THE NEW TSAR: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin. By Steven Lee Myers. Knopf. 592 pages. $32.50.
Many Russians would love to have a tsar again. But in their hearts, they know that is not what Vladimir Putin is. He is more like a loyal, hard-working assistant who rose steadily through the ranks to become the CEO of Kremlin, Inc., which is how he comes across in Steven Myers’s new book, “The New Tsar.”
Even on the cover, Putin is wearing a gray suit and tie, seated inelegantly on a corporate armchair, staring down with an unprofessional glare of disdain. He certainly does not look like a grand Russian tsar.
This book is pitched (on the jacket) as a “riveting read,” but it will fall seriously short of that for the average reader. On the other hand, scholars, political scientists, journalists and others intrigued by Putin will relish all the details about how a nondescript, hardworking Soviet security officer from an ordinary Leningrad family unexpectedly found himself in the president’s chair in the Kremlin.
It is an incredible journey. After all, who would have thought that since 2000 Putin, despite severe criticism, would garner the favor of 60-80 percent of Russians and in 2015 be selected by Forbes as Number 1 on its list of The World’s Most Powerful People?
Myers is a New York Times journalist who has spent seven of his 26 reporting years in Russia. He is clearly fascinated by Russia’s long transition from the former Soviet Union to its still unsettled and undefined status. He is even more interested in the most common and visible thread running through this transition: Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.
Indeed, when the world thinks of modern Russia, it thinks of Putin, and it is Putin they try to understand as the barometer of what Russia is doing and where it is going.
Having myself been born and educated in Leningrad (St. Petersburg), and being well-acquainted with Russian culture and history, I am impressed with Myers’ painstaking and accurate fact-finding, his well-considered points of view and his arsenal of sources, which comprise some 80 pages of end notes and bibliography.
Equally impressive is how he resists stating his opinions. Instead, he objectively summarizes the attitudes and explanations uncovered during his research. He also includes many human-interest vignettes about Putin’s personal and professional life, and about Russian politics.
Despite Myers’ tendency to bog the reader down in too much detail sometimes, this book is a thorough, truthful story of Putin’s “Rise and Reign.”
Many Americans view Putin as a secretive and cunning former KGB agent defiant towards the United States. This book describes how Putin grew up in the backyards of a struggling, post-war Leningrad, joined a professional judo team and dreamed since the age of 15 about becoming a spy. To this day, Putin does not trust many people outside the circle of his old Leningrad comrades.
Myers shows how Putin became embroiled in Big Money acquired by the Russian government thanks to a nationalized oil and gas industry. There is no concrete proof, but Putin also is suspected of being behind the murder and/or imprisonment of obstinate oligarchs, outspoken journalists and vocal leaders of the opposition, all of which adds to the impression of him as vengeful, calculating and cruel.
At one point, Myers quotes President Barack Obama describing Putin as “sullen and insolent,” with “that kind of slouch, looking like the bored kid in the back of the classroom.” But, as Myers makes clear, there is more to Putin than the outward appearance of an immature, pugilistic persona.
Less obvious, and certainly less acknowledged by the U.S., is that Putin is more adroit in foreign policy than many of our own politicians.
At times, Putin is quick and decisive, such as when he made up his mind to annex Crimea, a move that evoked fierce criticism and sanctions from the West, along with euphoria from many Russians who shouted, “Crym nash!” (Crimea is ours!).
At other times, Putin seems to show restraint, such as when he influenced European leaders to join him in opposing America’s plans to bomb Syria at the beginning of the civil war there.
Then, not long afterwards, he “joined forces” with the West for targeted (and controversial) air strikes. In another instance, when it came time to grant asylum to Edward Snowden, Putin ironically, if not humorously, treated Snowden as a defender of human rights who “struggles for the freedom of information.”
It was another political chess move that showed how adept Putin is at putting himself in the best position to win in the context of what he considers to be the best interests of Russia, even though it remains to be seen whether his moves will be beneficial to Russia in the long run.
Myers describes how Putin is equally savvy about domestic concerns. For example, Putin knows that most Russians spend hours a day watching TV, readily believing what they see and hear. Consequently, he makes a point of being on government-controlled television almost every day. His presentations and image are carefully staged by his Kremlin media advisers with remarkable effectiveness.
This constant publicity, in addition to serving his politics, bloats Putin’s self-esteem. As Myers says, Putin is presented as “an indispensable leader, even a glamorous, elite sexual icon.”
Russians would love to have a real tsar, but an international personality who is a strong, decisive man of action will suffice.
The reason, as Myers explains, is that the democratization Russia experienced in the late 1980s and early 1990s ushered in extreme forms of chaos, injustice, inequality and poverty. The majority of Russians did not want that kind of democracy, and American democracy seemed hypocritical to them.
Then Putin came into office and life got much better during his first two terms. St. Petersburg, as well as many cities and towns, never looked so good.
Meanwhile, corruption is not the hindrance that it appears to be from a Western perspective. Russians know how corruption works and, to a certain extent, they expect it and have learned to live with it.
They criticize their government and themselves, but they do not like being criticized by outsiders. They regard most criticism of Putin, too, as Western propaganda and tend to blame not him, but those in power around him for pursuing commerce and profit.
To the average Russian, Putin is a fearless, lonely warrior who has brought economic growth, progress and stability to Russia, as well as revived the national pride that was lost in the chaos of the 1990s.
From his perspective, Putin interprets criticism of Russia, from both outside and inside the country, as a national insult.
He sees himself as the protector of Russia’s place as the largest country in the world. At the same time, he seems determined to be recognized, on the world stage and in history books, as the savior of Russian pride, power and respectability.
Nothing offends him more than being demonized or, even worse, belittled rather than respected for this.
This aspect of his nature ties into one of the key findings from Myers’s thorough dissection of Putin’s background and character: that although Putin is in many ways a simple person, he harbors an indelible pride of country, his ego is growing, his political skills are on the increase and he is willing to take risks. All of these tendencies are exactly why many Russian admire him, and why the rest of the world, especially the West, cannot predict what he might do next, or how to respond when he does act. In this sense, Putin is, as far as he is concerned, The New Tsar.
Reviewer Oksana Ingle is an adjunct instructor of Russian language and literature at the College of Charleston.