possible motive for the spreading of such a lie: the war that Putin waged against his homeland.

But there is no proof – neither for the one, nor for the other.

A case for the criminologists: This photo of the three-year-old child is supposedly the only one the KGB didn’t steal © Steffen Dobbert

Daudov has just one original photograph lying in front of him. It shows a three-year-old boy with fat cheeks and hair covering his forehead. Daudov says that the brother of Vera Putin’s husband Georgy Osepashvili gave him the picture in the year 2000. He said that this one image was left behind by the KGB after their search of the house. Daudov has no proof that the image, in fact, shows Vera Putina’s son.

The portrait of the 14-year-old Putin originates from the president’s official biography. © Heyne Verlag

In Vladimir Putin’s official biography, there is a photo showing him as a 14-year-old, one which very clearly resembles today’s Russian president. If you hold the picture next to the one of the three year old who is allegedly Vera Putina’s son, it is difficult to see the resemblance.

Anthropologist Andrea Voigt, who advises the German judiciary on the use of photos to identify suspects, performed a morphological analysis of the photos for DIE ZEIT. Her verdict is that the lighting, perspective and ages of the photos are so different that it is impossible to draw a reliable conclusion. But, she says, "there are indications that it isn’t the same person. The eyebrows and eye shape look different," she says. She says she would "lean toward saying that the pictures show two different boys." But, she says, there is still a chance that the three year old in the picture is the Russian president.

 Rustam Daudov can hardly believe the verdict of the German expert. "My entire life was changed by this secret," he says. Of course, he says, there has to be something to the story.

At the end of our meeting, before he bids us farewell and joins his wife in the kitchen, Daudov asks three questions. "First, why did the KGB make more than one visit to Vera Putina in Metekhi, as village residents have confirmed? Second, if he’s not her son, why did Putin never try to find the man who really is Vera Putina’s son? Third, why hasn’t the Russian secret service made the results of Vera Putina’s DNA test public?"


Only Vladimir Putin himself knows the answers to these questions.

Translated by Charles Hawley and Daryl Lindsey