For­mer Moscow re­porter Su­san Glasser on the books that ex­plain Vladimir Putin’s Rus­sia

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Su­san B. Glasser is chief in­ter­na­tional af­fairs columnist for Politico. She and her hus­band, Peter Baker, for­mer Moscow bureau chiefs for The Wash­ing­ton Post, are co-au­thors of “Krem­lin Rising: Vladimir Putin’s Rus­sia and the End of Revo­lu­tion.”

Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin and his con­fi­dants deal read­ily in the dark arts of kom­pro­mat, the not-at-all sub­tle use of dam­ag­ing in­for­ma­tion, real or faked, against en­e­mies. It’s straight out of the KGB play­book in which Putin was trained and a sta­ple of Moscow pol­i­tics dur­ing his long reign.

I im­me­di­ately thought of this sor­did sig­na­ture of the Putin era when news broke the other day that Don­ald Trump Jr. had an email from a sup­posed in­ter­me­di­ary of the Rus­sian gov­ern­ment that promised help in sup­ply­ing kom­pro­mat on Hil­lary Clin­ton — as “part of Rus­sia and its gov­ern­ment’s sup­port of Mr. Trump.”

To an Amer­i­can ear, the of­fer seemed like some­thing op­er­a­tives might think but would never put in writ­ing — more like a plot twist from “House of Cards” too im­plau­si­ble to be be­lieved. But it makes a lot more sense if you read up on Putin and the Rus­sia he has led for 17 years. A whole stack of bril­liant books make abun­dantly clear that Putin’s Rus­sia is a land of po­lit­i­cal in­trigue and sus­pi­cion, where con­spir­acy the­o­ries of­ten turn out to be true, kom­pro­mat is the weapon of choice and power is cen­tral­ized to a sur­pris­ing de­gree around “the new tsar” in the Krem­lin (which also hap­pens to be the ti­tle of Steven Lee My­ers’s very good 2015 bi­og­ra­phy of Putin).

Per­haps the best guide to the trou­bled soul of Rus­sia’s tough-guy leader re­mains Putin’s 2000 cam­paign au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, “First Per­son,” which more or less lays out how he’d bring his KGB style to the presidency. The book por­trays Putin as a street “hooli­gan” from Len­ingrad who grew up dream­ing of es­cape by be­com­ing a se­cret agent. “One spy,” he says re­veal­ingly in the book, “could de­cide the fate of thou­sands of peo­ple.” Or mil­lions, as it turned out in his case.

Be­sides Putin’s own words, there are

dozens of other books that of­fer in­sight into his mind and his Rus­sia — and the scan­dal un­fold­ing around his coun­try’s ties to Amer­ica’s un­likely new bil­lion­aire pres­i­dent. I have book­shelves full of them and could rec­om­mend many; here are a few that I keep turn­ing back to as this ex­tra­or­di­nary story plays out.

Be­fore my hus­band and I moved to Moscow at the start of the Putin era to serve as Moscow bureau chiefs for The Wash­ing­ton Post, we went to see David Rem­nick, the edi­tor of the New Yorker, who had cov­ered the end days of the Soviet Union a decade ear­lier as a cor­re­spon­dent for The Post, to ask how we should pre­pare. Read Chekhov, he ad­vised.

We did, but luck­ily there are many sig­nif­i­cantly more con­tem­po­rary ac­counts of how Rus­sia got to its trou­bled post-Soviet present that we found in­dis­pens­able as well — not least of which was Rem­nick’s Pulitzer Prize-win­ning book on the Soviet col­lapse, “Lenin’s Tomb.”

To get Putin and why he has such griev­ance against his in­ter­locu­tors in the West, it’s cru­cial to un­der­stand that Soviet im­plo­sion, which he me­morably called “the great­est geopo­lit­i­cal catas­tro­phe” of the 20th cen­tury. And in­deed, his ac­count in “First Per­son” vividly recalls the mo­ment when, as a Soviet spy based in East Ger­many, he watched in dis­may as the coun­try crum­bled, and fran­ti­cally shred­ded doc­u­ments while pro­test­ers threat­ened his KGB head­quar­ters in Dres­den. When he called for military backup, Putin re­mem­bers be­ing told: “We can­not do any­thing with­out an or­der from Moscow. And Moscow is si­lent.”

Putin views this as the sig­nal tragedy of his era. “I got the feel­ing then that the coun­try no longer ex­isted,” he says. “That it . . . had a ter­mi­nal dis­ease with­out a cure — a paral­y­sis of power.”

The col­lapse of the Moscow cen­ter was a trauma for Putin, and it went on to be­come the foun­da­tional myth of his presidency, the ra­tio­nale for what he in­vari­ably por­trays as a decades-long ex­er­cise to re­store the Rus­sian state — and even, as his takeover of Crimea in 2014 and ag­gres­sive moves since then sug­gest — to re­cover parts of the lost Rus­sian em­pire, too.

Rem­nick was per­haps the best in-the-mo­ment chron­i­cler of that Soviet col­lapse and the pass­ing op­ti­mism that quickly de­scended into dys­func­tional pol­i­tics. Oth­ers have tren­chantly cap­tured the patholo­gies of the 1990s. In “The Oli­garchs,” David Hoff­man de­picted the loot­ing of the state and the rise of the su­per-rich plu­to­crats af­ter the Soviet im­plo­sion; so did Chrys­tia Free­land, a jour­nal­ist turned politi­cian who is now Canada’s for­eign min­is­ter, in “Sale of the Cen­tury.” Strobe Tal­bott, Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton’s deputy sec­re­tary of state, re­counted in his mem­oir “The Rus­sia Hand” the back­stage pol­i­tick­ing that led to NATO’s ex­pan­sion and other current dis­putes with Putin.

To un­der­stand why Putin in­evitably emerged on the scene, read­ers must go back even fur­ther, to the Soviet regime, and there are many ex­cel­lent books cov­er­ing that pe­riod. A few his­to­ries of the era seem es­pe­cially well-timed to to­day’s con­tro­ver­sies. In “Iron Cur­tain,” Wash­ing­ton Post columnist Anne Ap­ple­baum doc­u­ments the Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe af­ter World War II, which was eerily sim­i­lar in some re­spects to Putin’s re­cent machi­na­tions in ar­eas Rus­sians still re­fer to as “the near abroad.” And Ti­mothy Sny­der’s “Blood­lands,” which ex­ca­vates the hor­rific his­tory of the coun­tries caught be­tween the Soviet Union and Ger­many in World War II, puts the current Ukraine-Rus­sia con­flict in con­text.

As for the spy turned pres­i­dent, a num­ber of cred­i­ble Putin bi­ogra­phies help il­lu­mi­nate this mo­ment when he oc­cu­pies such an out­size place in the Amer­i­can na­tional con­ver­sa­tion. In ad­di­tion to My­ers’s com­pre­hen­sive book, I’d rec­om­mend “Mr. Putin: Op­er­a­tive in the Krem­lin,” by Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion schol­ars Fiona Hill and Clif­ford Gaddy. Gaddy and Hill, who is now the top Rus­sia hand on Trump’s Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil, por­tray the enig­matic pres­i­dent in all the var­i­ous guises he has adopted, from “mafia don” and out­sider with a chip per­pet­u­ally on his shoul­der to “self-de­scribed sav­ior” of a strug­gling na­tion.

Ed Lu­cas of the Econ­o­mist was an early ob­server of that sav­ior com­plex; his book “The New Cold War,” pub­lished in 2008, reads now as a pre­scient polemic about where Rus­sia was headed. Another Econ­o­mist writer, Arkady Ostro­vsky, last year won Bri­tain’s Or­well Prize for “The In­ven­tion of Rus­sia,” which helps ex­plain how Putin has ce­mented his rule by me­dia ma­nip­u­la­tion and the march to war against en­e­mies for­eign and do­mes­tic.

