I must confess that I am slightly obsessed with Vladimir Putin. Not in the hero-worshiping way of many Russians (and some Americans!) but because he is one of the most unbelievable global figures today. From hairless cat doppelgangers to “Wrecking Ball” lyrics, Putin has spawned memes almost as baffling as (though more amusing than) his policies, both of which are sure to continue for the forseeable future as Putin continues to rule as dictator in every way but name.
Steven Lee Myers’ The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin attempts to explain how that came about, so of course I had to pick it up. Myers was a reporter for The New York Times in Russia throughout the 2000s as well as the former Moscow bureau chief. As such, he is able to present an unbiased account of Putin through Myers’ own perspective as well as that of his many sources, from his impoverished childhood in Leningrad to his improbable rise through the ranks of the KGB and subsequent entree into politics to his development of a cult of personality and absolute authority in Russia today.
This book is long, nearly 500 dense pages (plus endnotes), but the material is riveting. As a whole, it’s both strongly and thoroughly composed, but a few parts stood out to me:
- Pictures of Putin throughout the years, particularly his amazing ’80s style while working in East Germany
- His undistinguished KGB and political careers, in which he succeeded mostly by being somewhat efficient and not quite as corrupt as the next guy (ironically given the current bureaucratic sluggishness and cronyism in his government)
- His surprising loyalty to his closest friends/mentors and therefore his intolerance for “betrayal”
- His quasi-rational, but increasingly paranoid, fear/resentment of the West
- And, of course, conspiracy theories about his personal relationships, including the conspicuous absence of his daughters from the public eye and his rumored affairs with both women and men.
I will say I hate the cover typeface and photo, intimidating though Putin looks, because of its blandness – it doesn’t reflect the high quality of the writing within and I fear many readers might not pick it up after judging the book by its poor quality cover.
Additionally, I wish there was additional analysis on the most recent 5 or so years as Putin’s newest term as president began. Perhaps because of the recency, that portion of the book is the briefest, but given that the geo-political crises still occurring in places like Ukraine and Syria, I am most curious about the future consequences of Putin’s actions and beliefs on those issues. Still, this is a biography, not a policy book, so I guess that’s out of Myers’ scope and I can forgive the lack of prediction.
Highly recommend for anyone interested in Russia/the Soviet Union, the KGB and the Cold War or with a general interest in current affairs and international politics.