Putin: His Life and Times
Author: Philippe Court
Editor: Henry Holt
In the days following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Moscow suddenly felt different. My wife and I were overwhelmed with expressions of sympathy and solidarity. Russians we had never met faxed letters of condolence. A teary-eyed stranger stopped me on the street holding up a picture of her at the World Trade Center from a trip years earlier. The exterior of the American embassy was lined with flowers, icons, crosses, candles, and a note that read: “We were together at the Elbe, we will be together again.”
A young Kremlin master named Vladimir Putin seemed to take this to heart, pledging unwavering support for the United States. For a heady moment, it looked like the planet’s two dominant nuclear powers would rekindle the World War II alliance that saw Russian and American troops meet on Germany‘s Elbe in 1945. But today now as then, it would not last. The sense of goodwill quickly evaporated and the illusion that Putin was a Western-oriented modernizer was shattered. Two decades later, Russia and America face off in a twilight struggle in Ukraine arguably as dangerous as the Cold War.
Was it Putin’s fault or ours? Was it inevitable that Putin would come to see himself as a latter-day Peter the Great seeking to reestablish the Tsarist empire or could we have done more to anchor a post-Soviet Russia in the community of nations? British journalist Philip Short now weighs in on the debate, with his expansive new biography, which sees the divide between East and West largely through the eyes of its protagonist.
Short’s narrative is both perfectly and sadly timed, arriving just when we most need to understand Putin, but missing the chapter that could still define his place in history. The invasion of Ukraine only takes place on page 656 of a 672-page text, having erupted just as Short was completing eight years of research and composition.
But while the story is inevitably incomplete, Short’s version nonetheless offers a compelling, impressive, and methodically researched account of Putin’s life so far. He digs into a range of sources, including his own interviews, to piece together the story of a street brawler from a dark communal apartment in post-war Leningrad who embarks on a mediocre career as a police officer. intermediate level of the KGB in East Germany to make a stunning leap. in power in Moscow after the chaos of post-Soviet Russia in the 1990s.
In short, a former journalist from BBC, The Economistand The Times of London, adds to the library of insightful books about the Russian autocrat. But unlike those Russia scholars, he approaches his subject as a chronicler of some of history’s greatest villains, having written biographies of Pol Pot and Mao Zedong.
As critics have observed of these volumes, Short’s determination to present a fully realized portrait of Putin may seem overly sympathetic to some. “The purpose of this book is neither to demonize Putin – he is more than capable of doing that himself – nor to absolve him of his crimes”, writes Short, “but to explore his personality, to understand what who motivates him and how he became the leader he is.
In fact, he absolves Putin of several crimes. Short opens with an in-depth look at the unsolved 1999 apartment bombings that were blamed on Chechen terrorists but suspected to be a government plot to cement Putin’s path to power. Short exonerates Putin. It’s a curious way to start a book about an autocrat who is currently bombing many other apartments in Ukraine.
Yet Short’s book is not a hagiography. It covers in detail the dark moments of Putin’s career – the leveling of Grozny during the second Chechen war, the reckless handling of the Moscow theater siege, the cynical exploitation of the terrorist attack on a school in Beslan to consolidate power, the repression of dissent at home, including the poisoning and imprisonment of Alexei A Navalny. Short’s Putin book is not someone you would invite to dinner; he is rude and cold, arrogant and heartless. He remains indifferent when his wife is the victim of a serious car accident or when his dog is run over. His wife, a follower of astrology, once said that he must have been born under the sign of the vampire. She is now, unsurprisingly, his ex-wife.
There are small errors – Short writes, for example, that Start II was “still not ratified by the US Congress” in 2010 when the treaty was ratified in 1996 – but these invariably creep into any work of this size and scope. More questionable may be some of his conclusions. Every Russian outrage is equated with Western perfidy.
Short advances the Russian argument that America betrayed a ‘pledge’ by Secretary of State James A Baker III in 1990 that NATO’s jurisdiction would not move ‘an inch to the east’ . In fact, Baker floated the idea during German reunification negotiations but later pushed it back, and no such commitment was included in the resulting treaty that extended NATO to the Germany with the consent of Moscow. By contrast, Short makes no mention of an actual promise made by Russia in a 1994 agreement guaranteeing Ukraine’s sovereignty and renouncing the use of force against it, an agreement which Putin evidently broke.
It may be that the moments of Russian-American friendship were all exceptions to a generational struggle meant to be fought for decades. Putin seems to think so. Short recounts Putin’s recollection of meeting Vice President Joe Biden in 2011.
“Don’t kid yourself,” he told the future president. “We only look like you. … Russians and Americans are physically alike. But inside, we have very different values. Surely Biden would agree with that today.