The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin, Steve Lee Myers

Nine stars

My latest selection in the forty days of biography reading takes me into the life of a current world leader, President Vladimir Putin of the Russian Federation. Seen as as staunch anti-American and anti-West, Putin’s rise and hold of power in Russia came about through interesting means, as recounted by Steven Lee Myers. Having lived and worked through the political metamorphosis of the USSR, Putin’s story is one that the reader will likely find captivating as well as frustrating, as Lee pulls no punches while offering a well-rounded piece, full of first-hand accounts and behind the scenes vignettes. How long Putin will hold the reins of power is anyone’s guess, though the recent inauguration of Donald Trump may have finally created a leader with whom Putin can co-exist happily. I mean, he did pave the way to rig the US election, didn’t he?

Born to meagre parents during the waning days of Stalin’s reign of terror, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin arrived after his siblings all perished. Raised to respect his father and love his mother, Putin soon found himself drawn to all things athletic, with a special fondness for judo. Putin’s love of this form of martial arts would prove symbolic in the decades to come, as its focus is to use the momentum from one’s opponent to win, rather than direct attack. Putin’s attention in school found him able to enter post-secondary with little hesitation, where his studies and physical acumen soon drew the attention of the KGB. Well-suited for the group, Putin was secretive and able to hold himself in check, entering training school on the outskirts of Moscow, where he would not reveal his identity while learning the art of deception and espionage. He was soon sent to East Germany with his wife and young family, where he took up a post in Dresden, learning the language and the culture in the mid-80s. Putin witnessed the declawing of the Soviet Bear and the disintegration of Communism in Germany first hand while in Dresden, as the dominoes began to fall and the region began falling into turmoil. Called back to Moscow, Putin brought his family back and waited to see what would come of his homeland and communism, the only ideology known to generations of Russians. When all hope seemed lost, Putin joined the FSB, the organization that rose from the KGB ashes, and sought to accept things as best he could. Catching the eye of Boris Yeltsin, the new Russian president and man who sought to steer the country out of the doldrums. Putin’s success grew exponentially when he abandoned the Russia of his childhood. 

Lee attributes Putin’s first taste at political power to his choice to serve as deputy mayor of Petersburg, one of the largest cities in the country. Putin was able to shape policies and helped to create stability under a quasi-democratic system, something that many citizens could not yet properly understand. However, as with any new system, corruption was the only language spoken and Putin found himself in the middle of scandals as his boss sought to hold onto power however possible. Seeking to make more of a name for himself and still being touted as a man with potential, Putin headed to Moscow and worked alongside Yeltsin, eventually taking a role as head of the FSB, which led to a position on the National Security Council. Yeltsin was loved in the West, but had an iron fist as he ran the newly minted democratic Russia, tossing aside opposition and weak prime ministers who would not do his bidding. When Putin was given the chance at being PM in 1999, many saw his selection as the kiss of death. Putin accepted and tried to work alongside Yeltsin, as changes in the country continued to take effect. When Yeltsin’s health took a turn for the worse, fate would offer Putin the chance to rise up and assume the role of President of Russia, which began a taste of real power and something that he would never willingly cede, even when constitutionally guided. 

