A Portrait of the Russian President

Steven Lee Myers ambitiously examines just how Putin’s destiny became intertwined with Russia’s.

Steven Lee Myers, The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin (New York: Knopf), 592 pp., $32.50.

Understanding the Russia of the past fifteen years requires an understanding of Vladimir Putin, around whom, without exaggeration, the entire political system revolves. In The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin, Steven Lee Myers ambitiously examines just how Putin’s destiny became intertwined with Russia’s.

The biography begins with a visceral, almost novelistic description of Putin’s father, Vladimir Spiridonovich Putin, “wounded on a bridgehead on the bank of the Neva” during WWII but neglects to expand significantly on his impact on young Putin’s development. However, Myers does chronicle Putin’s unremarkable childhood and his development of self-confidence via involvement with martial arts. Putin joined the Young Pioneers and then the higher-level Komsomol youth organization and later volunteered to join the KGB. Rebuffed in his efforts to join the intelligence agency, Putin instead began legal studies at Leningrad State University.

Myers thoroughly recounts Putin’s eventual recruitment by the KGB, his rise through the ranks from desk work to a position in the First Chief Directorate, and his demotion to a post in Dresden, East Germany after being involved in a fight in Leningrad. Despite the career setback, Putin was able to make the experience a positive one, utilizing his knowledge of German language and culture. However, by this time Gorbachev’s reforms had begun to change the Soviet Union Putin knew. Myers describes Putin’s unpreparedness for the complete collapse of the Soviet Union and his subsequent feelings of uselessness, abandonment, and betrayal – critical factors in the later development of Putin’s worldview.

He continues with details of Putin’s life and budding political career after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. After a stint as an advisor and deputy to Anatoly Sobchak, the mayor of the newly-renamed St. Petersburg and considered a member of the new liberal order, Putin was able to translate his experience into an appointment as head of the Main Control Directorate in the Yeltsin administration. Putin’s competent investigations of corruption and government waste, along with his loyalty to Yeltsin, eventually propelled him to directorship of the FSB (Federal Security Service, the successor to the KGB). He was soon to rise in the ranks again—Yeltsin, after firing his fourth prime minister, nominated Putin to fill the vacancy. Putin began to exercise his growing power through his strong response to Chechnya’s separatist incursion into Dagestan, which garnered him widespread public support in light of the embarrassment of the first Chechen War.

Unbeknownst to many, including himself, Putin was in the process of being groomed as a possible candidate for the presidency. When Yeltsin unexpectedly resigned at the end of 1999, Putin had no serious electoral competition the next year. He barely campaigned, instead running on a vague platform of national unity. Summarizing Putin’s appeal at the time, Myers writes:

“In the muck of Russia’s politics, he alone seemed untainted by the intrigues of politicians and oligarchs that had consumed Russia for the previous eight years. . . he was not associated with the Kremlin’s multiple failings and scandals. His blunt public statements, even the coarse ones, seemed refreshing after the confusion and obfuscation of Yeltsin’s administration.”

Putin won the election handily and began setting precedents that would continue throughout his presidency. Notably, he went after television network oligarchs who threatened to expose unsavory information about his administration, bringing Russia’s three most prominent networks under state control in less than a year, and he essentially created a new brand of Russian patriotism by transforming the United Russia Party into what Myers calls “Putin’s ‘party of power.’” However, the unquestionable power of United Russia invites some interesting questions which Myers does not explicitly address: Is there a United Russia without Putin? And is there a functioning Russian government without United Russia? Considering the party’s vague platform with the exception of support for Putin’s initiatives, the answer is likely negative on both counts. When Putin eventually relinquishes power, United Russia will have to either latch on to a new candidate and a new ethos or fall into obsolescence, creating a vacuum to be filled, perhaps, by a more varied parliamentary makeup.

Myers’s work also delves deeply into more recent history and analysis of current events from Putin’s perspective. He spends time discussing the shift to a more antagonistic relationship with the United States as a result of the Iraq war. Myers notes that this conflict helped to confirm Putin’s suspicions about the United States: