Putin Defends His 'Democracy'

Criticism Of Bush, Iraq War In Exclusive Interview With <B>Mike Wallace</B>

As president of Russia, Vladimir Putin is the proud and gracious host to more than 50 world leaders who are gathered in Moscow to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II.

Putin has twice been elected president of Russia, but is he a dictator or a democrat? Controversy has swirled about him since he became president five years ago.

At the beginning, he was a slum kid from Leningrad who had a dream. He wanted to be an agent of the sinister KGB, and improbably, he did it. He was smart, ambitious, self-disciplined and lucky. Boris Yeltsin plucked him out of virtual anonymity from a local post in Leningrad, and eventually astonished Russia by anointing Putin president.

This past week, Putin invited to come to Moscow for a rare, unrestricted interview.

Wallace met with Putin for two hours at his guest house near his home outside Moscow. The Russian leader spends 40 minutes a day driving to and from the Kremlin. A helicopter would be much faster, but his security people will not permit him to fly.

The president has been studying English for five years now, but he preferred to do our seated interview in Russian. Putin remains something of an enigma, so Wallace showed him some old pictures, hoping he would open up about them. He did.

"You were a very serious, young man," says Wallace, showing Putin a photo of when he was around 14.

"Not always," says Putin.

"Oh," says Wallace. "A bad boy from time to time?"

"We lived in a small room, all three of us, in a communal apartment in Leningrad with no private facilities," says Putin. "We didn't even have our own bath or shower. My parents worked a lot, so I spent lots of time in the streets with other teenagers."

Putin and his wife, Ludmilla, have been married for 21 years. Their two daughters, Katya and Masha, are 19 and 20 now, but the Kremlin does not release current pictures of them for security reasons.

"You didn't want a boy?" asks Wallace.

"I believe that everything is right which God has given us," says Putin.

Is he religious?

"I believe that every person must have some faith within his heart, and this is what is especially important -- your inner world, the condition of your soul," says Putin.

"Is that what brought you and George W. Bush together at the beginning," asks Wallace. "Your feeling about some spirit?"

"Probably so," says Putin. "That mutual feeling appeared during our first meeting."

"When he [Mr. Bush] looked into your eyes and saw your soul. What about you?" asks Wallace. "Did you see his?"

"He impressed me as a reliable person," says Putin, who adds that he still feels that way. "You know that we have different views on some things, but my first impression was correct. He is a truly reliable person who does what he says he will do."