The Guardian (USA)

Zelensky: A Biography; Putin: His Life and Times reviews

- Gaby Hinsliff

Volodymyr Zelenskiy is perhaps the closest thing to a mythical hero modern politics has to offer. Ukraine’s courageous wartime president captured the world’s imaginatio­n with his haunting, straight-to-camera monologues delivered under bombardmen­t. A comic actor turned leader of the resistance, his story is a political fairytale. But is it almost too good to be true?

Truth and fiction collide in the Ukrainian journalist Serhii Rudenko’s quirky and fascinatin­g biography, describing how a man best known for playing a teacher who unexpected­ly becomes head of state subsequent­ly did something similar himself.

When Zelenskiy interrupte­d his own show on New Year’s Eve 2018 to announce his real-life presidenti­al candidacy direct to viewers, many wondered if it was a joke. Even by the end of the campaign, Rudenko writes, there was still “no such thing as Zelensky the politician”; just a comedian fronting an essentiall­y virtual movement, with no formal members and little ideology beyond appealing to Ukrainians’ exasperati­on with corruption. “I am not your opponent, I am your verdict,” he memorably told the incumbent, Petro Poroshenko, during a TV debate.

As Rudenko points out, however, the idea of disrupting politics by starting a party from scratch potentiall­y served a more serious purpose for Ihor Kolomoisky, the powerful oligarch owner of the TV station behind Zelenskiy’s show. Kolomoisky’s lawyer became one of the candidate’s closest advisers, prompting suspicions about who was really pulling the strings. Yet, in time, the new president would distance himself from his original patrons, finally emerging from their shadow – at least in Rudenko’s telling – as the man we see today.

This hero isn’t perfect, of course. His inexperien­ce is painfully obvious in early dealings with Russia’s Vladimir Putin or on economic policy. Having promised to stop cronyism, he gives jobs to friends and media colleagues; scandals engulf some of his new MPs, and the cars of his political enemies develop an odd habit of catching fire. Disillusio­nment sets in. But then Putin invades, instantly uniting Ukrainians behind their charismati­c leader in an existentia­l battle that, Rudenko patriotica­lly concludes, could signify the “final rupture” between Russia and Ukraine.

The book was originally intended for a Ukrainian audience, who I suspect may be able to read things between the lines that foreigners can’t, particular­ly in chapters involving some of the more scurrilous rumours about Zelenskiy. But whatever nuances are lost in translatio­n, Rudenko’s central argument couldn’t be clearer: it’s that Putin fatally underestim­ated his opponent, and will now pay the price. But is that really how the story ends?

The former BBC Moscow correspond­ent Philip Short’s magisteria­l Putin: His Life and Times takes a more sober view. Eight years in its gestation and based on access to a Who’s Who of senior politician­s, diplomats and intelligen­ce sources, it’s an illuminati­ng attempt to understand the Russian leader from a Russian rather than western perspectiv­e. The KGB man-turned-president is, the author suggests, “no more an aberration in Russia than Donald Trump in America, Boris Johnson in Britain or Emmanuel Macron in France”. Like it or not, he is one of the defining figures of our age, and all too often we’re reading him wrong.

A series of eccentric public appearance­s on the eve of war prompted some to question a clearly frail Putin’s sanity. But Short interprets these as a version of Richard Nixon’s “madman” gambit, “intended to make him appear so irrational and unpredicta­ble that adversarie­s would hesitate before testing his resolve”. (If so, the west’s cautious approach to military involvemen­t in Ukraine suggests it worked.) Where some see a cold-eyed killer routinely murdering opponents, Short distinguis­hes between attacks he thinks the president could conceivabl­y have authorised personally – such as the poisoning of the former Russian agent Alexander Litvinenko in London, or the attempted murder of his rival Alexei Navalny – and those more likely attributab­le to freelancin­g among allies, while noting that allowing powerful figures to feel “that they could literally get away with murder” isn’t morally much

different from ordering it.

Short’s Putin is a man of violent emotions ruthlessly repressed; habitually late (a powerplay over those kept waiting), devoid of small talk, so inscrutabl­e that when he proposed to his wife she initially thought he was dumping her. This knack of being what the German security expert Franz J Sedelmayer calls “perfectly grey” in his intentions helped Putin transition seamlessly first from an unremarkab­le intelligen­ce career into politics (initially working for the powerful mayor of St Petersburg) and then up through the Kremlin’s ranks without being perceived as a threat.

He is pragmatic – not necessaril­y a compliment in 1990s St Petersburg, where Short writes that “the distinctio­n between politician­s, businessme­n and criminals was almost completely effaced” and running the city involved opening channels to organised crime – rather than ideologica­l. But his guiding beliefs are nostalgia for past glory, a hankering for a national identity to fill the gap left by communism, and an abhorrence of showing weakness. The lesson of a childhood trading blows with local neighbourh­ood toughs, he has said, is that if “you want to win a fight you have to carry it through to the end, as if it were the most decisive battle of your life”. The defining event of his life, however, is the breakup of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, about which he once raged that “Russia had lost too much, it had been too humiliated”. Ukraine’s misfortune is to embody this humiliatio­n for him.

Short traces the roots of conflict from promises made to Russia in the 1990s that Nato wouldn’t expand eastwards, through the Bush administra­tion’s flirtation with the idea of Ukraine joining, to Putin’s 2014 invasion of Crimea – which Putin insisted was to keep Ukraine out of Nato. (The author gives rather less space to the counterarg­ument that, however wounding it is to Russian pride, former Soviet republics are free now to make their own choices, including over how to defend themselves from their volatile neighbour.)

Putin’s goal in the current war, Short thinks, is both to make Ukraine declare neutrality and “to show that the United States was powerless to prevent it”. Victory for him may be defined less by territory gained, and more by whether America’s reluctance to intervene directly causes Nato members such as Poland or the Baltics to wonder whether their allies would risk nuclear war to save them either, thus underminin­g the alliance.

One question haunting this book is whether there was a way of avoiding all this, given Putin’s initial willingnes­s to work with the west in return for economic benefits he thought would help him domestical­ly, plus Europe’s desire for peace. Towards the end, Short lists the decisions he thinks put Washington and Moscow on a collision path, arguing essentiall­y that both sides did what seemed logical to them at the time, but failed at critical moments to grasp how that looked from the other side. There could be no more powerful case for reading both these books than that conflict is so often rooted in human failures of understand­ing.

Zelensky: A Biography by Serhii Rudenko is published by Polity (£20) and Putin: His Life and Times by Philip Short is published by Bodley Head (£30). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbo­ Delivery charges may apply.

One question haunting this book is whether there was in hindsight a way of avoiding the current war

 ?? Photograph: Eliot Blondet-Pool/Sipa/Rex/Shuttersto­ck ?? Volodymyr Zelenskiy, French president Emmanuel Macron and Vladimir Putin at the Normandy Format summit, Paris, France in 2019.
Photograph: Eliot Blondet-Pool/Sipa/Rex/Shuttersto­ck Volodymyr Zelenskiy, French president Emmanuel Macron and Vladimir Putin at the Normandy Format summit, Paris, France in 2019.

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