new tsar cover

Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2015 (572pp.$32.50)

Vladimir Putin was born on October 7, 1952 in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), a city still scarred and reeling from its long Nazi siege during which hundreds of thousands died of starvation and cold, and even then still consumed by fear and paranoia as a political entity disfavored by Stalin. Loyal citizens refrained from speaking and the crimes of the day became normalized. Putin’s father was a pensioned ex-soldier in the Great Patriotic War; his mother cleaned buildings, washed test tubes in labs, and delivered bread. They lived in 180 square feet of misery, using a communal bathroom and kitchen down the hall.   An observant Jewish family and an elderly couple shared this incredibly tiny space with the Putins. There was no hot water and no washbasin. A single gas burner stood opposite a dirty sink. When he was old enough, diminutive Vladimir joined neighbor boys chasing rats through the hallways with sticks. Slightly older, he was tamed enough to take up judo at a club and found a mentor to help him with bullies in the neighborhood. For the population, Stalin’s megalomaniacal Empire stood in for comforts like food, shelter and clothing. If the citizens had nothing to eat, at least they had the illusion of Soviet power.

Steven Lee Meyer’s new book, “The New Tsar” translates Vladimir Putin for Americans in a detailed, frank and clear fashion, a book best understood as neither an apology for Russia’s current policy of kleptocracy disguised as “managed democracy”, nor as an analysis of the Russian character. It is, instead a clear-eyed account of how Russia produces cold-blooded, steel-hearted characters like Putin and puts them into positions of power. Myers has worked at The New York Times for twenty-six years, seven in Russia during the period when Putin consolidated his position. For two years he was Baghdad bureau chief and covered the winding down of the War in Iraq. In a crowded field of observers he occupies a unique vantage point from which to analyze Russia’s recent political past. And in a crowded field of “Russia” books, “The New Tsar” is a superior place to commence understanding how a KGB “technical” operative, a specialist in natural resources (a fake specialist at that: he did not attend a class, his dissertation was ghostwritten and largely plagiarized directly from Western sources), a man with a cynical and practical bent, a fellow whose friendships revolve around the accumulation of wealth—how this kind of fellow could consolidate such great power with such a smallness of vision.

Meyer’s book examines the entire journey—from minor functionary in a democratic revolt at St. Petersburg’s mayoral office, thence to assistant Kleptocrat in the same tainted political structure, to a staff position at Yeltsin’s irrational Moscow operation, to partner in the dismemberment of state enterprises and their distribution to individuals drunk with money. Backed by wealthy Petersburg Kleptocrats, Putin snuck on top by the slimmest of tainted margins and there he has stayed. “He had restored neither the Soviet Union nor the tsarist empire, but a new Russia with characteristics and instincts of both, with himself as secretary general and sovereign, as indispensable as the country was exceptional. No Putin, No Russia.”

Meyer’s conclusion is perhaps true. During the fall of the Berlin Wall, Putin was a functionary in Dresden. Requesting reinforcements against Democracy demonstrators at the gates, Putin received the return message in 1989—“Moscow is silent”. It angered and frightened him. His Russia will never remain silent again, or so he says. In his own mind he stands for order against chaos. Unfortunately, Russia remains Russia, a tired, broken, miserable, aging (even dying) state, as backward as ever.