Pulling back iron cur­tain of Putin’s power

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

This is an odd book: in­for­ma­tive, in­tel­li­gent, punchy, but de­cid­edly odd. On one level it is a tra­di­tional history of Vladimir Putin’s dom­i­nance of Rus­sia since be­ing ap­pointed prime min­is­ter in 1999. How­ever, it goes much fur­ther, as Mikhail Zy­gar, for­mer edi­tor-in-chief of in­de­pen­dent Rus­sian TV sta­tion Dozhd, in­fuses his nar­ra­tive with in­vec­tive. He seeks to un­der­mine Putin by show­ing him as fal­li­ble, an em­peror with­out clothes: It is a pe­cu­liar myth that ev­ery­thing in Rus­sia de­pends on Putin and that with­out him ev­ery­thing will change … Putin does not ac­tu­ally ex­ist … [he] was con­structed by his en­tourage, Western part­ners, and jour­nal­ists, of­ten with­out his say. This is a rich thought. Where does lead­er­ship end and mythol­ogy start? Yet the book’s ex- ecu­tion clashes with its in­tent. Stop ob­sess­ing about Putin and he will fold into his own con­tra­dic­tions, Zy­gar ar­gues. Yet he presents the Rus­sian leader on al­most ev­ery page. He sounds like a man who has de­cided to move on from a dys­func­tional re­la­tion­ship but who still talks about it and noth­ing else.

Any­one with more than a pass­ing in­ter­est in Rus­sia will recog­nise this book’s key sto­ries: the fi­nal Boris Yeltsin years, the rise of the oli­garchs, the Kursk sub­ma­rine dis­as­ter, the sec­ond Chechen war, the Bes­lan school siege, the jail­ing of Mikhail Khodor­kovsky, the pres­i­dency of Dmitry Medvedev and the Rus­soGe­or­gia War.

Putin’s in­creas­ing self-con­fi­dence, com­bined with a per­ceived sense of Amer­i­can hypocrisy, grad­u­ally de­vel­ops into bel­liger­ence. We end with Rus­sia’s Syr­ian cam­paign and a gloomy re­flec­tion on the pos­si­bil­ity of World War III.

Zy­gar writes with a fas­ci­nat­ing com­bi­na­tion of tones. He is by turns Shake­spearean, dryly jour­nal­is­tic, polem­i­cal and an­ni­hi­la­tion­is­tic. Read­ing him is a heady ex­pe­ri­ence: we jump from in­ter­views with mem­bers of Putin’s in­ner cir­cle to ex­po­si­tions of oli­garchic ex­cess; from bit­ing de­nials of Putin’s power to fears of his drive to­wards global war.

Sec­tions have ti­tles such as Putin I the Lion­heart, Putin II the Mag­nif­i­cent and Putin the Ter­ri­ble. Clearly, the au­thor has an old-fash­ioned view of power, in which king and court are driven by murky in­trigues, only some of which are played out on a wider stage.

The at­tempt to over­lay this with the idea of Putin as a blank can­vas, on which oth­ers project their de­sires, quite sim­ply fails. Even when he is re­ac­tive, Putin ul­ti­mately de­cides what hap­pens, as Zy­gar tac­itly ad­mits, but the writ­ing here is a stylis­tic and ide­o­log­i­cal bon­fire, driven by a rest­less dis­sent, even dis­gust.

That said, Rus­sia can be dif­fi­cult to un­der­stand, even by its rul­ing elite, and this con­fu­sion does un­doubt­edly un­der­mine the im­age of an all-pow­er­ful ruler. On the one hand, this is due to Rus­sia’s vast size, the num­ber of is­sues it faces and a hu­man ten­dency to form se­lec­tive mem­ory. As Zy­gar writes: I came to re­alise that the par­tic­i­pants in the events de­scribed did not fully re­mem­ber what ac­tu­ally hap­pened … Al­most ev­ery one of them told a story that at times had no over­lap with events por­trayed by other wit­nesses: facts were for­got­ten, times and dates were jum­bled up, and even their own ac­tions and words were rein­ter­preted. As a rule, they asked not to be quoted.

The range of Zy­gar’s in­ter­vie­wees is im­pres­sive, in­clud­ing for­mer chief of pres­i­den­tial ad­min­is­tra­tion Alexan­der Voloshin, for­mer deputy prime min­is­ter Vladislav Surkov, present pres­i­den­tial press sec­re­tary Dmitry Peskov and De­fence Min­is­ter Sergey Shoigu, as well as Khodor­kovsky.

They re­flect on the “wild” 1990s, when so­cial and eco­nomic lib­er­al­i­sa­tion saw a dis­play of riches un­dreamed of in the Soviet Union, grow­ing diplo­matic iso­la­tion (blamed on the Amer­i­cans), ter­ror­ism (such as the Bes­lan and NordOst sieges) and the in­creas­ing drive to­wards a re­ac­tionary na­tion­al­ism (church and state rule).

How­ever, de­spite their pow­er­ful egos, un­re­al­ity and un­cer­tainty creep in. Long unan­swered ques­tions keep nig­gling away, even for these men (and it is al­most all men at the top).

Why does Putin some­times dis­ap­pear, when he’s not at the Krem­lin and isn’t an­swer­ing calls? Is he ill or on an unan­nounced break?

Why does a supreme ruler all of a sud­den abide by the law, step down as pres­i­dent to hand over to a nice but weak Medvedev, only to re­turn as pres­i­dent when the law al­lows it; since

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