Putin’s ascension to the Russian presidency brought him more power than he had ever had and, for a time, offered Russia a vibrant leader with fresh ideas. Seen as new blood for Russia, Putin was hailed by the world as a leader with whom others could work and under which democracy had a real chance. However, as Lee insinuates throughout the book, it was this elevation that turned Putin from the quiet man into the autocratic leader known today. Power surely corrupts and Putin did not take long to grip the reins of power tightly. Opposition, while praised in democracy, was all but silence or bullied into submission, be it within the Russian borders or on the world stage. Putin turned the country away from its democratic toddling and towards a return to the centralized power structure that kept Stalin as leader for so long. Critics were shunned, jailed or worse, and Putin sought to quell the criticism of world leaders by tossing out his own epithets. Infamous stories of poisonings and repressive acts to pull neighbouring countries in line were coloured only by Putin’s war with Chechen rebels, whose fight paralleled the radical muslim fighting that Bush 43 faced in his two illegal wars in Asia. Putin was prepared to paint himself as the protector of Russia, though drew up his own rules and form of democracy to fit his own needs. Perhaps a saving grace, Putin sought not to rewrite the constitution to fit his megalomania, but agreed to abide by the two-term limits as president, with his own little twist. In a game of bait and switch, Lee elucidates how Putin was able to bring Dmitri Medvedev up the ranks to run as president, then have himself chosen as Russian Prime Minister. While PM, Putin ran the show and left Medvedev to act as a figurehead. Lee offers numerous examples of Putin’s wrangling and eventual puppeteering as Medvedev willingly allowed his apparently underling run the show, only to orchestrate this own return to the presidency thereafter. Brilliantly executed, though baffling as he snubbed all this democratic, Putin mastered the art of appearing to follow the rules only to twist them to his favour. A return to power then allowed Putin to shove constitutional changes to the length of the presidential term through the Duma, allowing him six year terms and a tighter grip on all this Russian. This is where he stands now, with new elections expected in 2018, so far a foregone conclusion. New examples of suppression of critics emerge during this presidential resurrection, including Pussy Riot, a rock band whose scandalous songs saw them put on trial as the world watched. Putin proved drunk on power and would not accept guidance from anyone, only further isolating himself from his fellow leaders and increasingly from the public. However, as the apt reader and political scientist will realise, even with increasing dislike for the president, without a viable alternative, Putin’s reign as the new dictatorial tsar will not end, even if he must play another round of bait and switch to lead well into his eighth decade.

I am no expert in international politics, but it seems apparent, through all I know and from what Lee has presented so well in this book, that Putin sought to fill the vacuum left by communism with his own form of autocratic rule. Swinging the pendulum away from the ideological left to a deeply entrenched right-of-centre approach, Putin has been able to fill the minds of his citizens with the fear that was common during the Stalin era, where opposition disappeared as soon as it arose. Ice picks to the head have been replaced with polonium pellets in food and vicious attacks by Russian forces. Lee shows the disintegration of support by those world leaders who would have, at one time, been staunch allies (Bush 43, Chirac) and eventually became guarded or spoke out openly against the way Putin acted on the world scene. While Lee’s book appeared on newsstands before the 2016 US General Election, it is interesting that Russia (read: Putin) might have played a role in bringing The Great Xenophobe to power, which is currently stirring up Capitol Hill with allegations. Whatever comes of it, Putin has shown that he will not allow anyone to stand in his way when he wants something. He is apt to take it and worry about the consequences later. Troubling? Maybe a little for a country that is still reeling from decades of have its citizens unable to shape the political landscape. 

Lee’s writing is so fluid and easy to comprehend that I am left to praise him for this piece. The biography is so full of information, though told in such a way that the reader is not overwhelmed. These attributes keep the reader wanting to learn more and delve deeper into the life of this world leader. The attention to detail that Lee provides is indicative of extensive research and thoughtful preparation, which keeps the reader informed and entertained at the same time. Vignettes flow together with ease and Putin’s persona grows with each building chapter. While it is hard not to inject bias into the writing, Lee does try to round out the narrative as best he can, though it is hard not to see the power intoxication that Putin develops. Any reader curious about this more elusive world leader need look no further than this piece, which offers much insight into where Russia is headed, with no real opposition that can quell the Putin superstructure. While criticism continues to mount within the country, until a formidable political opposition can present itself, Putin and his cronies will rule with an iron fist, needing no curtain to isolate themselves from the world.

Kudos, Mr. Myers for this brilliant piece. I can only hope that many will take the time to read this and see the monster behind the idyllic mask who has turned Russia on its head yet again.