The reptilian, poker-faced former KGB agent, now Russian president seemingly for life, earns a fair, engaging treatment in the hands of New York Times journalist Myers.
The author was based in Russia for some years during Vladimir Putin’s rise to power, and he clearly knows his material and primary subject, which is very important in the tracking of this slippery conniver, who was in a good place to take power at President Boris Yeltsin’s decline in 1999. A curious, coldblooded opportunist, the spy who came in from the cold by hitching his star first to prominent politician Anatoly Sobchak, a leader of the democratic movement in the 1990s, Putin used the perks of power to create a complex system of cronyism and nepotism. Myers shows how Putin convinced everyone that this way of operating was part of the Russian soul and how he perpetuated it through an archaic form of Russian corruption—e.g., profiting from deals and then offering disingenuous explanations. When the civil war in Chechnya erupted, Putin’s strong-arm tactics and hard-line stance against terrorism swung popular opinion. “This is not just about restoring Russia’s honor and dignity,” he said. “It’s about putting an end to the breakup of the Russian Federation.” This was Putin’s successful mantra for surviving at the top, from 2000 to the present, in successive presidential runs that were frankly illegal. He took over the TV channels for the state’s purposes, consolidated gas and petroleum companies into enormously powerful monopolies, put a recalcitrant military firmly under his command, and convinced the world that Russia could hold the 2014 Winter Olympics at Sochi, which became his pet project. Myers astutely notes how Putin’s speeches increasingly harkened back to the worst period of the Cold War era’s dictates by Soviet strongmen. The author ends with the haunting lyrics from a Great Patriotic War of 1953 song that was conveniently used for the appropriation of the Crimea.
A highly effective portrait of a frighteningly powerful autocrat.