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:
“To him, the war revealed the true ambitions of the United States. In his view, it wanted to dictate its terms to the rest of the world, to champion ‘freedom’ and use unilateral means to impose it, to interfere in the internal affairs of other nations.”
Putin’s 2004 reelection was abetted by rampant voter fraud which was left deliberately unaddressed by the Kremlin—a pattern which would continue in subsequent presidential elections. Myers highlights how Putin further centralized power in the wake of this election by appropriating the Beslan school hostage crisis. He responded to this incident in part by giving himself the authority to appoint regional governors rather than have them subject to popular vote. However, Georgia’s 2003 Rose Revolution and Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution reminded Putin that a popular uprising in support of democratic values and decentralization was possible even in Russia. Myers writes that Putin was “outmaneuvered in a geopolitical struggle, and he nursed the experience like a grudge.” Putin responded with a more intense crackdown on foreign NGOs in Russia, and by creating a new pro-Kremlin youth organization, Nashi (Ours), eerily reminiscent of the Soviet Young Pioneers and Komsomol groups.
Like most observers, Myers dismisses Dmitri Medvedev’s four-year stint as president as essentially another term for Putin. While Medvedev’s soft-spoken, disarming nature and willingness to engage with the West were encouraging, ultimately, Putin pulled the strings—arranging the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia and navigating the 2008 financial crisis to great success. Noting that Putin’s support prior to the 2011 elections was not as strong as he had hoped, Myers details Putin’s retention of power. Young, wealthy, urban Russians in particular had begun to turn on Putin, wooed by pro-democracy advocates and bolstered by the internet, which provided plenty of evidence of electoral fraud and corruption. However, Putin responded to post-election protests by instituting prohibitively large fines for participating in unauthorized protests, allowing some internet censorship, pressing for “foreign agent” laws against organizations receiving outside funding, and creating tougher slander, libel and blasphemy laws.
Indeed, consolidation of power and stifling opposition have continued to be essential elements of Putin’s rule, and Myers’s work is invaluable in understanding Putin’s approach to politics. While Myers generally declines to make predictions for Russia’s future, his account suggests that the powerful resurgence of Islamic terrorism will create an increased willingness on the part of Russians to sacrifice personal liberties with the promise of security ensured by Putin, who still enjoys high approval ratings. The perception of security and stability—conveniently propagated by state-owned media—ensures Russians will overlook the more problematic aspects of Putin’s rule, including the suspicious deaths and arrests of political dissidents.
One of Putin’s most oft-quoted statements is his assertion that the fall of the USSR was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” However, Myers suggests that this has nothing to do with a desire to reinstate a Soviet-style government, instead arguing that Putin was actually “lamenting. . . the demise of the historical Russian idea.” According to Myers, Putin laments the dissolution of the Soviet Union because it left many ethnic Russians separated from their homeland by new national boundaries. It is easy to see how this view has informed his foreign policy, from the annexation of Crimea to his material support of pro-Russian rebels in Eastern Ukraine with the stated goal of protecting the ethnic Russians there.
The New Tsar also examines the simmering tensions between Russia and Ukraine. Following Viktor Yanukovych’s election in 2010 and his more pronounced interest in European integration rather than association with Russia, Putin felt personally betrayed. Myers documents Putin’s labored efforts to exert greater control over Ukraine and his failure to determine the course of events there, which Myers argues was a humiliating defeat. He suggests that Putin’s next goal was to “punish Ukraine by dismembering it” and that the invasion of Crimea was the embodiment of that retribution. Again drawing on lessons learned during his tenure in the KGB and FSB, Putin coerced Yanukovych, likely by questionable means, into agreeing to and even encouraging Russia’s involvement in Crimea. After a March 16, 2014 referendum Myers says was “widely denounced as a farce,” Crimea came under Russia’s control, and Putin’s approval ratings soared to over 85 percent.
One of the most interesting elements of Putin’s rationale for his actions in Crimea, which Myers aptly highlights, is his belief in Russia’s restored status as a superpower:
“He seized Crimea because he could—because he believed that a superpower had the legal and moral authority to do so, just as the United States had been doing ever since the end of the Cold War.”