From Russia, with Rancor

IN 1999, when Boris Yeltsin stunned his compatriots by anointing as his heir Vladimir Putin, who had been, until just before the Soviet fall, a middling lieutenant colonel in the KGB, everyone in the West, and most anyone in Russia who still cared, asked, “Who is this Putin?”

Seventeen years later, as Putin’s post-Soviet order stirs into renewed vigor with the 2014 annexation of Crimea, the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, and the dispatch of MiGs to shore up Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian dictatorship, the question resonates with fresh urgency.

It’s not as though prior efforts to answer it are in short supply. In the West, Putin has spawned a minor cottage industry in biography. The usual Russia-watching journalists, academics, and diplomats have had their turns, churning out a steady stream of biographical and political studies since Putin’s ascent to the Kremlin on New Year’s Eve in 1999. The Library of Congress lists 162 books in English alone with the name Putin in the title—covering everything from his spy years and his wars to his oil and his oligarchs.

Now Steven Lee Myers, seven years a Moscow correspondent for the New York Times, adds to the pile. The New Tsar is a worthy study of Putin and Putinism. Years in the making, it is deeply researched and reported and a surprisingly gripping read—as close-to-the-ground a record of the Putin era as we are likely to get. But from the first page to the last, as Myers meticulously builds his chronicle, something feels missing: an understanding of the man.

This is a notorious shortcoming in nearly every effort to bring the real Vladimir Putin to public attention. In the spring of 2000, Putin himself offered the first, and so far most informative, book on himself, called First Person. Often termed an “autobiography,” it was campaign propaganda, a Kremlin attempt to warm the populace. Putin is credited as its author, but the book is a stitched-together series of interviews conducted by a handpicked trio. Two were journalists at Russia’s top daily, Kommersant: Nataliya Gevorkyan and Andrei Kolesnikov. The third was Natalya Timakova, a former journalist who had switched sides, rising to the top of the Kremlin PR corps. Despite its provenance, First Person is revealing and riveting, and offers much of what we know about Putin. As they scratch the tundra ground of Putin’s formative years and early Kremlin career, biographers have been forced to return time and again to First Person. And for all his deep reporting, Myers follows suit: The first chapter of The New Tsar contains sixty-three footnotes, twenty-seven of which refer to the 2000 book.

Still, Myers’s work is true to its subtitle: It treats “the rise” as much as “the reign.” The “Putin era” does not begin until chapter 11, and Putin does not become president until page 170. The first two parts are excellent, charting Putin’s political coming-of-age while reprising the chaotic Yeltsin years of hope and blundering. The litany of power moves is precise and complete: Putin’s ascent during the late-’90s bloodbath in Chechnya; his takedown of the oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky (and takeover of Khodorkovsky’s oil giant, Yukos); his efforts to rein in restive regional governors; his bids to tame the Duma and refashion the upper house of parliament, the Federation Council, into a compliant body. Then there are the mounting shows of strength, in both the Russian economy and the former USSR: the consolidation of a petro-state, aka Kremlin Inc.; the response to the terror attacks at the Moscow theater and School No. 1 in Beslan; the rancor and paranoia that followed the 2004 “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine.

But on all this well-trod ground, where is Putin? When it comes to a portrait of the man who rules Russia, we get no backstage access—only official tableaux. “Everything Russians learned about Putin’s life they learned like this,” Myers writes of the televised Putin, “in small, measured glimpses that the Kremlin arranged.” Writing of a recent Putin biography by Russian author Stanislav Belkovsky, he notes how it “blended speculation, hearsay, and fact . . . so seamlessly that it was impossible to distinguish one from the other, much as it was impossible to know the truth of Putin’s private life.” The same, of course, can be said not only of The New Tsar but of every Western attempt to portray Russia’s ruler. In the end, Putin remains a cipher. This conspiracy of silence serves as perhaps the most vivid sign that the long-standing US-Russia divide has returned—along with the guesswork of Kremlinology, that dreadful Cold War “science.”

A FEW DAYS after the 9/11 terror attacks, not long after I’d moved to Washington following a six-year stint reporting in Moscow, I joined a conclave of enterprising Russia hands. In a windowless basement downtown, I sat among men and women from the “intelligence community” and a tableful of premier think-tankers. (The CIA folk, in a sign of the new times, disclosed their beats openly.) The subject at hand: “Mr. Putin and the Oligarchs.” But it wasn’t the talk itself—the discussion of a new book—that stunned me. Rather, it was the Q&A that followed. There was no mention of Putin, his origins, rise, or ruling circle. There was no consideration of his policies—what they had done to the Russian people, let alone the Chechens—nor what lay behind his sudden warming to the West after the twin towers fell. Instead, all prospective questions tapered to just one, numbing in its naïveté and arrogance: “What must we do so we don’t lose Putin?”

