Myers, Steven Lee. The New Tsar: The Rise & Reign of Vladimir Putin. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015. 592 pp. Available at Amazon.
Watching the emergence of the new Russia has been, for many, confusing and increasingly distressing. It is like watching a mother dog give birth to a puppy that grows up into an animal that barely looks canine at all. On the other hand, the transition from the Soviet Union has seemed at times to be sadly predictable. When power is handed to new management, how much different is the resulting establishment likely to be, when the new management was born and bred under the tutelage of the old?
Yet neither of these two lenses for Russia accurately captures the multi-faceted reality of how the ashes of the Soviet Union became the Russia of the present. As it turns out though, the question of who Putin is and how he came to be the embodiment of an entire nation is itself the story of contemporary Russia. This is the question which Steven Lee Myers takes up in The New Tsar.
Myers’ portrait of Putin is hailed as the best one to date, both for its comprehensiveness, and for its fairness. Having read exactly zero other biographies about Putin, I can attest to Myers’ relative fairness only from the fact that I was really starting to like Putin up until he became President.
What is most interesting about the life of Putin is the decisive (and frightening) development of his character once he took the presidential office. Up until that time, he was virtually unimpeachable compared to his colleagues on three very important fronts: an uncompromising work ethic, unswerving loyalty to his superiors, and a remarkable unwillingness to take bribes.
Myers notes more than once that it was primarily these virtues which propelled an otherwise colorless, behind the scenes official through the ranks of Yeltsin’s administration in the late 1990s. In the murky world of high-level Russian politics, Putin was exactly the kind of person you would want to have working for you. His loyalty, in particular, went above and beyond what could be reasonably expected of a political apparatchik. Once given the highest office in the country, though, Putin’s darker methods and ambitions quickly became apparent.
Some of Putin’s antics are amusing, like the game of manipulating public sentiment through staged political drama. For example, Myers recounts Medvedev’s nomination for Presidency with the flavor of a poorly-acted soap opera: A huddled meeting of warring party leaders in Putin’s office explaining to the president that they have now unanimously agreed upon a suitable candidate. The zoom in for Putin’s look of shock when they tell him it is Medvedev. Then the pan out, and over to a surprised Medvedev who acts like he just won the lottery. All of it, of course, choreographed in advance by Putin himself.
The New Tsar is a fascinating book, but I certainly wouldn’t recommend it to everyone. The writing, unfortunately, is not always as riveting as the subject. Furthermore, Putin and his colleagues turn out to be so debased on so many levels that I came to imagine that I was looking at a situation that was/is beyond all possible redemption. If you are not bothered by that, then go for it, but it left me with a mildly depressed sense of helplessness more than once.