Russian President Vladimir Putin has stood — often bare-chested — at the helm of Russian politics since 1999, rotating between the presidency and the prime minister’s office. But before his fast rise to power, Putin spent most of his life far out of the limelight. Putin grew up in a communal apartment shared by three families in St. Petersburg – then known as Leningrad – and he says he remembers hunting rats in the stairwell.

His mother, who had lost a child to diphtheria and nearly starved to death during World War 2, swept streets, cleaned lab equipment, and did other odd jobs for low pay.

Putin and his parents had no bathtub or hot water, and their toilet sat next to a dangerously dilapidated stairwell that was riddled with holes.

One of Putin’s teachers described the family’s kitchen as “a square, dark hallway without windows”.

A memorable passage from a book of interviews published when he first became Russia’s president describes how a childhood incident shaped his approach to politics and life.

In “First Person: An Astonishingly Frank Self-Portrait” by Vladimir Putin, the Russian President told a story of his early scares: a rat he had cornered had nowhere to go and jumped out at him.

To pass the time during his early years, Putin and his pals harassed the rats that plagued his apartment’s stairwell.

He said: “There were hordes of rats in the front entryway. My friends and I used to chase them around with sticks.”

It was during one of those rodent hunts that the future president learned a valuable lesson about the dangers of backing opponents into a corner.

He said: ”Once I spotted a huge rat and pursued it down the hall until I drove it into a corner.

“It had nowhere to run. Suddenly it lashed around and threw itself at me. I was surprised and frightened. Now the rat was chasing me.”

The book explains that Putin got away, but the memory never escaped him.

He said: “Luckily, I was a little faster and I managed to slam the door shut in its nose.

“There, on that stair landing, I got a quick and lasting lesson in the meaning of the word cornered.”