Today, in the second decade of Putin’s rule, our understanding of Russia is as skewed as ever. Our vision remains mired in the tropes of old. Pundits and presidents still love to quote Winston Churchill: Russia, he famously quipped in October 1939, is “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” Few, though, quote what follows: “But perhaps there is a key,” Churchill went on. “That key is Russian national interest.” He warned of the dangers to come should Germany “plant itself upon the shores of the Black Sea, or . . . overrun the Balkan States and subjugate the Slavonic peoples of southeastern Europe.” The world’s shifted a bit since then, but those Russian fears—about the West encroaching on the Black Sea, the Baltics, Ukraine—are greater than ever.

How did we get here? Putin likes to talk about Syria, and Libya, and drone killings of American citizens in the Middle East—i.e., the wayward excesses of the Pentagon. By now the list of grievances is so long as to feel like it’s all of recent vintage. But students of Russian power would do well to rewind the clock. The present chapter in the epic of Western geopolitical hypocrisy and overreach began in the late 1990s, when the former Yugoslavia broke apart. As NATO besieged Serbia in the spring of 1999, I spoke with a tearful woman in Minsk. “German bombers over Belgrade?” she said of the Luftwaffe’s first offensive since World War II, an effort that would bring Milošević to the bargaining table. “Ask your president: ‘What in God’s name were you thinking?’”

It’s a moment to mark, since it reminds us that the signature sense of global persecution that we now identify with Putinism actually predates Putin’s ascent. The first “turn” in Russia’s campaign to restore its superpower standing began in Kosovo. Recall the bolshoi skachok—the “big leap,” the generals called it—to the Pristina airfield on June 11, 1999. Yeltsin may have been infirm in the Kremlin, preoccupied with devising an exit strategy that would guarantee immunity. But the army boss Anatoli Kvashnin was not. Kvashnin took Generals Wesley Clark and Mike Jackson and the rest of the US and British forces by surprise, sending two hundred Russian paratroopers in to seize the airport, against all protocols. The next day, as Myers notes, Putin told Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, “No one in Russia should be able to call President Yeltsin a puppet of NATO.”

Myers finds his surest ground in geopolitical analysis. He rightly builds his narrative around Putin’s speech in Munich in 2007 at “the Davos of the national security world.” As Angela Merkel and Robert Gates studied their shoes, Putin delivered a thirty-two-minute “dressing-down of the West.” The end of the Cold War, Putin said, left the world “with live ammunition, figuratively speaking”—“ideological stereotypes, double standards, and other typical aspects of Cold War bloc thinking.” The speech was a recasting of former foreign minister Yevgeny Primakov’s goal of forcing a “multipolar” world. In his late seventies by then, Primakov, ex–Middle East correspondent for Pravda, ex–spy chief, ex-academician, was a wily survivor of the last Politburo who had long since fallen out with Yeltsin—he’d even tried to team up with the mayor of Moscow and roust him from the Kremlin in 1999. But under Putin, Primakov became the godfather of a neo-Soviet foreign policy. As Myers writes, Putin’s Munich performance hinged on a vision of an unchallenged West that was “creating new divisions, new threats, and sowing chaos around the world.” “It is a world in which there is one master, one sovereign,” Putin said. His “catalog of grievances”—the West’s abrogation of arms-control pacts, its development of missile defense and arms in space, and NATO’s eastward lurch—all stemmed from what Myers calls the “unchecked hubris of a superpower bent on dominating the world on its own terms.” At Munich, Putin left his Western listeners stunned and fuming. On the other side of the looking glass, in Russia, he had signaled the turn to come.

A gathering in Moscow’s Red Square the day of Vladimir Putin’s Crimea speech, March 18, 2014.
A gathering in Moscow’s Red Square the day of Vladimir Putin’s Crimea speech, March 18, 2014. James Hill

BELLICOSE POSTURING is one thing; reality, as Putin knows well, is something else altogether. “Russia’s a rich country with a poor people,” he said early in his tenure. It can’t simply pretend to be a Velikaya Derzhava, a Great Power. That pretense has nevertheless been a boon to Russia watchers. Some émigré and Western critics, such as Masha Gessen, Luke Harding, Ed Lucas, and Peter Pomerantsev, have led an anti-Putin brigade to the edge of activism. And let us be clear: Under Putin, the state’s hypocrisy, arrogance, and criminal malfeasance cannot be understated. The slaughter of the Chechens—Russian citizens all—by itself offers ample grounds for a Hague war-crimes trial. Putin-bashing, which crested in Madonna’s veneration of Pussy Riot, is often justified, but it has yielded scant enlightenment.

