Steven L. Myers’s “The New Tsar: The Rise And Reign Of Vladimir Putin” (Book Review)

For many years in the West there has been a lack of understanding of Vladimir Putin and his policies.  His personality, motivations, and objectives have been clouded in obscurity by the Western press, which almost always reverts to its simplistic “black and white” view of the world.  Not all of the fault for this lies with the West, of course.  The Russian president’s own media apparatus has little interest in encouraging critical analysis or speculation that falls outside the range of permissible opinion.  But leadership is as much about perception as anything else, and every leader in the modern age must take care to cultivate his image.  In this regard, Russia is no different from the United States, France, or England.  In the media age, it cannot be otherwise.

Most of this is expected, and unavoidable.  Writing biographies of world leaders currently in office poses certain challenges of perspective.  The judgments of history are usually slow in coming.  Is it too soon to write a biography of Vladimir Putin?  Do we need to wait longer, to give ourselves more time to understand the Putin Era in the great expanse of Russian history?  Some will say yes, of course; but there is a great need for a biography of the Russian president now.  His personality, goals, and motives have been too often misunderstood and maligned for the public to wait another twenty years for a decent biography.

Steven Myers served as the Moscow bureau chief for the New York Times, and has lived in Russia for many years.  He is ideally suited to the task of biography, and his work is probably the best that anyone could write at this point in history.   He takes us decade by decade through Vladimir Putin’s life, pointing out the events or experiences that helped shape his view of the world.  If we want to know what makes a man “tick”–that is, what captivates and motivates him–we must survey his life with the same dispassionate objectivity that we deploy a microscope to study the microbes that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.  And this is what Myers does.

To understand Putin, Myers tells us, we must see him a the product of the late Soviet system.  He, along with many of the idealistic homines Sovietici of his era, was attracted to the KGB from an early age (the “Sword and the Shield”), seeing it as the vanguard of Russian patriotism.  Putin took his job seriously, and expected his colleagues to do the same.  Almost certainly, the biggest trauma of the first half of his life was the collapse of the Soviet Union and the resulting humiliations his country experienced in the years that followed.  One cannot understand Vladimir Putin without understanding the burning sense of grievance, the sense of betrayal, that he absorbed from the late 1980s and early 1990s.  Myers tells us:

It was bitter enough for Vladimir Putin to witness the collapse of the Soviet ideal in Europe, helpless to reverse the losses.  He knew that a divided Germany could not endure, despite Erich Honecker’s vow early in 1989 that the Berlin Wall would stand “in 50 and even 100 years.”  For Putin, what mattered more was what he saw as an unconditional Soviet surrender, followed by a humiliating, chaotic, and catastrophic retreat.  “That’s what hurt,” he said.  “They just dropped everything and went away.”

The intelligence officers felt particularly betrayed.  Markus Wolf, head of East Germany’s foreign intelligence until 1986, resented Gorbachev’s indifference after 1989, though he briefly accepted refuge in Russia.  “There had been no great rush of comradely support from our Moscow friends during the past stressful months,” he wrote.  “Like us, they had been completely unprepared for what happened.”

It was this traumatic experience that propelled Vladimir Putin into politics.  He had some advantages over his political rivals right from the beginning:  coming from the security services, he was not tainted by the corruption, thievery, and graft that hovered over the heads of the country’s kleptocratic tycoons of the 1990s.  He was hardworking, reliable, and had a definite vision of Russia’s role in Europe.  For this reason he rose rapidly, and was the man picked by Boris Yeltsin to be his successor.  Myers paints a picture of Putin as a patriotic nationalist, haunted by the experiences of the early 1990s, a man determined never to allow a repeat of Russia’s humiliations.

Far more than his American counterparts–it must be said–Putin is a man who has studied history diligently.  He knew how to acquire power, and how to use that power to advance his vision of a resurgent Russia.  In this, he is doing what every good statesman ought to do.  Spheres of influence–that phrase Americans dread hearing but overtly practice–are natural and normal for great powers, and intrusions by one power into the neighborhood of another can and should be checked.

Myers reminds us that Putin had to learn as he went.  The modern media age was something new in the Russian experience.  Some of the early crises (e.g., the tragic sinking of the submarine Kursk, the war in Chechnya) were not handled as smoothly as they might have been.  But Putin learned his lessons, and moved forward.  He tamed the country’s unruly oligarchs, and harnessed the media to his purposes.  A series of international crises showed him to be a master of statecraft:  the Russo-Georgian War of 2008, the annexation of the Crimea, and the intervention in the Syrian War are all masterpieces of adroit intervention.  Despite his demonization in the West, all of these actions had a very clear logic to them:  Putin was telling the world that Russia has national interests and a sphere of influence, and it will not tolerate encroachments on those interests by hostile powers.

Putin’s early optimism about coming to some kind of accommodation with the West was replaced, after the George Bush presidency, with a harder, more realistic appraisal of his opponents.  Stung and offended by what he saw as the United States’s unrelentingly aggressive foreign policy–its invasion of Iraq, its constant attempts to expand NATO up to his doorstep, its interventions in Libya and Syria, its support of anti-Moscow separatists in the Ukraine–he finally reached a point where he had to push back.  He understands that being liked is just not in the cards when it comes to dealing with aggressive adversaries.  “They won’t stop criticizing us,” he recently said, “until we disband our entire army, turn over all our natural resources to them, and allow ourselves to become their slaves.”  Putin has a vision for Russia, and is prepared to do what is necessary to achieve that vision.  He does not seek blindly to ape the Soviet experiment; what he does want is recognition from the West of his country’s legitimate security and economic interests.  Metternich, Talleyrand, and Bismarck would have fully approved of his motivations and goals.

Men are products of their environment and experiences.  In Myers’s book, we can feel Vladimir Putin’s grim determination on nearly every page.  Given Russia’s history and geography, it was perhaps inevitable that a strong, centralizing leader like him would appear to counteract the chaos and weakness of the 1990s.  If we want to understand this most important of current world leaders, The New Tsar is a wonderful place to start.


Read more about character and conflict in my “Sallust:  The Conspiracy Of Catiline And The War Of Jugurtha”: