The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin
© 2012 Steven Lee Myers
When the Soviet Union collapsed abruptly at the dawn of the 1990s, the world order changed overnight. Optimists predicted the ‘end of history’. Such an end wasn’t kind to Russia, which faced a sinking economy, dysfunctional attempts at democratic governance, and evaporating infrastructure. It could only watch in frustration as its former adversaries in the west made geopolitical moves in its backyard, like attacking Serbia to help a breakaway province gain independence. That began to change in 2000, however, when a largely unknown spy-turned-administrator became president, and the oil crunch jump-started the Russian economy. Vladimir Putin has been at the center of Russian politics ever since, slowly becoming a bête noire to the power-circles in DC and Brussels. Although his administration was initially known for an imposition of order and a revival of Russian interests abroad, in twenty years Putin has become more inflexible and less effective. The new order has been built around the man, and even if he wanted to leave, it’s an open question as to whether could survive the sudden vacuum.
As a little boy, Vladimir Putin didn’t want to grow up to be a global leader. He was more interested in being a spy. He said as much when he walked into a KGB office and asked for employment. While they turned him down — a literal case of don’t call us, we’ll call you — the officer in charge suggested what academic credentials might serve Putin will in the future. In 1975, the KGB did come a-calling, eventually stationing Putin in Eastern Germany. That’s where Putin was when the Berlin wall fell and the DDR disappeared. With a mob gathering around the Soviet embassy, and no word from Moscow despite repeated signals for instructions, Putin confronted the mob alone. Myers suggests that that silence from Moscow — the lack of authority in the face of mounting chaos — haunted Putin and strongly influenced his political career. That career began when the mayor of St. Petersburg needed a liason with the state security forces; from there Putin would become a deputy mayor, and serve two key men so efficiently that at the end of the nineties, he was a deputy in the national government. A sick and ailing Boris Yeltsin thought his quietly efficient, politically un-connected lieutenant would be an able successor to continue guiding Russia closer toward concord with the west, complete with a growing economy and growing democracy. Well…nyet.
It is fascinating to learn that Putin’s rise to power came through his decision to support the liberal, democratic forces within Russia, and particularly when he backed the nascent government against an attempted old-order coup. We in the west tend to think of Putin as more authoritarian and un-democratic, and by our standards he certainly is. In his twenty-year reign, regional democracy has faded away, replaced by appointed governors; at least two dissident journalists have died , and activists who stage protests seem to find security waiting for them before they begin. Most of the domestic criticism around Putin’s administration erupted during the ‘tandem’ period: the Russian constitution forbids more than two consecutive terms, but Putin effectively remained in power despite that limitation by stepping down, championing a supporter as his successor, and then doing much of the same job from a different office for four years, overshadowing his official boss. When Putin re-assumed the presidency, Russians objected to the transparent self-serving operation.
I read this primarily to understand more about Russia and the west’s inability to maintain any kind of amicable relationship. Both American presidents covered in this book approached Putin hoping for amity and a reset, but each sides’ foreign adventures have undermined those efforts. Russia’s attempts to maintain its influence in Crimea and the Ukraine, resisting the latter’s courting by the west, have succeeded only in alienating Ukrainians further and making Europe regard Putin with fearful hostility. The American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and western adventures in regime-toppling with subsequent chaos and monsters like ISIS, have led Putin to regard the west as irresponsible fools. As the west continues to try to contain Russia, Russia continues to boil with predictable resentment about being encircled with bases and missiles. Over time, a desire for respect and legitimacy in Putin’s first two terms has slowly grown into a cool contempt — while Yelstin wanted to move Russia closer towards the west, Putin’s Russia is increasingly removed from it.
The New Tsar is compelling reading for those interested in Russia’s role or the man himself. Myers does a fairly good job at keeping himself out of the text and focusing on how the subject himself came to power and how the position has changed both him and Russia. Putin is not villainized and turned into a monster-in-the-making, but he isn’t admired either. Instead, readers are allowed to see why different Russians can value Putin’s emphasis on strength and stability, or lament his lack of support — and resistance to — democracy. Putin has indicated as recently as May 2018 that he plans to step down as president in 2024, but his quarter-century of power will cast a long shadow over where Russia goes from there — even assuming he doesn’t exercise influence from semi-retirement, a grey eminence pulling the strings from behind the curtain. He is a figure well worth understanding.