It comes as something of a relief, then, to see that the best new books on Russia are tempering the self-assured higher-ground critiques in order to probe the country’s essential contrasts—between spectacle and reality, wealth and poverty, the popular suspicion of the state’s toxicity and the adoration of Putin. In The Red Web, Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan, a husband-and-wife team who are among the best investigative reporters at work in Russia today, get beyond the propaganda and silence to detail the forces of control that will long outlast Putin. The Red Web sets and achieves an ambitious goal: to chart the history of the state’s mastery of digital communication and data. The tale unfolds in many instances with the authors as primary protagonists. Walter Laqueur, who at ninety-four is the author or editor of more than two dozen books and the last survivor of the greatest generation of European historians, offers Putinism. And Anne Garrels, the longtime NPR foreign correspondent, has written Putin Country. All three works proceed from a common premise: If we cannot know who Putin is, we can know why he is—and, by dint of patient reporting and omnivorous research, go a long way toward discovering the sources of his political longevity.

Garrels, in an admirably masochistic U-turn at the close of her career, returned in 2012 to Chelyabinsk, a city behind the Urals, which she first visited as a correspondent in the early 1990s. Revisiting her reporter’s notebooks dating to 1982, she furnishes critical background to the question of how Putin’s Russia has taken shape. Unafraid to plunge into history, Garrels recognized Chelyabinsk, her “second home,” as an ideal point of entry. Founded in the eighteenth century as a czarist garrison, it grew into a trading center, a bridge between the Russian empire and China. In the Soviet age, it evolved into a “military-industrial-nuclear stronghold”—perhaps the most potent of many such sites in the USSR. (During World War II, it was known as “Tankograd.”) Chelyabinsk became infamous in the ’50s as the birthplace of the Soviet Union’s nuclear program, existing as a closed city until the Soviet empire fell in 1991. In 2013, it was again host to apocalyptic phenomena, of a different sort: A sixty-foot-wide meteor blew up twenty-eight miles above the city “with the energy of . . . thirty times the power of the Hiroshima bomb.”

Garrels’s slim volume, 225 pages of reporting shorn of the self-dramatizing flourishes that mar the work of many foreign correspondents, is a quiet masterwork. Although her tale spans decades, she begins with Crimea and the question of Russian identity. She seems to have talked to everyone: doctors and addicts, LGBT leaders, families young and old, human-rights activists and historians, Orthodox believers, a Muslim veterinarian-turned-mufti. In one tour de force profile, we meet the region’s deputy forensic pathologist, who in the first glow of glasnost helped human-rights volunteers unearth the remains of Stalin’s victims, only to grow rich later on burying the dead of the Mafia wars under Yeltsin—commuting to Italy and Cyprus to bring home, in Aeroflot’s hold, the “silk-lined ebony coffins” then in vogue.

Throughout her spare narrative, Garrels also covers the big questions—demography, the health crisis, the supine intelligentsia and fractured opposition, and the terrible bargain of Putinism, which pits economic stability against civil liberties. She marshals her reporting, character after character, to build the evidence. She introduces Irina Korsunova, a “thirty-something magazine editor” for whom “Western criticism merely reflects a desire to see Russia back on its knees.” “At one level,” Garrels writes, “Irina could not be more Western.” She has certainly benefited from Russia’s opening up. Her mother had success in business and sent her to a Swiss finishing school. She has traveled widely and sports a European wardrobe. She is pleased, too, that her son has access to the Western goods and technology that she never did. But Irina

harbors a resentment, almost an outright hatred of the West. She is a proud Russian who firmly believes Russia gave the best to the world while getting little in return. She firmly believes Japanese businesses and technologies are based on Soviet-Russian research. She says Chinese sport is now among the best in the world because it is based on Soviet sport techniques. She regrets the breakup of the Soviet Union and blames Western-imported corruption for destroying what was best about her country. She represents many I have met in Chelyabinsk. They are sick of beating up on themselves. They are sick of their country’s being seen as nothing more than a mafia-ridden kleptocracy—even though they are the first to complain about corruption. They are sick of the West’s beating up on them for their sins, especially now that they are more aware of Western sins.

Much the same anti-Western animus comes across in Garrels’s portrait of fifty-two-year-old small-business owner Alexander Seleznyov, who is painfully aware of the country’s current troubles but backs Putin all the same. He “wants to square an impossible circle,” Garrels writes. He admires Putin and is unfazed by the climate of fear. “Yet he understands he needs to empower his small part of Chelyabinsk,” she writes, “so that it can think for itself, decide what it wants and needs,” and “buck corruption.” Seleznyov is only too grateful to Obama for ratcheting up the trade barriers. “Thank you,” he says. “Sanctions will make our agriculture stronger.”

