17 January 2022
Lionel Blackman reviews All the President’s Men: Inside the Court of Vladimir Putin by Mikhail Zygar. 400pp ISBN-13: 9781610397391 (Public Affairs, New York, 2016)
Historians of today and tomorrow will be indebted to Committee to Protect Journalists International Press Freedom Award winning Russian journalist Mikhail Zygar for this tremendous account of the ‘Putin Years’ between 1999 and 2015. In this must read, for both new and old Rights in Russia followers, the trajectory of Putin’s rule, from the early reforming enthusiasm of his team to today’s repression, can be better understood. Through his thorough knowledge of the subject and personal interviews with many of ‘the Kremlin’s Men’, Zygar provides a detailed factual context to the changing direction of Russia’s political destiny.
Doubtless a continuation of the account by Zygar for the years since publication to date would make further absorbing reading, at least as much as the book published in English in 2016 already is. The reader will still better understand today’s international tensions and domestic oppression through this work.
A best-seller in both Russia and Ukraine All the Kremlin’s Men has been widely praised. Nobel prize winner Svetlana Alexievich praised the book saying that “This is the first consistent description of everything that has happened over the last 20 years that I have read. It is a very serious study and an opportunity to learn from first hand reports.“
The book is high on fact and low on opinion. It is not a polemic. The reader is free to ponder their own explanations for the trajectory of Putin’s rule. A trajectory that, subject to his bodily death, has not yet run its course. What are the forces and circumstances at work on Putin and yes, largely the men of his inner circles, that have seen the metamorphoses from reform to repression? Has Putin simply joined a long line of long-term rulers throughout world history who undergo paranoiac personality-transformations when holding power? In his case, from secret KGB agent and head of the FSB, to a State-Presidency, residing in the stupendous and sumptuous seats of Tsarist power? What does it do to the mind of a man to walk alone along the broad corridors of imperial palaces, not as a tourist but as the occupier? Zygar notes Tony Blair observed in his memoirs the God-like treatment of Putin by the crowds, and that was in his first year as President; the people retreating before them as they advanced in the Mariinsky Theatre in 2000, as if they were not worthy to be close.
Zygar records that Putin’s early-rule intimations to Western powers of Russia’s interest in joining NATO were rebuffed. In its turn, what forces or circumstances inhibited the West from encouraging this interest? Did the interest of the military-industrial complex of the West in maintaining a credible potential enemy have anything to do with that? A poor human rights record on Russia’s side would hardly have been a complete explanation for the cold-shoulder to negotiations given NATO’s toleration of Turkey’s membership.
With echoes of the Great Game of the 19th Century and ancient rivalries between the West and Russia, Putin was furious when the Baltic States joined NATO in 2004. Regardless of the wisdom from a western perspective of expanding the NATO area to Russia’s border an ‘enemy at the gates’ does not harm Putin’s appeal to Russian national sentiments and his own military-industrial complex (whose favour he had not exactly curried in his first year when closing Russian military bases in Cuba and Vietnam).
In the see-saw of relations between Russia and the West it is difficult to disentangle the thread or sequences. All attempts to lay blame on one side or the other for the current impasses will have their hidden biases. Did Putin deserve the West’s isolation of him or was he driven in the wrong direction by an isolation he did not deserve? Is he actually clinically paranoid or is he driven by a genuine belief that his unchallengeable rule is necessary for the survival of Russia and its well-being? Not that the latter is necessarily inconsistent with the former. These questions and many more need a foundation to answer and Zygar’s excellent history will go a long way in building that foundation and may help arrive at some answers.