Steven Lee Myers was a reporter in Moscow for The New York Times based in Russia for several years during the still-continuing "reign" of Vladimir Putin.
In his new biography, The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin, Myers coherently, comprehensively and evenhandedly tells the story not only of Putin’s glory years, but also of his hardscrabble childhood in Leningrad, his checkered academic career, his undistinguished work as a KGB agent in East Germany, his remarkably loyal service to the mayor of post-Soviet St. Petersburg, and his reluctant but speedy climb through President Yeltin’s ministries in the late 1990s.
In Putin’s 15 years (and counting) of increasing power, we in the West have grown so accustomed to the Russian leader's sour-cool demeanor that we forget that the impatient bully once had a humble side and that he was once as loyal as a dog to the KGB and then to the post-Soviet money-grubbing politicians. His tenacity, dedication to the assigned task, and “coolness” more than any other qualities won him the trust if not affection of friends and cronies. His presidential predecessor and mentor, Boris Yeltsin, “was wary of Putin’s ‘coolness’ at first but came to understand that it was ‘ingrained in his nature.’”
Dutiful, serious, abrupt, in 2000 Putin caught, seemingly without any calculation, the vague desire of Russians to follow and obey a man who boldly and unapologetically takes action. Though many details of Putin's private life are shielded from his constituents as carefully as if they were state secrets (when his daughter Maria had a baby in 2012, while Putin was 59, the fact that “Putin became a grandfather … was never reported in the Russian press”) he has proved to be the country’s most popular leader since Stalin the Terrible.
While journalist Masha Gessen presented Putin in "The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin" (2012) as an unfathomable monster, due for an ultimate comeuppance, Myers, more intrigued, more restrained, brings him down to more familiar human dimensions. Even if Putin remains disagreeable – even reprehensible – in Myers's telling, he seems all the more formidable and troubling. In just the way some American businesses and bureaucracies are so micromanaged that underlings dare not make a move lest they face the boss’s wrath, in Russia today there is no functioning government without Putin in charge: “Putin had made himself the ultimate authority in Russia, but his ‘vertical of power’ created paralysis in times of crisis: No one would risk taking an initiative that might evoke his disapproval.”
A grim comedy could be made about the Dimitri Medvedev years (2008-2012), when mild Medvedev took the reins of the presidency while Putin steered from the back seat: “Putin’s steely charisma, his absolute determination, his ability to remain above the trials of Russian life, shielded him from blame when tragedies like these struck [in 2011, involving a ferryboat catastrophe on the Volga and a famous hockey team’s plane-crash]. Medvedev, though, looked overwhelmed as president.”
Myers presents the biographical and historical information so clearly that his thesis is essentially a color or tint rather than, as with Masha Gessen, the driving force of the biography. Myers's thesis is that, though Putin is, in the subject’s own words “an utterly successful product of the patriotic education of a Soviet man,” he has grown into, through a historical accident and by dint of terrific nerve, another tsar: “Putin did what he did, on his own, because the people had ‘entrusted’ him to rule, to be the ultimate leader, the tsar of a simulated democracy. There was no one now – from the ordinary Russian to the apparatchiks complicit in the political and economic system he had built – who would, or could, take the responsibility to change things.”
President George W. Bush and Putin had a brief early spell of at least feigned mutual respect, while Putin and President Obama, who thought he would be dealing with President Medvedev, have seemed to agree to be disgusted with each other. America is Putin’s bête-noire, and as flippantly as a teenager he blames American inference for everything from Russia’s own domestic terrorism to Internet protests about shameless election fraud. Putin has never stopped feeling put-upon by the West, and continually has his nose out of joint when the US encourages (Putin would say “instigates”) democratic reforms around the world. For instance, “Reflexively, instinctively, he imagined the uprising in Libya as simply another step toward a revolution being orchestrated for Moscow.”
Mikhail Khodorkovsky, one of the oligarchs Putin railroaded (right into prison) and robbed of his ill-gotten oil company, observed that Putin didn’t create the (what I’d like to call) tsarcastic Russian atmosphere on his own; in Khodorkovsky’s sobering opinion, Putin “is probably neither a liberal nor a democrat, but he is still more liberal and democratic than 70 per cent of our country’s population.”
Myers’s account of the circumstances that led to the 2012 Winter Olympics in Sochi, which project Putin spearheaded while serving as Medvedev’s prime minister, is particularly revealing, in part because Putin was drawn out of himself, excited, anxious. His passionate pitch for the games charmed the International Olympic Committee: “‘He was nice,’ Jean-Claude Killy, the French ski champion … explained after the vote. ‘He spoke French – he never speaks French. He spoke English – he never speaks English. The Putin charisma can explain four votes.’”
He can turn it on when he wants to, which is rarely enough, but it is often effective. Myers, unusually wryly, notes: “Putin wanted the Olympics to be a symbol of Russia, and they were. Corruption plagued every project.”
My only annoyance with the tightly organized, ever-interesting book (Myers’s first), is that the author, in the deep reflex of many fine journalists, self-suppresses, and refuses to acknowledge in the text any first-person experience of the people he has interviewed and the various crises he in fact covered on the ground (although to his credit, he does provide extensive notes). At least occasionally, Myers’s best source for an event or impression would have been himself, but we never see his “I.” It’s the writer, not Putin, who remains “The Man Without a Face.” Why pretend not to have been there, Steven?
The biography comes to a close with Russia’s 2014 invasion and take-over of Crimea, where, not coincidentally, in 1983 Putin and his wife (now ex-) spent their honeymoon in Yalta. For fuller coverage of Tsar Putin’s involvement in and manipulation of the still unresolved and volatile situation in eastern Ukraine, we will have to wait for a second edition.
Bob Blaisdell is the editor of Essays on Civil Disobedience (Dover, March 2016).