Laqueur, too, focuses on the rise of Russia’s enemies, gleaning gems from his deep reading of the recent Russian past. “The last two decades,” he writes, “have shown that chaos is much more feared in Russia than authoritarian rule and dictatorship.” To him, the “secret” of Putin’s career is clear: The “new Russian ideology” is a convenient blend of the “neo-Eurasianism, antiglobalism, and geopolitika—not to mention the new science of conspirology”—an apt designation for Russia’s popular mania for conspiracy theories.

Soldatov and Borogan likewise see these forces animating the state’s urge to control the Internet—and all dissonant voices in the country. “For years,” they write, “we’ve been trying to understand the main impact of former Soviet KGB officers’ presence in today’s corridors of power. We believe it has come to dominate the way Putin views the world. He and his colleagues from the security services brought to their governance the old mindset that threats existed and had to be countered.”

Indeed, perceived threats abound in Russia. Laqueur recalls one of the more outlandish: the “master plan” of the CIA and Allen Dulles in 1945, purportedly “aimed at destroying the Soviet Union.” Laqueur notes that in 1945 there was no CIA or Cold War, and that Dulles’s policy purview did not extend to the USSR. No matter; breathless talk of the Dulles Plan first cropped up in Soviet novels of the 1960s and 1970s and gained new currency thanks to The Battle for Russia, a pamphlet issued in 1993 by Metropolitan Ioann, the xenophobic former Orthodox bishop of St. Petersburg and Ladoga. (Throughout the ’90s and into the Putin era, I remember seeing the ecclesiastic call to arms on sale next to prayer-candle concessions in churches across the country.) Metropolitan Ioann quotes Dulles—promoting him in the process to general—thusly: “By sowing chaos in Russia, we imperceptibly replace their values with false ones, which will force them to believe. How? We’ll find our accomplices, helpers, and allies in Russia herself. In a series of episodes, a tragedy, grandiose in scale, will be played out: the demise of the last unbroken nation on earth . . . ” The Americans aimed, the cleric went on, to go after the artists, writers, dramatists, filmmakers “who will hammer into the people’s consciousness the cult of sex, violence, sadism, and betrayal.” Laqueur drily sums up this imaginary cultural offensive as, “in brief, the triumph of Satan.”

Putin’s ideals, Laqueur writes, are of recent vintage. He had assumed “conspirology” was as well—until he found a remarkable passage among the works of Vladimir Solovyov, a Russian philosopher, from 1892:

Let us imagine a person healthy in body and strong, talented and not unkind—for such is quite justly the general view of the Russian people. We know that this person or people are now in a very sorry state. If we want to help him, we have first to understand what is wrong with him. Thus we learn that he is not really mad, his mind is merely afflicted to a considerable extent by false ideas approaching folie de grandeur and a hostility toward everyone and everything. Indifferent to his real advantage, indifferent to damage likely to be caused, he imagines dangers that do not exist and builds upon this the most absurd propositions. It seems to him that all his neighbors offend him, that they insufficiently bow to his grandness, and in every way want to harm him. He accuses everyone in his family of damaging and deserting him, of crossing over to the enemy camp. He imagines that his neighbors want to undermine his house and even to launch an armed attack. Therefore he will spend enormous sums on the purchase of guns, revolvers, and iron locks. If he has any time left, he will turn against his family.

“One hundred and twenty years later,” Laqueur writes, “I cannot think of a better description of the current state of affairs.” The philosopher, no doubt, would well understand Putin’s affinity for Donald Trump (and vice versa)—not to mention the American Tea Party–militia rebellion.

Russia stands at “the zenith of its power,” Laqueur writes. “Fifteen or twenty years from now it will be weaker.” At the same time, the West “is losing its leadership over the world economy, and its military advantage is dwindling.” The cause, he argues, is our “refusal to put an end, de facto and de jure, to the Cold War.” In other words, for all the “persecution mania” of Putinism, the man in the Kremlin may be right: “The West systematically pressed ahead,” Laqueur concludes, “with expanding its zone of influence and control militarily, economically, and politically. Russia was treated as a defeated nation, its interests and objections ignored.” Given all this, is it any real wonder that so many Russians adore the man who rides high in the saddle, bare-chested—even if they also hate him?

Andrew Meier is a journalist and the author of, most recently, The Lost Spy: An American in Stalin’s Secret Service (Norton, 2008).