The costs of all this? There was no braver jour­nal­ist ex­plor­ing the dark cor­ners of Putin’s Rus­sia than Anna Politkovskaya, mur­dered near her doorstep in 2006, and her book “A Small Cor­ner of Hell: Dis­patches From Chech­nya” is well worth read­ing. And I’m look­ing for­ward to ac­tivist and author Masha Gessen’s new book “The Fu­ture Is His­tory: How To­tal­i­tar­i­an­ism Re­claimed Rus­sia,” out this fall.

My hus­band, Peter Baker, and I pro­duced our ac­count in 2005, “Krem­lin Rising,” which chron­i­cled Putin’s rapid as­cent to power — and swift dis­man­tling of the fledg­ling demo­cratic in­sti­tu­tions he in­her­ited. Af­ter the Trump Jr. email rev­e­la­tion, I turned back to our book and found on Page 52 the story of how kom­pro­mat ar­guably brought Putin to the presidency.

In 1999, an ob­scure Putin was em­bat­tled Pres­i­dent Boris Yeltsin’s new head of the FSB, the do­mes­tic suc­ces­sor to the KGB, when he found him­self em­broiled in a kom­pro­mat war. Yeltsin al­lies were try­ing to take out a pros­e­cu­tor-gen­eral who was pok­ing around too closely in Yeltsin fam­ily busi­ness. Af­ter they re­leased grainy video footage of the pros­e­cu­tor ca­vort­ing with scant­ily clad pros­ti­tutes, Putin oblig­ingly stepped for­ward at a key mo­ment to au­then­ti­cate the footage.

Putin’s loy­alty didn’t just help dis­pose of the pros­e­cu­tor. It also con­firmed Yeltsin’s view of the FSB head as a man he could trust. Within nine months, Yeltsin would name Putin pres­i­dent of Rus­sia in his stead — and here Putin is to­day, still con­found­ing the West 17 years later.

‘Putin is play­ing chicken with Rus­sia,” Hill and Gaddy wrote, and it is an ob­ser­va­tion as rel­e­vant now as ever. “He is dar­ing the pop­u­la­tion to call his bluff.”

So why is Putin still in power? Why do Rus­sians put up with the cor­rup­tion and the un­cer­tainty, the ever more con­strained pub­lic space, and the epic dis­re­gard for them by the na­tion’s smug, oil-fu­eled elites?

In “Noth­ing Is True and Ev­ery­thing Is Pos­si­ble,” Peter Pomer­ant­sev cap­tures as well as any­one the money-soaked cyn­i­cism and man­u­fac­tured me­dia echo cham­ber of Moscow un­der Putin. “‘Ev­ery­thing is PR’ has be­come the fa­vorite phrase of the new Rus­sia,” Pomer­ant­sev writes. His en­ter­tain­ing mem­oir re­count­ing his ad­ven­tures in the dark heart of the pro­pa­ganda ma­chine helps shed light on why Putin’s gilded, im­age-con­scious Moscow seems so ap­peal­ing to Amer­ica’s TV-ob­sessed new pres­i­dent and his clan.

But Moscow and St. Peters­burg are most de­cid­edly not Putin’s Rus­sia. To get out­side the cos­mopoli­tan, cor­rupt cap­i­tals and into the rest of the coun­try, you will find no book bet­ter de­scrib­ing the vast crazi­ness of the post-Soviet re­al­i­ties than “Sec­ond­hand Time,” an oral his­tory by No­bel Prize win­ner Svet­lana Alex­ievich.

It is the sin­gle best guide I have found to Putin’s sub­jects, a beautiful, heart­break­ing trib­ute to peo­ple who hoped for some­thing bet­ter out of the Soviet breakup, but in the classic words of 1990s Rus­sian Prime Min­is­ter Vik­tor Ch­er­nomyrdin, it “turned out as al­ways.”

ALEXAN­DER ZEMLIANICHENKO/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Vladimir Putin was work­ing for the KGB in East Ger­many when the Soviet Union col­lapsed, and he saw it as a trau­matic event. As pres­i­dent, he says his goal is to re­store the glory of the Rus­sian state.

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